Bharatnatyam is one of the most popular classical Indian dances. Bharatnatyam is more popular in South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Bharatnatyam dance is almost 2,000 years old. There is a popular belief that Bharma revealed to Bharata who put it in Natya Shastra.
The Abhiyana Dharpana by Nandikesvara is the literary source, the style was kept alive by the devadasis.
The first dance item is the alarippu, literally meaning – to adorn with flowers. It is an abstract piece combining pure dance with the recitation of sound syllables.
The next item, the jatiswaram is a short pure dance piece performed to the accompaniment of musical notes of any raga of Carnatic music. Jatiswaram has no sahitya or words, but is composed of adavus which are pure dance sequences – nritta.
As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya and nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime. Shabdam follows the jatiswaram, the accompanying song is generally in adoration of the Supreme Being.
After the shabdam, the dancer performs the varnam. The varnam which is the most important composition of the Bharatnatyam repertoire, encompasses both nritta and nritya and epitomises the essence of this classical dance form. The dancer here performs complicated well graded rhythmic patterns in two speeds showing the control over rhythm, and then goes on to depict in a variety of ways, through abhinaya the lines of the sahitya. This portrays the dancer’s excellence in abhinaya and also reflects the endless creativity of the choreographer.
The varnam is by far one of the most beautiful compositions in Indian dance.
After the strenuous varnam, the dancer performs a number of abhinaya items expressing a variety of moods. The bhava orrasa is woven into the sahitya and then expressed by the dancer. The common pieces are keertanam, kritis, padams and javalis. In the keertanam, the text is important whereas kriti is a composition in which the musical aspect is highlighted. Both are usually devotional in character and represent episodes from the lives of Rama, Siva, Vishnu, etc. Padams and javalis, are on the theme of love, often divine.
A Bharatnatyam performance ends with a tillana which has its origin in the tarana of Hindustani music. It is a vibrant dance performed to the accompaniment of musical syllables with a few lines of sahitya. The finale of the piece is a series of well designed rhythmic lines reaching a climax. The performance ends with a mangalam invoking the blessings of the Gods.
The accompanying orchestra consists of a vocalist, a mridangam player, violinist or veena player, a flautist and a cymbal player. The person who conducts the dance recitation is the Nattuvanar.