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The earliest existing treatise on Indian performing arts such as dance, music and drama is called the “Natyasastra.” It is speculated that Sage Bharata wrote this masterpiece around 500 B.C.  The Natyasastra was a codification of performing arts existing in ancient India.  Bharatanatyam and other Indian classical dance forms stem from the writings in the Natyasastra.

The classical dance of Tamilnadu in South India is called Bharatanatyam.  Bharatanatyam is the most recent name given to the dance form.  It was called “Koothu” in ancient times, “Sadhir” during the last few centuries, and “Dasi Attam” until the last century.

Until the 1930s, the dance form was exclusively the domain of temple dancers, or Devadasis.  Due to the social and political mores at the time, dancing in temples was abolished and the era of Bharatanatyam on the public stage was born. 

Bharatanatyam is comprised of three primary elements: “Abhinaya” or Expression (both facial and through the body); “Nrithya” or Dance; and “Tala” or Rhythm. 

The music used in Bharatanatyam is traditionally Carnatic music from South India.  Songs are mainly in the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada languages.

A Bharatanatyam recital is traditionally accompanied by a set of musicians.  The conductor of the recital or the “Nattuvanar” plays a very important role by performing the “Nattuvangam” with the cymbals called “Talam.”  There has to be excellent coordination between the dancer and the nattuvanar.  The nattuvanar, who is often the dance guru, also recites the “sollukattus” or rhythmic syllables which play prominent roles in items such as jathiswarams and varnams (see description below). 

The orchestra also includes a singer, a mridangam (a traditional drum) player, and one or more instrumentalists.  Typical instruments used in recitals today include the violin, veena and flute.

The main posture in Bharatanatyam is called “Araimandi” or “Mandala Sthana.”  This is a position in which the knees are bent and turned to their sides.  In this position, the thighs should be four spans from the ground and the maximum distance between the feet should be a span.   Araimandi literally means half-sitting position.  The basic dance movements are called “Adavus” and are performed in Araimandi.

The body should maintain a very upright posture with a good “Saushtava” or a straight back without any hunching.  The elbows when raised are always expected to be in line with the shoulders, which should neither be raised nor drooped. The hands should be always kept a span away from the chest. “Anga Shuddam” or perfection in symmetry of the body is very important in Bharatanatyam.

Bharatanatyam is usually performed in medium tempo.  Though many "Hastas" or Hand Gestures are used to bring out the meaning of the words sung or the story, facial expression is very important in Bharatanatyam.  Colorful costumes and golden ornaments with precious stones are very typical of this style.

The great dancer, Balasaraswati, once described the “Margam” format as follows:

“I believe that the traditional order of the Bharatanatyam recital viz., Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, Tillana and the Sloka is the correct sequence in the practice of this art, which is an artistic yoga for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal.  The greatness of this traditional concert-pattern will be apparent even from a purely aesthetic point of view.  In the beginning, Alarippu, which is based on rhythm alone, brings out the special charm of pure dance.  The movements of Alarippu relax the dancer’s mind and thereby her mind, loosen and coordinate her limbs and prepare her for the dance.  Rhythm has a rare capacity to invoke concentration.  Alarippu is most valuable in freeing the dancer from distraction and making her single-minded.  The joy of pure rhythm in Alarippu is followed by Jatiswaram where there is the added joy of melody.  Melody, without word or syllable, has a special power to unite us with our being.  In Jatiswaram, melody and movement come together.  Then comes the Sabdam.  It is here that compositions, with words and meanings, which enable the expressions of the myriad moods of Bharatanatyam, are introduced."

"The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a Great Temple.  We enter through the Gopuram (outer hall) of Alarippu, cross the Ardha mantapam (half-way hall) of Jatiswaram, then the Mantapa (great hall) of Sabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the Varnam.  This is the place, the space that gives the dancer expansive scope to revel in the rhythm, moods and music of the dance.  The Varnam is the perpetuity which gives ever-expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfillment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art.  The Padam follows.  In dancing to the Padam one experiences the containment, cool and quiet of entering the sanctum from its external precinct.  The expanse and brilliance of the outer corridors disappear in the dark inner sanctum; and the rhythmic virtuosities of the Varnam yield to the soul-stirring music and abhinaya of the Padam.  Dancing to the Padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of scared verses in the closeness of God.  Then, the Tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle.  In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the God he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse."*

* Source - http://www.carnatica.net/dance/bharatanatyam1.htm


Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam is a legendary Bharatanatyam dancer and the director of Nrithyodaya, the dance school founded in 1942 by her father, Sri. K. Subrahmanyam, in Chennai.

Encouraged by her father, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam started learning under Kausalya who was a young teacher at Nrityodaya.  Later, she came under the wings of guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai (see below) and had her arangetram in 1956. Recognizing her talent, her father helped her further her capabilities. From Dandayuthapani Pillai, she learnt adavus, from Gowri Ammal she learnt abhinaya. From various devadasis, she learnt 150 different adavus. Thus began her research.

Dr. Subrahmanyam has a Bachelor’s degree in Music, a Master’s in Ethno Musicology and a Ph.D in dance from Annamalai University. As a research scholar she did her thesis on “Karanas in Indian dance and sculpture” and focused on the concept that the 108 Karanas (which are the basic units of dance) are actually movements and not just static poses.  For more on Karanas, click here.

After extensive research, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam theorized that the Karanas as depicted on temple facades were not merely static postures but were actually complete movements.  What we see on the temple facades are more like photographs capturing each Karana at a particular point in the movement.  Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam has devoted many years to combining Sage Bharata's description of the sthana, chari and nrtta hasta that make up each Karana to recreate the complete movement of each of the 108 Karanas as described in the Natyasastra.


Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai was a unique teacher. He trained his students with dedication and instilled into them the need to give of their best to Bharatha Natyam. Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai was born into a Isai Vellalar family, the traditional breeding ground of dancers and musicians, Ramiah Pillai was a dance master cast in the traditional mould. He was born in the village Vazhuvoor, a few miles from Mayapuram.

The temple at Vazhuvoor village is dedicated to Lord Siva, under the name of Gannasabeshan, and to this day, the students of Vazhuvoor school, pay obeisance to the deity Gannasabeshan in the form of Thodayamangalam at the beginning of each dance recital. Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai trained numerous dance teachers, and numerous outstanding dancers of today.

He also composed a number of kuravanjies, and was the first one to use snake dance, which was very much popularised by Kamala Lakshmanan. He used mainly Tamil compositions, and varnams by Papanasasivam, and Swathi Thirunal. He himself composed many sabthams keerthanams, padams, and thillanas.

"The nirtha aspect of Bharatha Natyam shone in vibrant vitality throughout Ramiah Pillai's teaching career. He gave equal importance to Abinaya; but his style demanded a certain lilt which was at once dynamic graceful. He was the first one to introduce sticking poses in Bharatha Natyam. This sculpturesque quality became his hallmark and to this he added facile movements to make this dancers look like elegant ballerinas," - Lakshmi Visvanathan.

It is this unique portrayal that lends charm to the Bharatha Natyam presented by Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai's school and makes Vazhuvoor tradition a unique one. Generally there is a popular belief that there are four different styles in Bharatha Natyam, among them Vazhuvoor style gained the worldwide recognition which was to Vazhuvoor's lasting contribution to this great art.

He became an outstanding choreographer and dance director. He founded Vazhuvoorar Classical Bharatha Natya Art Centre at Mylapore, and organised Vazhuvoorar Art Festival in Chennai during the December season. In the closing years of his life he wrote a book 'Theiveka Aadal Kalai' on dance.

- Subashini Pathmanathan (a student of late Padmashree Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai)

*Photographs from top to bottom: Devadasis (temple dancers), Rukmini Devi Arundale, E. Krishna Iyer, Gowri Ammal, Balasaraswati, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, and Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai.