Bharata Natyam is the glorious dance style from the southern state Tamilnadu. One cannot hazard a guess as to when it arose out of the soil of the Dravida culture. One finds references dating from the first few centuries of the Christian era to a very vigorous system of dance and music being practiced at the highest professional level in the Dravida country.
Today’s Bharata Natyam is the end product of this great tradition. It had several names like Chinna Melam, Sadir, Dasiattam etc. It was also called “Bharatam” not after sage Bharata; rather the term is derived from three essential facets of the style: “Bha” from ‘bhava” (mental state or emotion). “Ra” from “raga” (musical mode) and “Ta” from “tala” (time measure).
Traditionally it was the proud privilege of the dancing girl “Devadasi” (servant of God) to practice this glorious art. The roots of this system can be traced all over the country but the system appears to be of a special significance in the South.
These devadaasis were servants of God but they were also great scholars, great experts of their art and despite adverse conditions, it is they and their great spirit which have perpetuated this art.
Bharata Natyam is designed as a votive offering to be placed at the feet of the Lord. As such it must be remembered that most of the dance items are either religio-philosophical in nature or are in the form of straight forward bhakti lyrics in praise of the glory of the Lord. But it also has items which are secular in nature. It is intended as a solo presentation but may have more than one dancer occasionally.
Technically Bharata Natyam has a judicious blend of both nritta and nritya. The Bharata Natyam technique lays a great stress on the very correct and well defined lines that the entire body specially the torso and the arms have to maintain. The erect and upright position of the torso and the elegant stance of the shoulders thrown back, give it an angularity which is crisp, at the same time attractive.
Nritya in Bharata natyam of course uses the Rasas specified by Bharata. For hastas (hand gestures) it follows the Sanskrit text “Abhinayadarpana” by Nandikeshvara.
The musical mode is classical Carnatic with its elaborate tala system. The songs and lyrics for the nritya items are, by and large, selected from the writings of the South Indian saint- poets, the Tanjore quartet who created the present day repertoire and some contemporary poets.
The aaharya (costumes) is usually uniform since it is a solo dance. No matter what sort of a character the solo dancer is portraying there is no change in the costume. By and large the costume worn today is stitched. The jewellery is that worn by the Tamil brides – appropriate for the bride of God, the devadasi.