Bharatanatyam – a dance story of gods and people

If you are completely immersed in yourself, you will hear the sound of jewels from the feet of Lord Shiva. For the Most High dances his cosmic dance at the same time in the Golden Temple of Chidambaram, the center of the world, as well as in yourself…

If we observe the germination of seeds, the opening of buds, the scattered leaves in autumn, the crystals of snowflakes in flight, we notice a movement that has its order, rhythm, harmony, beauty, its cycles and laws, its beginning, middle and end. Each culture had its own authentic expression and symbols to bring cosmic events closer in the best and most beautiful way. Indian mythology is imbued with dance and has often used dance as an allegory to explain the mystery of the origin of the Universe and life processes in nature.

According to one tradition, the god Brahma awoke the dead and motionless primordial matter of the universe and it began to tremble. He then entered that primordial matter and swirled it to create movement, rhythm, time, space, and thought. According to another legend, the gods, holding hands, danced in primordial matter such a vigorous circle that the dust of the drops swirled and from it became the world. 1

Barathanatyam_-PlesacicaDance drama bharatanatyam, which combines dance, music, acting and poetry, talks about constant movement, creation, life, development, decay, death and renewal that are not arbitrary, but follow nature, divine and omnipresent. It originated in the extreme south of India where the influences of the old Dravidian religion, also imbued with dance expression, and Brahmanism, and especially Shivaism – the cult of the god Shiva associated with dance – were mixed.

According to Shivaism, the world was created by Shiva, the god of dance, the creator and destroyer in one person. Each of his dances is a complete cycle, which includes numerous rhythms of life.

The source from which the theoretical and practical teachings were drawn was the ancient writing of Bharatianatyashastra which according to the myth was handed down by the supreme god Brahma to Bharati Muni, the father of the old Indian theatrical forms. The word natja means drama and dance which are connected in Indian culture because stories and texts were performed by dance. Parts of this extensive work are thought to be thousands of years old and to have originated in Vedic texts, but it is estimated that it was compiled in the period from III. st. pr. Kr. to the 1st century after. Kr. It contains all the elements of theatrical art: music, dance and dance symbolism, technique, dramaturgy, style, diction, metrics, as well as appropriate costumes, makeup, stage appearance and had a great influence on the emergence of all Indian dances.

The traditional dance forms of India contain two ways of dancing: tandavu – masculine, dynamic style of dancing and lasju – feminine, gentle and subtle. Bharatanatyam unites in itself both kinds representing the male and female aspect of the god Shiva, that is, Shiva and Parvati, the wife of the god Shiva. Also, complex dances in their expression are used with several different types of dances that allowed to express in a specific way the essential characteristics of certain parts of the drama. In this sense, according to Natyashastra, there are three types of dance: natya, nrrta and nrtja. Natja is a dramatic part of dance that is danced to acting and poetry, nrrta is the so-called absolute dance that conveys the cosmic rhythm of the world, whose most characteristic form is drumming feet, and nrtja is a descriptive, emotionally emphasized expression that evokes certain mental states in the viewer.

All the details in the dance are important: body movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, clothes, makeup, jewelry, but also the inner state of the dancer, all of them in harmony speak a multitude of small details that convey a deep message and experience. As Nandikeswara says, teaching the dancers in the work of Abhinajadarpan:

With his inner state (bhava), the performer conveys the mood (race) to the assembled audience, which is a key part of performing the play. According to the classical division, there are eight basic moods: love, courage, compassion, joy, elation (amazement), fear, repulsion, and anger, followed by the ninth, calmness.

The movements of all parts of the body, as well as other details important to the performance, are explained in detail in the work of Abhinajadarpan [Mirror of Gestures]. All these complex and connected actions together make up the technique of abhinaj, which enabled the expression of mood, that is, the very essence of dance drama. This technique consists of four basic categories:

Angikabhinaja describes the expressive movements of the body; from the back, abdomen, hips, legs, shoulders, elbows, knees, palms and feet to the smallest parts such as the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, eyelids and eyeballs. A particularly important part of this category are stylized hand movements, so-called haste or mudra. Each of them carried complex symbolism, so that 67 basic existing forms enabled the expression of a wide range of meanings.
In Vačikabhinaja, the technique of performing poetry, singing, music and rhythm was presented.
Aharjabhinaja determines the stage appearance of the dancer by describing the colors and shape of the costumes, jewelry, make-up, contributing as faithfully as possible to the role played by the performer.
Sattvikabhinaja depicts the physical expression of emotional states such as trembling, sweating, voice changes, sobbing, facial discoloration…
The education of dance drama artists began between the ages of five and eight, and lasted for years. Although there were dancers, the most represented were devadasi, divine or sacral dancers. They were literate and educated and represented a dedicated and privileged caste of devadasi whose line continued through the mother. They had their own teacher within the temple art schools who directly imparted learning to them and enabled the systematic development of technique and knowledge.

Dance dramas and sacral dances were held in various dance spaces, from open spaces in nature, temples and palaces to specially built theater buildings. There were various edifices to perform the already rich performing arts in India: they were large for the gods, smaller for the rulers, while triangular-shaped buildings were built for the populace.

The complete performance of bharatanatyama lasts three hours and contains six parts. This series of dance units is compared to the process of entering the temple, approaching the altar, gradually establishing communication until complete merging with the deity.

Barathanatyam_RasaDance begins with greeting a deity, opening or blossoming. It is the introductory part of the dance performed through the nrrtu, gradually accelerating the rhythm by following the guru who utters the rhythmically spoken syllables. In this part, different forms and basic movements of dance are presented.

The initial position of the dancer really looks like a closed bud, her arms folded over her head, upper body slightly tilted forward, legs close together… As soon as the music sounds, her face comes to life, her lips dissolve into a smile, and her head moves slightly from the back of her head. right and left, which is a typical Indian expression of joy. Then follow the movements of the eyes, shoulders, arms. After that, she greets the teacher and prominent guests with folded hands in front of the face, and the others present in the same position in front of the chest.

The second part is also in the form of a nrrta, but now accompanied by music and a drummer with whom the dancer improvises a rhythmic play, by intertwining with each other and encouraging the most skilful performance possible. The third part of the dance, in which, after a short performance of nrrta, the song is interpreted with body movements, represents a certain introduction to the dramatic part of the performance. According to some interpretations, in this part the dancer comes into contact with the sacred and marks the moment of divine presence. The most complex, central part of the dance, contains all the elements of bharatanatyama. The art of descriptive-emotional dance expression, which can last for about an hour, is most evident in it. The dancer sings some songs, while some perform them with hand and body movements. This section is thought to depict merging and connecting with the divine and represents a complete dance blossoming. In the fifth part, the dancer expresses the content of a love song, mostly using facial and hand movements. Bharatanatyam ends with the performance of tillane, the last part of the dance drama, which is a catharsis in which the lively movements of absolute dance and dramatic expressions alternate, until at last the dancer in rapture bids farewell to the enchanted audience with a dance greeting.

Bharatanatyam was a form of yoga – the pursuit of perfection and connection with the divine. Like any traditional art, it was associated with religious ideas, and the artist’s skill allowed for the most faithful transmission of the metaphysical expression of the sacred story. The dance conveyed a message that moved the inner being of the observer to lead him to contemplation of inner states, understanding, transcending, cultivating, and transforming.

The presence in the dance drama was made possible by the rite, a sacred act that provided the audience with the opportunity to transfer to a deep state of devotion and beauty in order to experience a rare taste of divine inspiration in these special moments.

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