Women wearing bright and bold costumes in every color of the rainbow, along with shining jewelry from the top of their head to the bottom of their feet. Their eyes were lined with thick black coal, and their lips painted red. Their long hair parted in the center was adorned with fragrant flowers. As they walked, the jingle of their anklets and the clink of their bangles could be heard from a distance as everyone waited for them to begin their dance. This was the sight that initially attracted me towards Bharatanatyam – the oldest Indian dance form.
Growing up as a second-generation immigrant, I always found it important to connect to my roots. It’s easy to forget where you came from and your family history when you are living away from relatives and in an environment that’s greatly different from that of your motherland. Hence, I spent a lot of my time and energy as a child in being able to connect to my roots and to understand the significance of Indian traditions. From the age of 4, I have been dancing. When people ask me what style of dance I practice, I usually westernize the Sanskrit name to ‘Indian classical dance’, as I feel that not many people are familiar with the dance forms’ real name. But today, I would like to shed some light on what ‘Indian classical dance’ really means and the significance of such a rich dance form in today’s modern age.
Before I continue, the correct term for ‘Indian classical dance’ is Bharatanatyam (pronounced: baa·ruh·taa·naa·tee·uhm) Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance form originating from South India. ‘Bha’ stands for bhavam or emotion, ‘ra’ stands for ragam or melody, and ‘ta’ stands for talam or rhythm. ‘Natyam’ means dance, which is only created when you put all three components together. This dance form usually depicts the stories of the deity and dances in praise of the god/goddess. If you are curious about watching this dance form click here, I promise you won’t regret it!
Looking at the known origins of Bharatanatyam, the original Bharatanatyam dancers were known as “devadasi”. ‘Deva’ means god, and ‘dasi’ translates to a servant. As the dancers devoted their lives to dancing in the temple of their deity, thus they were referred to as the direct servants of god. The dance originally followed the poses seen on ancient temple statues, which involved movement of the hips, shifting of body weight, and a flowing motion to the arms. Before the colonization of India, these dancers were revered as very valuable members of society, as they were the only ones who sustained the dance and had knowledge of the arts. Furthermore, Devadasi were considered to be some of the most educated women in society and were financially provided for by members or patrons in the community. Their devotion towards the deity was greatly respected, and they were given the freedom to remain unmarried for life–a kind of choice that other women did not have at that time. During the colonization of India, post 1830, temple dances were banned as the dance was considered promiscuous by the British. The dance was labelled as the ‘devil’s dance’, turning the devadasi into nothing more than slaves and prostitutes. The ban on performing or practicing Bharatanatyam led to the ancient art form dying out as the generations only remembered it as a dirty and uncivilized dance.
I did not realize how generations of stigmatization against the arts could affect me, a dancer of the modern age. When I was in elementary school, my grandfather who lived in India would be reluctant to acknowledge that I was learning Bharatanatyam. He would advise me to focus on my studies instead of learning dance. As a child I could not understand why he was so against it, but looking at the history of Bharatanatyam made me realize that the stereotype that was associated with people who danced was very negative.
In an attempt to revive Bharatanatyam, old knowledge had been purposefully removed, erasing it from existence as current day classical dancers like myself have no understanding of how the dance was originally performed. There is no formal and accessible documentation of the original Bharatanatyam. Instead, today’s Bharatanatyam is the creation of Rukmini Devi from the early 1830’s. Rukmini Devi is considered to be the sole reason as to why Bharatanatyam still exists today as she had advocated against the stigma and stereotypes surrounding dance. She modified the dance to make it more acceptable to British rule by removing elements of ‘love’ and ‘sexuality’. These elements were replaced with a greater devotional aspect, and more controlled body movements.
Bharatanatyam in the modern world has changed a lot. There are those who are traditionalists as they stick to the roots of the dance form. And then there are those who enjoy fusing Bharatanatyam with contemporary styles. But most importantly, the original purpose of Bharatanatyam was to connect to a higher power and to forgo body consciousness. As a dance form that is intertwined with emotion and devotion to the deity, some choose to dance with the mindset of dancing for god while others simply enjoy the aesthetic of the dance. Either way, it is remarkable how this dance form has endured through many hurdles in history. Now, it has even crossed the seas, as people from different countries are learning this dance form. To some, Bharatanatyam may seem like a sensory overload, but to a growing number of individuals, this dance has become a method of self-discovery and self-expression.