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A Beginner’s Guide to Bharatanatyam Darbar Voices

November 23, 2018

A headshot of Indian Bharatanatyam dancer, Sundaresan (Sunny) Ramesh, smiling

What are the themes behind bharatanatyam? How did the dance style get its name? In our final instalment of Darbar Voices, we hand over to Sundaresan (Sunny) Ramesh, who is a student of Pushkala Gopal and an NYDC alumnus, to tell us more about one of the most popular styles in Indian dance.

The evolution of bharatanatyam

Let me tell you about bharatanatyam and my passion for it. Bharatanatyam has evolved over the years. Originating in temples of yore, its popularity had spread throughout Southern India. At some point, a few of centuries ago, it was patronised by the royal courts of Southern India. It was popularly known as Sadir performed by Devadasis, women of an artistic community who were dedicated either to the local temple or local patrons. Over time, the dance came into a lot of criticism. The British degraded the women that danced this art form. In 1892 there was a movement to stop practicing bharatanatyam and in 1910 the government had banned dancing in temples. The Indian community disapproved of the ban and as the Indian freedom movement gained momentum, people were getting a restored identity with Indian culture and tradition. With the pioneering efforts of E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale, bharatanatyam expanded out of the Devadasi community and slowly grew as a cultural presence amongst the community at large, the early decade of the 20th century.


Bharatanatyam is a combination of the words, Bharata and Natyam. Natyam is translated to dance and a popular interpretation of bharata is: bha – as bhava (emotions and feelings), ra is raga (musical notes) and ta is Talam (rhythm). There is an ancient text in Sanskrit on the performing arts. This is called the Natya Shastra and is attributed to Bharata. Bharatas were believed to be experts of dramaturgy which included music, dance and theatre which were originally a unified art form. This text contains thousands of verses on how dance should be performed and what the purpose of dance is. It also contains chapters on stagecraft and recommended principles on the staging of drama and a couple of chapters on music. All the classical dance styles of India are connected to the Natya Shastra.

Skills of the dancer

Bharatanatyam encompasses a wide variety of skills, it is a dance form that requires the dancer to have experience of theatre, music, literature and poetry. There are two main elements of bharatanatyam which are Nritta and Nritya. Nritta is pure dance, it is creating complex movements and patterns to rhythms. It does not have a focus on meaning but it expresses the joyous energy and beauty experienced by the dancer. Nritya is a combination of rhythm and expression. The dancer would perform to a poem or song by using subtle facial expressions and hand gestures. The entire body reacts to the emotions and allows the dancer to be elevated to a non-worldly level. They also induce the spectator to experience the emotions felt or generated by the dancer – rasa. Nandikeswara, a later scholar defines abhinaya as “exhibiting the meaning of what one depicts”. He defined fourfold abhinaya as the reach of using voice or techniques which excites aural response in the audience. Aharya abhinaya is the communication through costume and Satvika abhinaya stimulates the actor or dancer to be elevated to the point of total surrender to what he or she is portraying, which is then believed to create involuntary responses like shivering, numbness, weeping and other reactions usually seen at the height of emotional experiences.

Themes of the dance style

The themes are usually selected from Indian mythology, however more and more dancers are now opening their ideas and exploring non-religious and contemporary themes based on their audiences. Creators also experiment with global influences of music and movement styles. We are currently seeing high-quality dancers pushing the boundaries and it is extremely fascinating to see the spread of bharatanatyam.

Hear more from Sunny Ramesh by following _.sundaresan on Instagram.