April 1, 2021


Indigenous Art & Culture

 Author : Nrityachuramani Rahul Dev Mondal  ( Assistant Professor , Rabindra Bharati University , Department of Dance )

According to the great legendary dancer T.S.Balasaraswati, “The traditional order of the BharatNatyam- alarippu, jatiswaram, shabdam, varnam, padam, tillana and shloka or verse, is the correct sequence for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal.”

 Bharatnatyam, the classical Indian dance form is so much more than merely a type of dance. Ever since its origin thousands of years ago it has also been a powerful medium of communication too. This is further reinforced when we try to trace the origin and history of Bharatnatyam. According to the Natya Shastra, the classical work on theatrical art by Bharata Muni, written in the 2nd century B.C., the very creation of dance was to draw people away from evil influences. As such its remarkable feature is to create empathy by arousing an involvement of the audience, which achieves an emotional unity between the performer and the viewer and the society at large. Bharatnatyam has the distinction of being both devotional and secular as it traces its roots from the temples and courts to the stages and modern day arenas.

Today, it is an art form that has stood the test of time while evolving and changing with the changing social, political and social scenarios. From a purely ritual art confined to the temples, today it has come to be the most popular classical dance form of India in terms to its beauty of technique, themes conveyed and the fact that it is performed by one and all cutting across caste, class or geographical borders.

The unique quality of Bharatnatyam is that every minute detail of gesture and movement has been codified, analysed and preserved in such a manner that it has reached the highest form of perfection. The dancers act as vehicles to project thematic content and messages to the audience through a meaningful gesture language which offers an unlimited scope for depiction of any thought or idea. The nuances of this dance form are considered a language by itself.

The relevance of Bharatnatyam at any point of time is also owing to the fact that the art form is pliant, pliable and flexible. It is pliant as a theme can be expanded or contracted. It is pliable since it is possible to mould an idea with the help of changing gestures and abhinaya. It is flexible since the theme and gesture can be used in a variety of ways to project the idea, emotion or story. The Bharatnatyam Margam comprises items which were composed keeping in mind the attitude of dancers and the social conditions of the particular period when they were composed. But they always revolved around human emotions, like the nayak- nayika relations, presence of evil elements in society, prevalence of good over evil, seeking a path of self realisation etc. Such emotions are timeless and universal and hence have relevance at any point of time.

Even dance dramas like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, parts of which are often staged in Bharatnatyam, interpret meaningful messages on the ways of life. At a time when there is violence in thought, word and action, Bharatntayam continues to communicate divine messages by initiating people into spiritualism, helping them transcend petty emotions. Bharatnatyam also has the capability to focus on contemporary social issues like female infanticide, violence against women, religious controversies, oil conservation, AIDS awareness, emancipation of women etc. to motivate people towards a social transformation. It uses contemporary poetry, calls for interaction between dancers, musicians and writers. The bharatnatyam gurus organise sabhas, lectures, talks, discussions, workshops, festivals to promote it. Accordingly, innovations are also attempted without losing out on the core aesthetic values, without a compromise on the quality and grammar of Bharatnatyam.

The music used in Bharatnatyam also is not just limited to Carnatic music. It is used as a vehicle to promote ashtapadis, bhajans , ghazals, popular film songs and also being experimented on popular western music too. The beauty of it is that it moulds itself with any kind or genre of music and expresses the emotion and meaning convincingly.

There are innumerable Bharatnatyam artists spread out not only in the country but in all parts of the world. They are continuously promoting the dance form through performances, lectures, seminars and experimental work with other instrumental and performing artists. The Guru-Shishya Parampara, the strongest living tradition of passing the knowledge, skill and the art of Bharatnatyam is the most common way of carrying this legacy forward. Generations of dancers and Gurus have taken this tradition forward, teaching the classical while adding their own contemporary essence to it. The response to Bharatnatyam across the globe is overwhelming. It is the most popular Indian classical dance form and has been accepted embraced the world over.

In conclusion, it can be said that in spite of its apparent rigidity, the art of Bharatnatyam is almost like a fresh canvas in the hands of each artiste, as popular as it was centuries ago under the patronage of the kings and as dynamic and evolving that it keeps millions of aspiring dancers across the globe ever interested in it and allows them to express themselves through it in their own imaginative ways, making it more distinctive and relevant be it today or thousands of years later.

 Margam means a path or a course followed. It is one full definite course where in dance items are performed in a traditional order. The items that are included are Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Tillana and Shloka or Verse.

Margam is the presentation format of the Bharatanatyam dance form. Through the presentation it imparts the knowledge of the interminable truth – “All human beings are the limited manifestation of the Ultimate Being” [1] and suggests that the goal of every single being in the world is “reunion of the soul with the Absolute Soul” [2]. The margam suggests a spiritual path.

Through “the elements of margam”, the theme of evolution of the self/spirit on the spiritual path is put forth. In truly “epical style” [3], the theme is carried forward. At the outset, the truth of the human life (allaripu) is put forward, then the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padams and javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of life (shloka).

Margam is a concept, a framework, or one can say it is a well-thought-of plan to approach any Bharatanatyam recital. With the increase of thematic presentations and group productions (which I think are a great step forward in the future of the art culture), a solo Margam has become an uncommon experience for audiences specially in the West. It is my hope to continue to bring this experience to the audience out of India. The Margam is relative and subjective, flexible enough to incorporate a variety of dance compositions set in the Bharatanatyam movement vocabulary. A Margam typically consists of an invocatory piece, a central piece, abhinaya pieces and a culminating piece.


The word ‘Alarippu’ means ‘blooming’ (root ‘alaru’ may be found in telugu, tamil and other Dravidian languages). Alarippu is short invocatory Nritta item. It’s meaning is paying obeisance or salutation to God, guru and audience. It opens performance and also opens dancer’s body – limbs are warmed up by simple movements, mind is focused by precise rhythm and emotions are activated by harmony and beauty of traditional choreography and inner joy of dance, so dear to each dancer.

Alarippu can be performed in different thalas and jatis, traditional alarrippu-s are rupaka, misra chapu and chaturasra eka thalam alarippu.


This is pure Nritta item set to tune (ragam) in particular rhythm (thalam). Jathiswasram includes Jathi (sollukattu), Pallavi, Anupallavi and one or more Charanas. There is no any sahityam passages present her, the whole composition is sung by swaras.

The meaning of Nritta, pure dance, is using the God given body and limbs we create as many forms of beauty as possible through flow of poses and movements connected together by rhythm and music. Beauty and inner joy of dance is the only meaning of Nritta. It doesn’t have any particular mood or sentiment. It produces aesthetic pleasure.

In answer to question asked by the sages, Bharata explained: “The dance is occasioned by no specific needs. It has come into use because it creates beauty.”

As a dance composition, jathiswaram includes jathi and several korvais set to Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanas. Some korvais are intervened by Mai adavu (set of adavus characterized by elaborate body movement).

Famous Jatiswarams are composed in ragas Kalyani, Chakravakam, Arabi, Vasanta, Saveri, Kamas.


This is a song in praise of deity or some ruler. The other name of this musical composition is ‘Yasho geetam’ (song in praise). In olden days all Shabdams were composed in Kamboji ragam. Nowadays shabdams are sung in raga malika, but the first ragam of the sequence should be Kamboji. Majority of shabdams are set to Misra Chapu thalam.

Shabdam starts with short jathi. Each line of sahityam is repeated several times. Dancer should explain it through pada artha (word by word) and vachika artha (sanchari) abhinaya. Each line is concluded by short jathi when the dancer executes set of simple adavus.

‘In the Varnam, teermanam-s should be in proportion to the rest of the piece. Disproportionately lenghy teermenam-s spoil the continuity of the work. So do unnecessary long Sanchari-s. When Sanchari go beyond three or four avarta-s (rhythmical cycles), the dance turns into a drama or mono-acting. At one recital, I counted as many as 60 repetitions of a line, at which point I gave up counting. This kind of a thing distorts the form of the varnam. IT is possible to communicate what is necessary in the shortest span of time.’

‘The kalapramanam (tempo) for a varnam should be moderate. This enhances the beauty of the presentation. In the older forms, tattu mettu was never done for the Pallavi and Anupallavi. Tattu mettu was done for the Chittaswara sahitya. The continuity of teermanam-s should also not be broken. Adavu-s should be in proportion to the teermanam-s.’

The stage space should be correctly used. Just as the delineation of adavu is important, so also are the lines created when covering the stage. A dancer should not wander on the stage; there are certain prescribed ways of moving which should be respected.’

‘For the Sanchari-s in the varnam, the various subtle meanings of the song should be used within the context. This will make the presentation attractive.’

Padam may be described as musical monologue. To understand meaning of Padam it is very essential to comprehend relationship between the heroine (Nayaki) and the hero (Nayaka).
In Padam human soul is represented by female lover (Jeevatma) yearning for union with supreme being (Paramatma). This type of relationship is called ‘Sringara-bhakti’ (devotion through love of the highest, dignified kind).

Padams give the widest scope for Abhinaya, expression of sentiments, emotions, feelings, moods including all the shades possible.
Before performing a padam, the one should visualize the hero and heroine, the previous history of their relationships, the current situation, the mood and intentions of the heroine (or hero, depends upon from whose name the padam is sung) and possible development of the situation between the lovers.

Padams are suggestive, they admit dual meaning – direct and indirect aspects. Padams are centered round theme of love, which is basic and underlying mood of Padam. Over this mood different emotions may be expressed, according to situation and character of the heroine and hero, but they should not break the main stream of tender affectionate feeling of love flowing underneath. Anger is often pretended, suffering is mingled with hope and indignation is softened by hidden affection.


Keertanas deal with glories of the Gods. It includes Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charana-s. Keertanas are set to lighter ragas. It is usually sung in Madhyama kalam (medium tempo). Sahityam narrates prayers and stories from Puranas, thus basic bhava of keertanam is Bhakti.

As a dance composition, Keertanam is abhinaya item, where lines of sahityam are intervened with jathis and swaras during which the dancer executes different korvais (sets of adavus).


In contrast to Padams (songs of dignified love), Javali-s are songs reflecting very casual aspects of love, in light and playful manner. They emphasize amorous (and even erotic) nature of relationships between the lovers.

Javalis are set to lighter ragas. It is usually sung in Madhyama kalam (medium tempo) or faster. Language of sahityam is very simple, even colloquial. It is also suggestive but in playful sense, without deep philosophical insinuations.


Main feature if Thillana is brick and attractive music. Thillanas are sung in the end of either music or dance performance.

Thillana includes Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. Is starts from eye movements, followed by several Mai Adavus (featuring elaborate body movements) set to Pallavi. After Mai adavu several korvais (sets of adavus) are performed set to Pallavi and Anupallavi.

Usi adavu is another feature of Thillana, when dancer covers the stage by quick and fast sequence of movements. Thillana is Nritta item, but there is always one-two line slokam in the end when dancer performs abhinaya (Addressing the deity last time before to conclude the program).


Sometimes a recital concludes with a sloka (prayer). The sanchari-s in a sloka should be brief. This is an item without tala and provides felief after the earlier items. It also gives the musicians a chance to use their creativity.


Rukmini Devi, “The Spiritual Background of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Khokar, Mohan, “NATYA Bhagavata Mela and Kuchipudi.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.

Kothari, Sunil, Bharata Natyam. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000.

Kothari, Sunil, Photo Biography of Rukmini Devi. Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation

Chandrasekharan, K., “The Kalakshetra’s “Ramayana”.” The Illustrated Weekly of India 20 Aug. 1961: 36-38.

Rukmini Devi Arundale Birth Centenary Volume. Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation, 2004 Iyer, E. Krishna, “A Brief Historical Survey of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.