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Bharatanaatyam - Salient features
- V.P.Dhananjayan
from his book "beyond Performing: Art and Cluture"

January 2012

The Art of Bharata is as vast as the sea and an attempt to measure its depth is futile. 

The Indian (Bhaarata) dance tradition has a common scriptural code of conduct delineated in the scriptural text known as the Naatya Saastra (which is supposed to be the essence of the four Vedas or books of knowledge).  This is a mother book handed down from several centuries and every existing dance tradition in the region of the Indian subcontinent claims adherence to this text.  While each region has developed and retained some of the salient features of this total theatrical art-form, complied in this mother text book, Bharatanaatyam has a judicious combination of the salient features of the complete and comprehensive technique.

The purpose of Visual Art
The basic philosophy, significance and method of practice may vary from country to country, region to region or even village to village.  But the overall need of a three dimensional concept and approach to dance may be common to all.  They are physical, mental and spiritual.  The body becomes the vehicle to communicate ideas, ideals of physiology or philosophy.  To achieve this goal, Bharatanaatyam employed a three dimensional approach to educate the illiterate, to enlighten the literate and entertain the enlightened.  These are also the three purposes of a visual medium like dance - to educate, enlighten and entertain or give pleasure to the soul (spiritual).
The pure body exercise, physical exploration is known as the Nritta (easily understood by commoners).  Mental application for communication, involving a high intellectual practice is known as Nritya (for educated or literates) and spiritual upliftment through the experience of enjoying the art of communication is known as Naatya (for enlightened ones).  Therefore body, mind and soul contribute to the making of this art form a total theatre art integrating life and philosophy.

The Sanskritam language term 'nritta' or 'nruta' generally refers to the pure, abstract, body exercises and rhythmic movements.  While there are innumerable varieties of positions, postures and designs using head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, body-torso, hip, toes, heels, etc. (precisely the whole body kinetics), the ten 'mandala sthaana' (body position and postures) are the basic frames on which the rhythmic movements are built.

The main text talks about 108 Karanaas (exercises executed by a combination of hand and feet movements), of which only a few are employed to show movements, a few for static and specific poses, and the rest to be applied in the martial arts, which is a form of art exercise to build a good physique.

The exquisite dance carvings on the Indian monumental temples and palaces are the testimony to the exuberance of beauty that can be exhibited by the human body, the body thus becoming a vehicle of art communication.  The basic philosophy of cleansing the environment or the temple surroundings before entering the sanctum sanctorum is applied in the practice of these body exercises to enter the next level of 'mental' involvement, 'the mind' being the sanctum and body being the temple.

The sheer variety of body exercises, in mathematical permutations within a complicated rhythmic cycle, are a unique feature in Bharatanaatyam and an integral part of the identity of this style of classical dance tradition preserved and developed in the southern part of India (Bhaarata).  Ample provision and scope for innovations within the tradition gives Bharatanaatyam a direct link from the ancient times to the modern.

'Nritta' also means never-ending.  The time cycle of rhythm in all living beings generates the power of eternity.  The same philosophy is applied to dance too, thus making pure dance cycles ever creative and enchanting to the minds of all living things, particularly human minds.  While there is no direct verbal communication between the dancer and the onlooker, nritta gives joy to one and all and the scripture too says so.

Nritya is probably the most unique aspect of the Indian dance technique in general.  In Bharatanaatyam especially, it is a very effective communicative body language carried forward to this new age.  It is open to changes, innovations and development of any kind brought by time.

The mother text, Naatya Saastra, categorically encourages the practitioners of this art to flow with the times and evolve new techniques to accomodate the changes that occur in the historical course of human civilization.

Technically, Nritya is the application of physical movement in conjunction with the mind - a combination of mind, body and rhythm.  In place of verbal, vocal language, Bharata's art gives a language of the body.  Just like the written scripts of languages, gestures of various kinds form the basic alphabets that are then woven into words, and then into sentences.  The fundamental single and join-handed 'hastaas' (gestures) are 52 in number and the vocabulary or usage of the 'mudras' (sign language) is like a dictionary.  Anything and everything can be shown and communicated through this highly sophisticated gesture language developed and passed down the ages.

To express the meaning of the words thus executed, the major and minor limbs are used.  The dancer's face becomes the mirror of the mind, and the poetic ideas in songs that are explored by a Bharatanaatyam dancer become visible to the audience through the facial expression or mime and the effective use of body stance and movements.  A complete meditative involvement transforms the mind whose thoughts are then articulated by the artiste, who communicates in this special way.  So, 'nritya' or the communicative aspect of Bharatanaatyam is a very unique feature that stands out when compared with other dance techniques from around the world.

The following verse from the scripture explains the unique place of Bharatanaatyam when compared to other forms and the coordinated efforts of the mind, body and soul. 

Translation of the Samskritam verse:
"where the hand go, the eyes should follow;
where the eyes go, the mind should follow;
where the mind is employed, there expression is born;
and then the enjoyment of the art is carried to the audience"

This can be interpreted this way too:
"where the hands cannot reach, the eyes can,
where the eyes cannot reach, the mind can,
when the mind is involved in expressing sentiments,
enjoyment or taste is experienced by the onlookers".
Just as certain things cannot be verbally explained but can be experienced only through practice, so also this aspect of the technique can be understood only by practical demonstration.

According to Bharata's Naatya Saastra and its practical application, the dramatic delineation leaves an imprint on the minds of people faster than any other method.  Therefore, according to the divine theory of origin of dance, Naatya or dramatic presentations were created first to attract undisciplined minds, while incorporating the 'nritta or nritya' aspect of the art of dance.  The combination of these three aspects caters to the three different interest levels of human beings whose minds are of the lower, middle and higher category.

Music, dance, poetry, painting, sculpture and all that goes hand in hand with life, these are all evoked in Naatya, making it a comprehensive idiom for communication, education and entertainment.  The four kinds of expressive communication, through the body, through costumes and ornaments, through speech and through the creation of blissful enjoyment, are expressed in Naatya.

So, Naatya can be interpreted as a comprehensive thematic drama of any kind (historical, mythological, or of a social or political story) with many characters, or a single dancer enacting different roles and narrating the story.

Using the three-dimensional aspects of Nritta, Nritya and Naatya of Bharatanaatyam, anything and everything can be created to entertain, enlighten and educate the world.

V.P Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta Dhananjayan, popularly known as the Dhananjayans are one of the legendary dancing couples of India.  They have trained several students through their dance school Bharatakalanjali.