Bharata Natyam is a dance form from southern India that was rescued from near obscurity at the beginning of the 20th century. The fanciful derivation of Bharata is Bha = Bhava (mood); Ra = Raga (music); ta = Tala (rhythm). However, Bharata is the Indian name for the country of India and natyam is the Tamil word for dance.
The British rulers disapproved of the dance because when they arrived in India the only women who danced it were devadasis, politely called "temple ritual specialists," but the colonials weren't fooled; they knew that their specialty was taking care of the more corporal needs of the male worshipers. Indeed, the devadasis were still legal until 1988 when they were outlawed.
One woman, Shrimati Rukmini Devi Arundale, raised Bharata Natyam to a high art form, divorced from its recently controversial past. She founded the school Kalakshetra outside the city of Madras to teach it and to promote other studies in Indian music and art. She was one of first teachers to instruct a few men to perform the dance, which until then was the exclusive domain of women. Rukmini was also instrumental in bringing Bharata Natyam to the attention of the west, making it in the minds of many westerners the only dance of India.
It is a solo dance, stressing lasya, the graceful feminine lines and movements. Typically a performance includes:
A traditional opening prayer to the god Ganesh, who removes obstacles.
A presentation of the Tala (rhythm) punctuated by simple syllables spoken by the dancer. This really is sort of an invocation to the gods to bless the performance.
An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body.
The dancing is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme.
The center piece of the performance. It is the longest section of the dance punctuated with the most complex and difficult movements. Positions of the hands and body tell a story, usually of love and the longing for the lover.
Probably the most lyrical section where the dancer "speaks" of some aspect of love: devotion to the Supreme Being; or of love of mother for child; or the love of lovers separated and reunited.
The final section is an abstract dance when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.
The performance concludes with the chanting of a few religious verses as a form of benediction.
The music is in the Carnatic/Karnatic style of south India, considered by some to be "purer" than the classical music of north India.
Instruments for Bharata Natyam are more often found in the south than in the north, like the mridangam (drum), nagaswaram (a horn suggestive the snake charmer's horn), the flute, violin and veena (stringed instrument).