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Bharatanatyam Pedagogy – A Structural & Methodical Building Block

Akshara Bharadwaj

I am a dance teacher and I love my job. Working with children as young as four, who sometimes find it hard to distinguish between right and left and sides; to thirty year olds, who come with a rigid mindset to absorb something new- it is a challenge to teach all of these students a classical art form such as Bharatanatyam, which is filled with intricacies of objective technique and subjective aesthetics. Exponents have thought about this in the last century and have devised a methodical pedagogy for this purpose. Learning the art of communication through a dance style, is like learning a language. Here’s how.

Bharatanatyam’s systematic format starts from the very first training session of a dancer or a student. A dancer starts his/ her routine with exercises to warm up her body and make it flexible, namaskāra (prayer to the almighty, mother Earth, teacher and the esteemed and learned audience), a set of adavus or basic foundation steps and so on. We may see that the training technique and the process are very methodically put forth.

As a dancer, I also understand the intricacies of the art form and I am equally interested in knowing the history behind the systematization of it; which gives dancers of today a framework and discipline to study, practice and perform in. The doyen of modern Bharatanatyam, Kalakshetra’s Rukmini Arundale gave a framework to the present day teaching- learning style. However, the music for the repertoire followed in Bharatanatyam, which is intrinsic to the art form itself; was developed by Saint Sri. Purandara Dasa, hailed as the ‘Sangeeta Pitamaha‘. It is this reform, systematization and the Bhakti movement that orients and shapes all the present day South Indian classical arts.

In music, simple swarās (sa-ri-ga-ma) are followed by, complicated swara patterns such as Alankāras. This is followed by a prayer to Ganesha (as seen in the Karnatik Music teaching modules as ‘Pillari Geethas‘, starting with ‘Lambodhara Lakumikara‘, an ode to Lord Ganesha), followed by a Jatiswara, Varna, Keertane and Tillana. It is just like how letters come together to form words, which in turn make meaningful sentences and eventually lead up to proses that communicate even complex thoughts and ideas. The traditional order in which the Bharatanatyam training takes place is quite similar: we start with simple adavusTattadavu, which initially mobilises only the feet – in three speeds to help in building the skills of sustenance, rhythm and agility; followed by naata adavu, that introduces hand movements with the footwork, followed by numerous such adavus that combine different hands, legs and joint movement patterns. Along with learning these steps and other basic grammar of Bhartanatya from the Script of ‘NatyaShastra’ (The Art of Dramaturgy) authored by Bharatamuni to assist the dancer in performing these steps.

Ones these steps are mastered, the students learns ‘Alaripu’ – which means blossoming of a dancer. This prompts the dancer to perform movements with simultaneous combinations of Eyes, eyebrows, hands, elbow and shoulder joints, feet etc in different posturus and positions, in all three speeds. The student then learns a prayer to Lord Ganesha – the vighnahartha, followed by Jatiswara – a complete nrutta piece, before s(he) graduates to communication of story in dance through Abhinaya pieces such as Padams and Javalis. The central piece of Bharatanatyam Repertoire is a Varnam – which is a complicated narrative, where the dancer switches between nrutta ann Abhinaya, getting in and out of an intense dramatic monologue of typically a nayaki – or the heroine. The Repertoire concludes with a celebratory Tillana, which concludes with an ode to the Lord or a deity.

The Singer sings the songs, to the bhāva of which, the dancer gives the emotions, creates and help the spectators to create the ‘rasa’ (that particular emotion). Mrudanga is a grand percussion instrument to set the rhythm of a performance. The dancer ties bells (ghungru) around her anklet to enhance these beats through her feet. Instruments such as flute, violin and veena are also used in specific proportions to make a Bharatanatyam performance grand and lively.

Bharatanatya is said to be a combination of Bhava, Tala and Raga in a specific proportion of scale. Be it the intricate weaving of adavus, choreography according to a particular emotion or Bhava, setting the dance to a tala pattern or rhythm, Bharatanatya is a very Structural form of Art, which cannot stand tall isolating itself from either of its factors in that particular proportion.

A wrong muscular movement at the wrong time may cause severe damage to the body leading to sprains, fractures and ligament tears. Therefore, Physical fitness and proportionate body type is a must for a dancer to move flexibly and meet to the demand of Bharatanatyam.

Dancers need to know the unique relationship between muscle development and aesthetic movement, association of active muscles with each movement and most effective dance, movement, and performance exercises, each designed to promote perfect alignment, improved placement, proper breathing, and prevention of common injuries. It is important to learn to modify exercises to target specific areas to enhance flexibility and reduce muscle tension and all that it takes to be a stronger, more elegant dancer.

Integration is a basic and primary step in art. Eg – the mrudanga, violin and other instrumentalists integrating to the shruti. Integrating self (the dancer) – science (the technical elements to make a show) and society (the spectators) – Integrating people of different calibers, such as the lighting technicians, to bring forth the author’s vision – That is the motivation or the integration force. It is harmonious with each other. That harmonizing factor is the author.

Bharatanatyam- as we see in practice today- is a dance which has been practiced from century in a very Structural, systematic and methodical fashion. The significance of different kinds of exercises and adavus may be known and applied to choreography and performance.

  1. In summary, Bharatanatyam is a phenomeana or a Structure – which comes into existence as a result of two or more elements.

  2. All these elements come together in a definite proportion to scale, within a defined framework.

  3. The methodology looks at all elements being different, but not differentiable. When the elements come together, they do not “merge as one”, but hold on to their disctinct qualitues, adding the flavour of their unique distinction to the final Structure, thus propagating the uniqueness of each element.

Bharatanatyam is a language- one needs to speak it more and often, to become fluent and proficient.

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