Bharatnatyam, one of the most ancient dance forms, originates from the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, more than thousands of years ago. It was previously known as “Dasiattam” as it was performed by the Devdasis in temples. The word “Bharatnatyam” is further divided into BHA- for bhava(expressions), RA- for raga(music), TA- for talam(rhythm) and NATYAM- for drama.
The theory, which is the base of this art form, is derived from 2 ancient scriptures, Natyashastra written by Sage Bharat and Abhinaydarpan written by Sage Nandikeshvara. These two books talk about the hand gestures, feet positions, how a good dancer should be, how an ideal audience is supposed to be, how a rangmanch is supposed to be, and many such technical and important aspects. And ofcourse, Navras, i.e. the 9 sentiments of human beings that act as the guiding force of all performing arts, is mentioned in the Natyashastra. The Tanjore quartette, the four Nattuvanars, who shaped the margam i.e. the repertoire that Bharatnatyam dancers perform today. They were Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Shivanandam and Vedivelu. When performing the entire repertoire, the body of the dancer goes through “ashtanga yog” meaning, all 8 major body parts automatically get the required exercise, all the while the dancer is happily dancing.
But things were not as easy, the earlier pure-intentioned Devdasi system soon saw its downfall in the early 1920s because of the advent of Britishers, and the dance form too, was about to die. Here, Rukmini Devi comes into picture as she completely transformed the dance form, at that time known as Sadir, and brought vibrant color combinations and traditional jewellery into use. So, the costumes that we see today are a contemporary development. The Chandra and Soorya that the dancers wear on their head, are a symbol of Lord Shiva, as the verse in the famous dhyanshlok goes, “aharyam Chandra taradhikam” meaning, ‘Lord shiva wears the moon and stars as his ornaments’. If you see a Bharatnatyam dancer, all dressed up and adorned in the beautiful traditional jewellery, she will look no less than a goddess herself, reminding of how devdasis were considered to be the counterparts of God himself. It is probably because of a rich legacy like this, that Bharatnatyam dancers often say, “we did not choose Bharatnatyam, but Bharatnatyam chose us”.