Bharatanatyam: the graceful, empathetic dance tradition of South India

Bharatanatyam has a very long history. Thought to be India’s oldest surviving form of classical dance, it originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu, taking aesthetic root from Sanskrit philosophies including as the 2,000-year-old Natya Shastra. Bharatanatyam is deeply entwined with Hindu myth – dances are often spiritually focused, exploring the lives of Hindu gods including Shiva (the vanquisher of evil), Vishnu (the protector of life), and Shakti (the divine feminine). 

The earliest depictions of the tradition suggest that its distinctive elements have persisted through many centuries. There are countless ancient temple carvings of dancers spread across bharatanatyam’s South Indian homeland, many of which showcase similar characteristics to modern performances: bent legs, a fixed upper torso, and elaborate, flowing arm and hand motions. The genre is typically accompanied by live music, drawing on local folk rhythms as well as Carnatic classical. It is empathetic in nature, with minute changes to facial expressions forming an essential part of its communicative power.

To performers, bharatanatyam is an act of devotional celebration. In the words of leading exponent Alarmél Valli, “I believe that the urge to dance can find expression in many diverse ways. Indian classical dance is a celebration of the body, mind and ultimately of the spirit. It can be a joyous, healing, uplifting experience, both for the dancer and the audience. I feel it is this ability to move and sometimes, even change a person’s life, that is the acid test of the timelessness and human relevance of bharatanatyam.”

The relevance of bharatanatyam seems clear today – it is a global phenomenon, with avid practitioners to be found scattered across every inhabited continent. New York-based Kiran Rajagopalan mixes up bharatanatyam vocabulary with ideas from West Africa’s dance traditions, and Mavin Khoo, one of the genre’s leading choreographers, was born in Malaysia, and trained in Britain and America as well as South India.

According to the esteemed guru Kamala Lakshman, her Western dance students, often used to ballet, “are a little stiff sometimes…they are trained to speak with their bodies, without moving the muscles in their faces. So facial expressions are a little difficult for them”. Perhaps as a result of such contrasts, this most ancient of Indian physical traditions continues to discover new audiences. Watch Mythili Prakash’s absorbing evocation of fire to see why:

“A dancer’s life is a continuous process of artistic evolution – of reflection, of dynamic growth and change. We choreograph new dances, we renew and rework old ones. Even during performances we are continuously improvising. When I first studied dance, I learnt the rules. Over the years, with constant practice, I was able to internalise them. At this stage, I found I was making some rules of my own. But the final step, is when you identify completely with the dance.” (Alarmél Valli)

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