Dance Genre Buzz : The Vocative And Visual Devotion Of Indian Classical Dance Bharata Natyam


At our annual SHOWCASE on Sunday, March 30th,  attendees were treated to the visual and sonic pleasure of Navatman Dance who proudly displayed the traditional Indian dance known as Bharata Natyam.  For this month’s Dance Genre Buzz, we decided to delve deeper into this particular style which features fantastic postures, amazing discipline, beautiful costumes and unique vocalizations and rhythms.  You can catch Navatman Dance in our parade this year as well as other Indian styles including Bollywood and Bhangra!   Click here to see what groups and styles are participating


Bharata Natyam (Tamil: பரதநாட்டியம்) is a classical Indian dance form that originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu. This dance form denotes various 19th- and 20th-century reconstructions of Sadir, the art of temple dancers called Devadasis. It was described in the treatise Natya Shastra by Bharata around the beginning of the common era. Bharata Natyam is known for its grace, purity, tenderness, and sculpturesque poses. Lord Shiva is considered the God of this dance form. Today, it is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over the world. It originated in grand temples of Ancient India. Its oldest description goes back to sangam literature. It originated around 2B.C-1B.C in Temples of Shiva in South-India.  It has its inspirations from the sculptures of the ancient temple of Chidambaram.

In ancient times it was performed as “dasiattam” by mandir (Hindu temple) Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharata Natyam dance postures karanas. In fact, it is the celestial dancers, apsara’s, who are depicted in many scriptures dancing the heavenly version of what is known on earth as Bharata Natyam. In the most essential sense, a Hindu deity is a revered royal guest in his temple/abode, to be offered the “sixteen hospitalities” – among which are music and dance, pleasing to the senses. Thus, many Hindu temples traditionally maintained complements of trained musicians and dancers, as did Indian rulers.


In Kali Yuga, the center of most arts in India is Bhakti (devotion) and therefore, Bharata Natyam as a dance form and carnatic music set to it are deeply grounded in Bhakti.  Bharata Natyam, it is said, is the embodiment of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Dance and music are inseparable forms; only with Sangeetam (words or syllables set to raga or melody) can dance be conceptualized.  Bharata Natyam has three distinct elements to it: Nritta (rhythmic dance movements), Natya (mime, or dance with a dramatic aspect), and Nritya (combination of Nritta and Natya).

As Alarmél Valli says, “Indian classical dance is a celebration of the body, mind and spirit. It can be a joyous, healing, uplifting experience both for the dancer and the audience. For me, at its most intense, dance is a prayer with my entire being — a joyous celebration of life.”

It is believed that Bharata Natyam is mainly a renewal of Cathir, the ancient art of temple dancers. This dance form denotes various 19th and 20th century reconstructions of Cathir, the art of temple dancers from ancient dance forms.


Bharata Natyam is considered to be a ‘fire dance’ — the mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body. It is one of the five major styles (one for each element) that include Odissi (element of water), Mohiniattam (element of air), Kuchipudi (element of earth) and Kathakali (element of sky). The movements of an authentic Bharata Natyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame. Contemporary Bharata Natyam is rarely practiced as Natya Yoga (popularly known as ‘Dance Yoga’), a sacred meditational tradition, except by a few orthodox schools.

Rama Vaidyanathan’s famous Peacock Alarippu at the Chinmaya Mission Center in New Delhi.

Bharata Natyam proper is a solo dance, with two aspects, lasya, the graceful feminine lines and movements, and tandava Ananda Thandavam (Tamil) (the dance of Shiva), masculine aspect, which is identical to the Yin and Yang in the Chinese culture Bharata Natyam performance lasts about two hours, and includes six or more of the following parts:

Allarippu – A presentation of the Tala punctuated by simple syllables spoken by the dancer. This really is sort of an invocation to the gods to bless the performance.
Kautuvam – Ancient temple dance item performed in the beginning of the recital, containing rhythmic syllables sung for jathis.
Ganapati Vandana – A traditional opening prayer to the Hindu god Ganesh, who removes obstacles. See also Pushpanjali
Jatiswaram – An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body.
Shabdam – The dancing is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme.
Varnam – The center piece of the performance. It is the longest section of the dance punctuated with the most complex and difficult movements. Positions of the hands and body tell a story, usually of love and the longing for the lover.
Padam – Probably the most lyrical section where the dancer “speaks” of some aspect of love: devotion to the Supreme Being; or of love of mother for child; or the love of lovers separated and reunited.
Stuti – Hymn in praise of a deity that may contain a feigned mockery, etc. See also Stotra
Koothu – Item containing a lot of dramatic elements.
Javali – Javalis are relatively new, pure abhinaya types of compositions of light and pleasing nature. Like Padams the underlying theme of Javalis is Sringara Rasa depicting the Nayaka-Nayaki bhava.
Thillana – The final section is a pure dance (nritta) when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.

Apart from these items, there are items such as Shlokam, Swarajathi, Krithi etc.  The performance concludes with the chanting of a few religious verses as a form of benediction. Certain styles include more advanced items, such as Tharanga Nritham and Suddha Nritham. When a dancer has mastered all the elements of dance, as a coming out performance, he or she generally performs an Arangetram (debut).
Angikam – This is a devotional song on Lord Shiva and an item dance in bharatnatyam. It can also be performed in byapti slow motion.