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Bharatanatyam (originally Sadir) is one of the seven distinct classical dance styles of India. It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India and was codified in the early 19th century by four brothers known as the Thanjavur Quartet in the royal court of Maratha king Serfoji II (AD.1798-1832). It is their work that forms the bulk of the Bharatanatyam repertory even today. The art was handed down as a heriditary tradition by the Devadasis. Women from the community were dedicated to temples to serve the deities. Music and dance thus were offerings in the service of the art and the divine. These highly talented women artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repositories of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the non-devadasi communities to discover its beauty albeit with many modifications to the original form.
By this time the heriditary practioners of Sadir suffered misfortune due to lack of state patronage and changed social mores. Eventually dance was brought out of the temple precincts onto the proscenium stage and it retained its essentially devotional character. However much of the erotic beauty of the dance was tempered by the new practitioners to suit the post colonial moral structure of middle class India.
Bharatanatyam is known for its extremely complex technique of movement, music and poetry all combined in one. Hand gestures, upper and lower body coordination, eye, head, neck movements and complicated rhythmic patterns of foot work are its hallmarks. A distinct dictionary of hand gestures (authored circa 5th-2nd century B.C.) of over 500 interpretations is used even today. Bharatanatyam in the new millennium is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles. The form has been adapted many times to concur with tastes of connoisseurs through time without compromising its core aesthetic and literary essence.
Degree and Post Graduate courses covering the practice and theory of Bharatanatyam as well as the languages associated with its development are available at major universities of India.
Agility of mind and body, grace, intelligence, devotion to the art and patronage are keys to being a successful performer. Typically a dancer invests a minimum of 7 to 10 years of rigorous training to master this art before performing on the stage.
Bharatanatyam and cultural exchange in the U.S.A.
One of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the United States comes from India, increasing by over fifty percent between 2000 and 2007. This is after a 130% increase between 1990 and 2000. According to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian Indian population in the United States grew from almost 1,678,000 in 2000 to 2,319,000 in 2005: a growth rate of 38%, the highest for any Asian American community, and among the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States after Hispanic Americans. Indian Americans are the third largest Asian American ethnic group after Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans.This burgeoning population brings its own additions to the cultural richness of the United States, alongside the earlier contributions of the European waves of immigrants who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. An important part of this cultural exchange, Bharatanatyam has seen an explosion of interest nationwide over the course of the past several decades. There are currently schools in thirty-one states from California to Massachusetts and from Washington to Florida.
Performers are in constant demand and dance in venues as disparate as New York City and Laramie, Wyoming. Large audiences are attracted to this art. Immigrants use it as a means of maintaining or re-connecting to their roots, and others marvel at its beauty along with its ability to convey messages of universal value. The dancer engages both sensually and spiritually in order to help the audience achieve a higher level of consciousness, reached through a celebration of the beauty of the human body and the underlying spiritual and metaphorical nuances. Classical by nature, this art form is nevertheless constantly evolving.
Artists of this dance form have also been successful in bridging cultural gaps by addressing the need of world peace, gender equity, speaking about human rights etc.
Bharatanatyam is often employed as a cultural force by artists to deploy the divisive forces in the contemporary society.
A photograph of two Devadasis taken
in 1920s in Chennai, India.