Friday, June 14, 2024


Bharatanatyam Fotografie Melina Mulas

The dance, whose origin goes straight back to the second millennium B.C., draws on the mythical repertory and depicts the feats of the gods with a precise body language which was codified from the beginning of the first centuries of the Christian era in the “Natyashastra”, an ample treatise concerning theatre, dance and music.

The traditional performance, true and literally sacred representation, is articulated in a series of pieces where two types of dance alternate, one so-called “expressive” that relates the mythological event using a rigorous vocabulary of gestures, “Abhinaya”; the other defined “pure”, Nritta, where the artist expresses his own emotions through movements characterized by its geometry of line, speed and rhythmic richness.
Among the various styles of traditional dance that developed through the centuries, one of the best known is the Bharatanatyam, originating before the year one thousand in the area which today is the state of Tamilnadu, in the south of India.
To perform it, until the last century, were the Devadasi, the “maidens of the gods”, young girls dedicated by their families to ritual service in the temples, instructed in dancing and in the other refined arts, who enjoyed high social consideration.
Historical events, however, led to the decadence of the institutes of the Devadasi who were losing their sacred role, with the consequent devaluation also of the Bharatanatya. At the beginning of our century a group of enlightened personalities, among whom the great dancer Rukmini Devi, endeavored to save from oblivion and bring back to its ancient splendor a noble art.
A king of prayer in movement, the Bharatanatya represents the games of the gods and their interaction with the human world, expressing at the same time the nine fundamental emotions of the soul: love, humour, compassion, anger, heroism, fear, disgust, wonder and peace.
The artist, thanks to his sensitiveness, makes exactly the mythical event that is about to be represented and that he knows in the smallest details, transforming himself thus into the character that he is interpreting and living the tragedy or the joy with complete participation.

Although even masters convey the teaching, the performance is almost entrusted to female dancers, to dancers who generally perform in “a solo”, draped in silk saris, six meters of material wrapped around the waist and passing over the shoulder, nowadays often substituted by close-fitting trousers on which a fan of pleats opens. A bolero, a stole, many jewels, tinkling ankle supports and a head-dress of flowers complete the dress of the dancers, whose elaborate make-up helps to emphasize their facial expression and the mobile play of their eyes.
The musical accompaniment is entrusted of the violin, the flute, the mrudangam (percussion), the cymbals and the tanpura, while singers intone the strophes that narrate the mythical event, mimed in the passages of expressive dance, the nattuvanar scan the syllables that rhytmize the exhibition of pure dance.
The long preparation and the discipline which they underwent for years permits them to free themselves from their individuality and to assume a universal personality, the interpreter of an emotion which does not belong to a single person, but belongs to humanity.
Thus the spectator, contemplating the dance, enters into syntony with the artist and identifies himself with her, experiencing the dancers feelings. And since this is lived in a mythical dimension, beyond time and space, the performance becomes a cosmic event; the secular gestures change into a sacred performance and by means of the dance man converses with God.
The tradition of the Bharatanatya has been rest intact at Kalakshetra, the “Holy place of art”, established in the neighborhood of Chennai by Rukmini Devi according to the forms of the ancient Ashram, the idyllic oases of community life, where the direct transmission from master to disciple is turned into realizing the utopia of perfect and spiritualized art.
Far from being an aesthetic form refined in itself, Bharatanatya becomes a fine knowledge of life that teaches how to know oneself and to read in its reality the profound beauty that alludes to another plane of the human being, the divine one.

Marilia Albanese

* This article was published in the magazine “All Dance” summer 1999, together with the photographic service of Angelo Redaelli.