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Asia: South Asia: India: South India


Performances in
World Arts West Programs
Pushpanjali (2000)
Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose
Kalanjali: Dances of India
Shreelata Suresh
Instruments Used

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 performing regularly.

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.

The Stories

The 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…

Shreelata Suresh performs Pushpanjali, a traditional Bharatha Natyam invocatory item, for People Like Me 2009. Here the dancer offers flowers to the stage which is the embodiment of Mother Earth. She also offers her respects and invokes the Gods controlling the eight directions, her Guru and the audience. She concludes with pure dance movements in a rhythmic sequence.

Abhinaya Dance Company performed Pushpanjali in People Like Me 2000. In this piece, the dancer begins with the traditional salutations to Mother Earth, the gods in the heavens, the guru or teacher, and the audience. She offers flowers in worship to the guardians of the four directions and to the Supreme Dancer, Lord Nataraja from whom it is believed all dance in the universe has originated. A few rhythmic sequences in the characteristic classical dance style of Bharatanatyam are presented that continue to invoke the blessings of the gods.

The next piece that Abhinaya presented told the tale of KRISHNA & KALIYA. In this tale, the divine child, Krishna grows up among the cowherds of North India. After a long day in the forest tending to the cows, Krishna's friends are killed by drinking water from a lake poisoned by the evil snake, Kaliya. Krishna finding them dead, revives them first with his divine powers. Then, he jumps into the river and wages a powerful war with the snake. Dashing Kaliya's tail to the ground, Krishna subdues him and dances triumphantly upon its hood.

Kalanjali Dance Company, who performed in our San Francisco and Oakland shows in People Like Me 2000, danced a piece based on one of the most beloved stories of all, that of the God Vishnu, this time reborn as the divine cowherder, Krishna, the naughtiest, dearest little boy. While maidens milked their cows, churned the cream into butter and kept it carefully in stacks of pots hung from the rafters of the kitchen, this mischief-maker called his friends to help him steal the sweet fresh butter balls and drink the falling milk from their hands. Even so, all the maidens adored him! This story was originally choreographed to be performed by one dancer, in the traditional Bharata natyam style.

Kalanjali has set the dance as a dance-drama, with the various characters played by several dancers. The song is in Suruti raga, and they have taken a piece of another dance in Suruti raga which does not tell a story but is made up of non-narrative abstract dance set to a seven beat rhythm. Both these segments are performed in the Bharata natyam style. However, the storyteller uses a combination of Bharata natyam and Kathakali, a very expressive dance-drama style originally from Kerala.


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