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  • Sudipto Paul

Bharatanatyam - a Classical Dance Form of India

Updated: Feb 13

Bharatanatyam, a vibrant and mesmerizing classical dance form of India, holds a rich history and cultural significance that spans over centuries. With its origins deeply rooted in the ancient temples of South India, Bharatanatyam has evolved and transformed, embracing various influences while staying true to its traditional essence.

This article aims to trace the origins of Bharatanatyam, delve into the evolution and influences that have shaped this art form, explore the profound importance of hasta mudras (hand gestures) in Bharatanatyam, and present a captivating montage of a few of the mudras - showcasing their symbolism and expression. Join in on this journey to unlock the enchanting world of Bharatanatyam and discover the beauty of its timeless artistry.

a montage of Bharatanatyam hasta mudras (hand gestures) and poses

Introduction to Bharatanatyam: A Classical Dance Form of India

Alapadma hasta mudra

Alapadma hasta mudra

Overview of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam, a captivating classical dance form originating from South India, has enthralled audiences for centuries with its graceful movements and expressive storytelling. Known for its intricate footwork, poses, eye and hand gestures, and vibrant costumes, Bharatanatyam is not just a dance but a profound art form that conveys emotions, narratives, and spiritual concepts. Let's delve into the rich history and evolution of this enchanting dance style.

Historical Background: Tracing the Origins of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam can be traced back to ancient Tamil Nadu, where it was known as Sadiraattam or Dasiattam. Its origins can be found in the sculptures, scriptures, and temple traditions of the region, dating back to around 300 BCE. This ancient dance form was originally performed by temple dancers known as devadasis, who dedicated their lives to serving deities through their artistic expressions. Temples played a significant role in the evolution of Dasiattam.


During the mughal and colonial eras, the devadasi system declined. Eventually in the year 1910, performance of Dasiattam (and other such classic dance forms) in temples was banned.

Following this, passionate artists and reformers came together to revive and evolve the dance form at other venues, and to restore its rightful place in Indian culture. Sadiraattam was rechristened as Bharatanatyam in the year 1932. From then on, Bharatanatyam gained popularity as a respected classical dance form in India and around the world.

Evolution and Influences: Cultural and Historical Factors Shaping Bharatanatyam


Regional Variations and Styles

Bharatanatyam has evolved over time, developing regional variations and styles. Some styles are more prominent, and are characterized by their unique movements, choreography, and musical repertoire. These variations have emerged from the hereditary teaching methods passed down through generations of dance gurus, enriching the art form with diversity and creativity.

Influence of Other Dance Forms

Bharatanatyam has also been influenced by other dance forms and artistic traditions. Elements from Kathakali, Odissi, and even folk dances have found their way into Bharatanatyam, creating a dynamic and ever-evolving dance style that embraces different influences while maintaining its core essence. This cross-pollination of dance forms has contributed to the richness and versatility of Bharatanatyam.

Social and Political Relevance

Beyond its artistic merits, Bharatanatyam holds social and political significance. It serves as a way to preserve cultural heritage, and promote social awareness. Through impactful performances and narratives, Bharatanatyam has been used to address social issues, celebrate diverse traditions, and foster unity among communities.

The Significance of Mudras in Bharatanatyam: Communication through Hand Gestures


Mudras as a Form of Expression

One of the defining features of Bharatanatyam is the use of hasta mudras - hand gestures that convey specific meanings and emotions. Intricate movements of the fingers and hands allow dancers to express a wide range of emotions, from joy and love to anger and sorrow. Each mudra holds its own significance and is used to narrate stories, depict characters, and evoke powerful emotions.


Symbolism and Meanings of Mudras

Anjali hasta mudra

Anjali hasta mudra

Hamsasya hasta mudra

Hamsasya hasta mudra

Mudras in Bharatanatyam are not only visually captivating but also carry profound symbolic meanings. For example, the "anjali" mudra, where the palms are brought together in a prayer-like gesture, symbolizes respect and salutations. The "hamsasya" mudra, formed by bending the index finger and touching it to the tip of the thumb, while the remaining fingers are out-stretched, represents a swan and can convey grace, elegance, or purity.

These hand gestures add depth and nuance to the dance performance, enabling dancers to communicate complex concepts without uttering a single word. Thus, Bharatanatyam is a living testament to India's rich cultural heritage and artistic traditions.

With its ancient roots, historical influences, and expressive gestures, Bharatanatyam continues to captivate audiences and inspire generations of dancers worldwide. By tracing its origins and understanding the versatility of mudras, we can truly appreciate the beauty and significance of this classical dance form.

Understanding Hand Mudras: Exploring the Different Types and Meanings


Single-Hand Mudras

In the mesmerizing world of Bharatanatyam, hand gestures, or mudras, play a vital role in conveying emotions and stories. Single-hand mudras involve the dexterity and elegance of a single hand, allowing dancers to express a wide range of emotions and meanings. From the graceful Hamsasya mudra, representing a swan, to the fierce Mushti mudra, symbolizing anger, each gesture tells a unique tale.


Double-Hand Mudras

Tripataka hasta mudra

Tripataka hasta mudra

Kartarimukha hasta mudra

Kartarimukha hasta mudra

Embracing the beauty of symmetrical movements, double-hand mudras involve combining the gestures of both hands. These mudras create a harmonious balance, representing union and coherence. Whether it's the graceful Tripataka mudra, signifying a blooming flower, or the powerful Kartari Mukha mudra, representing a pair of scissors, double-hand mudras add depth and complexity to Bharatanatyam performances.


Combined Mudras

Alapadma hasta mudra

Alapadma hasta mudra

As the name suggests, combined mudras involve the fusion of single-hand and double-hand gestures, resulting in intricate and mesmerizing formations. These mudras require meticulous coordination and precision, allowing dancers to create captivating visual patterns. From the enchanting Alapadma mudra, representing a full-blown lotus, to the spirited Anjali mudra, symbolizing gratitude and respect, combined mudras add a touch of artistic flair to Bharatanatyam.

Symbolism and Expression in Bharatanatyam Mudras


Showcasing Mudras in Bharatanatyam Performances, and creating montages for future reference

When watching a Bharatanatyam performance, one cannot help but be captivated by the mesmerizing display of mudras. Each movement of the hand tells a story, conveying the emotions and essence of the dance. From depicting the beauty of nature, to expressing love, anger, or devotion, the mudras create a rich tapestry of symbolism and expression that leaves the audience spellbound.

To make it easy to remember, you can add pics of your own dance and mudra poses to your personal diary. Create montages of your Bharatanatyam learnings, for future practice and reference. Create a montage of your latest Bharatanatyam performance, for your friends and family to see and enjoy!

Interpretation and Emotional Depth of Mudras

While the physical gestures of mudras are visually stunning, their true power lies in the emotional depth they convey. Bharatanatyam dancers use mudras as a language to express their innermost feelings, transcending the barriers of words. The subtle nuances and variations in hand movements create a nuanced portrayal of emotions, adding layers of complexity and meaning to the performance. From joy and sorrow to anger and serenity, mudras become a medium to communicate with the audience on a profound level.


Learning Bharatanatyam: Techniques and Training in Mudras


Role of Guru in Teaching Mudras

Mastering the art of mudras requires the guidance and expertise of a Guru. The guru not only teaches the technical aspects of hand gestures but also imparts the essence and significance behind each mudra, thus playing a crucial role in nurturing the dancer's understanding of the cultural and spiritual dimensions associated with Bharatanatyam mudras. With their patient guidance, the guru ensures that the dancer's performance resonates with authenticity and grace.


Practical Exercises and Practice Techniques

Learning mudras involves hours of practice and dedication. Dancers engage in various exercises to enhance flexibility, strength, and control over their hand movements. Alongside rigorous training, practitioners focus on perfecting their hand poses, ensuring the nuanced expressions of each mudra are executed with precision. Through repetitive practice and attention to detail, dancers gradually master the art of mudras, bringing an enchanting touch to their performances.

Preserving and Promoting Bharatanatyam: Revival and Contemporary Practices


Contributions of Renowned Bharatanatyam Artists

Throughout history, numerous celebrated artists have contributed to the preservation and promotion of Bharatanatyam and its mudras. Their relentless efforts not only helped revive this ancient art form, but also pushed its boundaries, introducing innovative techniques and experimental choreography. These pioneers have played a pivotal role in ensuring that Bharatanatyam continues to thrive and evolve, captivating audiences worldwide.

Integration of Bharatanatyam in Modern Contexts

While rooted in tradition, Bharatanatyam has also found its place in contemporary settings. Dancers continue to explore the integration of Bharatanatyam with other dance forms, music styles, and storytelling techniques. This fusion brings a fresh perspective to the art form, breathing new life into the mudras and allowing them to resonate with diverse audiences. By embracing innovation while honoring its classical foundation, Bharatanatyam remains relevant in the modern world, connecting cultures and bridging gaps.

Arala hasta mudra

Arala hasta mudra

In conclusion, Bharatanatyam stands as a remarkable testament to the rich cultural heritage of India and the profound artistry of its people.

Through its intricate footwork, graceful movement and poses, and expressive eye and hand gestures, Bharatanatyam continues to captivate audiences worldwide, transcending time and boundaries.

This article has just touched upon a few hand gestures, whereas, footwork, eye expressions, poses and movements in Bharatanatyam are each a study in themselves.

As we trace the origins of Bharatanatyam and explore the mudras, we gain a deeper appreciation for this classical dance form's beauty, significance, and enduring legacy. Let us cherish and celebrate Bharatanatyam - preserving its traditions and promoting its timeless allure for generations to come.

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