Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest dance forms of India. It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since ancient times. Later it was codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet whose musical compositions for dance form the bulk of the Bharata Natyam repertoire even today. The art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians forming part of the elaborate rituals. These highly talented artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repository of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to discover its beauty.
By this time the Devadasis had fallen upon evil days due to lack of state patronage and changed social mores. The revival of Bharata Natyam by pioneers such as E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale brought the dance out of the temple precincts and onto the proscenium stage though it retained its essentially devotional character.
Today Bharata Natyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over India. Due to its wide range of movements and postures and the balanced melange of the rhythmic and mimetic aspects lends itself well to experimental and fusion choreography. Degree and Post Graduate courses covering the practice and theory of Bharata Natyam as well as the languages associated with its development are available at major universities of India.
Text by ANJANA RAJAN
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