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The elements of margam
- Chandra Anand

October 26, 2016

Margam is the presentation format of the Bharatanatyam dance form. Through the presentation it imparts the knowledge of the interminable truth – “All human beings are the limited manifestation of the Ultimate Being” [1] and suggests that the goal of every single being in the world is “reunion of the soul with the Absolute Soul” [2]. The margam suggests a spiritual path.

Through “the elements of margam”, the theme of evolution of the self/spirit on the spiritual path is put forth. In truly “epical style” [3], the theme is carried forward. At the outset, the truth of the human life (allaripu) is put forward, then the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padams and javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of life (shloka).

Alarippu, the initial nritta item is philosophically considered as an offering or prayer to paramatman (Self), the Ultimate Spirit, who resides in all living beings as jivatman (self) the embodied spirit. The physical body here is the vehicle of the atman (inner self), to help one set out on the path of spiritual realization. The dancer, as a devotee, uses elemental movements to awaken the different limbs of the body and in the culminating movements propitiates to God with the whole body. This awakening is said to be the blossoming of the body and is symbolically compared to blooming of the lotus flower. It is performed to a rhythm pattern set within a metrical cycle.

Jatiswaram is an nritta item, and precedes all other nritya and abhinaya numbers. Nritta item is called a pure dance number for it lays the foundation to perceive pure consciousness, like a yogi through his practice of meditation. Therefore, performance of Jathiswaram is like a séance; wherein the dancer makes a purified sanctum around himself/herself, where the spirit meets its Original Source.

Next in the lineup is Sabdam.  Here, the ‘self’ or consciousness, realizing its origin and goal, consciously sets on the spiritual path. Sabdam is an interpretative dance, wherein the dancer interprets words and verses of devotion through abhinaya. Here, the devotee expresses his profound devotion to God. He expresses his wish to be always at His feet and only be thinking of Him.  The devotee describes the God in His splendour, and praises His compassion, valiance etc, and requests God to show some benevolence towards him. The theme of the song could be devotional or romantic.

The art of abhinaya portrays thoughts and emotions through various actions and reactions which are the outcome brought about by various relationships one gets to experience in life. Right action (dharma) is the spiritual prerequisite of life.  All the effects of right action lead to the evolution of consciousness.
Varnam [4] points out that only through love, devotion and surrender to God can one attain salvation which is the goal of spiritual path. Varnam is a comprehensive item in the margam.  It combines nritta and abhinaya. The dancer portrays a lovelorn heroine pining for union with the hero - her Lord. She conveys her love and devotion to Him by speaking about his goodness and greatness that attracts her to Him. She considers him as epitome of perfection. She pleads with her sakhi personifying guru to help her. The significance of nayika pining for the nayaka is ‘jivatma’ seeking spiritual union with ‘paramatma.’

The origin or source of life and value of existence can be understood only by living through it. The padams are where the empirical world is portrayed and emotions and feelings of human beings are expressed out in the open along with poetry and rhythm, with élan. … Here too, the underlying idea is to be taken as jivatma’s yearning for union with paramatma. Unlike a varnam, this is where the strengths and frailties of human beings are dealt with.

Tillana is essentially the expression of joy to show the excitement of imminent union with God, indicating one is close to the goal on the spiritual path. Tillana expresses the happiness of the devotee, as a certain promise of union has been obtained or a prophecy of his attaining union with the Lord in the immediate future is foretold. Here the song is sung in syllables, the dancer dances intricate dance patterns to the music of rhythmic syllables. In the sahitya the devotee asks God to be quick and not delay His arrival. It signifies the final cry signifying yearning for union with God. Only one verse in words indicating the God worshipped, is found in the charanam.

Shlokam or viruttam is a simple devotional verse. A prayer to the Lord is offered (Kasturi  tilakam) and is the last item in margam; here the devotee describes the God as seen by her. One becomes that Ultimate Being realized by self.

Mangalam is to thank God for His divine vision and pray that His beautiful image thus should eternally be perceived in the mind of the devotees throughout their worldly existence.

1.    Chandra Anand , Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part II
-, November 8, 2014

2.    Ibid.

3.    Chandra Anand, Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam - Part X;
Epic Grandeur of the Tanjore Quartet margam (TQM);, July 14, 2015

4.    Chandra Anand , Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam - Part XII
 Varnam, October 14, 2015

1.    Anand Chandra , Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part II
-,  November 8, 2014

2.    Anand Chandra, Education in Spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part V
Tanjore Quartet margam: A journey in space and time with the Divine Spirit ,, February 15, 2015

3.     Anand Chandra, Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam - Part X;
Epic Grandeur of the Tanjore Quartet margam (TQM);, July 14, 2015

4.     Anand Chandra, Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam - Part XII  Varnam, October 14, 2015

Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014). This article is a follow up of the article titled “Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam” Part V.


Dear Madame,
A very insightful look at the Margam. However, I have a question or questions …

Why does each composition of Bharatanatyam margam have to link itself to spirituality?
Is art without spirituality banal according to you?

Does spirituality lie in the eye of the beholder?

Having seen all the Tanjore Quartet varnam-s and sabdam-s, I fail to perceive any kind of spirituality there. What I see is sensuality towards either a king (patron) or the main God of that sensuality towards god or king is spirituality, but sensuality towards a normal human being is banal?

IS IT A SIN TO DO BHARATANATYAM WITHOUT ANY SPIRITUALITY? Don't you think it is this kind of rigid Bharatanatyam which stops itself from making it contemporary which we Kathak dancers achieve because Kathak is sans any kind of implied or explicit spirituality. Is the strength of Bharatanatyam (which is supposed to be its so called spiritual content), its weakness too?
- Anon (Oct 27, 2016)

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