Maya Sapera performing Bharata Natyam

© Sven Schoukens

Bharata Natyam (India)

“The body should catch up the tune, the hands must explain the meaning, the eyes must speak the emotion, and the feet must beat the time measure.” (quote from Natya Shastra)

Bharata Natyam is an Indian Classical dance. The center of this dance is located in Chennai (the former Madras) in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu. The etymology of the word 'Bharatanatyam' is explained in different ways. However, it is certain that this South-Indian dance is based on the very ancient writings of Bharata's Natya Shastra ('The laws of Bharata's dance'). The Natya Shastra is unique, not only because of its age (the oldest texts are written in 500 BC), but it is also the only and complete book written on Indian dance. Because of the complexity and the methodological framework in every aspect of the dance, music and drama, the Bharatanatyam is to be considered as the oldest codified dance form.

Even though Bharatanatyam is that ancient, the dance style continues to evolve with modern times. Rukmini Devi Arudale, pioneer and founder of the most prestigious and famous school of Bharatanatyam, the 'Kalakshetra', has had major influence on the dance style. Bharatanatyam got in disgrace because of the devadasi's ('the slaves of god'), some sort of religious prostitutes, who performed the dance in temples. She rehabilitated the reputation of bharatanatyam in Indian society as Indian cultural heritage.  

Bharata Natyam is characterized by the demi-plié position (araimandi), powerful handmovements and typical Indian elements like the complex South-Indian rhythm patrons (Taala), hand postures (Hasta’s), head movements (Shiro Bheda), eye movements (drishti bheda), facial expressions (abhinaya), feelings (rasa’s)....

The Natya Shastra divides the entire body into three parts, namely anga, pratyanga and upanga. Anga includes the movements of the head, hands, chest, waist, bottom and legs. The pratyanga includes movements of the shoulders, arms, stomach, thights, and the knees. Finally the upanga includes movements of the eyes, eyebrows, eye lids, eye balls, cheeks, nose, gums, lower lip, teeth, tongue, chin and face.

Bharata Natyam can be divided in three subcategories:

The Pure Dance (Nṛtta):

Nṛtta has two major constituents - taala (time measure) and laya (basic rythm/tempo). Nṛtta is often referred as “Pure” or abstract dance. It describes the movement of the body. Hand gestures used in Nritta are only decorative. They do not convey any meaning but only serve to add grace and variety. Patterns are created in space and time without exhibiting any particular emotions and expressing the joy of Rhythm.Nṛtta is of two kinds: tandava (energetic and forceful) and lasya (graceful).

The Expressive Dance (Nṛtya)

The dance which is related to the sentiment (Rasa) and the psychological states (bhaava) is Nṛtya. Bhaava is the expression of the inner feelings through gestures and facial expressions to create rasa.Rasa is the enjoyment of aesthetic bliss derived by witnessing a performance, when communicated by the artist to the audience. It can be only experienced. Two verses from the Natya Shastra explain this clearly:- “The body should catch up the tune, the hands must explain the meaning, the eyes must speak the emotion, and the feet must beet the time measure.”- “Where the hands go, the eyes go, for where go the eyes, there goes with it the mind; where goes the mind there follows the sympathetic imagination and where rests the imagination, there is the flow of the aesthetic enjoyment.”

Drama (Natya):

The term "natya" could be translated as "which has a plot". The sanskritterm is used both in drama as in dance. In the ancient Indian culture, dance was a part of drama. The actors, apart from speaking the dialogue had to sing as well as dance.It was a group production wherein the characters were represented by diffirent actors according to the storyline.Thus, natya, according to Bharata, is a visual presentation and a combination of drama, music and dance so as to end in creation of rasa or aesthetic enjoyment.