About Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is the manifestation of an ancient idea of the celebration of an eternal universe, through the celebration of the beauty of the material body. The dance form brings together expression, beautiful musical composition, rhythm, Indian mythology and musical theatre on a single stage. The dance form also brings out the complimentary art form like costume design, set design, facial make up, lighting etc.

Bharatanatyam has roots more than 2000 years old. The present day dance form of Bharatanatyam is around 250 years ago. The art was traditionally a solo dance form performed by women within the temple. Only in the 20th century, the art emerged from the temple to take its place as one of India’s premier theater art forms. Today, Bharatanatyam is learned and performed by men and women of all classes in India and abroad.

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Our Style

We dance the Kalakshetra and Pandanallur styles.  Now these words are specific references that reflect the work we do.  But what does that really mean?

Originial masters of Bharatanatyam belonged to the Isai Vallalar community.  One of the doyens of the Art form was Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai who taught Rukmini Devi.  Rukmini Devi founded Kalakshetra.  As was the need of the hour in the pre-Independence period, she removed most of the Shringara abhinaya (themes of love and passion) and introduced more Bhakti (devotion).  Rukmini Devi used the same Pandanallur style that she learnt but made her own changes.  She made the pieces faster and brought about the rigor of making sure all the students followed the same standards of executing abhinaya and adavus so that group work looked more uniform.

But now that so many years have passed, why do we still focus on Bhakti and not bring back the beautiful Shringara into our dance?  Is there a reason?  Has not the context of the dance changed enough and the public mature enough to view the Art in the hall?

It is critical to note that several current generation renowned teachers who have studied Bharatanatyam seriously have moved on after their intense training to adapt the studies and created their own styles within the framework of the original grammar.   Some of them have made path breaking changes.  So, newer styles have emerged.  So what looks attractive to the audience is pretty much because of the dancer / teacher.

Mrinalini Sarabhai – studied with Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai also and has made up the Darpana style

Padma Subramanian – originally Vazhavoor style – extensive research on Natyashastra including Karanas has led to new style.

Sheela Unnikrishnan – Mangudi style, knowledge of Kuchipudi resulted in new style

Chitra Viswesvaran and Priyadarshini Govind – both Vazhavoor style – but the dance is pretty different

Here is our adaptation of the Kalakshetra and Pandanallur forms

Adavus:  The adavus system or the grammar of steps we teach is according to the Kalashetra style.  If you move to another teacher of the Kalashetra style, you can fit your child in the class without trouble.  When writing notes, our seventh natadavu and 4th ta tei tei ta are the same as any other class.

Items:  We teach some of the Kalakshetra style items without changing any of the choreography.  So you can dance together with any group of dancers who know the same item with minimal preparation – Tisram Allarippu, Ragamalika Jathiswaram, Ayar sheriyar shabdam, Paras tillana etc.

Abhinaya:  The hall mark of the Pandanallur is subtle abhinaya or expressions.  No attempts are made to communicate everything clearly to the audience.  In fact, the dancing is not focussed on pleasing the audience at all. Both the Kalakshetra and Pandanallur styles focus on emoting what you feel so that the audience moves with you.  The goal is elevation through empathy.  But most of the audience finds that it is very hard to understand the dance.  At the same time, the few people who have the refinement find our work meditative.

Choreography:  This is the most challenging because it is truly a derivative of our learning.  You either like it or you don’t.  And like the others, it is an adaptation of what I have learnt and studied all these years.  My thinking has been shaped by my parents, my upbrining, my Gurus, my education, my former corporate workplace, my friends and my sensitivity to the world.  So it is uniquely my experience that I bring to my dance and impart that to my students.  It is not going to be the same as any of the Kalakshetra teachers or Pandanallur teachers.  And the beauty is my teachers do not expect that it will be the same.  They gave me freedom and I have chosen.  I give the same freedom to my students and they are free to move on.

Written by Smt. M. Subhashini Vijay Santhanam

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