Bharatanatyam has evolved over time and developed its current style approximately 250 years ago. Performed as part of the daily worship ritual, traditionally by women and within temple precincts, a Bharatanatyam dancer dresses similarly as to that of a traditional Hindu bride. Often, she will wear a custom-made sari, a dress made of cotton or silk that is decoratively draped around the body that hangs allowing her to extend her legs and torso freely, along with traditional jewellery that includes precious metals and gems, necklaces, earrings, bead necklaces and metallic bangles. She may also wear traditional jewels that adorn her body, such as her head, nose and ears. Dancers will also generally wear a pair of leg bells known as ghungroos, which are designed to create rhythmic sounds that go hand in hand with the dance. Eyes are an important part of Indian culture, represent a gateway into the soul, and as such a Bharatanatyam dancer will highlight her eyes during her performance using makeup. Using eye whitener, black eye liner and golden eye shadow, the dancer may draw attention to her eyes to better feature her facial expressions to the audience. A Bharatanatyam dancer’s hair will be neatly tied up either in a bun or plait, often adorned with colourful silk flowers and beads. She will wear a belt around her waist, above her sari, picked to match her anklets or ghunghru – leather straps with small bells attached to them – to better highlighter her dance movements. Finally, in addition to clothing, jewellery and makeup, a Bharatanatyam dancer will have henna – beautiful patterns painted on the skin – added to her hands and feet to emphasise her finger and feet movements more visibly.
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The origin of Bharatanatyam stems back some 2000 years. It is one of the most deep-rooted and popular forms of classical Indian dance, originating from the Tanjore district of South India. According to Indian mythology, it is widely believed that the Hindu God Shiva, who is also known as the Destroyer, was the initial creator of the Bharatanatyam dance. Hindu God Brahma – also known as the Creator – and Vishnu – the Hindu God of Protection, along with Shiva came together to form the principles that make up the traditional Bharatanatyam style. Encompassing all that is spiritual, prior to commencing a Bharatanatyam performance, a dancer will bang on the floor to let Mother Earth know that they are about to commence their sacred dance on her. They will also offer prayers to Mother Earth for the purpose of thanking her for the opportunity to dance upon her before an audience. The dance encompasses many religious values, with dancers working very hard to perfect the dance in order to pay tribute to it the highest degree. They will do this by both acknowledging their audience, their traditional gods and their religion, as well as praying beforehand and wearing traditional garments and jewellery for the dance.
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When considering Bharatanatyam – a widely accepted genre of Indian solo dance that is solely performed by women – there are four important aspects to become knowledgeable with. Breaking the word Bharatanatyam up into four sub-categories, following is a breakdown of the four factors:
Bha – a term derived from the word Bhava, which means emotion; temperament; sentimentality and state of body or mind;
Ra – a term derived from the word Raaga, which means music or melody; an arrangement of harmonious assemblies with melodic themes considered by Indian traditionalists as something that “colours the mind” and has an effect on the emotion of the listener;
Ta – a term derived from the word Tala, which means rhythm; clapping or tapping one’s hand as a measure of the beat.
Natyam which means rhythm, and is the Sanskrit word for “dance”.
When all four factors come together, the word Bharatanatyam is articulated throughout Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas. It is a highly respected form of art, and could perhaps be the oldest Indian classical dance tradition.
The Indian style dance of Bharatanatyam is renowned for its legs bent, fixed torso and flexed out knees combined with remarkable floor work by the feet, accompanies by a cultured vocabulary of hands, eyes and face gestures not unlike sign language. Popular throughout Bollywood culture, Bharatanatyam is accompanied by music and a singer, with the most famous dancers being Mallika Sarabhai, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Alarmel Valli, Padma Subrahmanyam and Rukmini Devi.
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