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Indian classical dances originated in the Hindu temples and was a form of worshipping the gods. Bharatnatyam was originally performed by Devadasis in the temples of South India, predominantly Tanjore and Tamil Nadu. It is the oldest classical dance form in India and was also called dasiattam or sadhiraattam. It consists of bhav, rag, taal, and ras and follows all the conventions of Natya Shastra. The technique of body movements in this dance form is guided by Abhinaya Darpana and Sangeet Ratnaka. The name Bharatnatyam was coined by E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale who removed the sringaar or erotic elements from the dance to give it more respectability. The word evolved from bha denoting bhava or emotions, ra or rag meaning musical notes, ta or taal meaning rhythm, and natyam meaning drama.
The existence of Bharatnatyam in India can be traced back to the gopurams in the Chidambaram temple where there are stone carvings of maidens in different Bharatnatyam poses. The Brihaddeshwara temple has been a major center of Bharatnatyam for hundreds of years. This dance form is also mentioned in the Tamil epic, Silappatikaram. Dancers of this art form are usually dressed in bright eye catching costumes with elaborate ornaments and makeup. Ghungroos are an essential part of their costume. The eyes are ringed by collyrium to emphasize eye expressions and fingers and feet colored red with kumkum powder to emphasize foot and hand gestures. There are seven main parts in this dance form namely alarippu or invocation, jatiswaram or nritta part, shabdam or short compositions through word, varnam or story depiction through nritya and nritta, padam or religious prayer such as bhajan or keertanam, thillana or climax, and finally mangalam where the dancer calls for blessing on the audience.
Bharatnatyam is also known as ekaharya where a solo performer takes on many roles in the same performance. The dancer is accompanied by a team consisting of a vocalist, a mrindangam player, veena player, violinist, flautist, and a cymbal player. The guru or the nattuvanar is also usually present at the dance performance. In this style of dance, the dancer has a fixed upper torso with flexed knees and bent legs and displays spectacular footwork. Emotions and expressions are conveyed through gestures of hand and movements of eyes and face muscles. The body language, postures, tones of the vocalist, musical notes, and costumes all work together to communicate the story to the audience. The dance is usually a narration of stories based on Hindu mythology and spiritual ideas. Modern rendition of this dance form also incorporates fusion themes and non-religious ideas too.
The government of India has helped to preserve this art form by establishing Sangeet Natak Akademies all over India. Classical dances in India have flourished with the establishment of dance universities and private dance academies. Bharatnatyam and other classical dances are a form of meditation and bring harmony and calmness in the life of the dancer. It also makes their body fit, strong, and active as this dance form requires total body movement.