The Art of Bharata Natyam

In India, dance, the art of space and time, has been inextricably linked with the spiritual. As a path towards attaining God, Indian dance bespeaks the human experience while aspiring to the divine. Telling stories of love, hatred, sorrow, pain, truth, and deception, Bharata Natyam leaves no sentiment unturned. The longing of the human soul for harmonious union with God is allegorically presented within the love themes of dances.

Having developed historically in the southern part of India called Tamil Nadu, Bharata Natyam reflects the southern aesthetic. Angular lines, geometric shapes, symmetry and groundedness are all characteristics of the dance movements which contribute to its unique visual quality. The typically southern costume, consisting of a bright silk sari stitched and pleated to emphasize the traditional “half-sitting” position with turned out and bent legs, is accompanied by jewel-studded ornaments on the head, neck, arms, wrist, and waist. Today, this costume and make up has become theatricized for stage purposes.

Technically, the use of codified hand symbols to tell stories or to create visual patterns in space goes back to the ancient Sanskrit treatise on dance and drama known as the Natya Shastra. This voluminous work is dated with question from anywhere between the 3rd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. Containing an entire section on codified positions, movements, and gestures, the Natya Shastra is one of the main sources for Bharata Natyam technique.

Originally a temple art, the dance, then known as Sadir, functioned as an intrinsic segment of the daily rituals as well as festival celebrations. Patron kings from as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, prided themselves to be art lovers and connoisseurs. They supported hundreds of musicians, dancers, dance masters, and artisans who were affiliated with a particular temple. Flourishing for several centuries under these conditions, the temple and royal court dance traditions peaked in the creation of new repertoire during the mid-seventeenth century under the maharajas of Tanjore. Over time and with the arrival of British rule, the dance tradition eventually fell into disrepute.

A half century ago, due to various social and economic factors, the dance took a different name, function, and venue. It became Bharata Natyam, a dance art which is performed in theaters. Today, it remains as such, leaping along with the Indian diaspora across continents and into theaters worldwide.

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