Bharatanatyam is over 2000 years old. It is a dance primarily originating in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. It is also the oldest surviving classical dance in India. Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra and Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara talk about this dance form. It is believed that Bharatnatyam was revealed by Lord Brahma to Bharata.  Bharatanatyam was originally performed exclusively by female temple dancers and was not brought to the stage for public performance until about 1930.

<strong”>E. Krishna Iyer was one of those who raised the social status of Bharata Natyamand greatly popularized it. Rukmini Devi Arundale is considered the most important revivalist in the Indian classical dance form of Bharata Natyam from its original ‘sadhir’ style. Rukmini Devi Arundale established a cultural academy called Kalakshetra (which means holy palace of arts) to revive the traditional arts of India.


History and evolution

  • Visual evidence of this dance form can be found in various paintings, sculptures at many historical places.
  • One of the five great epics of Tamil Literature, ‘Silappadikaaram’ (~2nd century CE) has a direct reference to this dance form.
  • The Shiva temple of Kanchipuram that is decorated with carvings dating back to a period between the 6th to 9th centuries CE manifests the development of this dance form by around the mid-first millennium CE.

Sculpture depicting a Bharatanatyam dance

Figure: Sculpture depicting a Bharatanatyam dance


  • The eastern gopuram of the 12th century Thillai Natarajar Temple, Chidambaram, of Tamil Nadu dedicated to Lord Shiva bears sculptures depicting 108 poses of Bharatanatyam, referred as karanas in ‘Natya Shastra’, that are intricately carved in small rectangular panels.

Depiction of 108 poses of Bharatanatyam in Chidambaram temple, Tamil Nadu

Figure: Depiction of 108 poses of Bharatanatyam in Chidambaram temple, Tamil Nadu


  • Another notable sculpture can be seen in Cave 1 of Karnataka’s Badami cave temples dating back to the 7th century where a 5 feet tall sculpture of Lord Shiva is depicted as Nataraja doing Tandava dance. The 18 arms of the Shiva sculpture expresses mudras or hand gestures that are part of Bharatanatyam.

Tandava dance of Lord Shiva found in Badami caves

Figure: Tandava dance of Lord Shiva found in Badami caves


  • This particular dance form was kept alive by Devadasi, who were young girls ‘gifted’ by their parents to the temples and who were married to the gods


Features of Bharatanatyam

  • Bharatanatyam dance is known to be Ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance


  • The repertoire of Bharatnatyam is extensive; however, a performance follows a regular pattern. At first, there is an invocation song.
  • Then the next dance item is the alarippu, literally meaning – to adorn with flowers. It is an abstract piece combining pure dance with the recitation of sound syllables.
  • The next item, the Jatisvaram is a short pure dance piece performed to the accompaniment of musical notes of any raga of Carnatic musicJatiswaram has no sahitya or words, but is composed of adavus which are pure dance sequences – nritta. They form the basis of training in Bharatnatyam dance.
  • As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance – the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime.
  • Shabdam follows the Jatisvaram in a Bharatnatyam dance performance. The accompanying song is generally in adoration of the Supreme Being.
  • After the shabdam, the dancer performs the varnam. The varnam which is the most important composition of the Bharatnatyam repertoire encompasses both nritta and nritya and epitomizes the essence of this classical dance form.
  • After the strenuous varnam, the dancer performs a number of abhinaya items expressing a variety of moods.
  • A Bharatnatyam performance ends with a Tillana which has its origin in the tarana of Hindustani music. It is a vibrant dance performed to the accompaniment of musical syllables with a few lines of sahitya.
  • The finale of the piece is a series of well designed rhythmic lines reaching a climax. The performance ends with a Mangalam invoking the blessings of the Gods.
  • The accompanying orchestra consists of a vocalist, a Mridangam player, violinist or veena player, a flautist and a cymbal player. The person who conducts the dance recitation is the Nattuvanar.

Famous exponents

  • The four Nattuvanars namely Ponaiyah, Vadivelu, Sivanandam and Chinnaiya who are renowned as Tanjore Bandhu and who thrived in the Durbar of Maratha ruler, Sarfoji-II from 1798 to 1832 shaped up the modern-day Bharatanatyam
  • Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a dance guru from the village of Pandanallur was a noted exponent of Bharatanatyam who is predominantly known for his style referred as the Pandanallur school of Bharatanatyam.
  • One of his students Rukmini Devi championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) style and also remained one of the leading proponents of the classical dance revival movement.
  • Bala Saraswati was one of the foremost exponents of this dance form in the last century