“If the flower were to represent the civilization, then, the fragrance would be its culture. Indian culture is distinctive. The uniqueness of the dance in India lies in its freedom of expression, within the framework of tradition, and that freedom is for us to cherish.”
- Prof. Sudharani Raghupathy


An ancient traditional dance form, Bharatanatyam is one of the eight classical dance styles of India, and greatly appreciated the world over today...

Historical Significance

The antiquity of the dance form is established in the age-old Rig Vedas, where ‘Usha’, the dawn is described as a danseuse. The Mohenjodaro artefact of the ‘dancing girl’ traces Indian dance to the pre-Aryan civilization. Dating back to the age of the epics as well, there are references to dance in Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra, Kumarasambhavam and the acclaimed Silappadhikaram of the Sangam period.

There are several mythological stories as well that describe the origin of Indian dance, and lord Shiva-Nataraja as the cosmic dancer or the Raas leela of lord Krishna with his gopis is beyond imagination. ‘Natya’ acclaimed as the fifth veda was created to convey values of eternal nature.

In India, any form of art is offered as worship to the Supreme, and dance is also considered as one of the many offerings just like music, painting, sculpture, icons and even literature. All the artforms found expressions in the magnificent temples of India and took inspiration from each other.

Over the years, besides being a form of worship, Bharatanatyam has also adopted a more secular style and is used as a medium to communicate various themes and stories drawn from society. And the artform which originated from the temples in India, today has a global audience.

The theoretical knowledge of Bharatanatyam is found in various treatises like Bharata’s Natya Sastra, Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpana, Bharatarnava, Bharatakosham, Dasarupaka, Nrittaratnavali, Mahabharatha Choodamani among many other texts.

Facets of Bharatanatyam

When we watch a Bharatanatyam performance, we often wonder what the hand gestures convey…what the facial expressions mean…or what the story is that the dancer is narrating …

There are two main facets of Bharatanatyam – ‘Nritta’ and ‘Abhinaya’.
In ‘Nritta’, the dance movements and hand gestures are purely rhythmic movements, aesthetically beautiful and decorative, creating geometrical patterns on stage and do not convey any meaning. Nritta patterns are based on ‘Adavus’ which are the basic dance units, steps or movements. While performing adavus, the dancer creates beautiful imageries of straight lines, arcs, circles, squares, triangles and so on through the various movements. It is these visual patterns that highlight the beauty of Bharatanatyam.

‘Abhinaya’ is the language of communication, where the hand gestures (hasthas), body postures, movements and facial expressions are used to communicate ideas, thoughts, emotions and stories. Here, the unique quality of Bharatanatyam is that this interpretation is marked by restraint, grace and suggestiveness. Even the costumes, jewellery and stage décor are a part of communication, and are called as ‘Aaharya Abhinaya’.

It takes years of experience to master the art of abhinaya. When thoughts and ideas are conveyed alongwith bhava (feeling or emotion) it creates the rasa or aesthetic relish in the audience. This is the ultimate aim of a Bharatanatyam performance, to offer an experience of peace and happiness.

Concert Format

The concert format of a Bharatanatyam performance is called as the ‘Margam’ (which also means path) and it beautifully showcases a logical sequence of the various facets of Bharatanatyam and may feature a Pushpanjali, Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam or Kavuthuvam, Varnam, Padam, Javali, Thillana and Mangalam.  Over the years, the format of dance-dramas has also been adopted.

The compositions of the Bharatanatyam repertoire are traditionally based on Carnatic music. Hence it is the system of ragas (the melodic aspect) and talas (time measure) that is the base and the lifeline of Bharatanatyam. The raga and tala reflect the mood of the theme portrayed through dance.

Relevance to today’s society

The relevance of Bharatanatyam in today’s fast paced world of technology, social networking, video games and other forms of entertainment is that, it is an effective traditional tool of communication, to convey various meaningful messages. At a time when there is violence in thought, word and action, people need something that would entertain and elevate them.

The magnificence of this art is such that while its traditional format or presentation has attained more value and richness today, it still embraces newness and a constant flow of change. And it is the artistes who practise, nurture and pursue it with a passion and responsibility that keep this beautiful dance of Bharatanatyam alive… 

Reference: Laghu Bharatam, Handbook on Bharatanatyam, Prof. Sudharani Raghupathy, 2002