Indian dancer

Bharatnatyam is a classic dance form of southern India.


Legend says that the gods decided to share their love of dance with humans, but it was in the nature of these humans to bring their own skills and understanding to the passed-down dances. Thus the different forms of dance throughout the Indian subcontinent were created.

Bharatnatyam has deeply spiritual roots. Devadasis were among the first to perform Bharatnatyam. These women were committed to Hindu temples and danced exclusively for the gods. Although it has its own uniquely Indian flavor, the level of devotion in the practice is similar to the temple priestesses of ancient Greece or the shrine maidens of Japanese culture. Devadasis are now frowned upon, as the concept later became corrupted to the point that they served the whims of men rather than the gods. However, this did not stop Bharatnatyam from remaining a popular form of expression.

Aspects of the Dance

Bharatnatyam is divided into three distinct categories depending on the goals of the dance:

  • Nritta dances focus on form. There is no deeper emotional meaning to the performance, just a desire to convey rhythm, patterns, and energy to the audience.
  • Nritya dances are lyrical in nature. Hand motions known as mudras help to convey the feeling behind a poetic text.
  • Natya dances exist to tell a story. Performers rely on pantomime in addition to basic dance movements and facial expressions in order to convey the narrative.

Because of the dance form's temple history, it is most commonly performed by women. However, there are also male dancers. Dances are always performed with bent knees. The tradition comes from the performers emulating temple statues.

Dancers wear elaborate, brightly-colored costumes while performing. The typical women's costume comprises a specially-made sari, special hair adornments, and specific body painting.

Bharatnatyam Instruction and Resources

If you would like to learn more about this rich art form, the following resources can help:

  • provides a list of Indian dance schools in North America, divided by region. You can also turn to your local Indian community for details on classes in your area.
  • Online Bharatanatyam is a personal site created by a dancer to share her knowledge with others. The site includes written descriptions and instructional videos for basic steps and hand movements. There are also informative articles on general topics related to the dance.
  • There aren't a large number of books available in English on the topic, but two titles do offer full-color views of the dance. Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in Transition includes Bharatnatyam as part of a larger overview of traditional dances. Bharatanatyam is a small book touted as an illustrated guide.
  • Intended as a fitness video, Dances of India: Ancient to Modern with Meera features Bharatnatyam as one of the three dance styles Meera leads viewers through.

Whether you're an observer or a performer, Bharatnatyam can bring the unique spirit of India to life.