A typical bharatnatyam recital or a complete performance routine is called a Maargam. It consists of the following Items:
- The programme begins with a Pushpanjali which is an offering of flowers to the gods. This is usually set to Raga Naatai or Gambhir Nattai.
- The Pushpanjali is usually followed with a Kauthuvam. This is an invocatory piece in which the dancer tries to invoke the blessings of the God. In olden times, Kauthuvams were performed when the presiding deity was taken out into the streets on religious festivals in processions.
- The third item is the Alaripu. This is an item which prepares the dancer for the heavier items to follow and acts as a warm up dance. The term “Alaripu” means opening or blossoming of a flower. Thus, it starts with the eye and neck movements, followed by the outstretched arms and shoulder movements, followed by the ardhamandali and complete mandali and leg stretches. The dance routine symbolizes the opening of a flower. The dance usually ends with a quick teermanam.
- Jatiswaram that follows is a step up from the alaripu. This is a non narrative piece which has jatis set to the swaras as the name suggests. It has beautiful and complicated jatis set to the tune of the song. It starts with a mnemonic jati or syllables and is followed by the song itself. The dance picks up pace and complicity by the time the item draws to an end.
- After the Jatiswaram, comes the Sabdam. In the Sabdam, as the name suggests, for the first time words or sabda is introduced. It is an expressive piece which involves communication through abhinaya and tells the story or praise of a particular god. Mostly, it ends with “Salamure” or “Namostute” and beautifully relates the life episodes of the gods.
- The Varnam is the most elaborate item of a bharatnatyam performance. Not only is it the most complicated number in terms of nritta and abhinaya but it also tests the dancer’s ability to emote with the audience and to sustain her performance through expression, technique, rhythm, time and space. It is usually in the shringara rasa in which the nayika is longing to be with her lover or deity. It can also be in bhakti rasa. It has jatis alternately intertwined with single lines of sahitya. It brings out the most from a dancer and needs to be performed after years of practice and with a lot of expertise.
- Padams, not as complex as Varnam, are performed to give the dancer a little rest after performing the grueling Varnam. They are expressive narrative items which are in praise of a deity. They give a lot of scope to the dancer to show prowess of abhinaya or expressions.
- After the Padam or in their place, Javalis, Bhajans or Ashtapadis composed by Jayadev may also be performed.
- Tillana is the concluding number of any bharatnatyam repertoire. It is a fast, crisp and energetic number that involves only nritta with a number of jatis set to the song of the dance. It is an epitome of pure artistry where the variegated patterns of movements flow in one sheer rapturous symphony creating alluringly sculpturesque dance poses as found in the temples of South India. Before the climax of the item, there is a short sahitya line in praise of a god after which the dancer makes a quick exit in the alapadma hasta.
This completes the traditional bharatnatyam maargam though nowadays, most recitals end with a Shloka devoted to any of the gods after the Tillana, depending on the theme of the performance.