Written by Biljana Vozarević,
Global member of the Himalayan School of Traditional Dance
Bhāratanāṭyam is one of the oldest dance forms in India and is known for its grace, purity, tenderness, and sculptural poses. It is a classical dance style that originated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The dance form is noted for its fixed upper torso and bent legs which reflect diamond shaped mandalas, accompanied with complex footwork. It is one of the oldest and most widely practised classical dance styles in India.
There are a few versions how Bharatanatyam originated. In our foundation course at the Himalayan School of Traditional Dance, this is what I learnt from my teacher Radha Subramanian, Artistic Director and a professional dancer from the Bramin family.
Bharatanatyam originated during the erosion of true values when people degenerated in consciousness and neglected the ground rules of existence (Sanatana Dharma), along with their inevitable dependency on the highest consciousness, although these eternal truths were well described in the four Vedas (the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda and Atharva-Veda). Therefore, Brahma created the fifth Veda, Natya Shastra. It was created so that the masses learn about righteous living through entertainment, easily impart good deeds, be protected from negativity, increase spiritual powers and to spread global peace. Then Brahma said, “You can spread this on.” The disciples said, “How do we make everybody dance? What should we do about this?” That is when a sage Bharata Muni was taught this art form, along with these hundred disciples. He received it from higher realms of consciousness, directly from the Source. That is where the name Bharatanatyam originated.
Bharatanatyam also has three words, Bhava, Raga and Tala in its name. Bhava, Raga, and Tala are integral elements of Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form. Bhava involves expressing emotions through facial expressions, hand gestures (mudras), and body movements to convey stories and themes. Raga, derived from Indian classical music, plays a vital role in the dance’s musical accompaniment, with the dancer’s movements harmonising with the melodic patterns. Tala focuses on the rhythmic aspect, representing beats through hand gestures (Tala Mudras) and guiding the dancer’s footwork and body movements. The seamless integration of Bhava, Raga, and Tala creates a captivating and spiritually uplifting performance, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Bharatanatyam.
However, because of the sage Bharata who learnt this first from Lord Brahma himself, the name Bharatanatyam originated.
Then Bharata and the hundred disciples danced in front of Shiva. Shiva loved it. He said, “Wow, this is beautiful. This can transform the world. However, one thing is lacking. The grace factor (Kaisiki Vritti).” Kaisiki Vritti is taken from the Sama Veda (Knowledge (‘Veda’ of Music ‘Sama’) and focuses on abhinaya. That is when Apsaras were created. Apsaras (Nymphs) are supernatural beings who appear as young women of great beauty and elegance that are proficient in the art of dancing. So, a hundred sons learnt to dance, and now they needed girls to bring that grace factor, the Shakti factor. Apsaras also learnt the dance form. Then Usha, the daughter of Banasura, learnt it and spread the whole art form of Bharatanatyam to us.
So, this is called the fifth Veda. Natya Shastra is the scripture of Natya. It is a collection of thousands of shlokas.
Bharatanatyam holds immense cultural and spiritual significance in Indian society, serving as a medium to preserve ancient myths, legends, and stories of gods and goddesses. Through expressive movements and hand gestures (mudras), dancers adeptly depict characters and emotions, creating a powerful means of storytelling.
Beyond narratives, Bharatanatyam conveys philosophical concepts like the interplay of good and evil, the pursuit of divine love, and the cycle of life and death. Its spiritual essence lies in elevating both performers and audiences to higher levels of consciousness and devotion. Characterized by tradition and rigorous training, Bharatanatyam demands physical stamina, vigour, flexibility, and a profound understanding of rhythm and music. With its international recognition, the dance form transcends borders, becoming a global ambassador for India’s rich cultural heritage.
Through Dance to Dissolution
I started dancing at an early age, but Bhāratanāṭyam came into my life at the age of 46. I was amazed at how attractive, challenging, and at the same time rejuvenating it is. As in Yoga, it has healing effects and many other benefits. Its postures, mudrās, body part movements (hastas, bedhas) and systematic rhythmic steps (aḍavus) enable a dancer to establish and enhance mind-body-spirit connection and incorporate several physical, psychological, and emotional wellness elements.
Life gifted me with sweet devotional experiences of dancing many times in front of Mohanji, who calls himself just simply a Friend to the World, and I call him my Guru, and in my connection to his consciousness, I feel him as a friend whom I can trust or my eternal beloved. Utterly uplifting, these performances in his physical presence made me feel immense, ecstatically intense joy and connect to myself even deeper. These were the moments when life seemed to be perfect. Moments of total fulfilment.
Bharathanatyam dance offers something which I haven’t seen in other dances. I used to be a dancer of classical dances such as English waltz, Vienna waltz, Foxtrot, then Slowfox, Tango, and Latino-American dances such as Samba, Rhumba, Cha-cha-cha, Pasodoble, Jive and also Disco dance, rap, etc. But unlike a male-female relationship, which is the focus in other dances, a romance between a male and a female, and the relationship between a male and female, here, the focus is on romance with the divine within – romance with this infinite, immortal space within us and outside of us. This energy which is an unmoved mover, which we are part of. We identify with that all the time, and express devotion, express ourselves in every way, feel this respect, and feel this devotion to that.
This changed my perspective to dance. I realised I could use dance as a spiritual practice, for alignment, because it requires full concentration, total melting and disappearing into the dance itself. In Mohanji’s words, “The aim is that while dancing you should not exist. When you dance, you should become the dance. A dancer melts into the dance. That’s a true dance – for which you need to know the laws, the techniques, the methods, so that it’s not wild movement. It is synchronised movement, focused movement, for you to dissolve. The aim is dissolution through dance. It is very, very important to understand this.”
I am grateful to our Radha Subramanian for bringing this art form to Serbia and the Balkans altogether.
Being a passionate dancer, I both experienced and explored the healing benefits of this art form. Here is what I found:
Physical Health Benefits
Enhanced Cardiovascular Fitness
The constant movement, including footwork and poses, increases the heart rate, thereby improving cardiovascular health.
Muscular Strength and Endurance
Bhāratanāṭyam requires dancers to hold poses and execute complex footwork, which enhances muscular strength and endurance. Focusing mainly on the lower body muscles, including those in the legs, thighs, and hips, it demonstrates notable effectiveness.
“It turns on an amazing suite of physiological processes that counter ageing, i.e. senescence. It turns on repair and maintenance processes that not only keep our muscles strong but also keep our DNA from accruing mutations. Keep our mitochondrial numbers high. Keep the cells in our brain from accumulating gunk. So it prevents Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. And as you age, physical activity is increasingly important for your health and well-being,” says paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman.
The dance incorporates complex movements that require flexibility. With regular practice, a dancer can significantly improve their body flexibility. I can guarantee that because I use and maintain the flexibility I got from Yoga, active lifestyle, intermittent fasting, i.e. seven years of autophagy and vegan diet.
Balance and Coordination
Bhāratanāṭyam requires controlled movements and poses, which can help improve balance and coordination. This can be particularly beneficial for older adults, reducing their risk of falls. For me, it is amazing for maintaining my body’s agility.
As a vigorous exercise, Bhāratanāṭyam can aid in maintaining a healthy weight and promoting fat loss. Especially as it requires planned meals, e.g. not eating a few hours before dancing sessions, or keeping the meals light. Food should be of good quality, nourishing and in moderation.
Engaging in dancing and other aspects of life enhances self-control without resorting to suppression.
Improved Bone Health
Bhāratanāṭyam’s weight-bearing nature contributes to bone strengthening, reducing osteoporosis risk, especially vital for women prone to age-related bone density decline. Osteologist D. Alex Ruiz highlights that muscle-intensive exercises impact attached bones, enhancing their anchoring for muscles. Strengthening knees and joints varies based on individual conditions, with consultation advised for degenerative bone/joint issues. Proper execution is crucial, preventing knee, ankle, shoulder, and wrist injuries. Awareness of your body’s limits is key, ensuring movements are precise.
Bhāratanāṭyam emphasises keeping a straight and disciplined posture throughout the dance. The continuous practice of maintaining such a posture can translate into everyday life, resulting in improved overall posture and a reduction in back and neck pain.
Increased Energy Levels
Regular physical activity, such as Bhāratanāṭyam, increases the body’s energy levels. As you get used to the physical demand of the dance, your overall stamina and energy levels may improve.
Mental and Emotional Health Benefits
Bhāratanāṭyam involves memorising sequences of steps and rhythms, which stimulates memory functions in the brain. This can help slow down cognitive decline and improve retention. One lady came for a trial lesson and said, “You, ladies are 100% with these aḍavus and other movements. Your mind had no chance to wonder even a second. With Bhāratanāṭyam, you can never have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease!”
Improves Concentration and Focus
Bhāratanāṭyam requires intense concentration and a deep understanding of rhythm and timing, which can enhance cognitive abilities. In classes, you must be with your mind fully present, or you will make mistakes. That way, your focus and ability to concentrate are improved. From my experience, if I checked what time it was, opened the window, or moved my laptop, I would lose track, and it is more difficult for me to remember the steps in new choreography. With full concentration, it is easy. You neither have time to think nor do you need it.
The focused movements and the rhythmic music can act as a form of meditation, helping to clear the mind and reduce stress levels. It is absolutely amazing when you come from unexpected, challenging situations and all kinds of wears and tears of life into this oasis where you can soak in the bliss of devotion, joy and inner peace. It is a romance with the sacred space in your inner core. Bad emotions simply get shaken off, and you don’t replay them again and again.
Boosts Confidence and Self-esteem
Mastering complex steps and sequences can provide a sense of achievement, boosting confidence and self-esteem. Furthermore, they are making a dancer tap into new dimensions which cannot be reached through words.
The music, rhythmic movements, and sense of achievement can significantly enhance mood and promote a feeling of happiness.
Dancing is a form of expressive art. Bhāratanāṭyam offers prayers, chants or tells stories through dance, providing an outlet for expressing and releasing emotions. This can lead to improved emotional health and well-being. In your expressions, you can be angry, frustrated, surprised, sad, desperate, proud, arrogant, and on the other hand, compassionate, kind, loving, bubbly, chirpy, joyful, and ecstatic… At the same time, you are aware that you are not your emotions.
Promotes Discipline and Responsibility
Learning Bhāratanāṭyam requires consistent practice and dedication. This commitment fosters a sense of discipline and responsibility, qualities that are beneficial in all areas of life. For example, if I don’t practice, I will not be able to catch new things in the next class, and it will be very difficult to continue. On the other hand, when I practice, it seems to be easy. Consistent practice is the key to really enjoying it.
Fosters Social Interaction
Learning and performing Bhāratanāṭyam in a group setting allows for social interaction, improving communication skills and fostering a sense of community. Many of us from around the world enjoy practising English among friends – dancers and our Artistic Director of the Himalayan School of Traditional Dance, Radha Subramanian, from whom we also keep learning Sanskrit in our lessons. We have a great time performing at various public events, festivals, etc.
Bhāratanāṭyam is a traditional Indian dance form and offers an opportunity to learn about and appreciate Indian culture. I have learnt a lot about this art form’s costumes and customs, make-up, and spiritual aspects.
Bhāratanāṭyam focuses on aligning movement with breath, promoting a strong mind-body connection and inducing a sense of calm and peace. The calmer we become, i.e., the more inner peace we have, the more stable we are and the better we respond to situations inside and outside of us. We become more and more liberated from them. Gradually, we can reach a level of awareness where we have everything, but we need nothing, which is a liberated existence. Nothing binds you. Nothing owns you.
In the past, people performed Bhāratanāṭyam in temples as a means of worship. It involves storytelling that incorporates themes from Hindu mythology, thus fostering a sense of spirituality. It enhances connection with frequencies within yourself through feeling (bhāv). We have assigned forms of Gods and Goddesses to these frequencies, even though they exist within us. Without giving them forms, we wouldn’t have been aware of their existence. E.g. a good dictionary will define 140,000 – 200,000 words. And in Hindu mythology, ṛṣis (sages) defined and illustrated 330,000,000 Gods, i.e. aspects of existence. Could you imagine what kind of intellect could have conceptualised that? Therefore, Bhāratanāṭyam serves as a traditional and time-tested powerful tool that elevates us to the subtler worlds within ourselves
Just like previously mentioned, learning Bhāratanāṭyam should occur under the guidance of a trained professional to prevent injuries and should not substitute conventional medical treatment. Always consult a healthcare professional for medical advice.
Bhāratanāṭyam is more than a dance; it’s a celebration of life. In every gesture, every rhythm, every story, it embodies the spectrum of human emotions and experiences. Whether its artistic beauty, the promotion of physical fitness, the instillation of mental discipline, or the provision of spiritual calm that draws you, I extend an invitation for you to embrace the joy of Bhāratanāṭyam by dancing with the divine.
Recordings of HSTD foundation course classes by Radha Subramanian, Artistic Director of Himalayan School of Traditional Dance
“Exercised” by Harward professor, paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman
Quora, Q&A on bone health and exercise by D. Alex Ruiz, an osteologist