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Description of Bharatanatyam

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Bharatanatyam has many dimensions. They include body movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, footwork, costumes, music, repertoire, and themes of performances. Because Bharatanatyam is so well developed, all of these aspects of the art have been codified, and are documented in ancient scriptures as well as recent books. Our description of Bharatanatyam is intended for a spectator, and one who is relatively unfamiliar with the dance, as opposed to a dance student, professional, or scholar.

Rukmini Devi has said that the difference between a technical expert and an artistic genius is the ability to master the technique and then forget it. By transcending technique and forgetting oneself, a dancer enters the spirit of the dance and expresses it. Similarly, those of us interested in Bharatanatyam can benefit by knowing a little about the technique and language of the art form. Otherwise, we can be distracted or puzzled by details of technique or appearance, and miss the deeper meaning. When we are accustomed to the mode of expression of Bharatanaytam, then we can see beyond it, and experience what is being expressed in the performance.

We’ll touch on the terminology and organization of various elements of the dance, outline the different dance items that make up a recital, and attempt to explain how they all come together to give expression to the dancer and enjoyment to the audience. Since our description doesn’t cover the categories of movements, expressions, and other elements of Bharatanatyam in great depth, we’ll provide references for further study.

We’ll focus on solo Bharatanatyam performances for our description. What is most commonly meant by Bharatanatyam today is a solo performance by a female dancer, although performances by males, group dances, and even dance dramas are done under the name of Bharatanatyam. We’ll also stick to what’s come to be generally accepted as traditional Bharatanatyam over the past century, ignoring for now various “innovative” mutations of the dance form.

Basic Features

On the surface, three aspects of Bharatanatyam are evident, as with any dance form: movement, costume, and music. In other words, what the dancer is doing, how the dancer looks, and what are the accompanying sounds. We’ll describe these aspects of the dance, and later on, attempt to explain their combined effect, which is the intention of the dance.


There are two kinds of movements in Bharatanatyam – abstract and expressive. The abstract movements are done to show rhythm, to provide decoration, and to create beauty. There is no purpose but movement for its own sake. Expressive movements convey meaning and show emotion, through a vocabulary of hand gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Their purpose is to portray a theme or feeling, and to transmit an experience of it to the audience.

The movements of Bharatanatyam are unique. They share elements with other classical Indian dances, but aren’t found in any western dance style. They are often described as geometric, for there is much geometry in the basic postures and movements of which the dance is built, but this makes them sound static, which they aren’t. Bharatanatyam is dynamic and energetic; it is also precise and balanced. The basic postures center the weight of the dancer, and there is little use of the hips or off-balance positions. Bharatanatyam has a variety of characteristic movements. Along with the rhythmic stamping of the feet, there are jumps, pirouettes, and positions where the knees contact the floor. Many are executed in the stance with knees bent and turned outward. Performed by an expert dancer, these movements flow together gracefully. An exceptional feature of Bharatanatyam is the movements of the eyes, which complement and highlight the movements of the body. Every part of the body is involved in the dance, and their movements are defined and classified (in great number) in this system of dance. In our description, we won’t go deep into the classifications of the elements of Bharatanatyam. We’ll mention just enough terminology to show the important elements that are present.


Bharatanatyam costumes for women resemble Indian saris, but are specialized for the dance. Despite the resemblance to saris, they are not single pieces of cloth, but combinations of a number of specially stitched pieces. This customization makes them easier to wear, and easier to dance in than a sari. Most costumes involve pleated pieces at the waist than fan out attractively during various movements. The costumes are bright and colorful. They inherit from the sari tradition the use of contrasting border colors, and the borders of the various pieces of the costumes form patterns that decorate the dancer’s form.

An essential item of the Bharatanatyam costume is the pair of anklets or ankle bells (salangai in Tamil, gungaroo in Hindi). They make the rhythmic footwork of the dance audible. Dancers treat their salangai like musicians treat their instruments (in India, that is). The salangai are blessed by the dancer’s guru, they are worshipped on special occasions, and are never worn casually.

Women’s costumes involve a significant amount of jewelry, including bangles, rings, earrings, nose rings, and special ornaments for the arms and head.

There is, of course, makeup for the dance, and Bharatanatyam makeup has a few unique features. Heavy lines are drawn around the eyes, extending outwards past the eyes. Similarly, the eyebrows are darkened and extended outwards with liner. The purpose of this makeup is to accentuate the movements of the eyes and eyebrows, and make them more visible, because they are an important part of the dance, especially for expression. A red dye is applied to the soles of the feet and the tips of the toes, as well as to the fingertips. It is also painted in a solid circle in the palm of each hand. This unique decoration serves to emphasize the movements of the hands and feet.

The costumes of men are simpler, usually a dhoti covering the lower body and no upper garment. The men also wear ankle bells or salangai. They wear much less jewelry than women. Men do apply the same makeup to the eyes as women, since it serves an important purpose in the dance, but not to the hands and feet.

The Bharatanatyam costume is intended to look beautiful. It was the dress worn to dance for gods in temples, or for kings in palaces. When a dancer enters, the costume leaves no doubt that it is a special occasion.


Bharatanatyam is accompanied by music of the Carnatic style, that has been specialized for dance. The music is specialized in a few ways.

Bharatanatyam goes hand in hand with Carnatic music. Many dance items, like the padam, varnam, kirtanam, and tillana, share their names with musical items that have the same structure. The thematic content of the music and dance are the same. This is natural, as both art forms are South Indian in origin.

Music that is composed for dance items typically makes use of rhythmic patterns (talas) and melodies (ragas) that suit the theme of the dance. The synergy between the music and dance is important in transmitting an experience of the theme to the audience. The expressive power of Carnatic music is such that often the music alone can move the audience. Depending on how you look at it, this either frees the dancer of the responsibility to deliver a strong performance, or challenges the dancer to do justice to the music.

Distinctive Features

Now we’ll encounter some terminology and classifications. The terminology is necessary to describe some deeper aspects of Bharatanatyam, and the classifications of various facets of the dance illustrate how well developed an art form it is.

Nritta, Nritya, Natya

At the functional level, the dance has three aspects:

Despite some overlap between natya and nritya, they differ in that natya does not include dance, and nritya does not include speech. While Bharatanatyam includes the mimetic and narrative aspects of natya, it does not use spoken dialogue. The definitions of terms like nritta, natya, and nritya are not critical for a spectator, but it’s good to know that these elements are present as features of the dance. In different Bharatanatyam numbers, the balance between nritta, natya, and nritya varies. In general, the dominant aspect of Bharatanatyam is nritya.

One way to tell whether a dancer is doing nritta or nritya is by the music. The music for passages of pure nritta does not have lyrics; the names of rhythmic beats are called out, or the names of musical notes are sung. For interpretive dance with nritya and natya components, lyrics with meaning are sung, and the dance expresses the sentiment or the meaning of the lyrics. Another way to distinguish nritta and nritya is by the facial expressions of the dancer. Nritta is usually done with a smile, and despite eye movements, the face maintains a stable emotion. In nritya, various expressions cross the dancer’s face, showing different emotions. All the parts of the face may be active in displaying the emotions. There are Bharatanatyam items that are entirely abstract, and others that are entirely interpretive, but most of them include elements of nritta and nritya, often in alternating passages.

Dance Vocabulary of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam has a rich language of expression. Let’s look one level deeper, into the building blocks of the dance, the words and letters of the language. Both nritta and nritya are achieved by a combination of movements and positions involving the feet, limbs, and body, along with hand gestures and facial expressions. These elements are well defined, and constitute a vocabulary that characterizes Bharatanatyam. Natya is achieved through portrayal of characters and themes, which are also described in scriptures.

Scriptures like the Natya Shastra and Abhinayadarpana classify the elements of dance in great detail and in large arrays; we’ll point you to the books to study them further. For now, we’ll just mention various categories of Bharatanatyam elements, so you’ll know they exist, and can notice them in the dance.

The basic unit of dance in Bharatanatyam is the adavu. Each adavu is a combination of steps or positions with coordinated movements of the feet, legs, hands, arms, torso, head, and eyes. Adavus give Bharatanatyam its distinctive look. For instance, many adavus are executed with the legs bent, knees outward, heels together and toes outward – a position called araimandi. The adavus, numbering around 120 in all, are divided into numerous groups and subgroups. Some adavus are accompanied by rhythmic syllables, or sollukattus, that put together the steps of the adavu in a time sequence or meter. Sollukattu, which in Tamil means spoken (sol) structure (kattu), is a verbal description of an arrangement of beats or steps. For example, the phrase, “thai-yum-that-that thai-yum-tha” is the sollukattu for an adavu named Nattadavu. Various sollukattus have phrases like “thai-ya-thai-yi”, “tadhing-gina-thom”, and “kita-thaka-thari-kita-thom”. If you ever watch a Bharatanatyam class, you’ll hear many such phrases being called out by the teacher as the students practice adavus.

The hand gestures of Bharatanatyam are called hastas. Sometimes, you may hear them called mudras, or hasta mudras. There are one-handed and two-handed hastas, there are lots of them, and they all have names. When a hasta is employed in a specific context for a specific purpose, it gets a special name for that use. For example, the Tripataka hasta is a gesture in which the hand and fingers are held flat, with the ring finger bent at the knuckle so that it is perpendicular to the palm. This is the position of the hands in Nattadavu, and for this application, and any other nritta application, it is called Tripataka or Tripataka hasta. When it is used in nritya to denote fire, or to portray a tree, it is still called Tripataka hasta, but when it is used to denote Vishnu, it is called Vishnu hasta. In general, when the hastas are used to denote deities, celestial bodies (like the nine planets), or relations, their names are changed according to the application. All the hastas find use in nritya, but only a subset of them are used in nritta; these are also called nritta hastas. During nritta, the hastas convey no meaning. They are purely decorative. In nritya, the hastas are a vital aspect of the expressive language of the dance. They describe things and objects, they express concepts like truth, beauty, or the passage of time, they depict thoughts, words, and actions, and they combine with facial expressions to show emotions. The same hasta, used with different arm movements or in a different context, can have a different meaning. This is how the Tripataka hasta can be used for fire or a tree, and can also become the Vishnu hasta. This is just a simple example; most hastas have dozens of different uses.

The facial expressions of Bharatanatyam are called abhinaya. (To be precise, abhinaya is the art of expression, and facial expressions are one aspect of abhinaya, but the term abhinaya is commonly used to refer to facial expressions. We’ll discuss abhinaya further in its own section later.) The dancer uses facial expressions to show emotions. The emotions may come from the poetry in the music, or belong to a character being portrayed. The expressive aspect of the dance is the means by which the dancer can communicate an inner experience to the audience. The emotions shown by the dancer create a response in the audience, an experience of feeling or sentiment. Bharatanatyam scriptures have organized the process by which sentiment is produced, and categorized the different types of aesthetic emotions. Each sentiment is associated with causes, consequences, and passing feelings, all in the presence of a dominant emotion. The dancer may enact many passing feelings (called sanchari bhava) to show the effects (called anubhava) produced by the causes (called vibhava) of the emotional state, and to reveal the fullness of the dominant emotion (called sthayi bhava). For example, to describe a main emotion of love, the dancer may portray various transitory feelings like impatience, weakness, excitement, anxiety, and so on, to suggest the longing for one’s beloved. In Bharatanatyam, there are nine emotions – shringara (love, eros), vira (valor, heroism), karuna (sadness), adbhuta (awe, amazement), raudra (fury), hasya (laughter, humor), bhayanaka (fear), bibhatsa (revulsion), and shanta (peace) – and countless passing feelings that may be enacted. The portrayal of feelings in abhinaya is stylized rather than literal. For example, to illustrate sadness by describing the flow of tears, a Bharatanatyam dancer doesn’t actually shed tears (as a movie actor would), but indicates the flow of tears using hand gestures combined with facial expressions.

In addition to the fundamental emotions, categorized in the Natya Shastra and other scriptures, the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam includes a variety of characters, and their associated qualities, that are used to develop themes. The nayika or heroine, the nayaka or hero, and the sakhi or friend, are examples of such characters. The Natya Shastra lists eights types of nayikas based on their emotional circumstances. In addition, there are categorizations like the ten graces of women, the ten stages of love, and so on. Characters may also be classified according to their stature, as uttama (noble, divine), madhyama (human), and adhama (base), as well as according to their moral disposition, as swakiya (faithful wife), parakiya (married but longs for another), and samanya (courtesan). The stature and qualities of characters influence which emotions they experience, modify the emotions they do experience, and determine their responses to different circumstances. Without going into all the details and definitions of character that are documented, we can see by the attention given to the nuances of emotion and character, that the portrayal of various states and moods is the subject of great artistry in Bharatanatyam. It extends the language of Bharatanayam into the realm of poetry.

We’ve touched on a few of the most prominent aspects of the dance vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, without going into much depth. There are many details that we haven’t covered. Nevertheless, we can begin to how these elements fit together as building blocks for the dance. Adavus and nritta hastas are the foundation of nritta. Adavus and the full range of hastas, together with abhinaya, make up nritya. The use of abhinaya and character provides the dramatic element, or natya. This is certainly a simplistic explanation, but it illustrates the depth of the Bharatanatyam vocabulary. Each basic element in the list is a deep subject in its own right.

[Image: Bharatanatyam Chart]

Simplistic Breakdown of Bharatanatyam

Abstract Dance

The abstract movements of nritta create an array of rhythmic patterns, shapes, and forms in coordination with music. The movements and music complement each other, displaying the beauty of the dynamic abstract form. To appreciate how these elements come together, it helps to know some of the concepts or structures being employed by the musicians and dancers. We mentioned earlier that you can recognize nritta when the singer sings the names of notes or the nattuvanar calls out rhythmic syllables. Of course, for this you need to be able to recognize the solfa syllables of the notes, or the syllables that denote beats. We’ll briefly look at the source of these syllables in music and dance, and then show nritta uses them.

Rhythmic Structure

In Carnatic music, the rhythmical structure of a composition is made up of patterns called talas. The closest concept to tala in Western music is meter, but it’s not exactly the same. A repeated cycle of tala consists of a number of equally spaced beats, which are grouped into combinations of three patterns. These patterns are the laghu, dhrutam, and anudhrutam. By the way, if you watch people keeping time at an Indian classical music or dance recital, the specific way they mark beats by tapping their laps with their fingers, palm, and back of the hand, are determined by these patterns of the tala.

There are seven families of talas, depending on the arrangement of patterns in a cycle.

NamePattern SequenceAbbreviationDefault Laghu
Dhruvalaghu-dhrutam-laghu-laghu10114 beats
Matyalaghu-dhrutam-laghu1014 beats
Rupakadhrutam-laghu014 beats
Jhampalaghu-anudhrutam-dhrutam1U07 beats
Triputalaghu-dhrutam-dhrutam1003 beats
Atalaghu-laghu-dhrutam-dhrutam11005 beats
Ekalaghu14 beats

According to the number of beats in the laghu, the five different jaathis have their own names.

3 beatsTisra
4 beatsChatusra
5 beatsKhanda
7 beatsMisra
9 beatsSankeerna

The jaathi is also known by the term chaapu in Carnatic music.

Each of the seven tala families has a default jaathi associated with it, as listed in the table above, which is implied when no jaathi is specified. Thus Triputa tala by itself means Tisra-jaathi Triputa tala. Furthermore, since Eka tala consists of a single laghu, talas in this family are sometimes called only by the jaathi name. For example, Misra Chaapu is a common name for Misra-jaathi Eka tala.

Based on the tala families and laghu lengths, there are 7 x 5 = 35 talas. The shortest is Tisra-jaathi Eka tala at 3 beats and the longest is Sankeerna-jaathi Dhruva tala at 29 beats. Note that there are instances where multiple talas have the same number of beats. For example, Tisra-jaathi Triputa tala has seven beats, just like Misra-jaathi Eka tala. From a dancer’s perspective, talas with the same number of beats are identical, but a percussionist will play them differently. The beats may have different emphasis, or may be played with different drum notes.

Each beat may be further divided into a number of counts. The number of counts per beat is called the nadai or gati of the tala, and can be 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9. The default is 4. The names Tisra, Chatusra, Khanda, Misra, and Sankeerna, are used for the nadai as they are for the jaathi. Thus, Chatusra-nadai Khanda-jaathi Ata tala has 5 + 5 + 2+ 2 = 14 beats of 4 counts each, for 56 counts. It could also be called Chatusra-gati Khanda-chaapu Ata tala. With the defaults for nadai and jaathi, it could also be called simply Ata tala.

There are actually many more talas than the 35 that arise from the seven families mentioned above. Most are not used outside of elite music performances. The most popular talas have short aliases. For example, Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaathi Triputa tala, an eight-beat cycle, is simply called Aadi tala. Some of the most common talas for Bharatanatyam are Adi, Rupaka, and Mishra Chaapu.

The tempo, or kaala, of the rhythm is independent of the tala. There are three speeds used for dance: slow (vilamba), medium (madhya), and fast (drut). Medium is double the speed of slow, and fast is four times the speed of slow.

Sources of Syllables

The syllables used to accompany nritta come from four sources: rhythmic beats of the tala, drum beats from percussion, musical notes, and steps of the adavus.

Within the tala, the beats in each jaathi are given syllables that are used in dance.

3 beatsTisratha-ki-ta
4 beatsChatusratha-ka-dhi-mi
5 beatsKhandatha-ka tha-ki-ta
7 beatsMisratha-ka dhi-mi tha-ki-ta
9 beatsSankeernatha-ka dhi-mi tha-ka tha-ki-ta

In addition to the syllables used for the beats in each jaathi, there are syllables for the dhrutam and anudhrutam. The anudhrutam is a single beat, denoted by “tha”. The dhrutam is two beats, denoted by “tha-ka”, but if two dhrutams are together, the four beats are denoted by “tha-ka dhi-mi”. For the counts in the nadai, if it is actually being called out, the same syllables of the jaathi are used. Thus, there is a full set of syllables to denote all the specific beats of a rhythmic cycle.

The drums used for Indian music can produce a variety of sounds, and are even tuned to match the pitch of the music. Bharatanatyam almost always uses the mridangam for percussion. To account for various sounds or voice of the drum, percussionists use an expanded set of syllables beyond what is used to describe the tala alone. Their vocabulary adds syllables like “dheen”, “dhin”, “gin”, “jhum”, “na”, “num”, “ri”, “thi”, and “thom” to the tala syllables. The term jati, is used to refer to drum syllables, or sequences of drum syllables.

The musical notes of the scale are designated by the syllables “sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni-sa”. These are like the solfa syllables “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” in Western music, although the system of scales is different. The syllables for the musical notes are called swaras. In music concerts, singers have various ways of singing melodies without lyrics, one of which is singing the swaras. During dance, melodies without lyrics almost always sung with swaras. The exception is during a tillana, a dance item that shares its name with a type of musical composition. South Indian tillana singing is based on the North Indian practice of tarana, in which most of the syllables used are from the tabla, and certain syllables are used often because they sound pleasant. In a tillana, these special rhythmic syllables are sung with a melody.

Finally, the sollukattus associated with dance adavus provide another set of syllables. This set includes more syllables that sound like the striking of the floor with the feet, like “tham”, “thai”, and “thath”. The adavu sollukattus differ from the other sources of syllables mentioned above in that they are linked directly to the dance movements rather than to the music.

Rhythmic Compositions in Nritta

The abstract dance of nritta involves movements performed to the accompaniment of rhythmic sounds, which may be melodic or purely rhythmic. There are many ways to blend the movement and sound for artistic effect. We’ll briefly mention a few specific features of nritta compositions, since they appear in certain Bharatanatyam items that we’ll describe later. These features are defined by the combination of rhythmic music and dance movements. Therefore, our description of them focuses on the rhythm of the movements, rather than the forms and shapes of the movements themselves. (Description of the movements in words is difficult, even with lots of references to adavus, and a comprehensive study of the adavus and movements is left to serious students.)

The music compositions for Bharatanatyam allow passages of abstract dance to be interposed in the performance. During these passages, the nattuvanar who conducts the dance intones the rhythmic syllables and the dancer dances to them. The sequences of syllables from the nattuvanar are called sullokattus or jatis (disregarding the specific meanings of these terms in the context of adavus or percussion). It is common for nattuvanars to embellish the syllables, or even invent ones of their own, to achieve a desired effect. A phrase like “dhanuku-jhonuku-tham dhrugu-thaka dhrugu-thaka-thai” is clearly rooted in the basic tala or adavu syllables, but sounds better.

A passage of rhythmic syllables during the recital is called a teermanam. The artistry in composing a teermanam is in the interaction of the jati passage with the rhythm of the musical composition. Teermanams frequently involve cross rhythms. A simple example is a teermanam in triple time during a musical composition in four time, where the length of the teermanam would be twelve beats (or another suitable multiple). The dancer would switch rhythms during the teermanam to follow the nattuvanar. Such compositions allow a greater variety of adavus to be used in the dance choreography, since adavus are associated with specific rhythms. A pleasing composition balances variety with grace, using the interplay of various movements, diverse rhythms, and the three different speeds for a complementary effect.

The rhythmical movements of nritta may also be performed to the accompaniment of swaras, the syllables of musical notes sung by the singer. A particular Bharatanatyam item consisting of pure nritta danced to swaras is called the jatiswaram. The choreography of movements for a jatiswaram takes into account the mood of the musical composition, so that there is harmony in the item. There are instances of dancing to swaras during other items, like varnams, but these instances are not called jatiswarams. The term swarajati refers to something quite different – a musical composition in which there are swara and jati combinations, but that is distinguished by the singing of the rhythmic syllables with a melody. Dances have been composed for these musical items, but they are not as common as jatiswarams.

The composition of rhythmical movements is a combination of adavus, which are basic dance units. Sometimes, these adavu sequences are called adavu-jatis. Another term worth mentioning is a korvai, which is a collection of adavu sequences that corresponds to a verse or section of the music.

Even though nritta is abstract, the combination of swaras and jatis with dance movements does produce a feeling. When nritta passages are included in expository nritya dance items, the nritta choreography is done in harmony with the mood of the item, or the qualities of a character being portrayed. Dance with vigorous, brisk movements is called Tandava, and it has various types, such as Ananda Tandava, which is performed with joy, and Rudra Tandava, performed with anger or violence. Tandava is considered masculine, and its feminine counterpart is called Lasya. The movements of Lasya are graceful, fluid, and tender. Thus, even in abstract dance without the use of abhinaya, the mood evoked by pure movements in coordination with music is taken into account for a congruous composition.

Expressive Dance

Bharatanatyam’s most powerful feature is its ability to express meaning and emotion, and to transmit an experience to the audience. This is a profound subject, of which we’ll just touch the surface, by looking at two of its aspects. One is the art of abhinaya, and the other is the blending of music and dance to express more than either could alone.


Abhinaya was mentioned earlier in the context of facial expressions, but in reality it is much more. It refers to the art of expression, as well as transmitting an experience to the audience. Thus, it enters all aspects of the dance, including nritta, nritya, and natya. Abhinaya is a distinguishing characteristic of Bharatanatyam; it goes beyond conveying an abstract aesthetic experience, beyond narration, beyond showing a story unfolding, and expresses the inner experience of the dancer, or the character portrayed by the dancer. To be believable, the dancer must truly enter the spirit of what is being portrayed. How fully the dancer is expected to embody the subject will be evident from a brief description of the different aspects of abhinaya.

Angika relates to body movements, which are the primary means of expression in Bharatanatyam. The relationship of every movement to the emotions is taken into account. Movements are classified as belonging to the angas or major parts of the body, pratyangas or intermediate parts of the body, and upangas, which include the extremities and facial features. Thus, the entire body of the dancer is a vehicle for expression. Angika also covers the previously mentioned hand gestures and eye movements.

Vachika relates to expression through speech or song. Dialogue is used in dramas, and also in Bhagavata Melam and Kuravanji performances, but not in Bharatanatyam recitals. In Bharatanatyam, vachika pertains to how the singer expresses the emotion through the music. The practice of dancers singing while enacting abhinaya existed in Balasaraswati’s time, but is hardly ever seen now. Thus vachika is now the domain of the vocalists who accompany the dancers.

Aharya relates to expression through costume, jewelry, and make-up. These elements should be designed to complement the emotions being expressed by the dancer and the singer.

Satvika relates to the expression of emotional states that result from circumstances or events. The dancer embodies the emotion through appropriate facial expressions and body movements. The emotions portrayed by the dancer must be in harmony with those expressed by the music, to create the right mood. The authenticity with which the dancer expresses emotion, and the dancer’s ability to enter the spirit of what is being portrayed, determines how well the audience will be engaged, and what kind of response will be elicited in them.

All four types of abhinaya may be used in combination, and in differing amounts, to achieve a believable and moving performance.

Understanding the different types of abhinaya helps you appreciate more fully what is being expressed in the dance. For angika abhinaya, knowing the language of gestures is the key. For vachika abhinaya, you should understand the lyrics of the music. Even with an incomplete understanding of these modes of expression, you can follow much of the content if you know the story, context, or theme of the performance. For aharya abhinaya, an aesthetic sense is sufficient. Some familiarity with the Indian style of dress and decoration helps, so that the costumes don’t seem so unusual that they are distracting. Satvika abhinaya evokes a response to the emotional state of the dancer. To some extent, this happens naturally and intuitively, but understanding the techniques of angika, vachika, and aharya abhinaya can make the difference between the form of the dance interfering with the experience or enhancing it. Ideally, for both the dancer and the audience, the dance form or technique is a means to an end, which is to transcend the form, and go beyond it to the inner experience.

Synthesis of Music and Dance

For expressive dance, lyrics are sung, and their meaning is brought out by the dance. In addition to the rhythmical aspects which we have discussed, the elements of melody and poetry are important.

The term raga refers to the melodic scale of the music, and ragas are a separate topic for study in Indian classical music, both Carnatic and Hindustani. For our purposes, it’s enough to know that different ragas, or melodic patterns of notes, are ascribed different moods or sentiments. Thus, the choice of raga for a dance item should suit its theme. This is why certain types of dance items favor certain ragas. For example, a shabdam is a dance item of praise or salutation, and the majority of them use a raga called Kambhoji.

The poetic content of the music is called sahitya. Sahitya means more than just the lyrics, it also refers to prosody, the system of poetic meters and versification. In Carnatic music, the blending of beautiful music and exquisite poetry is done with great artistry. The syllables of the sahitya merge with the musical setting to create the full effect. A mark of great composers is that their sahitya can reveal facets of the raga or bring out its essence. Similarly, the sahitya of the music for Bharatanatyam contributes to the feeling of the dance item, along with the melody and rhythm.

The union of music and dance in Bharatanatyam is such that the whole is greater than its parts. In the same way that the teermanam employs rhythmic sollukattus and dance steps that are variations on the rhythm of the musical composition, the abhinaya of the dance rendered in expository gestures and facial expressions, depicts variations on the theme in the sahitya of the music. A musical composition may use the same lyrics in several repetitions, varying the melody or emphasis, while the dancer uses different mimetic language to describe a different aspect of the theme in each repetition. Thus the dance extends the poetic theme of the music. The result is a more profound expression of meaning or emotion, a more moving experience for the audience.

Program of a Recital

The sequence of items in a Bharatanatyam concert program is called the margam. The traditional solo recital has a typical sequence of items, which we outline here.

The present form of the solo Bharatanatyam recital is said to have been a refinement of the famous Thanjavur quartet brothers Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam, masters of music and dance during the late 18th century. Throughout its two thousand year history, Bharatanatyam has been an evolving art, not stagnant. The fine-tuning of the Bharatanatyam program by the Thanjavur quartet happening during a period in which both Carnatic music and dance underwent refinements at the hands of various master artists. Various authors describe the motivation for their reform of the Bharatanatyam program differently, for example, to be able to include the various styles of dance composition in a single recital to please the royal court of Thanjavur, or to bring out the nritta, abhinaya, and nritya features of the dance. The facts surrounding its origin may be uncertain, but the arrangement was good enough to have persisted through the present day. Despite the innovative tendencies of modern dancers, recent changes to the recital format have been either minor or transitory.

The solo Bharatanatyam recital has a structure and a progression of items. There are items meant for the beginning of the performance, a main item at its center, and items typically performed after the main item. The names of the typical items, in sequence, are

Alarippu Nritta Invocation
JatiswaramNritta Melody, Rhythmic Movement
Shabdam Nritta and NrityaSalutation
Varnam Nritta and NrityaAll Aspects of Dance
Padam Nritya Expression, Exposition
Ashtapadi Nritya Expression, Exposition
Kirtanam Nritya Expression, Devotion
Javali Nritya Expression, Exposition
Tillana Nritta and NrityaNritta
Shlokam Nritya Devotion
Mangalam Nritya Benediction

Before dance practice or a recital, it is traditional for a dancer to make obeisance to the gods, the earth, and the guru. The vandana or namaskaram is the ritual practice of bowing before dancing. At a recital it is usually done backstage. A pushpanjali is the offering of flowers to a deity, as another form of obeisance. Despite a recent tendency of dancers to make a performance item out of a pushpanjali, it is not a traditional dance item and it is not the same as, nor a substitute for, the alarippu.

There is some flexibility in the interpretive items that follow the varnam. Not all recitals have one padam, one ashtapadi, one kirtanam, and one javali. Each of these items is optional, although it’s typical for there to be two or three of them in the recital. It could be, for example, two ashtapadis and a padam. The recital traditionally ends with a shlokam or a mangalam, but usually not with both.

Next, we’ll describe each type of item from the margam briefly.


The first item of a recital, the alarippu is a short and simple item, but is significant as a ritual dance prelude to the performance. Its primary intention is to invoke the blessings of the divine and to offer homage to the audience. It sanctifies the body of the dancer and the performance space.

A connotation of the name alarippu is flowering, suggesting the opening of the body and limbs in preparation for the dance items to follow. It features a progression of movements, beginning with the head and eyes, and then involving more and more of the body, and using more of the performance space. The alarippu is accompanied by the sollukattus, “tham-thi-tha thai-tha-thai”, and percussion in slow, medium, and fast tempos. The duration of the alarippu is about three to five minutes.


The second item is also of nritta, or abstract dance, but it is more complex. The dance combines rhythmic sequences of movements in groupings of jatis. It is performed to swara passages in a particular raga (melodic scale) and tala, accompanied by musical instruments. These two elements give the item its name, jatiswaram. At the beginning of the jatiswaram, there is a teermanam accompanied by sollukattus. The rest of the item is danced to swaras.

The purpose of the jatiswaram is to create various beautiful forms, purely for artistic pleasure. No mood or sentiment is expressed. There are certain choreographic features that are typical of a jatiswaram – an elegant gait to each side of the stage, for example – that contribute to its unique quality.


Continuing the progression of items towards including more aspects of the dance, the third item, the shabdam, introduces abhinaya, or expressive dance. The music includes lyrics; in a shabdam they are in praise of a deity, a guru, or a patron (usually a king). The song may be devotional, affectionate, or narrative in theme, and may describe the qualities, accomplishments, and deeds of its subject. The dancer interprets the song without elaboration.

The sahitya for a shabdam is usually simple. There are typically two to five stanzas of poetry, with associated korvais of dance; each subsequent one adds more detail on the same theme. There is more detail in the poetry, more movement, and deeper expression of emotion as the item progresses. Sometimes, the first verse is repeated as a refrain and finale, and there may be a prelude danced to sollukattus. The stanzas often end with words of salutation or obeisance, like “salaamure” or “namostute”. Shabdam compositions most often use Misra Chaapu tala and a raga called Kambhoji, and a great number of them are in praise of Lord Krishna.


The main item of the Bharatanatyam recital is the varnam, which reveals in full the abstract and expressive aspects of the dance, and builds on the rhythmic, melodic, as well as lyrical aspects of the music. The structure of a varnam in dance is similar to that of the musical compositions that are also called varnams. The dance alternates between passages of nritta and nritya, balancing pure dance and expressive dance, and combining both in the final movements. The dancer interprets the music and poetry with great elaboration in both nritta and nritya passages.

For almost every line of the song, there will be teermanams in various tempos, executed to sollukattus, nritta passages performed to swara sequences, and abhinaya sequences that expound upon the sahitya of the line. The nritta passages build upon the rhythm of the musical composition and complement its melody. The abhinaya features exposition of the transient inner feelings, a poetry in dance that expands the poetic theme of the music. As the varnam progresses, the complexity of the teermanams and the abhinaya increases, showing the skill, versatility, and stamina of the dancer. Finally, combining all these aspects, the dancer synchronizes rhythmic footwork of adavu-jatis, hand gestures showing the meaning of the song, and facial expressions bringing out the subtleties of inner emotion.

A proper exposition of a varnam can take forty-five minutes to more than an hour. Because it is such a strenuous item, the varnam is followed by a group of items that are purely expressive, and that aren’t as physically demanding. If there is an intermission, a costume change, or a break in the recital, it usually is right after the varnam.


The deepest expressive item of Bharatanatyam is the padam. It is a purely expressional piece, without nritta, and is usually steeped with the sentiment of love and its many manifestations. It ostensibly a love poem, with the dancer taking the role of a devotee or heroine, but the traditional symbolism is that the heroine or nayika represents the human soul longing for the supreme being represented by her beloved or nayaka. Typical narrative devices include the nayika addressing the nayaka, or talking to her sakhi (friend) about her love for the nayaka. The themes of the songs may be the pain of separation from the beloved, a love quarrel, feelings brought about by a dream of the beloved, and so on. The songs used for padams give broad scope for the expression of varying shades of emotion, and feature ragas that match the sentiment of the theme.


An ashtapadi is an expressive item like a padam, but executed to particular poetry. Ashtapadi literally means "eight steps", from Sanskrit ashta (eight) and padi (steps), and refers to musical compositions with eight lines, but in Bharatanatyam, it refers12th century compositions by the Indian poet Jayadeva. His Gita Govinda uses the relationship between the gopis (cowgirls) and Lord Krishna to symbolize the eternal love of a devotee for the divine. Jayadeva’s poetry is well suited to abhinaya.


Another expressive Bharatanatyam item, a kirtanam is characterized by the devotional mood it evokes. Kirtanams use songs that describe the virtues or acts of the gods, or devotional songs composed by great saints. Often, the lyrics are in praise of a particular deity. Kirtanams are usually medium tempo items with some abstract dance elements included for interest.


A javali is an expressive Bharatanatyam number with colloquial lyrics and faster tempos than padams. Javalis usually feature the nayika addressing her beloved, or the divine being, from a human level. The symbolism is not refined to the level of a padam, and the specific types of nayikas featured in javalis differ accordingly.


A lively item of pure nritta, the tillana is performed to music that shares the same name. Specialized rhythmic syllables are sung to the melody, and are repeated by the singer while the dance presents an elaboration of the music. Each passage begins with graceful body movements, which give way to adavu sequences (korvais) executed in two or three tempos, culminating in scintillating teermanams. The tillana embodies the Lasya, or lyrical, aspect of nritta in its alluring poses and exquisite patterns of movement. The movements of a tillana are joyous and expansive, giving it a vivacious quality. If the alarippu is the opening of a flower, the tillana is the showering of flowers throughout the performance space.

At the end of the tillana, there is often a small sequence of nritya, in which the abhinaya expresses dedication to a deity or guru.


A shlokam is the traditional end to a recital. A shlokam (Sanskrit for verse) or viruttam (Tamil for verse) is the singing of lyrics that are not set to a rhythmic pattern like a song. The interpretation of a shlokam by a dancer and singer is often improvisational. The dancer uses expressions and gestures to bring out its meaning, while the music establishes the mood. The shlokam usually is of a devotional tone, and concludes the recital with a feeling of gratitude and serenity.


A recital that is the last one of the day may end with a mangalam, a short benediction during which the dancer performs the namaskaram, giving thanks and invoking blessings for everyone present. A mangalam usually is no more than a minute or two in duration. The music uses one of the “auspicious” ragas, typically Madhyamavathi.

The Message of Bharatanatyam

We’ve briefly mentioned many features of Bharatanatyam, showing that it has a rich language of expression, but we’ve left an important topic for the end of our description of Bharatanatyam - its motivation. Bharatanatyam can make the entire body of the dancer a vehicle for expression of rhythm, melody, emotion, character, and theme. By fully employing the techniques of Bharatanatyam, and manifesting its many dimensions in the performance, what does the dancer aim to accomplish? What is the purpose of the art?

Before presenting the words of some of Bharatanatyam’s greatest artists, let’s introduce two more terms. Bhava is the art of expression, a key feature of Bharatanatyam. Rasa is the response or feeling induced in the onlookers by the bhava. Although bhava is often equated with facial expressions, it is actually much more. Bhava is the outer manifestation of an inner experience. The inner experience leads to the expression, bhava, and the expression leads to the experience, rasa. The communion between the artist and audience implied by bhava and rasa suggests the potential for a more profound experience than mere entertainment. Whether the full potential of the art is achieved or not in a given presentation depends on the quality of the expression, which depends on the quality of the artist, and on the ability of the audience to perceive and respond.

Regarding the expressive potential of Bharatanaytam, Rukmini Devi wrote, “Bharata Natyam … is at the same time the art of the stage, drama, music, poetry, color, and rhythm. Its keynote is the dance which includes all the arts but whose message is not merely to the senses, and through them to a purely external enjoyment, but is to the soul of the dancer and the perceiver. Because of this message, Bharata Natyam is meant primarily for spiritual expression. It cannot be adequately danced by anyone without reverence for technique and for spiritual life.” The idea that a dancer must enter the spirit of the dance, to experience inwardly what is to be expressed through dance, is echoed in the words of Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Rukmini Devi’s dance guru, who stated, “Bharatanatyam is an art which purifies the mind, speech, and body, and elevates the performer to a realization of the Supreme through the perfect blending of music, rhythm, and emotion.” This statement implies that the art form itself can be a technique for spiritual development. In a similar vein, Balasaraswati said, “Bharatanatyam is an art, which consecrates the body, which is considered to be in itself of no value. The yogi, by controlling his breath and by modifying his body, acquires the halo of sanctity. Even so, the dancer, who dissolves her identity in rhythm and music, makes her body an instrument, at least for the duration of the dance, for the experience and expression of the spirit.” We know these descriptions are not just self-aggrandizing words, because so many who witnessed performances by Rukmini Devi and by Balasaraswati felt the presence of something beyond the form of the dancer. When Balasaraswati portrayed Krishna, there were those who felt that Krishna was really there. When Rukmini Devi danced as Parvati, many observers had the experience of a divine presence.

Obviously, few artists are capable of such high levels of expression, not to mention inner experience, but from these great artists, we get an idea what the art of Bharatanatyam can do. When a person with an intense inner experience masters the art form, Bharatanatyam becomes a medium to lead the audience to this experience. The highest applications of this art create an uplifting experience, elevating both dancer and spectator.

Thus we see that Bharatanatyam is not only an art with a comprehensive technique, a characteristic form, and a rich language of expression, but an art with an inherent orientation towards spiritual expression. Like other classical arts of India, it is both an art form and a form of spiritual practice. Few performances ever manifest the full potential of Bharatanatyam, and few audiences understand. Nevertheless, a description of this art would be incomplete without mentioning its greatest capacity.


Sambamoorti, P., “The Musical Content of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Rukmini Devi, “The Spiritual Background of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Iyer, E. Krishna, “A Note on the Repertory from Alaripu to Tillana.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Kothari, Sunil, Bharata Natyam. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000.

Rukmini Devi Arundale Birth Centenary Volume. Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation, 2004

Devi, Ragini, Dance Dialects of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002.

Rani, Kamala, Essence of Nattuvangam, Bharatanatyam Guide Book. Chennai: Kamala Rani, 1997.

Rani, Kamala, Nattuvangam Book-1 100 Roopaka Thalam Theermanams. Chennai: Kamala Rani, 1997.

Rani, Kamala, Nattuvangam Book-2 101 Aadhi Thalam Theermanams. Chennai: Kamala Rani, 1997.

Balasaraswati, T., Translation of her Speech on Bharata Natyam. Madras: Presidential Address, Tamil Isai Sangam Conference, 1975.

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