One of the most ancient of the dance styles is what is now called
Bharata natyam. Bharatha is a combination of 'bha' for Bhava meaning expressions, 'ra' for ragam meaning music and 'tha' for thalam meaning rhythm. Natyam means dance. An encyclopedia of dance, music and theatre was written
in India two thousand years ago, called the Natya Shastra, so we know that formal
performing arts were already established by then and the rules governing
the training and performance of dancers was already well established.
Up to about a hundred years ago, dancers were dedicated to perform
in the temple for the deities, in order to chase away bad spirits and
bring good fortune to the king, and all those who came to worship at
the temple. They also danced and played music to wake up the gods in
the early morning, and sang lullabies to put them to bed at night.
During the 200 years that the British ruled India they gradually impoverished
the royal patrons and royal temples that had once lavishly supported
temple dance and other ceremonial arts. Only in those regions where
strong local rajas maintained political power did these courtly arts
continue to flourish.
Part of the Indian Independence movement, starting from the late 19th century,
focused on the recovery of India's unique cultural legacies. One such
individual involved in this process of recovery was Rukmini Devi Arundale
who established the "Kalakshetra" school in 1936 in Madras (Chennai).
As soon as India won independence from Britain in 1947 the new Indian
government set up arts scholarships and festivals to encourage Indian
culture once again. Now Indians of elite social classes, which once
would have nothing to do with temple dancing, form the vast majority
of practitioners of Bharata natyam, an extraordinary social phenomenon
in less than 60 years!
Tamilnadu is considered the homeland of Bharata natyam, though it
is danced by women and men from all over India and the world. In fact,
the Bay Area has one of the largest concentrations of Bharata natyam
dancers in the world with estimates of over 600 dancers studying and
Today, typically, students begin training at the age of six or seven,
and they will be teenagers by the time they have become good performers.
They first learn simple steps to give strength and coordination, later
they add more complex movements using many different foot patterns
and geometric poses, all which must be performed in fast speeds perfectly
in time with the music. The students need to learn a whole language
of mudras, or hand gestures, in order to act out the words of the songs,
and, ideally, they learn the dance songs themselves.
With these carefully taught mudras (see the Why
and How We Dance page in the Thinking and Talking activities
section for pictures of some mudras), mathematically precise footsteps,
and perfect geometric measures in the movements and poses, storytelling
emanates from the heavens to the people of earth, to nimble dancers
dressed in jewels and gold threaded silks in rainbow colors who,
at one time, performed their ceremonial dances in the Hindu temples.
Bharata natyam is not the only Indian classical dance style - almost
every region has a classical style with a solo dance tradition and
a drama style to enact whole stories that last all night. The stories,
in Bharata natyam, are told through song and the songs are about the
gods. The main theme is the victory of good over evil. The main feature
of Bharat natyam is the use of the face, eyes and fingers to tell these
stories with wonderful theatrical expressions. In a solo dance, the
performer must play all the roles, but in a dance-drama a different
performer will take each part.
mythological tales of ancient India, which have been told for thousands
of years, are narrated through the unique language of gestures and
dramatic mime of Bharatanatyam. They are tales of the gods and heroes,
about the great king Rama, banished to the forest, whose wife was kidnapped
by a ravenous ten-headed king, and how he rescued her with the help
of Hanuman, the monkey general, and all the animals. There are tories
of how the beautiful Goddess Meenakshi, skilled in all the arts including
the art of warfare, challenged Shiva, the most powerful of all the
gods, to a duel, and how, on the battlefield, they fell in love…