Traditional Indian Dance & Performance
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Bharata Natyam is developed from ritualistic dances performed as offering to the deities of Hindu temples.
What Is Traditional Indian Dance?
A blanket term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical theatre styles.
This is the name of the traditional dance based in South India. It is a synthesis of both temple and court dance and music in South India. It’s roots are traced back to the ancient 500 AD Sanskrit treatise on the arts by Bharata Muni.
What is a traditional performance of Bharata Natyam comprised of?
The traditional Bharatanatyam performance follows a seven-part order of presentation. This set is called margam.
The concert begins with a rhythmic invocation called Alarippu. It’s prototype is pushpanjali which was performed by temple dancers (deva dasis) as a ritual offering of flowers to the deity of a temple. It is abstract dance, with no sung narrative. The idea is that the dancer’s body slowly unfolds like a flower, showing the basic poses and movements of the dance in three speeds.
The next stage of the performance adds melody to the basic movements in a rondo format; this is called Jatiswaram. The dance is technical performance, pure in form and without poetry. The melodic structure of the music is based on the ascending and descending scale of a raga.
Shabdam is next with the added dimension of poetry sung in seven beats. The solo dancer and musicians keep a steady flow of music while the dancer must add abhinaya (drama) in a constant flow of gestures and mime. The shabdam should be performed to a lively steady beat; the challenge for the dancer is to keep a steady of flow of gestures and drama without pause.
The varnam is the last item usually before a brief intermission. It is the longest and most complex dance of the traditional Bharata Natyam margam; with drama and abstract rhythmic sections alternating, resembling the structure of a Hindu temple. The expectation is that the dancer shows her ability to go deeper into the sung poetry and melody; displaying her skill in interpretation of the text, bringing out the meanings of the sub-text. A traditional varnam may be as long as 30-45 minutes or sometimes an hour.
Padams are next. This is when the volume of rhythmic display and sung poetry are tuned down, much like entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple after experiencing the loud cacophony of the outer courtyards and halls of the temple proper. Balasaraswati said this is when the stage should be filled with reverence; the abhinaya is a solemn spiritual message or devotional religious prayer. The music is at a slower tempo making the dance a deeper experience for the audience and the dancer. Depending on the dancer’s abilities and repertoire, there usually are three to four padams performed.
The performance ends with thillana; the climax of the margam. Just like alarippu, thillana is abstract movement and music with no drama or sung poetry. Usually thillana is performed at a lively pace, challenging the musicians and dancer to create a brilliant explosive visual picture of abstract movement and complex rhythm.
7. Shlokam or Mangalam
‘The overall sequence of a Bharata Natyam performance”, states Balasaraswati, “thus moves from “mere meter; then melody and meter; continuing with music, meaning and meter; its expansion in the centerpiece of the varnam; thereafter, music and meaning without meter; (…) a non-metrical song at the end.” Shlokam or mangalam is a devotional piece either interpreted by the dancer without rhythmic structure, like a prayer, or by the musicians as a closing prayer or offering.
This is very like the experience of the devotee emerging from the temple sanctum into the bustle of the temple proper, then leaving the temple with a silent prayer in the heart.
Photo Credit to Bauwerks Photography Studio Chicago