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Bharatanatyam dancers make way to center stage

I have never been much for dancing, but Sruthi Suresh is more than familiar with it. Suresh has spent the last 10 years learning the classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam and dancing in temples for various programs.

Bharatanatyam, or Daasiyatam, is considered one of the oldest dance forms in India. It originated in Tanjavur, Tamil Nadu nearly 2000 years ago and gradually became more popular. Due to its start in South India, Bharatanatyam is mostly performed by South Indians, and the majority of dancers are Tamilian.

However, Bharatanatyam is not restricted to people in specific parts of India. For example, Sruthi attends a Tamilian dance school where most of the dancers are Tamil. Despite this, Sruthi herself is not from Tamil Nadu, but rather from the South Indian state of Kerala.

In fact, the Kerala Association of New Jersey (KANJ) is an organization that holds events like Bharatanatyam performances, which are meant to celebrate the culture of India, and more specifically, Kerala. Many Keralites attend the events each year on religious holidays like Onam.

The religious organization Chinmaya Mission also hosts events that are aimed at either teaching children about or celebrating Hindu culture and history. They are responsible for the ceremonies that Suresh usually dances at, as well.

Another student familiar with Bharatanatyam is freshman Archana Pradeep. She has also worked with Chinmaya Mission over the past few years, and has danced in temples on various religious holidays with her dance group, alongside Suresh.

Pradeep says, “We dance on holidays to show our devotion to god, which is why most of our dances are religious. For example, right now I’m learning a dance about the goddess Devi for a holiday. We always learn about dances that relate to a specific god or goddess to honor them on special festivals.”

This focus on religion in the dance can be traced back to the dance’s roots. Bharatanatyam stems from Natya Yoga, which is a dance yoga practiced in Hindu musical theater. Mentions of Bharatanatyam can be found in various Hindu art forms, ranging from Tamil literature to Hindu sculptures.

Many Hindu temples portray the god Shiva in various Bharatanatyam poses. For example, a sculpture in one of the Badami cave temples in Karnataka holds a five-foot tall sculpture where Shiva is shown doing a form of Bharatanatyam.

A majority of the dance relies on the dancers’ movements and facial expressions. Their footwork and hand gestures, known as mudras, are meant to tell a story, usually one carrying religious themes, though performances today may be non-religious or fusion dance.

There are 108 poses in Bharatanatyam and 18 mudras. These positions allow Bharatanatyam dancers to express a diverse range of emotions and stories.

Suresh says, “Every performance is a little different, and each one tells a story. That’s what I really love about Bharatanatyam.”

The dance itself is usually performed by women dancing either solo or in groups, accompanied by a vocalist and one or more musicians playing traditional instruments.

Instruments used as accompaniment include the flute, the double-sided mridangam drum, or a stringed veena. Singers sing in Sanskrit or various South Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, or Telugu. Today, most people use recorded music, but professional dancers perform with live singers and musicians for special occasions or programs.

Whether you are dancing professionally or for fun, Bharatanatyam is an experience that can be shared by everyone.

What are some other cultural dances that you have heard of? Do you participate in any?

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