Bharatanatyam: Oldest classical dance style of India

Nilesh Singha, top exponent of Bharatanatyam
Nilesh Singha, one of the top exponents of Bharatanatyam
Photo: © Nilesh Singha

Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance style, with a history that is more than five thousand years old, and this dance style is acclaimed internationally, too. It is not surprising to watch young children learn Bharata Natyam in New York, Paris, London or Zurich for that matter.

The eight distinct classical dance styles of India are Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathakali and Mohiniattam (Kerala). Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Odissi (Orissa), Manipuri (Manipur), Kathak (northern India) and Sattriya from Assam. Bharatanatyam reigns supreme and particularly popular even in European countries.

Evolution of Bharatanatyam

Architectural and sculptural evidence proves that Bharatanatyam and some other classical dance styles like Odissi and Manipuri originated from the temples. The earliest reference in the second century from the Tamil epic classic Shilapaddikaram and the temples that developed during the sixth to ninth century signifies and defines dance as a well-refined art form. 

Varied aspects of music and dance were derived from the four Vedas, namely, Rig, Yajur, Atharva and Sam, and the fifth Veda known as Natya Veda was believed to have been created by Lord Brahma. Lord Nataraja (Shiva) is considered the king of dance and all the classical dance styles portray stories from Hindu mythology. Lately, stories from the Holy Bible are also recreated in the dance format. The eight types of classical dance styles are based on texts like Bharata’s Natya Sastra, Nandikesvaroa’s Abhinaya Darpana, Sangita Ratnakara, etc. Stories are told through the medium of varied intricate movements, body language and expressional dancing in order to establish the inter-relationship between the human soul and the divine soul.  

Devadasis or servants of the gods

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the devadasi system prevailed; young teenaged girls were married to the “lord” which was part of the temple ritual. These girls were trained in classical music and dance and performed during religious and social occasions.

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Guru Vijay Shanker
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Guru Vijay Shanker

Guru Vijay Shanker is a professional Kuchipudi-Kathakali exponent, actor, choreographer and arts critic for more than four decades.