South Indian classical dance styles: Bharatanatyam and more

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

Unlike many other classical traditions, India’s ancient treatises on classical music have always cited dance as an integral part of music rather than a separate (or related) activity. It is said that a dancer is as much a musician in that while dancers may not actually play an instrument, save for the sound made by ankle-bells, their entire body is used as a musical instrument with the added bonus of accentuating movement through facial expression. But, technically speaking it is really only the tala (or rhythm) that binds a dancer to a musician.

Bharatanatyam is the best-known of all South Indian classical dance forms, originating from the state of Tamil Nadu and dating back to at least 1000 BC. Originally a temple dance, it is thought to have been inspired by sculptures in the temple of Chidambaram, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Although in the past its exponents could be male, contemporary performers are predominantly women.

The classic Indian treatise on the performing arts, the Natya Shastra, which dates back as far as 400 BC, provides painstaking detail on the exact qualities and specific requirements of the (female) dancer or narthaki: "Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four arts and crafts (kala), 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...”

In evolving from a temple dance to a performance art form, bharatanatyam was further codified and documented during the 19th century by four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet whose musical compositions for dance now form the bulk of the repertoire. In codifying this ancient devotional dance to make a performance genre, aspects of 'pure form', known as nritya, are clearly differentiated from abhinaya (representational) sections which are specifically narrative in nature.

Abhinaya sections may unfold a story from Hindu mythology, or to enact an episode from the life of Lord Krishna or any of the many Hindu deities. It is in this narrative, or story-telling mode that this dance utilises highly stylised hand movements, known as mudras, sharp neck movements and emotive facial gestures.

The expression of rasa ('juice, taste, emotion') is a vital aspect of dance and nine distinct emotions, known as navrasa, are stylistically. They roughly translate as: love, anger, pathos, humour, heroism, terror, disgust, wonderment and peace. Although temple sculptures and engravings show classical dancers very scantily clad, dancers now wear a costume that has evolved over the years into what now appears to us as classical – usually a sari-like ensemble in very bright hews (and almost never black, white or pastel) which is sewn into shape rather than draped. Traditional temple-style jewellery, including hair ornaments and ankle-bells are also worn.

Although contemporary dancers and choreographers are increasingly re-working the traditional repertoire in an effort to appeal to a wider audience as well as to collaborate with other dance traditions, a typical bhartanatyam performance, which lasts two or three hours, will contain at least five or six different aspects of the repertoire combining items as laid out in the more modern Tanjore Quartet, with elements of the earlier temple format. Either way, it is customary to commence a performance with some kind of devotional item, usually an invocation to one of the Hindu deities, combined with salutations to the teacher, or guru.

Other South Indian classical dance forms include mohiniyattam from Kerala and kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, both of which share certain elements with bharatanatyam, notably the common material from which ‘dance-drama’ stories are drawn, but differ in specific technique.


Watch bharatanatyam in action | Young exponent Mythili Prakash superbly demonstrates bharatanatyam's combination of intricate footwork with a stable, fixed upper torso position. Recorded at Darbar Festival 2017, at Sadler's Wells in London.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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