WHAT IS BHARATANATYAM?
An essay by Sruti Editor-in-Chief N. PATTABHI RAMAN, a SRUTI special feature
e-mail: sruti@eth.net


Sep 2001

Bharatanatyam is one of the most cherished and the most popular of classical Indian dance-forms, not only within the country but also outside it. It is considered the epitome of Indian cultural expression.

Lately, Bharatanatyam is also the focus of criticism. It is damned as archaic and irrelevant to the modern times, especially by those who frown on its predominant nayika-nayaka theme. At the same time, even among its practitioners, it is often misperceived as being bound with bhakti alone, while in fact sringara or love has been its dominant motif.

Generally, the practitioners of the dance (choreographers as well as performers) fall into four broad categories: those content with whatever they have been taught and staying the course without adding anything of their own; those adding through their creativity, a minty freshness even to the traditional repertoire; those exploring new dimensions within the framework of tradition; and, of course, the rootless ones of modern times who, not knowing which way to go, tinker with the art to the point they degrade it. The middle two categories overlap to
an extent. Those who use the technique of Bharatanatyam as only one element in their composite works embracing martial arts, etc., are a group apart, outside the penumbra of Bharatanatyam.

On balance, Bharatanatyam has not remained frozen. Many of its practitioners, through their fresh and polished interpretations, have either given a new sheen to the traditional repertoire, that is, enhanced the value of the
inherited treasure; or have added to the treasury by exploring new dimensions, prompted not only by fresh artistic perceptions of their own, but also by such factors as changes in the audience mix, and changes in environment (i.e., social context). There are, of course, the outstanding few who have done both.

But the criticism, howsoever misdirected, is getting louder and its impact is being felt widely, confusing the multitude's perception of what Bharatanatyam really is.

There is an urgent need, therefore, to review the dance-form in depth and clarify the issues.

Sruti Editor-in-Chief N. PATTABHI RAMAN has written the following essay as a first step towards resolving the widely spread confusion about what Bharatanatyam really is. He has incorporated in it, besides his own perceptions, knowledge gained from a reading of authoritative texts and consultations with leading practitioners of Bharatanatyam.

His approach is analytical rather than normative or prescriptive. Emphasising the need for establishing benchmarks, he has for some time now been advocating that leading scholars, guru-s, choreographers and performers of each of the major Indian classical dance-forms should meet and discuss and democratically reach a consensus on what constitute the core or defining characteristics of each dance-form. It is hoped this article will pave the way for such a consensus on Bharatanatyam- a consensus that will serve as an authoritative Blue Book of guidance to Bharatanatyam teachers, students, dancers and choreographers, as well as to dance reviewers and critics and sources of financial support.

What is Bharatanatyam?
Historically, Bharatanatyam is the dance-form christened as such by the Music Academy of Madras in the early nineteen thirties. It was known earlier as Dasiattam, Sadir or Karnatakam.

It thrived in the south of India. Then it spread to other parts of the country. Now it is a world art and heritage, flourishing particularly in the Indian diaspora.

Its grammar and aesthetics are today traced by many to Natya Sastra and to later works like Abhinaya Darpana. However, while we do not properly know what the dance was like before early nineteenth century, what we know today as Bharatanatyam has developed from the shape it was given by the Tanjavur Quartet. And this legacy was preserved in practice mostly by the guru-s and performers belonging to the Isai Velalar community of Tamil Nadu.

The sacred & the secular
During the period of the Quartet and for many decades afterwards, the dance was performed both in the temple and outside it in the courts of kings, princes and landed gentry. Apart from being offered as upachara or ritual, the dance was performed even in the temple and in temple-related processionals as art, to attract believers to the presence of god. Outside the temple, it was indeed an art form, though sometimes it was presented as cheap entertainment.

Bharatanatyam as performed today on the proscenium stage- even in some temple complexes as in Chidambaram- belongs to the category of art dance, even if a given performance is mediocre or worse.

The architecture
The margam or the linear format of a traditional secular Bharatanatyam recital consists of alarippu, jatiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padam/javali, tillana and sloka. As described by the late T. Balasaraswati, the format reflects a marvellous scheme of aesthetic progression, as well as a unique architectural conception.

In a lecture delivered at the Tamil Isai Sangam, Madras, translated from Tamil by the late S. Guhan and reproduced in Bala on Bharatanatyam, a monograph published by the Sruti Foundation (now out of print), the legendary exponent of Bharatanatyam said:

<< I believe that the traditional order of the Bharatanatyam recital... is the correct sequence in the practice of this art, for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal.

The greatness of this traditional recital-pattern will be apparent even from a purely aesthetic point of view. In the beginning, alarippu, which is based on rhythm alone, brings out the special charm of pure dance. The movements of alarippu relax the dancer's body and thereby her mind, loosen and coordinate her limbs, and prepare her for the rest of the dance. Rhythm has a rare capacity to concentrate. Alarippu is most valuable in freeing the dancer from distraction and making her single-minded.

The joy of pure rhythm in alarippu is followed by jatiswaram where there is the added joy of melody. Melody, without word or syllable, has a special power to unite us with our being.
In jatiswaram, melody and movement come together. Then comes the sabdam. It is here that compositions, with words and meanings, which enable the expression of the myriad moods of Bharatanatyam, are introduced.

The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a Great Temple: we enter through the gopuram (outer hall) of alarippu, cross the ardhamandapam (half-way hall) of jatiswaram, then the mandapam (great hall) of sabdam and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam. This is the space which gives the dancer expansive scope to revel in the music, rhythm and moods of the dance. The varnam is the continuum which gives ever expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfillment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art.

Pada-s now follow. In dancing to pada-s, one experiences the containment, cool and quiet of entering the sanctum from its external precinct. The expanse and brilliance of the outer corridors disappear in the dark inner sanctum; and the rhythmic virtuosities of the varnam yield to the soul-stirring music and abhinaya of the padam. Dancing to the padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of god. Then, the tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle. In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the god he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse. >>

(As the above passage reveals, Balasaraswati believed Bharatanatyam is grounded in bhakti and that "it is justified in being called a yoga because it is a spiritual discipline perfecting the mind to thought-free serenity.")

But the traditional margam is no longer considered de rigueur. In other words, what was once considered the format of Bharatanatyam has lately been modified many a time by all and sundry. It has yielded place to many variations, as well as to dance-dramas and miscellanies presented by groups of dancers trained in Bharatanatyam.

Thus, while the margam can be considered most suited to unfold the major dimensions of the dance, it cannot be held that, unless it is used, a Bharatanatyam recital ceases to be one.

Bharatanatyam & religion
Bharatanatyam is misperceived by many as inevitably bound to the Hindu faith. Perhaps the first person in modern times to put this perception across forcefully as a philosophy was the late
Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. (See Dance of Shiva). Coomaraswamy's position was that, in India, religion and art are inextricably bound together and that art, in fact, is an expression of religion. But it is not, despite its one-time association with the Hindu temple.
Bharatanatyam is a dance of India, not a Hindu dance, even though its performance corpus has historically been focussed on persona and narratives enveloped by Hindu faith. As in yoga, its technique is value neutral. The technique and vocabulary of this dance-form can be used to depict a variety of themes and artistic conceptions. Not surprisingly they have been used to convey not only themes and conceptions associated with the Hindu faith and way of life, but also Christian and Buddhist themes. Additionally, they have been utilised at least once to project perceptions of Islam. Of course, choreographers and dancers have as well used them in recent times to present abstract ideas like nationalism, feminine power (Sakti) and the sanctity of the environment.

Purpose of Bharatanatyam
Since a long time ago, many have perceived Bharatanatyam as a medium of worship, a vehicle for bhakti. But it is a misconception of art to believe its purpose is to express devotion to god, notwithstanding instances of artists offering music and dance ostensibly as anjali. If we would adapt Ashok D. Ranade's broad categorisation of music- as primitive, folk, devotional, art and popular- similarly to categorise dance also, we would see that what we call classical dance belongs to the art category. Indeed, it lends itself admirably to artistic interpretation of various subjects- ideally, in consonance with the Indian conception of aesthetics. Thus, Bharatanatyam performed on the proscenium stage, even if badly, should be recognised as an art-form, and its purpose as the elicitation of rasanubhava or rasanubhooti or aesthetic relish. Its purpose must be seen as going beyond mere entertainment, to encompass the elevation of the empathetic onlooker to another, higher level of experience beyond the mundane. In this sense, it can be said to have a spiritual thrust, even as the non-religious, non-verbalised symphonies of Beethoven do.

Depending on individual perceptions, this subjective experience may yet transcend the aesthetic and may seem religious to some, or spiritual to some others. At least one rasika of music- Peggy Holroyde, an admirer of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar's music making has said, in her book titled The Music of India that her experience of one of Panditji's recitals resulted in an orgasm.

Yes, the perceptions of individuals may vary, but this does not alter the fact that, within the framework of Indian aesthetics, the purpose of Bharatanatyam, like that of other secular dance-forms, is to pave the way to an aesthetic experience.

Not gender specific
Bharatanatyam is not gender specific. It has space both for the male and the female; and it accommodates tandava as well as lasya without reference to gender. We believe the greatest of all dancers is Siva-Nataraja, a purusha. Historically, the dancers were almost all females, but during the last seven decades, many outstanding male dancers have emerged. It is notable, in this context, that the dance has essentially remained ekaharya, that is, a dancer in a single costume portraying indirectly or directly more characters than one, regardless of their gender. It has been a different case in dance-dramas presented in the idiom of Bharatanatyam.

Since, however, virtually all of the other classical dances of India are also not gender specific, Bharatanatyam does not stand alone in this aspect.

Two aspects
Bharatanatyam has two aspects to it, namely:
* nritta, or the purely rhythmic, which is confined to footwork and the movements of the body
and the hands; and in which, absent emotion, there is no portrayal of sentiments, scenes or
events; and
* abhinaya or mime, which is conveyed through gestures and facial expressions, or as Balasaraswati has put it, "the suggestive language of imagination."

These two aspects are, however, not unique to this dance-form alone.

Primacy of music
An important feature of Bharatanatyam is that it does not exist separately from music. Balasaraswati has said: "Bharatanatyam, in its highest moment, is the embodiment of music in its visual form.... For more than thousand years, the sastra-s have confirmed that an individual dedicated to dance must be equally dedicated to music and must receive thorough training in both the arts." She has also disclosed: "In demonstrating the art of Bharatanatyam abroad, I have made a special point of showing audiences how delicately linked is the realisation of movement to raga expression in abhinaya, including the subtle expression of gamaka-s, intonation of sruti, and the unfolding of improvisation in niraval. In the same way that we look for perfect blending of raga and tala and of raga and bhava in abhinaya, so also it is essential that the raga and the sahitya be perfectly matched and in accordance with the necessities of expression in the dance."

Balasaraswati's observation confirms that music is an integral part of dance and not merely
incidental to it.

Song-texts or lyrics are essential for the interpretation of songs in Bharatanatyam. For this reason, the song repertoire of Bharatanatyam is for singing, with the mridanga as the main instrument in the orchestra which supports the singer.

Recent history has, however, shown that Bharatanatyam is not wedded to a particular kind of music, that is, Carnatic music alone. It is therefore difficult to identify an item as Bharatanatyam by its music alone.

Content & changes in it
Bharatanatyam has a vast song repertoire, accommodating varying content.

The lyrics of a substantial portion of traditional items seek to convey sringara bhakti- devotion through expression of love between man/woman and god; or only sringara- romance between man and woman, though even this last-mentioned relationship has been perceived by many as the yearning of the jeevatma (human soul) for the paramatma (universal soul), obscuring very real romantic liaison between the nayika and nayaka, as in Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam and Kshetrayya's pada-s.

The traditional repertoire has been enriched, particularly in recent times, by the addition of numerous items, which, in practice, reflect bhakti alone, as well as items interpreting classical music compositions and folk or popular dances. The repertoire has also been expanded lately to include contemporary themes.

Furthermore, the repertoire has been expanded to include compositions in non-traditional languages, like Hindi and its dialects, Marathi and Bengali.

Thus, the dance-form has been anything but static in regard to its repertoire; indeed, it has shown a remarkable capacity for absorbing innovations. At the same time, its traditional sringara-focussed items have retained their relevance because they reflect timeless, universal human yearnings. Some present-day dancers may feel they are passe or archaic, but those who are able to perceive and appreciate the inner core and the subtexts of the contents of the traditional repertoire would not disinherit them. They are museum pieces only if the dancers present them mechanically like robots, without contextualising them, without interpreting them creatively and without expanding and further enriching the vocabulary of the dance.

Aharya: costume & ornamentation
Aharya- costume and ornamentation- has also undergone change. Rukmini Devi was the pioneer in introducing the costume that replaced those sported by the devadasi dancers earlier. Although this costume, as well as the ornamentation used with it, may seem to be distinctive enough to be identified with Bharatanatyam, clearly it is also subject to change within the framework of the ethos that envelopes the dance. It is relevant to mention the ethos because, while technically it may be alright for a Bharatanatyam dancer to perform wearing a churidar-pyjama suit or even a pair of jeans and a shirt, such a costume would be out of character. Like it would be out of character for a Western ballet dancer to wear a churidar-pyjama suit or a saree.

Defining characteristics
If Bharatanatyam shares the same purpose with other art dances and if the format, content and costume, as well as the idiom of music, are variable although integral parts of the dance, what can be considered the core or defining characteristics of Bharatanatyam?

By definition, the defining characteristics must be those which set Bharatanatyam apart from other Indian dance-forms- set it apart not momentarily but forever.

By the process of elimination, this has to be the technique of Bharatanatyam given expression through the basic stance, the basic postures, the movements, the movement combinations (adavu-s) and gestures (mudra-s). Different guru-s and performers have given stylistic emphases of their own in using the technique, and some have also extended the technique, but there is a corpus which may be said to be unique to Bharatanatyam and which, therefore, taken as a whole, gives it its distinctive identity.

This distinctive identity exists, I should note, despite common terminology traceable to Natya Sastra, because in practice the different dance-forms have addressed the subject covered by each of the common technical terms in distinctive ways.

This corpus includes the following:
* Saushtavam, the basic aesthetic posture. In this posture of Bharatanatyam, the back is held erect, the torso is bent forward a fraction from the waist and, correspondingly, the fundament is pushed back ever so slightly. The body is held taut and yet relaxed.
* Ardhamandali or the basic half-sitting posture. This posture, in which feet and knees are turned outwards, is the leit-motif of Bharatanatyam. This recurring motif gives rise to the distinctive geometrical nature of the movements of Bharatanatyam.
* Muzhu mandi or poorna mandali, in which the dancer sits down till the fundament rests on the heels, with the feet and knees turned outwards.
* The adavu system, consisting of many different adavu-s which form the basis of the nritta technique of Bharatanatyam. Each adavu comprises a coordinated pattern of movement of feet, knees, torso, arms and hands. Though there are stylistic variations of the adavu-s, the hard core remains the same. A number of adavu-s are used to present a dance sequence, known as teermanam. The adavu-s and the teermanam-s are set to the beats of a tala.
* The hasta mudra-s. Each mudra is distinct and can convey different meanings depending on how it is used.

The above-mentioned technique-based components of the corpus carrying a distinct Bharatanatyam stamp may be said to be the dance-form's core or defining characteristics. It will be proper to consider as Bharatanatyam only that choreography or performance which retains or uses these core or defining characteristics exclusively.

Dancers' responsibility
The sum and substance of the above analysis is that choreographies and performers who utilise these core characteristics of Bharatanatyam and yet add on extraneous elements like martial arts, or aspects typical of other Indian dance-forms, or Modern dance of the West are free to do so, so long as they do not claim their works as Bharatanatyam. The same goes for those who water down the technique in favour of mere movement that falls short of the larger aesthetic purpose of Indian dance.

Packaging of a performance is a different matter- and a number of options may be utilised to suit personal preferences or performance contexts. The presentation may be long or short; it may or may not follow the traditional margam; it may vary the content; it may use different stage arrangements; it may or may not use special lighting; it may have the dancer wearing non-specific or non-descriptive costume; or it may include in its orchestra instruments not used traditionally. These are among the variables available to a Bharatanatyam dancer in India as well as abroad.

But, to qualify as Bharatanatyam, I believe a performance must employ the technique unique to it- without trashing it or watering it down. The dancer has a responsibility to fulfill the expectations of the discerning members of an audience in India, and of the interested innocenti abroad, that what is on offer is the Real McCoy.



A central conception
In Indian dance, the human body has been conceived of as a mass, which can be equally divided among the central median. Further movement is determined by the nature of deflections from this median....

What is distinctive in Bharatanatyam is the fact that it conceives of movement in space mostly along either straight lines or triangles.

The head forms the first unit and lateral movements of the head are common. The torso is seen as another unit and is hardly ever broken up into the upper or the lower torso. The lower limbs are seen as either straight lines or two sides of an imaginary triangle in space. The upper limbs either follow the lower limbs or weave circular patterns along space which is governed by the lower limbs. It is the latter aspect, along with the use of the torso as a single unit that gives Bharatanatyam its particularity.
-Kapila Vatsyayan in Indian Classical Dance, 1974.

Adavu
The adavu is the basic unit of [Bharatanatyam] composition.... A cadence of the hands combined with a rhythmic movement of the feet and a harmonious flexion of the body in precise coordination is called adavu. Each adavu is identified by a syllabary or rhythmic phrase- e.g., ta tai tam - dhit tai tam. Adavu-s are the basic vocabulary of dance composition... there are ten different classes of adavu-s- and in each class twelve varieties- a total of 120 fundamental dance motifs which may be combined in endless variations of choreographic design.... A series of adavu-s strung together in a section of timing (tala avarta) forms a dance pattern (teermanam or adavu jati). While the feet articulate the rhythm, formalised gestures of the hands and arms combined with stylised movements of the body create beautiful plastic designs in space.
-Ragini Devi in Dance Dialects of India, 1990.

Sringara
Sringara stands supreme in the range of emotions. [It] is the cardinal emotion which gives the fullest scope for artistic improvisation, branching off continuously, as it does, into the portrayal of innumerable moods full of newness and nuances....

The sringara we experience in Bharatanatyam is never carnal, never, never. For those who have yielded themselves to its discipline with total dedication, dance, like music, is the practice of the Presence; it cannot be merely the body's rapture.

[Bharatanatyam] is primarily a woman's art. By the very fact of the lover being god, the union longed for is not of the physical but of the spiritual plane. It is the yearning of the individual soul for merger with the cosmic soul that is figuratively expressed in the erotic idiom. Yet the spiritual quality of Bharatanatyam is not achieved through the elimination of the sensual but through the seemingly sensual itself, thereby sublimating it.
-T. Balasaraswati, in Bala on Bharatanatyam, 1991.

Sringara means love, but this is not confined to rati sringara. There is bhakti sringara and vatsalya sringara besides rati sringara....

Even in rati sringara, the erotic element must be refined. In India, even in ideal life, a certain discipline is exercised in showing our love for another. We don't generally do it in public, although some people do it everywhere. Same with art. If the act of kissing is to be depicted, it should be done with subtlety, artistically. Someone or other may present this act without beauty, but this should not be construed to mean eroticism is unacceptable.
- Kalanidhi Narayanan, in an interview, Sruti 171.

The Varnam
Varnam is the most complex, interesting, challenging item- the piece de resistance in a recital to prove the virtuosity and stamina of a Bharatanatyam dancer. [It comprises] the most complicated dance sequences.
-Susheela Misra in Invitation to Indian Dance, 1987.

The varnam provides the fullest scope to the dancer to improvise on a given theme....

In terms of technique, the dancer has freedom to improvise on the musical note as well as on the literary word. In the abhinaya portions, the dancer presents either a word-for-word interpretation or renders through gesture the meaning of a complete line. She can also present through gestures other images related to but not contained in the word. In this respect, the varnam calls for all the imaginative faculties at the command of the dancer, who must possess a rich literary background. Without this, the dancer would be at a loss to present the words through the gestures in a variety of ways....
-Kapila Vatsyayan, op. cit.

Varna is the most elaborate composition of the dance which calls forth the versatility of the danseuse in pure dance and mime....

The most fascinating element of the varna is the exposition of the transient moods of love (sanchari bhava) in mimetic dance. The dancer thus creates a gesture poem of her own to enlarge the poetic theme of the song.
-Ragini Devi, in Dance Dialects of India, 1990.

Is Bharatanatyam archaic?
Excerpts from a review of Vande Mataram- a Bharatanatyam festival- by Jan Vasan, published in Sruti 158 (November 1997).
Bharatanatyam has been under attack from those who consider it archaic. Some of the criticisms are:
- It has an outdated repertoire.
- It is boring to watch again and again the nayika pining for the nayaka.
- It is like attempting to drive forward looking into the rearview mirror.
-
Such notions got a battering in Vande Mataram, a dance festival organised under the auspices of Natyarangam, a project of Narada Gana Sabha, 1-8 September [1997] in Chennai....

The festival threw up a host of interesting topics for classical Bharatanatyam: male chauvinism, eve teasing, dowry, evils of the current education system, the caste and reservation systems, threat of nuclear weapons, AIDS, the population explosion, corruption in politics, bribery, religious fanaticism, secularism, fraudulent godmen, the greed for riches, the Chinese aggression, the Dandi March, literacy, agriculture, mechanisation, industrialisation, environmental degradation, universal brotherhood, abstract lines and forms, etc.

To depict the above, some new hasta viniyoga-s were introduced by the dancers.... The dancers proved that they could depict virtually anything in the Bharatanatyam idiom....

Courtesy SRUTI Issue 203
August 2001