Bharatanatyam has many dimensions. They include body movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, footwork, costumes, music, repertoire, and themes of performances. Because Bharatanatyam is so well developed, all of these aspects of the art have been codified, and are documented in ancient scriptures as well as recent books. Our description of Bharatanatyam is intended for a spectator, and one who is relatively unfamiliar with the dance, as opposed to a dance student, professional, or scholar.
Rukmini Devi has said that the difference between a technical expert and an artistic genius is the ability to master the technique and then forget it. By transcending technique and forgetting oneself, a dancer enters the spirit of the dance and expresses it. Similarly, those of us interested in Bharatanatyam can benefit by knowing a little about the technique and language of the art form. Otherwise, we can be distracted or puzzled by details of technique or appearance, and miss the deeper meaning. When we are accustomed to the mode of expression of Bharatanaytam, then we can see beyond it, and experience what is being expressed in the performance.
We’ll touch on the terminology and organization of various elements of the dance, outline the different dance items that make up a recital, and attempt to explain how they all come together to give expression to the dancer and enjoyment to the audience. Since our description doesn’t cover the categories of movements, expressions, and other elements of Bharatanatyam in great depth, we’ll provide references for further study.
We’ll focus on solo Bharatanatyam performances for our description. What is most commonly meant by Bharatanatyam today is a solo performance by a female dancer, although performances by males, group dances, and even dance dramas are done under the name of Bharatanatyam. We’ll also stick to what’s come to be generally accepted as traditional Bharatanatyam over the past century, ignoring for now various “innovative” mutations of the dance form.