Natalie Savelyeva

Spirituality of Bharatanatyam

Essentially all Indians, however modern, have deep within them a spiritual streak, though quite often they are ashamed to exhibit it. This fa?ade should be broken. The spiritual aspect of art, if emphasized, would help in transforming skeptical attitudes seen today. If youngsters are taught to understand Bharatanatyam and to use the art as it was meant to be, then they would find themselves changing in their day to day life as well.

Portrayal of bhakti

When bhakti is to be conveyed, the selected composition should contain the best of sublime truths. Those passages derogatory to the gods should be omitted. If portions of epics or other such works are chosen, care should be taken to see that they are authentically presented. In some other art forms like Nadodikoothu, imaginary stories are woven around characters from the epics. Even here, the basic qualities of the concerned characters, whether Rama or Krishna, are presented as they are in Ramayana or Mahabharata. Kavya lapamscha varjet, say the sastra-s. Reject those works, which are likely to kindle the baser instincts in man. Only those compositions which elevate human nature should be chosen. Not every work of a composer can be considered perfect. When there are three charana-s, only the best of the charana-s should be chosen. It is only by careful selection that the best of Indian culture can be conveyed to audiences.

Rukmini Devi often said that we were to take the best in any person and not be carried away by outward appearances. She would often humorously say that one should admire the beauty of Tiger Varadachariars music and not dwell upon dark hue or pot belly. In this context, I remember Tiger Varadachariar singing a line from the padam in ever so many ways and then showing us abhinaya for the same. His bhava was beautiful.

On guru-s

Guru–s should teach without withholding information. They should be aware that knowledge is inexhaustible. As they teach, they gain in knowledge and become better guru–s. Today, however, studying art is like buying things from a shop. Rates are fixed for classes, or for specific items. Arangetrams are exorbitantly expensive affairs. All this places the learning and practice of dance well beyond the means of the less affluent. This is a pity because good talent is lost.

Many students of Kalakshetra, who studied there when Rukmini Devi was alive, claim to be her pupils. It must be stated that they owed their pure style of dancing and a spiritual background to her. But if I may use the term, they were her indirect pupils, since they were taught by those who were groomed by her. Only Lilavathi (Nilakanta), Radha (Sri Ram Burnier), Vasanta (Vedam) and Suddhimati Buch (Ramaseshan) were taught dance by Rukmini Devi. In the early days, Rukmini Devi used to visit various dance classes and give useful suggestions to the students and teachers. Of course, she taught directly when she composed a new dance drama. But then, mostly she composed on senior dancers like Sharada Hoffman, Pushpa Shankar, Kunhiraman, Krishnaveni, Dhananjayan, Balagopalan, and Janardhanan.

Attributes of students

A student chosen for training in Bharatanatyam should have necessary mental and physical attributes. When a student is chosen, care should be taken to see that there are no physical defects and if there are any, they should be within rectifiable limits. A knowledge of music is a distinct advantage. If this is not there, at least an innate sense of rhythm should be there. If the basic sense of tala was not present, then dancing would not be possible. A probation period of a minimum of six months to a year is necessary. Only after testing the abilities of the student through this period, should he or she be confirmed as a sishya. A minimum of four years of intensive training is necessary for a thorough understanding of the art form. Only after this should the student even contemplate performing on the stage.

On students today

There is a lot of talent today but, regrettably, there is a lack of taste too. There is a lack of sensitivity among the artists, a deficit in the capacity to understand the finer nuances of Bharatanatyam. May be they lack good examples. There is also a tendency to learn from different guru–s. This prevents a dancer from cultivating an individuality of her own.

Selection of compositions

A composition chosen for dance should be full of rasa. The mood and idea suggested by the composer should be fully understood. Only then the dancer can become a channel for the inspiration of the composer contained in the work. All meaning should be noted down and appropriate variations used in the Sanchari–s. Such a detailed approach is bound to create an added enthusiasm in the dancer. Even students, when asked to apply their minds and depict sequences in this manner, would come up with creative variations.

Portrayal of Nataraja

Too many poses can disturb the flow of dancing. Again when they are used, they should be accurately portrayed. Today very often even Lord Nataraja, the pr?cising deity of dance, is incorrectly presented. In Kalakshetra students are made to practice for months to get the correct position of the kunjita pada. The dancer should also be able to hold the posture for a while with ease.


Araimandi should be exactly what is required, not more, not less. The position slightly lower then araimandi is however used in the execution of the certain adavus. Correct araimandi contributes greatly to the quality of the recital.


The neck movement called attami adds grace to a recital. The beauty of abhinaya can be increased by the apt use of attami. Rolling the head around in some uncontrolled movement cannot be defined as attami and certainly does not add quality to dancing. Not should the neck movement be from shoulder to shoulder. The movement should be slight and graceful and should be used in both Nritta and abhinaya to embellish dancing.


Variations should be properly spaced out in compositions. Intersected correctly with sarvalaghu shuddha, these variations stand out and enhance the harmony of dancing. Again, the simple movement to the back and the pause before continuing with the piece provides much needed relief to both the audience and the artists. This pause is vital as the brain of the spectator cannot be receptive to continuous movement impressions. Also the dancer, however, perfect, need to catch breath before proceeding further. So these pauses are essential.

Delineation of adavu–s

The way adavu–s are delineated today is a matter of concern. Every movement should be clearly demarcated. Each hand movement should have a definite beginning and a definite end. From the starting point, the hand should travel through the prescribed path to the endpoint. There it should halt for a fraction of a second. All these should be clearly done. The clarity of movement is the essence of good dancing. Along with the movement of the hand should come the accompanying eye, neck and head movements. All these too should be properly defined. When the eyes follow the hand, the head and neck should turn to take a perfect posture. The body should bend to the extent required. Only then will there be graceful dancing. Similarly the footwork should be complete and perfect. Again, these movements should have clear starting and ending points, as well as a predefined path in between. It is only when each of the above mentioned aspects is perfectly executed that an adavu can be considered as correctly presented.

Anga abhinaya is based on the geometric figures used in Yajur veda. The lines. Curves, angles and vertical lines of a perfect adavu produce the same spiritual force as performing the yagna would. Hence the need for attention to minute details. Only when adavus are correctly reproduced can there be good dancing with the accompanying positive results. Jerky imperfect movements, far from producing a spiritual force, can create only asura sakti. Hand gestures should also be correctly used. There is a certain spiritual strength emanating from the accurate use of hasta–s; hence their usage should be perfect.

Teaching adavu–s and hand movements to students

For teaching adavu–s to students, a certain format has been prescribed: it should proceed from the simple to the complex. This must be strictly followed. Only after the three kaala–s (speeds) — the first, the second and the third — of a single adavu are properly mastered should the next adavu be taken up. This basic structure should not be disturbed. In the case of adavu–s requiring two hands, both hands should be used. Only then would the movement be graceful. It is incorrect to use one hand in place of two and then to pass it off as innovation. Such changes should not be made; there is nothing creative about them. If these kinds of changes are allowed, what remains resembles a patchwork of incomplete pieces.

The use of hand movements, according to the Abhinaya Darpana, can be taught to students by rote. When memorized in this way, with appropriate abhinaya, correct usage in practice becomes easier.

Adavu–s in any selected composition should blend with each other. The adavu–s following one another should merge easily with the earlier movements. Only then can there be spontaneous and graceful dancing. Adavu–s ill suited to the performer, result in ungainly movements.

Mey adavu

In olden times, there were certain movements called mey adavu, slow graceful movements which added immensely to the beauty of the piece. In Sangam literature, the concept of ezhil or hand gesture purely for beauty is described. These mey adavus made use f this edea. Today, however, all these movements are disappearing. In the traditional styles, mey adavu–s would accompany Korvai–s in thillana–s. The two would not be mixed up but follow in succession. Today, however, the mey adavu is hardly used and the original form of the thillana is gone.

It is incorrect to say that these adavu–s will not be appreciated today. Used in appropriate way, they would definitely enhance the beauty of dancing.

Use of adavu–s

Certain abstract moods can be conveyed through the correct use of footwork. The use of the feet can vary from soft to medium to strong in different adavu–s, sometimes in the same adavu.

In the adavu tei tei dhi dhi tei tei, the tei tei is moderate, dhi dhi tei soft, and the finishing tei is strong. This way, the feet also speak the mood. Care should be taken by the nattuvanar when beating out the rhythm to see that these variations are retained. Such careful movements and attention to details add considerably to the grace and quality of the dance.

On fast jathi–s and teermanam–s

The pace of the recital should depend on the capability of the dancer. The jathi should be as fast as the dancer is capable of executing with anga shuddha. Coordination between hand and feet is a must. Again only those adavu–s which can be executed fast should be included. It is the duty of the choreographer to keep all these in mind. There is no purpose in a recital being conducted as a reckless pace if the dancer cannot execute the movements with precision. I recently saw a recital in which the nattuvanar repeated dhi dhi tei but the footwork was just dhi tei. Such mistakes should be avoided. The recital should present pleasing dance at the pace at which the dancer can perform with a degree of finess.


Abhinaya should be poetic. Wordy interpretations should not be resorted to. The underlying emotion should be sustained. Exaggerated abhinaya will only distort emotion. Subtle expressions should be made use of. Again exaggerated movements of limbs will spoil the beauty of form. The body posture should be well defined yet controlled. Distortion of posture should not be seen.

Sringara rasa can be effectively portrayed through abhinaya. The Natya Sastra does not advocate realistic presentations. Subtle abhinaya can be meaningfully used to depict the highest and most total form of any relationship. Artists like Rukmini Devi have proven that abhinaya is more than adequate and that there is no need for wordy or realistic depictions. The union of two souls can be beautifully portrayed by the use of meaningful abhinaya without the use of vulgar body language.

In Nritta and bhava, the hallmark should be free yet well controlled movements. It is the mastering of this technique that is important, not the learning of items. If all these aspects are well mastered, then any item can be composed. Good technique in Nritta and bhava is undoubtedly the foundation of good dancing.


A style that has deteriorated cannot be passed off as a bani. Incomplete movements with hands and legs incorrectly placed with hardly any araimandi are not Bharatanatyam under any style. To pass all these off as a separate bani is only a way of using a short cut to selfish ends. Some of the awkward changes in posture and positioning of hands and legs have all been attributed to some bani or the other. The natural bending of the hand is one thing and a forced twist quite something else. These kinds of forced movement detract from the spontaneity of dancing and its free flow. Incorrectly placed feet end up as a hindrance to the dancers natural movements.

Today there is a tendency among the teachers to impact some inadequate training and to put the students on stage. This should not be done. They should aim at bringing out the greatest depth that can be imparted by the teacher, the full realization of the potential depends on the understanding and sensitivity of each individual dancer.

There was a student of a particular teacher who wanted to further her training at Kalakshetra. She had, we found, picked up a lot of funny mannerisms from her previous teacher. Athai did not her with her other students; she felt that watching this sort of incorrect style would spoil their dancing. This girl was eventually placed at the back of the class to watch the other students and correct her mistakes. It was then that she began to understand how much more there was to the art than what she knew.

Leela Samson, a senior artist today, came to Kalakshetra as a young girl. Because of her Judeo–Christian background, she had not had much exposure to traditional Indian culture. Athai was therefore hesitant about including her as a student. However, on examining her on various related aspects, we found that she had all the attributes of a good dancer. I then persuaded Athai to give her a chance and she did so, but with some reluctance. In the event, Leela became a highly competent dancer, thanks to her correct understanding of the art and her dedication to it.

Yamini Krishnamurthi first came to Kalakshetra as a teenager to study Indian music on the violin. She was already studing Western music. Rukmini Devi was convinced that she had all the attributes of a good dancer and wanted to enroll her as a student of dancing. It was after a great deal of persuasion that Yamini Krishnamurthi agreed to study dance. In the event she turned out to be an excellent exponent of Bharatanatyam. Later on she learned the other styles of dancing as well and became a glamorous dancer with world wide recognition. Had she persisted with

Bharatanatyam alone, I think she would become the greatest exponent of the art form.

In some classes, foreign students of Bharatanatyam do not have enough time for intensive training. Even so, the adavu–s in the items they are to learn should be thoroughly taught. Once this is done, the items can be mastered. Those items with a folk base, as also descriptive pieces about nature, are easier for them to master.

On innovations

I recently saw a program in which the dancer, in the middle of an item, would take the mike, recite the jathi–s and then continue to dance the piece. This kind of innovations is not warranted. Maybe it is allowed in other styles of dance like Kathak, but as far as Bharatanatyam is concerned, it should not be encouraged. This sort of approach suggest an attempt on the part of the dancer to cover up her inadequacies, not commitment to serious art. Innovations should not violate the spirit of the art form. Rukmini Devi made any number of innovations in her time, like the introduction of dance–drama into the Bharatanatyam repertoire. But all of them were positive changes done in keeping with the spirit of the art. The only enhanced the quality of the presentation and certainly did not detract from it in any way. On one particular occasion, when she had to portray Ganga in motion, she wore a suitable costume and beautifully conveyed the idea using graceful movements. These movements, which reflected no particular style of dancing, were apt to instrumental music being played and the overall effect was electing. Again, after one particular program, there was a view among a certain section o f the audience which contained foreigners that ballet movements had been used because of Athais knowledge of ballet. I then took pains to dispel this notion by explaining that they were traditional Bharatanatyam movements and backed my statements with authentication from texts.

There is nothing wrong with change, but care should be exercised in making it. He old form is full of meaning. Even the drum syllables create a certain vibration of upanishadic mantra–s. For example, tad hi thom num: that Brahman verily art thou (the Nada Brahman). Enunciation is important. The ta here is not the ta used in usual speech. Today there is a tendency to distort these syllables without realizing the damage that this does to the spirit of work. Without clear enunciation, the spiritual strength of these words are lost. Change should not disturb these aspects, if it does, it would only take the power of the art away. Rukmini Devi did a new piece called Sati Swayamvaram. She did not incorporate it into a Varnam but presented it separately. In the West, compositions of Beethoven and Mozart are left untouched. Nobody tampers with them in the name of change. New creations are kept separate and have their own identity. Similarly change should not destroy the traditional works. Care should be taken to see that those aspects which are important are retained and changes introduced do not destroy the beauty or depth of the art. Again, new creations should be dealt with separately and not inserted into old works.


It is vital to know notation to record compositions. Teermanam–s with adavu–s should be noted down and explained with figures. It is also important to know how to utter the adavu–s with a tala. When this is properly learned, it becomes easy later on to break an adavu up according to tala. The meaning of the song should be written down, as well as the different variations used within the context. With this kind of knowledge a dancer will find it easy to convey an idea to the musicians as well as to teach students.

On the power of art

In a dance recital, even if bhava–s like anger are portrayed, it is converted to sattvika rasa. Such is the power of art. Hence it is vital that the art be properly used. Visiting Chidambaram along with Rukmini Devi for a program, Dr. Arundale was tremendously impressed by the power radiated by the divine Nataraja. After meditating there, he felt that the renaissance of Indian culture would come about through the medium of dance, as also the spiritual freedom of the Indian people, which would benefit the society. The Abhinaya Darpana describes that all the merits of the four Veda–s can be obtained by correct dancing and that apt, correct gestures, foot movements and abhinaya all combine to produce the necessary effect. Any inadequacy in any of the above would take away from the net result. The base upon which the art is built is definitely spiritual and artists would do well to understand and remember this fact.

Today, not enough attention is being paid to such details. Recently, I was unfortunate enough to have to sit through a recital in which a padam was being presented in two styles, Bharatanatyam and another. The theme was Krishna and his interlude with gopika–s. Krishna was presented here as a sadist and the gopi–s expressed fear at having to go to him. The presentation bordered on the obscene and was, besides, inaccurate in every sense. I endured the program with great difficulty, unable to tolerate the gross misinterpretation of a divine concept. Such misuse of art should definitely be avoided.