Bharatnatyam Dance is considered to be over 2000 years old. Several texts beginning with Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra (200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) provide information on this dance form.
The Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara is one of the main sources of textual material, for the study of the technique and grammar of body movement in Bharatnatyam Dance.
There is also a great deal of visual evidence of this dance form in paintings and stone and metal sculptures of ancient times.
On the gopurams of the Chidambaram temple, one can see a series of Bharatnatyam poses, frozen in stone as it were, by the sculptor.
In many other temples, the charis and karanas of the dance are represented in sculpture
Bharatnatyam dance is known to be ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance..
The repertoire of Bharatnatyam is extensive, however, a performance follows a regular pattern. At first there is an invocation song.
The first dance item is the alarippu, literally meaning – to adorn with flowers. It is an abstract piece combining pure dance with the recitation of sound syllables.
The next item, the jatiswaram is a short pure dance piece performed to the accompaniment of musical notes of any raga of Carnatic music. Jatiswaram has no sahitya or words, but is composed of adavuswhich are pure dance sequences – nritta. They form the basis of training in Bharatnatyam.
As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance – the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime.
Shabdam follows the jatiswaram in a Bharatnatyam dance performance. The accompanying song is generally in adoration of the Supreme Being.
After the shabdam, the dancer performs the varnam. The varnam which is the most important composition of the Bharatnatyam repertoire, encompasses both nritta and nritya and epitomises the essence of this classical dance form. The dancer here performs complicated well graded rhythmic patterns in two speeds showing the control over rhythm, and then goes on to depict in a variety of ways, through abhinaya the lines of the sahitya. This portrays the dancer’s excellence in abhinaya and also reflects the endless creativity of the choreographer.
The varnam is by far one of the most beautiful compositions in Indian dance.