A Beginner’s Guide to Bharatanatyam – Darbar Voices

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.

Darbar Festival celebrates Indian classical dance at Sadler’s Wells from 23 – 26 Nov. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online. See the full Darbar Festival programme here.

A guide to the music of Bharatanatyam – Darbar Voices

Welcome to Darbar Voices, a four part blog series delving into the world of Indian classical dance in celebration of Darbar Festival, which returns to Sadler’s Wells in November with a dance programme curated by Akram Khan. Discover more about this discipline and hear directly from the artists and experts working in the field as our guest writers share insight into the traditions and ideas behind some of the oldest dance styles in the world.

In the first of this series, we hand over to Praveen Prathapan (AKA The Flute Guy), an Indian Classical musician and former NASA Scientist. Praveen left his academic career in pursuit of music and has now amassed almost 10 million views on Facebook and YouTube. Praveen has collaborated with Emeli Sande, Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Cheryl Cole and, at 23 years old, is also a trained vocalist, percussionist, and composer.

Here Praveen offers insight into canartic music, and its relationship to bharatanaytam.

Carnatic music shares many traits with Western classical music, such as the employment of major and minor scales, which comprise just two of the thousands of ragas in Carnatic music. Unlike its Western counterpart however, Carnatic music distinctively does not utilise harmonies or chord progressions. Nevertheless, its largest component, manodharmam (improvisation), makes Carnatic music share remarkably similar characteristics with blues and jazz music (didn’t expect that, did you).

Carnatic music is also known for some of the most complex rhythmic patterns and talas (beat cycles) in the world. Seriously, it gets crazy.

An example of the carnatic music style. Bharat Sundar sings solo the Raga Thodi:

Carnatic music often accompanies the dance style of bharatanatyam, a subgenre of Indian classical dance renowned for its complex footwork, detailed array of mudras (gestures), and storytelling style.

Watch bharatanatyam duo Renjith and Vijna perform with live musicians:

Traditionally, bharatanatyam performances have been accompanied by the Vadya Trayam (Holy Trinity) of Carnatic instruments: Veena (a plucked stringed instrument), Venu (flute), and the Mridangam (drum). These three instruments have specific functions: the Mridangam complements the rhythmic foot movements of the dancer, the Veena enhances the texture with its array of tala strings and main strings, and the flute decorates the melodies with ornamentations.

Praveen performs an Indian classical version of the theme from Titanic on the Venu, accompanied by the Veena:

Since the colonisation of India by the British, the violin has been added to this repertoire, replacing the Veena which in turn is gradually disappearing from bharatanatyam performances. The most important instrument on stage, the Nattuvangam (hand cymbals), is tapped in conjunction with the dancer’s feet. More modern performances of bharatanatyam have seen new instruments being employed, such as the drum pad, for special effects like temple bells, the Sitar, for North Indian bhajan-style pieces, and even the piano, to introduce harmonies. Finally, the vocalist sings the melodic lines, which contain the all-important sahithya (lyrics), which the dancer portrays visually.

The confluence of carnatic music and bharatanatyam is a beautiful thing to behold, and has stood the test of time for centuries. However, like everything in life, art changes and evolves. What does the future look like? I predict three major things to happen.

The first is the likeliest: with globalisation transpiring at an unprecedented rate, I believe genres will merge more frequently; artists have already begun to incorporate elements of ballet into bharatanatyam, and harmonies into Carnatic music. Improvisation in bharatanatyam has not been explored to the extent that Carnatic music has, and so my second prediction is that we will see more of this experimental technique.

Finally, with the explosion of the digital world, well-known artists of the future will be those who have found a way to bring these age-old traditions to our screens and social media. All of these, some of these, or none of these, could happen. However, one thing is for certain: these ancient art forms are still being practised today, and I’m grateful to witness it in the 21st century.

See more videos from The Flute Guy and subscribe to his YouTube channel here, follow @therealfluteguy on Twitter, the_flute_guy on Instagram and The Flute Guy on Facebook.

Darbar Festival celebrates Indian classical dance at Sadler’s Wells from 23 – 26 Nov. To book, call the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 or book online. See the full Darbar Festival programme here.

Photo credit: Jananie Baskaran of 3D Media