Considered as one of the oldest dance forms of India, the Bharatanatyam was originally known as Daasiyattam in Tamil Nadu, since it was performed by the Devadasis in the temples. Bharatanatyam was basically nourished and developed in the courts and temples of South India. The modern day Bharatanatyam was systematically designed by the Thanjavoor Brothers i.e. Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam. Their efforts were properly documented and codified during the 19th Century and their works form a majority of the Bharatanatyam repertoire.

Owing to non availability of state patronage, this form of dance was slowly and steadily decaying, until the pioneering efforts of E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale revived it. Today, academic courses, both degree as well as Post Graduate are conducted in almost all the major Universities of India.

History of Bharatanatyam

The origins of Bharatanatyam may be traced back to the SadirNatyam or SadirNautch of the Marathas. This form of dance was performed by the Devadasis or the servants of god. Along with Nattuvanars, the dance masters or Gurus, the Devadasis practiced and mastered this dance form, and also passed it from generation to generation. The musical aspect was further refined by the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Bharatanatyam is based upon the Natya Shastra. The attitude of the British Government was to provide the Indian arts an inferior status, by stating that they were crude and immoral. This attitude alienated the Indian middle class from this traditional art form and also discouraged royal patronage.

The legend and the inspiration

When all the Devas requested Brahma to create a Veda, which could be understood by everyone, the Natya Veda was created. Natya Veda was created by combining the Pathya or words of Rig Veda, the Rasam or sentiments of Atharva Veda, the Abhinaya or communicative elements of Yajurveda and the Geetam or music of Sama Veda. Natya Veda is believed to be the life force behind Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and Mohiniattam. Bharatanatyam was created to epitomize the cosmic relationships and expressions. It is also believed that Rishi Bharatha is the main inspiration behind the term Bharatanatyam.


The two fundamental movements in Bharatanatyam are abstract and expressive. The abstract movements have the purpose of providing rhythm and decoration to the dance. The expressive movements on the other hand convey emotions and meaning through the usage of postures, facial expressions and a vocabulary of hand gestures. The movements in this dance form are unique and geometric in nature. The dance movements are also precise, balanced, dynamic and energetic. The movement of the eyes also plays a major role in the dance performance.


The Bharatanatyam dancers wear a customized dancing dress, which is stitched gathering various smaller pieces of cloth. The costume is designed in such a manner that it fans out attractively during particular postures. The costume is very brightly colored. The dancers also wear a pair of ankle bells, also known as Salangai or Gungaroo, and accompanied with bangles, earrings, nose rings and some special ornaments. Men usually wear Dhoti, along with some make-up and Salangai. They wear some ornaments, but fewer than their female counterparts.


The specialized techniques adopted by the musicians accompanying the Bharatanatyam are listed as follows:

o   The musician must be cautious not to overpower the aura of the dance with music. Some impromptu adjustments may also be made, after receiving cues from the dancer.

o   The range of tempos must be carefully selected, within the capability of the dancer.

o   A member of the musical group performs the nattuvangam, who calls out rhythmic syllables that denotes the dance movements as well as strike the cymbals on specific occasions.

Carnatic music is generally adopted to accompany the Bharatanatyam dance and the music usually makes use of rhythmic patterns or talas and melodies or ragas. Some of the dance items of Bharatanatyam, such as Varnam, Tillana, Padam and Kirtanam, share their name with musical instruments.

A Bharatanatayam Performance

The dance performance of Bharatanatyam is based on the books Natya Shaastra and Abhinaya Darpana. The dance form is essentially composed of Adavu or steps and Hathamudras or gestures. There are 64 fundamental Adavus, which are further classified into nine categories. The dance performance usually starts with prayers to Lord Ganapati and Nataraja Moorti. The sequence of the dance performance may be listed as follows:

o   Alarippu

o   Jathiswaram

o   Sabdam

o   Varnam

o   Padam

o   Thillana

o   The dance program concludes with the performance of Mangala Slokam.

The dance performance usually lasts for a period of two to two and a half hours. Carnatic classical music accompanies the dance and it is further supported with Violin, Mridangam, Flute and Veena. The Nattuvanar sings Vaaythari and uses Thaalam or hand signals to give directions. Further, a couple of singers also provide vocals to the entire performance.

Famous Bharatanatayam Dancers

Rukmini Devi

Born on 28th February 1904, Rukmini Devi had a rich cultural background. After learning Russian Ballet, she learned Indian classical dance from Pandanallur MeenakshiSundaram Pillai. Later, Rukmini Devi also established the Kalakshetra, which provides training to ardent dancers and lays special emphasis on correct dance movements.

Padma Subramanyam

Born on 4th February, 1943, Dr. Padma Subramanyam learned dance at Nrutyodaya, under the leadership of Kausalya. She was the first dancer to introduce Pushpanjali. Her numerous articles have been compiled into a single book known as the Legacy of a Legend. Later, she also composed a Bengali Varanam, whose lyrics were penned by Salil Chaudhury. Currently, she is the Director of Nrutyodaya.


Born in the year 1957, AlarmelValli learned dance from the following:

o   Shri Chokkalingam Pillai

o   Shri Subbaraya Pillai

o   Smt. T. Mukha

o   Guru KelucharanMohapatra

o   Guru RamaniRanjan Jena

AlarmelValli was also invited to perform at the International Dance Festival of the Sarah Bernardt Theatre De La Ville, Paris. In 1984, she founded Dipashikha, a Center for Performing Arts. Later, she became the youngest dancer to be awarded the Padma Shri. Currently, she resides abroad with her husband, Bhaskar Ghosh.

Yamini Krishnamurthy

Born in 1940, Yamini Krishnamurty was named Yamini Poornatilaka, in her childhood. She learned dancing from the following stalwarts:

o   Kittapa Pillai

o   Ellapa Pillai

o   GouriAmma

o   Dhandayudhpani Pillai

o   Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Shastri

o   ChintaKrishnamurthi

o   Pasumarthy Venugopal Krishna Sharma

She also trained herself at Kalakshetra School of Dance of Rukmini Devi and later learned Odissi from Kelucharan Mohapatra and Pankaj Charan Das. Yamini was later credited to be the Asthana Nartaki or Resident Dancer of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. She received Padma Shri in 1968, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1977 and the Padma Bhushan in 2001. In 1990, Yamini established the Yamini School of Dance at HauzKhas, New Delhi.

Anita Ratnam

One of the stalwarts of Bharatanatyam, AnitaRatnam received dance training from Adyar K. Lakshmanan and Rukmini Devi Arundale. Anita later wrote NatyaBrahman and was the editor and later the publisher of Narthaki, a directory of Indian dance.

Mallika Sarabhai

Daughter of Vikram Sarabhai and Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika Sarabhai is a renowned TV anchor, film maker, social activist and a very popular alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad. She later went on to receive the French Palme D’or, the highest civilian honor in France. She currently manages the Darpan Academy of Performing Arts along with Mrinalini Sarabhai.

Mrinalini Sarabhai

Mrinalini Sarabhai, initially learned dance in Dalcroz, Switzerland. Later, she learned dance from Muthukumar Pillai, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Ellapa Pillai and Chokalingam Pillai. She experimented with different dance forms and tried to present mythological themes in a modern way. She received numerous awards in her lifetime, including the Sangeet NatakAkademi award.

Balasaraswati- (1918-1984)

Balasaraswati was considered as a child prodigy, who performed her Arangetram at the age of seven. The Guru of Balasaraswati was Kandappa. She was also a singer of great repute and was highly appreciated by an international audience, at the Edinburgh Festival.

Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai

Born on 22nd September, 1869, MeenakshiSundaram Pillai learned dance from Kumaraswamy Nattuvanar and Rukmini Devi. His style of dance was also known as the Pandanallur School of Bharatanatyam.