Bharatanatyam Classical Dance

Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance form originating in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Bharatnatyam is usually accompanied by Carnatic music. Bharatanatyam, as the name depicts is the combination of: 'Bha' - Bhavam (means expression), 'Ra' - Ragam (means music), 'Ta - Talam (means beat or rhythm) and Natyam (means dance) in Tamil.

A possible origin of the name is from Bharata Muni, who wrote the Natya Shastra to which Bharathanatyam owes many of its ideas. This etymology also holds up to scrutiny better since Bharathanatyam is pronounced with short (kuril) forms of "bha", "ra" and "tha" whereas each of "bhavam", "ragam" and "talam" contain the long (nedil) forms.

Bharatanatyam is a reworked dance-form from the traditional "sadir" known for its grace, purity, tenderness, and sculpturesque poses. 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.

In ancient times it was performed as dasiattam by mandira (Hindu temple) Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharatnatyam dance postures karanas.

Bharatnatyam is considered to be a fire-dance — the mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body. Bharatnatyam 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


There are 3 types of dance; Nritta, Nritya and Natya. Nritta is a pure dance without any emotions, expressions or sahityam. Eg. Alarippu, Swarajathi, Jatiswaram. Nritya has sahityam ( a sentence which means something). It has emotions, expressions and has a meaning shown by the hastas. Eg. Ganeshakautvam, Ranganjali, Karthikeyakautvam. Natya is when a person is portraiting a character. Eg. All padams

There are types of abhinaya in dance, they are 1) Anghika - Physical or body movements. 2) Vachika - the song being played, poetry 3) Aaharya - Ornamentation of a character/dancer eg. jewellery, costume 4) Satvika - Involuntary movements eg. trembling, break of voice, tears


Typically a performance includes:

  • Alaripu - 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
  • Today Mangalam - a starting dance in which we show respect towards the god.
  • 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 loveand 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. 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.
  • Tillana - 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.


  • Jewelry - Bharatanatyam dancers wear a unique set of jewelry known as "Temple Jewelry" during the performance.
  • Dancers wear anklets called gajjalu, made of rope or leather with rows of sleigh-like (traditionally copper) bells attached on the anklet. The dancers talent is judged (along with style and presentation) by the amount ringing heard and the amount of bells on the anklet. The less ringing heard from the anklet then the better the dancer, which is seen as having control and fluid movement. Typically, beginners have 1-2 rows, mediocre dancers have 3 rows, and advance dancers have 4-5 rows.
  • Costume - From the ancient texts and sculptures, one can see that the original costume did not cover most of the dancers' bodies. The medieval times, with the puritanistic drive, caused the devadasis to wear a special, heavy saree that severely restricted the dance movements. There are several varieties of Bharatanatyam costumes, some of which do not restrict the dancer's movements, while the others do. The modern costumes are deeply symbolic, as their purpose is to project the dancer's sukshma sharira (cf.aura), in the material world.
  • Music - The accompanying music is in the Carnatic style of South India.
  • Ensemble - Mostly, South Indian instruments are used in the ensemble. These include, the mridangam (drum), nagaswaram (long pipe horn made from a black wood), the flute, violin and veena (stringed instrument traditionally associated with Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of the arts and learning).
  • Languages - Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit are traditionally used in Bharatanatyam.


A professional Bharatanatyam dancer must demonstrate a number of qualities. As Sangitaratnakara puts it, the true dance is connected to the beauty of the body, therefore any other dance is simply a parody.

The AbhinayaDarpana has a sloka that describes Patra Prana Dasha Smrutaha — the ten essentials of the dancer: Javaha (agility), Sthirathvam (steadiness), Rekha (graceful lines), Bhramari (balance in pirouettes), Drishti (glance), Shramah (hard work), Medha (intelligence), Shraddha (devotion), Vacho (good speech), and Geetam (singing ability).

A professional danseuse (patra), according to Abhinayadarpanam (one of the two most authoritative texts on Bharatanatyam), must possess the following qualities: She has to be youthful, slender, beautiful, with large eyes, with well-rounded breasts, self-confident, witty, pleasing, well aware of when to dance and when to stop, able to follow the flow of songs and music, and to dance to the time (thalam), with splendid costumes, and of a happy disposition.

As Natya Shastra states the qualities required of a female dancer (narthaki), "Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four arts and crafts (Kal?), are clever, courteous in behaviour, free from female diseases, always bold, free from indolence, inured to hard work, capable of practising various arts and crafts, skilled in dancing and songs, who excel by their beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by, are known as narthaki.