Bharatnatyam, the classical Indian dance form is so much more than merely a type of dance. Ever since its origin thousands of years ago it has also been a powerful medium of communication too. This is further reinforced when we try to trace the origin and history of Bharatnatyam. According to the Natya Shastra, the classical work on theatrical art by Bharata Muni, written in the 2nd century B.C., the very creation of dance was to draw people away from evil influences. As such its remarkable feature is to create empathy by arousing an involvement of the audience, which achieves an emotional unity between the performer and the viewer and the society at large. Bharatnatyam has the distinction of being both devotional and secular as it traces its roots from the temples and courts to the stages and modern day arenas.
Today, it is an art form that has stood the test of time while evolving and changing with the changing social, political and social scenarios. From a purely ritual art confined to the temples, today it has come to be the most popular classical dance form of India in terms to its beauty of technique, themes conveyed and the fact that it is performed by one and all cutting across caste, class or geographical borders.
The unique quality of Bharatnatyam is that every minute detail of gesture and movement has been codified, analysed and preserved in such a manner that it has reached the highest form of perfection. The dancers act as vehicles to project thematic content and messages to the audience through a meaningful gesture language which offers an unlimited scope for depiction of any thought or idea. The nuances of this dance form are considered a language by itself.
The relevance of Bharatnatyam at any point of time is also owing to the fact that the art form is pliant, pliable and flexible. It is pliant as a theme can be expanded or contracted. It is pliable since it is possible to mould an idea with the help of changing gestures and abhinaya. It is flexible since the theme and gesture can be used in a variety of ways to project the idea, emotion or story. The Bharatnatyam Margam comprises items which were composed keeping in mind the attitude of dancers and the social conditions of the particular period when they were composed. But they always revolved around human emotions, like the nayak- nayika relations, presence of evil elements in society, prevalence of good over evil, seeking a path of self realisation etc. Such emotions are timeless and universal and hence have relevance at any point of time.
Even dance dramas like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, parts of which are often staged in Bharatnatyam, interpret meaningful messages on the ways of life. At a time when there is violence in thought, word and action, Bharatntayam continues to communicate divine messages by initiating people into spiritualism, helping them transcend petty emotions. Bharatnatyam also has the capability to focus on contemporary social issues like female infanticide, violence against women, religious controversies, oil conservation, AIDS awareness, emancipation of women etc. to motivate people towards a social transformation. It uses contemporary poetry, calls for interaction between dancers, musicians and writers. The bharatnatyam gurus organise sabhas, lectures, talks, discussions, workshops, festivals to promote it. Accordingly, innovations are also attempted without losing out on the core aesthetic values, without a compromise on the quality and grammar of Bharatnatyam.
The music used in Bharatnatyam also is not just limited to Carnatic music. It is used as a vehicle to promote ashtapadis, bhajans , ghazals, popular film songs and also being experimented on popular western music too. The beauty of it is that it moulds itself with any kind or genre of music and expresses the emotion and meaning convincingly.
There are innumerable Bharatnatyam artists spread out not only in the country but in all parts of the world. They are continuously promoting the dance form through performances, lectures, seminars and experimental work with other instrumental and performing artists. The Guru-Shishya Parampara, the strongest living tradition of passing the knowledge, skill and the art of Bharatnatyam is the most common way of carrying this legacy forward. Generations of dancers and Gurus have taken this tradition forward, teaching the classical while adding their own contemporary essence to it. The response to Bharatnatyam across the globe is overwhelming. It is the most popular Indian classical dance form and has been accepted embraced the world over.
In conclusion, it can be said that in spite of its apparent rigidity, the art of Bharatnatyam is almost like a fresh canvas in the hands of each artiste, as popular as it was centuries ago under the patronage of the kings and as dynamic and evolving that it keeps millions of aspiring dancers across the globe ever interested in it and allows them to express themselves through it in their own imaginative ways, making it more distinctive and relevant be it today or thousands of years later.