It’s wonderful to attend the current dance festival here in Chennai featuring the most famous and the most up and coming Bharatanatyam dancers of India. This form of dance originated in temples, where young women were “given” to temples to dance in rituals and worship. That tradition is gone, but during the 20th century the dance form was captured and elaborated by professional dancers and dance schools and a type of concert format was developed which is going strong today. Almost all the dances tell the stories of the Gods, and include both vigorous and challenging movements and rhythms, along with slow, very emotive hand gestures and facial movements that depict complex emotion and communication; it’s a very intimate sort of mime. The dancer is accompanied by a live band of traditional musicians; a singer sings out the story and the dancer interprets it with her face and movements. Costumes are beautifully colorful, and the dancers are slim, strong, flexible and typically very beautiful with jewels, satins, and flowers on their bodies and in their hair.
I wasn’t very familiar with solo male dancers and was struck by this dancer yesterday. Unfortunately I was at the back of the hall and was unable to capture color and detail, but these short videos will give you an idea of the grace and the strength of Bharatanatyam dancing. This piece was his last one for the performance, called a Thillana, and is a more structured piece without story telling.
On yesterday’s historic temple tour a professional dancer just happened to be in the audience, and our tour guide invited her up to talk about the dance poses on the temple tower walls! This young woman has studied the many poses of Siva dancing, which are “frozen” in various positions on the walls. This is her explication, showing how Bharatanatyam dancing is entirely derived from religious temple worship. Her voice isn’t very loud here- the first video she shows the various ways that Shiva is shown dancing, and the second video shows various ways to depict a temple elephant.
If you want MORE there are tons of you tube videos on bharatanatyam. I recommend this one for a full explication of the movements, meaning and gestures of bharatanatyam, along with a brief glimpse of other forms of Indian dance. It’s almost 10 minutes long but I found it worthwhile! Indian Dance