Bharata Natyam is the sacred and classical dance style from South India, particular to the region of Tamil Nadu. This dance art is thousands of years old and has its origins in the ancient temples of India as offerings to the gods. The female dancers where called Devadasis, or “servants of god,” and it was their purpose and duty to perform these sacred dances in various temple rites and celebrations. The Devadasis where well trained not only in dance, but in music and literature as well, and were highly revered. The temple dance tradition peaked in the 12th century, and began its decline with the arrival of the colonial powers from the 16th century onwards. A renewed interest in the dance occurred after Indian Independence with the likes of such women as Rukmini Devi ( a Brahmin), and my teacher’s teacher, T. Balasaraswati, who came from a lineage of Devadasis and musicians.
Bharata is composed of three key syllables: bha (emotion), ra (referring to raga or melody), and ta (referring to tala or rhythm); and natyam means dance. Bharata Natyam combines emotional expression and gesture with highly precise and rhythmic movements to convey stories from the Hindu pantheon, mythology, and poetry. Nritta refers to the pure dance movements, while nritya is the expressional aspect, also called abhinaya, and is conveyed through the face with the use of hand gestures called mudras. The blending of these components of the dance creates an artistic yoga in which the dancer has the potential to become a vehicle for something much greater. As stated by T. Balasaraswati, “the dancer, who dissolves her identity in rhythm and music, makes her body an instrument…for the duration of the dance, for the experience and expression of spirit.”