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All Classical dances have common traits, such as a common terminology with minor variations, training in the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition, performance on the basis of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranic themes. In spite of these similarities, there is so much distinction that each dance is identified separately. The costumes and ornaments of dancers are according to the dance form. Each Classical Dance has different music, instruments, gestures and gatis.
All Indian classical dances are based on the rules laid down by Bharatmuni in his monumental treatise, the Natya Shastra. What we now call Bharatnatyam is the strictly traditional and purest form of classical dancing that has survived in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent in spite of centuries of social and political upheavals. This 2000 years-old art is still fresh and fascinating as it must have been when it inspired the brilliant sculptors who have left perennial records of Bharatnatyam in the magnificent temples of Tamil Nadu.
The word Bharatnatyam is itself made up of three letters Bha, Ra, and ta, which stand for Bhaava, Raga, and Taala respectively. Bhaava means expression, Raga denotes musical modes, and Taala means rhythm.
Bharatnatyam is generally performed by females only. A Bharatnatyam performance consists of six items:
1). Alarippu: A Bharatnatyam recital usually begins with Alarippu, a short invocatory piece in which the dancer pays obeisance to the guru, the Gods, and the spectators. Alarippu literally means "flowering". The dancer begins with the anjali pose of adoration, followed by gesture-patterns of petal-like symmetry, and enchanting flexions of the neck and shoulders to the accompaniment of rhythmic syllables. These movements indicate the gradual flowering or opening out of the dancer's body (like a flower) in readiness for the ensuing items. Slowly the movement (gati) becomes fast (drut), and this moment is the finest in this shortest and simplest of Bharatnatyam sequences. On a practical level, this is something of a warm-up exercise for the dancer, and for the audience an opportunity to appraise her technical skill and polish. There are no expressions of bhava (emotion) in Alarippu. It is a nritta (dance without gestures).
2). Jatiswaram: Next item in a Bharatnatyam performance is the Jatiswaram. Jatiswaram is a more difficult item of pure dance (nritta) in which the performer weaves several patterns on a basic musical composition. Indeed, the word jatiswaram denotes a musical composition which follows the rules of the swaram (musical scales) and jati (unit of time). It is distinguished from other musical compositions by having no words of poetry (geet) in it. Because of this characteristic it does not express any bhava (emotion). It has no special mood, and its aim is pure aesthetic pleasure by the creation of forms of beauty through poses and movements in rhythm. With its continually changing rhythmic patterns, delightful diversity of musical phrasing, sculptural poses and swiftly changing steps, the Jatiswaram can be a thrilling item. The beauty of Jatiswaram is the presentation of the control over rhythm (tal) through tempo (laya), by the movements of major limbs of the body (ang-sanchalan) and feet (pada-sanchalan).
3). Shabdam: The item which follows Jatiswaram is called Shabdam. A Shabdam is a composition in Karnataka music. In Shabdam the dancer performs to a devotional song (bhakti geet) and introduces mime (performance by gestures). The miming is deliberately elementary and only the literal illustration of a theme is presented. The end sequence of this short number consists of pure dance (nritta). Shabdam has been rightly described as a "piece of abhinaya with a fringe of pure dance running all around it and between it." It is a delightful item of expressional dance (abhinaya) to the accompaniment of a song in praise of the glory of god (or a royal patron). A large number of Shabdams have been composed from time to time by various gifted composers in the Melattur village of Tanjore.
4). Varnam: After having introduced substantially all elements of Bharatnatyam, the dancer proceeds to render the Varnam, the most complex, interesting, and elaborate item in a Bharatnatyam recital. This piece-de-resistance is a challenge to the stamina of the dancer. It is an exposition of each element of this dance form, a complicated combination of nritta, nritya, and abhinaya with impressive rhythmic finishes known as teermaanams and jathis. Everything is worked up to an exciting climax in which bhaava, raga, and taala are all absolutely synchronized. The Varnam consists of the most complicated dance sequences creating an impression of beauty, grandeur, and profundity while depicting the changing moods of love for the Hero, who is none other than God. The literary contents of this musical composition are usually the description of many facets of a god, generally Vishnu or Shiva, lauding his majesty and splendor. The building up is slow and cautious, but once the dancer reaches crescendo, it invariably communicates a deep feeling of faith and adoration, coupled with the yearning of the human for the divine. The Varnam reaches its climax in the charanam or final part of the song in exquisite dance-patterns of great variety and beauty.
Varnam gives the dancer the freedom to improvise both on musical note as well as on the literary word. It calls for all the imginative faculties at the command of the dancer, giving her wide scope to show her talent and skill. The Varnam part in a Bharatnatyam recital is highly elaborative and can last about an hour and it is not provided with a musical interlude.
5). Padam: After the speed and excitement of Varnam comes the slow and languorous love-lyric or Padam in which the dancer gets full scope for revealing her mastery over abhinaya. All padams deal with the theme of love. The dancer is the heroine (nayika) longing for her hero (nayaka) symbolizing the longing in each individual soul for union with the divine. It echoes the view that 'the aim of all mystical eroticism is to create unity from duality.' Each phrase in a padam is interpreted in through facial expressions and hand-mudras. Separation (vipralambha), and union (sambhoga) are the two aspects of love that dominate this item in which the dancer can surrender herself to God, forget her own self in utter renunciation, and "begin to experience awareness of the highest truth."
The lyrical passages employed in the Padam are composed on the basis of the poetry (pad) of eminent saints and poets including Jayadeva, Sant Tyagraja, Raja Swati-Tirunal, Subramanyam Bharati etc.
6). Thillana: Thillana is the brisk conclusion to a Bharatnatyam recital. It is a dance of exuberant joy and intricate rhythmic variations set to lilting music in which the dancer abandons herself purely to the joys of rhythm and movement.
The Thillana is an item of pure dance. What the dancer had introduced in the Alarippu is fully developed here. It begins with movements of the eye, followed by movement of the neck, and then the dancer proceeds to the movement of the shoulders, of the erect torso, of the out-stretched arm-positions and of the innumerable standing postures, the leg extensions, and the pirouettes. All the tempos are used. The dancer personifies the sculptures at the Tanjur and Minakshi temples. In the last phase of Thillana, the dancer also performs abhinaya. The dance ends with the dancer surrendering herself to God.
Balasaraswati, the great Devdasi exponent of the dance, compared the Bharatnatyam recital to a grandly structured temple. "We enter through the outer hall (gopuram) of Alarippu, cross the half-way hall (ardhamandapam) of Jatiswaram, then the great hall (mandapam) of Shabdam, and enter the holy precincts of the deity in Varnam."
In Bharatnatyam a dancer is a symbol of the universe. With this in mind the makeup (shringar) of the dancer is done from heel to head (nakh-shikh). Special attention is paid to the decoration of hair. On the right side of the mang (line of demarcation in the parting of hair), ornaments resembling the sun are decorated and on the left hand side, ornaments depicting the moon are adorned. The veni (braid of hair) is decorated with ornaments symbolizing the peacock or swan, and white or yellow fragmented flowers are woven. The dancer wears kundal (large-sized earrings), the chandrahar (a kind of broad necklace) on the neck, on the waist a tagri (a kind of girdle), on anklets a pajeb (a type of anklet), on hands churis (bangles), and on fingers anguthis (rings). The dancer wears a Kanjiwaram sari of nine yards, tucked up at the rear (nau gaji langdar Kanjivaram sari). Beneath the girdle, the pleats of the sari are made in the shape of a crescent, like the Chinese fan. While performing, this fan opens and closes.
This doll is a faithful reproduction of a duly bedecked Bharatnatyam dancer.
Passionate in utterance and richly sensuous in form, Bharatnatyam has a lofty philosophy behind it, and universal appeal. The miracle is that this most ancient and pure art-tradition has survived through nearly 2000 years. We are privileged to be spectators of this vital and vibrant art, which was once confined to the great temples of India.