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Reappraising Bharatanatyam for physical, psychological and psychosocial benefits
- Krithika V Balaji

March 10, 2024

This article reappraises Bharatanatyam from a therapeutic point of view, intending to explore the benefits it offers in physical, psychological and psycho-social realms to the practitioner. The aim is to derive useful insights on employing Bharatanatyam as a therapeutic dance form to aspirants seeking benefits in this regard. The insights can serve as a benchmark to trainers who seek to expand the scope of the dance form to a therapeutic plane. While mainstream research focuses on the aesthetic and artistic features of Bharatanatyam, often the therapeutic benefits offered by this dance form that is comparable to yoga and other forms of wellness therapies are overlooked and under-researched. This research is a narrative exploration of the therapeutic dimensions of Bharatanatyam.

In India, the land renowned for culture and heritage, Bharatanatyam is considered as a representation of the ancient culture - connected with sculptures, music, poetry, scriptures, theatre and spirituality. Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest dance forms in India originating from the Southern part of the nation. This art form, as described in the Natya Shastra [1] (200 BCE), is an aesthetic and divine art which is revered for ages for its authenticity and spirituality. Bharatanatyam is a dance form which evolved from the Natya Veda [2] and has a spiritual dimension to it. The Natya Veda, as per the Hindu mythology, was imparted to the world by Lord Brahma [3] as a kreedaneeyatha [4] or a plaything that could entertain as well as impart the sense of values implying its spiritual nature in the Indian culture. Bharatanatyam is a celebration of the mind, body and spirit, similar to all the other Indian classical forms. Anyone can learn and perform this art devoid of religion, caste or creed. It is a Darshan - a philosophy on its own. It is always evolving and timeless. (Rele, K. 2018).

Bharatanatyam is a dance form which enacts the movements of the world around us. The movements of the trees, flowers, breeze, birds, animals and all living beings in the entire universe are encompassed in it. It enables the dancer to use the body to communicate to the external world, as a result communicating to his/ her internal world as well (Nair, 2014). This harmony of Bharatanatyam with the outer world and inner self has greater implications than artistic aesthetics. The American Dance Therapy Association introduced the 'Dance Movement Therapy' in 2016 which promotes the use of dance movements to enhance emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration. The Dance Movement Therapy helps the performer to transcend the cultural differences and can be used as a flexible medium in a variety of populations to bring in emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration (Harris, 2007). The benefits of dance therapy are numerous and Bharatanatyam is an art form which is being pursued by artistes worldwide. This dynamic art form is a wholesome combination of entertainment, health, wellness, the balance of internal and external energies and a path to spirituality.

Bharatanatyam as an art form has been well-researched and the aesthetic and artistic value of the dance form is a topic of wide research. But the therapeutic potential of Bharatanatyam is an under-researched area. The article aims to explore the benefits of performing Bharatanatyam in three levels viz. the physical, psychological and the psycho-social. The article aims to theoretically explore the benefits of practising Bharatanatyam on a routine basis. The thrust area is to identify the potential therapeutic benefits gained by a Bharatanatyam artiste.

1. The physical dimensions of Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam in its bare sense is a dance form which involves physical activity that promotes bodily discipline and postural perfection. A Bharatanatyam dancer performs an artistic yoga that reveals the spiritual through the corporeal. The dancer and the dance are inseparable and they transcend the boundaries of time and space (Gill, 1975).

The basic training in Bharatanatyam is rich with physical activities to improve agility and bodily discipline. A Bharatanatyam student or artiste performs stretching and bending exercises similar to yoga before beginning with the basic steps called adavus [5]. While performing the adavus, different thalams [6] or rhythms are adopted to test the speed and agility of the artiste while performing. The Guru (teacher) demonstrates every step and the sishyas (students) are made to imitate the guru. The students have to follow the nattuvangam [7] played by the Guru and keep up with the changing rhythms. This enables them to develop their skills in balancing speed and achieving agility according to the changing rhythms. The controlled physical exertion warms-up the dancer, who feels energized.

Once the artiste is trained in the adavus, he/she is taught the different items of the margams [8]. The margams of Bharatanatyam - or the path or course followed to perform the items in a traditional order - are based on the three main aspects of Nritta, Nritya and Natya. The dancer uses his entire body to bring about the expressions and communicate to the audiences. Bharatanatyam is a way of expressing through our body movements. The Nritta consists of purely rhythmic movements where body movements correspond to the slow and fast rhythms or thalams. The Nritya is a combination of expressions and rhythmic movements. The added dimension of expression enriches the dance. The Natya represents the theatrical enactment which involves more of abhinaya or expressions. The combination of Nritta, Nritya and Natya result in sheer exultation of transcendence, both to the performer and the audience. Extreme discipline is required to balance and control our body movements, expressions and concentration to synchronize with the context (Sharma, 2013).

According to Natya Shastra, the physical dynamics of Bharatanatyam are expressed through a combination of body postures (bhangas), hand gestures (hastha mudras), neck movements (greeva bhedhas), eye movements (drushti bhedhas), movement of feet (padha sancharana) and different gaits (chaaris). This makes us realise that the entire body is engaged in a coordinated form of expression which has a great impact on the physical discipline and control. This engagement is an effective way to strengthen the musculoskeletal system, breath control and lung capacity, blood circulation, cardiovascular enrichment and weight loss (Bhavanani & Bhavanani, 2001).

Surekha et al. (2018) conducted a study among female Bharatanatyam dancers between the age group 13 to 18 years to evaluate the respiratory efficiency and pulmonary functions while practising Bharatanatyam. The results showed that long-term practice of Bharatanatyam had significantly increased the respiratory efficiency and pulmonary functions of the dancers. Bharatanatyam dancing is a cost-effective beneficial way to maintain body composition. A regular practice can resolve obesity issues and bring about overall physical fitness (Mukherjee & Chatterjee, 2012).

1.1. The impact of Bharatanatyam postures on flexibility of the body
Another important factor which plays a major role in Bharatanatyam is the posture or stance of the Bharatanatyam dancer. The postures or bhangas of Bharatanatyam are derived from the Shilpa Shastra [9]. It refers to the deviation of the body from the central erect position. There are four types of bhangas in Bharatanatyam (Sharma, 2013) viz.
  1. Abhanga: the off-centre, slightly askew standing position.
  2. Samabhanga: equal distribution of the body and limbs in a central line (standing/sitting)
  3. Atibhanga: great bend with torso diagonally inclined and knees bent.
  4. Tribhanga: is the triple bend with one hip raised and torso curved to the opposite direction.
These postures, when performed, increase the flexibility of the body and help in retaining balance through practice.

1.2. The mudras of Bharatanatyam and the sense of health and healing
Mudras are the different hand gestures which are used to communicate in Bharatanatyam. The mudras are also called as hastha mudras as they are gestures shown by hand. In Natya Shastra there are 28 asamyuktha mudras (gestures with one hand) and 24 samyuktha mudras (gestures with both hands). Each mudra has several viniyogams or uses to represent elements / emotions (Nair, 2014).

The physical health-related benefits of these mudras are evident as many of these mudras are used in Yoga to promote health and healing. Yoga Shastra is a comprehensive system that promotes physical and mental wellness and the presence of mudras of Bharatanatyam in yoga implies the potential of Bharatanatyam in promoting physical and mental wellness. Some of the mudras in Bharatanatyam (Hirschi, 2000; Patil, nd.) that are used in yoga are:
  1. Hamsasya mudra in Bharatanatyam is gyana mudra in yoga.
  2. Trishula mudra in Bharatanatyam is varun mudra in yoga.
  3. Mayura hastha mudra in Bharatanatyam is the prithvi mudra in yoga.
  4. Simhamukha mudra in Bharatanatyam is apana mudra in yoga.
  5. Kartarimuka mudra in Bharatanatyam is prana mudra in yoga.

1.3. Natya Karanas of Bharatanatyam: Promoting physical wellness
A Karana in Bharatanatyam is a unit of the dance in which a gesture, step and attitude are coordinated in a harmonious rhythmic movement. It is a combination of three elements, namely nritta hasta (dance movement of the hands), sthaana (a dance posture for the body) and a chaari (a dance movement of the leg) (Shankar, 2004). The fourth chapter of the Natya Shastra is devoted to the description of 108 Karanas, 32 Angaharas and 4 Rechakas. The karanas involves specific leg, hip, body, and arm movements that promote the physical wellness of the dancer. Notably, the karanas are depicted through sculptures in the five South Indian temples, notably the Chidambaram temple which contains depictions of the full set indicating the importance of the karanas in the cultural context as well. The 108 karanas correspond to one of the different human emotions. Holding a karana posture enhances the emotion it corresponds to. From a therapeutic point of view, performing karana postures that promote positive emotions could help the dancer/artiste in eliminating the negative emotions. The idea is similar to a meditation, where one emphasises on positive emotions to counteract a negative emotion. In practising the opposing karanas one need not be concerned with the movement into/out of the posture, or with the actual emotion being represented. The mind needs to remain calm (Subrahmanyam, 2003).

2. The psychological dimensions of Bharatanatyam
The World Health Organisation defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (WHO, 1948). Hence, any activity that ensures physical, mental and social wellbeing is considered a healthy lifestyle. Bharatanatyam is one such activity which enhances the performer's physical and mental wellbeing. In addition to the physical benefits, Bharatanatyam offers a set of psychological benefits too.

2.1. Discipline and Spirituality
The ancient art form of Bharatanatyam preaches both the technical aspects and the spiritual aspects of the dance. This inculcates the students to adhere to the Guru Parampara or 'reverence to the teachers'. The Guru (teacher) empowers the students to follow discipline during practice sessions and encourages the students to regard this art form as a sacred path to enlightenment. Dedication and endurance are two great principles required to learn this art form. With every practice session, the entire body attains strength, stamina and agility and so does the mind (Anand, 2014).

2.2. Concentration and Meditation
The Bharatanatyam dancer requires unflinching concentration to understand the context of the dance. His body movements must coordinate with the music, rhythm and the lyrics. The practise sessions encourage the dancer to enhance his concentration powers. The dancer is taught the benefits of concentration and meditation and every dance routine commences with a prayer. The dancer is taught to control the breathing and retain the energy levels during practice sessions. These breathing techniques enable unperturbed blood flow to the brain enhancing the memory skills. When a dancer performs to a piece of composition, his/her focus is streamlined in incorporating his entire physical self to flow with the energy of the music, rhythm and the lyrics. In this process, he/she becomes selfless and eventually enters the yogic state of dhyana or meditation (Bhavanani & Bhavanani, 2001).

Natya Yoga - a combination of dance and yoga - is described in chapters 4 to 6 of the Natya Shastra by Sage Bharatha. He exclusively points out the meditative properties of practising dance, especially the 108 karanas of Bharatanatyam. The Natya Yoga practitioners master the performance of the 108 karanas and by doing so they tend to understand the intimate connections of their physical, mental and emotional abilities. Practising Natya Yoga helps in stress management (Kumar & Deepthi, 2018).

2.3. Coordination
The compositions of Bharatanatyam require coordinative skills to express different movements of the eyes, hands, feet, posture etc. The dynamism of these movements enhances both cognitive skills and coordination skills of the performer. While performing to a piece of the dance repertoire, the dancer gets trained to multitask with coordination. The context of the dance, the music, the mood/emotions generated, the footwork steps, body gestures, the formations/ positions to hold on stage, costumes, instruments, rhythms, audience and the entire world around have to be focused at the same time (Iyengar, 2019). A flawless performance is the result of perfect coordination of all these aspects. While mastering the coordinative skills, one simultaneously excels in cognitive skills as well.

2.4. Ventilation of emotions
The physical and emotional exertion of energy results in attaining a balance with the inner self. The enactment of a dance piece to the lyrics brings out various expressions which culminate in the release of stress. The exclusivity of Bharatanatyam is that it can be performed creatively and for a variety of themes. The performer has the freedom to explore their creativity to convey new messages and social awareness to the audience.
Bharatanatyam enables the dancer to explore ways of expressing different types of emotions. It serves as a source of ventilating one's deeper self through the dance repertoires. When a dancer immerses in the dynamics of a composition, he/she becomes less conscious of himself. This yogic state of selflessness can contribute to the emotional state of mind.
The bhavas (emotions) and rasas (expressions) play a major role in the renditions, especially in the nritya and natya forms of compositions in Bharatanatyam. The combination of both bhava and rasa is essential to convey the meaning of the context of the dance.
The "Rasa-Bhava" theory as described by Abhinavagupta in his work on the Natya Shastra, is the central concept of any performing art. It establishes a relationship between the performer and the audience.

2.4.1. Bhavas (Emotions): Bhava depicts a 'state of mind'; it means 'to become' (Chavda, 2020). The idea of the dance is expressed by depicting the mental state - sthayibhava (constant feelings). It is from sthayibhava that bhavas originate. Bhava can be classified into (reference required):
  1. Vibhava means knowledge.
  2. Anubhava means natural emotions or sentiments.
  3. Sathvikabhava means sympathy for the sorrow of others.
  4. Vyabicharibhava or sanchari bhava means transitory emotional feelings from person to person.
The bhavas bring out the different feelings experienced in the day to day lives of the human beings like love, joy, pain, suffering, disgust, sympathy, compassion, anger, fear, indolence, perplexity, ferocity, pride, sickness, dullness, torment, attention, recollection, dejection, arrogance, forgetfulness, death, etc. (Sharma, P. B. (2013). It helps the artiste to ventilate the emotions and gain a sense of psychological relief and wellness, promoting positivity.

2.4.2. Rasas (Expressions): The rasas are the expressions/reactions human beings exhibit. Natya Shastra classifies rasas into eight viz. sringaram (love), haasyam (laughter), raudram (fury), karunyam (compassion/tragedy), bhibatsam (disgust), bhayanakam (horror), veeram (courage) and adbutham (wonder). Abhinavagupta, in his commentary on Natya Shastra introduced the ninth rasa called shantham (peace/tranquillity) and thus there are nava rasas or nine rasas. When a dancer performs a piece of composition, he/she requires connecting with the emotions he/she feels inside and bring out in his/her bhavas through the rasas. At several occasions a performer can relate the performance so closely to one's life and emotions and when the performer vents it out through his expressions, he/she indulges in the process of de-stressing himself and as a result feels "free" and "lighter" after every performance (Sharma, 2013).

3. The Psycho-Social aspects of Bharatanatyam
Bharatanatyam is an art which can be performed individually or as a group. The connectivity established between the dancer and the audience is the connectivity relating to the interrelation of social factors and individual thought/behaviour. The audiences react and relate to the message conveyed through dance, making it a powerful medium to communicate an idea to the masses. Bharatanatyam can be viewed as a recreational art and as a medium of spreading awareness to the crowd. Bharatanatyam as an art form has psycho-social implications for the performer and the audience (Acharya & Jain, 2016).

3.1. Spatial awareness and professionalism
The choreography of Bharatanatyam compositions creates a consciousness in the dancer regarding the spatial aspect. The Natya Shastra describes that Bharatanatyam conceives of movements in space mostly along straight lines, triangles or in circles which create energy. While performing in a group the dancer has to be aware of her space and coordinate with the other dancers in sharing the space. The dancer has to connect to the audience in the spatio-temporal plane. In the current educational methodologies, group activities are implemented for motivational purpose. Bharatanatyam greatly influences the cooperative attitude during group practice sessions and performances. Each dancer is trained to respect the physical space of the other while performing. While enacting a story, drama or mere dance choreography for music, the entire team of dancers has to perform in sync with the other dancers for a successful rendition. This helps the dancer to respect fellow performers and thus impart a sense of professionalism.

3.2. Connection with the stage and the audience
The Bharatanatyam performer is in direct contact with the earth. He/she dances with bare feet, thus connecting to nature in a symbolic sense. Bharatanatyam uses numerous poses that are similar to the mandalas of yoga and yantra. These poses help the dancers to stay energised. The aura of a Bharatanatyam recital is similar to a celebration. The soulful music, the rhythms of the percussions and the scintillating lyrics add on to the effectiveness of the rendition. The emotions generated in the performances, be it spirituality, patriotism, happiness, joy, melancholy and so on, invokes a congruent emotion among the audience. That is the reason why Bharatanatyam is considered a powerful medium to spread awareness. New and vibrant themes can be selected as the subject to perform. Dancers often choreograph for socially responsible subjects like women empowerment in addition to adaptations from mythological stories and epics. Watching dance performances, of any form, can lead to the generation of 'kinesthetic empathy' in the audience and this can result in attaining pleasure and motivation among the audience (Reason, & Reynolds, 2010). Bharatanatyam with its rasas and bhavas can bring in kinesthetic empathy among the audience.

This article has focused on the benefits of practising Bharatanatyam as a routine for enhancing the physical, psychological and psycho-social aspects of human life. It is relevant in the context of the present modern society where people have started to adopt a health conscious lifestyle. Where new fitness regimes are being invented day after day, it is necessary to identify the already existing art forms of India which fulfil all the needs to lead a healthy lifestyle from the physical, psychological and psycho-social dimensions.

Bharatanatyam is an art form that has significant physical, psychological and psycho-social benefits and hence can be considered as a therapeutic art. This art form which has been existent for centuries in our country is pursued by participants of all age groups, from all over the world. It is easily adaptable and numerous institutions in India and across the globe offer professional courses in Bharatanatyam. This traditional art is taught in theory and practice enlightening the dancers with the underlying meanings of the rituals and intricacies of every dance movement as described in the Natya Shastra. This genre of dance has been explored in several experiments and innovative, contemporary styles are being implemented by several artistes. Its flexibility and relevance to both the past and present contextual adaptations are remarkable. The concept of Yoga Shastra and Natya Yoga are two major streams related to Natya Shastra which are discussed in this paper and how Bharatanatyam adapts the characteristics of these two fields resulting in extensive physical and psychological wellness to the performer. Bharatanatyam can thus be extended as a 'therapeutic art' form and can be pursued for enhancing physical, psychological and psycho-social wellbeing.

1. Natya Shastra refers to the treatise/manual of dance written by Sage Bharatha
2. Natya Veda, according to the Hindu Mythology, is the fifth Veda created by Lord Brahma by combining several aspects of the other four Vedas - Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva.
3. Lord Brahma is considered as the God of Creation in the Hindu religion.
4. Kreedaneeyatha means amusement through audio visual enactments.
5. Adavus pertain to units of basic dance steps at a specific tempo.
6. Thalam refers to the tempo/rhythm
7. Nattuvangam is derived from the words natta and angam. Natta refers to dance performance/dancer and angam refers to body. The dancer has to perform in sync with the nattuvangam.
8. Margam is a traditional format to present the dances in a sequence.
9. Shilpa Shastra is the science of arts and crafts.

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Surekha, R., Archana, R., & Vijayalakshmi, B. (2018). Effect of regular dance practice on pulmonary functions and respiratory efficiency in female Bharatanatyam dancers: A pilot study. International Journal of Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences. 9(4), 1268-1273.

Krithika V. Balaji
Krithika V. Balaji is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Christ University, Bangalore. She is a Bharatanatyam artiste and a researcher who has a keen interest in Indian performing arts. Her core research study focusses on the evolution of Bharatanatyam and other cultural dances from a sociological perspective.

Very detailed review on a much needed topic - of scientific evidence on the benefits of Bharatanatyam. Particularly interesting to read the different kind of bhavas, mudras, and the parallels to yoga and asanas. The immediate impact of concentration and meditation is the most relatable. Synchronization with the self can only be beneficial to the different bodily systems - such as blood flow, heart, and so on.
Can similar effects be applied to group synchronization? Synchronizing our (creative) energies with a group is a very complex topic- yet dance and music are solutions through art where group discipline can also be achieved, and harmony with others can be experienced easily. Some ideas for future - on how dance as a therapeutic and harmonizing factor can be applied in team building / management / leadership / and maybe organization settings - to loosen inhibitions and attain higher focus as a team..
- Anuja Hariharan (March 11, 2024)

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