The earliest specific references to this art form are found in the literature of the Sangam Age ( 500 BC to 500 AD). The Tamil epics, Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai deal with the life and times of a dancing girl. The have detailed descriptions of the dancer's technique, revealing shades of Bharatanatyam.
Bharatanatyam is the oldest and most popular of India's classical dance styles. The extent to which it reaches is not only pan Indian but also as widespread as the burgeoning Indian Diaspora. Bharatanatyam was born in temples as an offering to Gods. In style and substance, Bharatanatyam reigns supreme for the preciseness and perfection of movements.
The dance enhances its emotive appeal by using the literary compositions of saints and sages. Danced to Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam mathematical precision equals that of Carnatic music measure for measure. Music and dance merge like body and soul to offer the viewer a delight meant originally for the Gods.
The journey of the dance from the temple to proscenium is a fascinating story. A close relationship between religion and dance particularly as a philosophical metaphor was forged very early in Hindu thought. Bharatanatyam is a blend of the three significant ingredients - bhava, raga ad taala and is governed by Bharata's Natyashastra ( 1 BC to 1 AD - two centuries). Over the years, a special community of dancers called Devadasis gave Bharatanatyam its distinct form.
Technique & Presentation
Bharatanatyam lends itself to all the three major attributes of classical dance - Nritta ( technique), Nrittya and Naatya( acting ). Nritta is the language of Bharatanatyam. Adavu ( Step) forms the smallest unit or the alphabet of Nritta. There are about 15 strings of Adavus which are woven into combinations known as Jatis Jatis with Teermanams are electrifying rythemic flourishes that are interpolated at Key passages.
Nrittya forms the soul or the expressional aspect of the dance. Nrittya is about expressional dance, loosely referred as Abhinaya. The Navarasas or the nine emotions form the bedrock of Abhinaya. The Navarasas are Sringara (Eroticism), Hasya (Mirth), Karuna (compassion), Rowdra (Fury), Veera (Heroism), Bhayaaka (Fear), Bhibhatsa (the odious), Adbhuta (the wondrous) and Shanta (Calm).
The form as we see it today was shaped in the 1850s by the four brothers, Chinniah, Ponnaih, Vadevelu and Sivanadam referred to as the Tanjore quartet. They systematized the art form and developed its preset repertoire popularly called Margam (Allarippu to Thillana mode). Today, the typical Bharatanatyam concert commences with the Alarippu (An invocation to the Gods). The dancer then performs the Jatiswaram (A string of jatis set to music) and proceeds to present the Varnam (the piece-de-resistance of the concert that often takes upto fifty minutes).
The second half of the concert is replete with Abhinaya pieces such as the Padam, Javali, Keertanam etc. The recital culminates with the Thillana a brisk rhythmic piece. Over the years, Bharatanatyam has evolved from a highly codified style to one affording maximum freedom to create innovative works.
Over the years, several styles or Banis have been created in Bharatanatyam. Popular among them are the Tanjore, Pandanallur, Chidambaram, Vazhuvur, Kalakshetra etc. Pandanallur is a village in the Kaveri delta, that was home to many a talented dancer. Though the differences between the various styles are rather subtle, these styles gained popularity as a result of the tireless work of eminent Gurus such as Elappa Pillai, Ramiah Pillai, etc.
The Pandanallur style was popularized by Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Guru Muttukumaran Pillai, Kittappa Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai etc. Descendants of the famed Tanjore Quartet, these maestros groomed most of the stars of their time such including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalii Sarabhai, Chandrabhaga Devi, U S Krishna Rao etc.
Today, it is not uncommon for dancers to adapt the dance form to present modern, contemporary and secular themes.