Bharatanatyam,is a major genre of Indian classical dance that originated in Tamil Nadu . It is regarded as the oldest classical dance heritage of India and mother of many other Indian classical dance forms.

          Bent knee posture


Bharatnatyam Dance is considered to be over 2000 years old. Several texts beginning with Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra (200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) provide information on this dance form. The Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara is one of the main sources of textual material, for the study of the technique and grammar of body movement in Bharatnatyam Dance.

One of the five great epics of Tamil Literature, ‘Silappatikaram’ (~2nd century CE) has a direct reference to this dance form.


There is also a great deal of visual evidence of this dance form in paintings and stone and metal sculptures of ancient times. On the gopurams of the Chidambaram temple, one can see a series of Bharatnatyam poses, frozen in stone as it were, by the sculptor. In many other temples, the charis and karanas of the dance are represented in sculpture and one can make a study of the dance form.


The style was kept alive by the devadasis, who were young girls ‘gifted’ by their parents to the temples and who were married to the gods. The devadasis performed music and dance as offerings to the deities, in the temple courtyards. Some of the renowned performers and gurus of the early part of the century belong to the devadasi families, a well-known name is Bala Saraswati.


Social and economic conditions associated with Devadasi culture added with contempt and despicable attitude from the Christian missionaries and British officials, who held the Devadasis of South India  as harlots, disgraced such systems. Furthermore the Christian missionaries launched anti-dance movement in 1892 to stop such practice. The Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910 and with this the age-old tradition of performing Bharatanatyam in Hindu temples also came to an end.

However the Indian community disapproved such ban . Freedom-fighter, activist and classical artist E. Krishna Iyer questioned such discrimination . Iyer founded the ‘Madras Music Academy’ and along with Indian theosophist, dancer and Bharatanatyam choreographer Rukmini Devi Arundale, he strived to save Bharatanatyam from dying out.

Rukmini Devi Arundale

As the Indian freedom movement progressed steadily during the early 20th century, an effort to revive Indian culture and tradition seethed with excitement among Indians. Eminent Bharatanatyam dancers like Arundale and Balasaraswati expanded the dance form out of Hindu temples and established it as a mainstream dance form.


The recital of Bharatnatyam is extensive, however, a performance follows a regular pattern.

1 . Alarippu  – At first there is an invocation song. 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.

2 . Jatiswaram – 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. They form the basis of training in Bharatnatyam dance.

3 . Shabdam – Shabdam follows the jatiswaram in a Bharatnatyam dance performance. The accompanying song is generally in adoration of the Supreme Being.

4 .Varnam – 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.

5 . Keertanam, kritis, padams and javalis –  After the strenuous varnam, the dancer performs a number of abhinaya items expressing a variety of moods.  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.

6 .  Tillana – 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.


The four Nattuvanars namely Ponaiyah, Vadivelu, Sivanandam and Chinnaiya who are renowned as Tanjaore Bandhu and who thrived in the Durbar of Maratha ruler, Sarfoji-II from 1798 to 1832 shaped up the modern day Bharatanatyam. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai was a noted exponent of Bharatanatyam who is predominantly known for his style referred as the Pandanallur school of Bharatanatyam. One of his students Rukmini Devi championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) style . Other imminent Bharatanatyam artists include Balasarswati ,Mrinalini Sarabhai, her daughter Mallika Sarabhai, Padma Subramanyam, Alarmel Valli, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Anita Ratnam among others.