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The classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam survived colonial oppression and today exemplifies Indian identity both at home and abroad.


Priyadarsini: It’s like a magician. With one movement, I make people believe there is something over there.

Priyadarsini is a superstar of Bharatanatyam, in Hindi, literally, “Indian Dance”.

Priyadarsini: It’s actually projecting a larger than life image. So when I dance, it’s like I fill the space around me.

Each of the seven classical dance forms of India is characterized by percussive rhythmic movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and intricate hand gestures called “mudras.” Shaily Dadiala has been honing her craft since she was four.

Shaily Dadiala: Bharatanatyam to me stands out because it has this component of masculine and feminine. Some movements are very sharp, athletic, and then some are very delicate. It’s a language, you can make your own poetry.

Traditionally, Bharatanatyam was used to tell epic Hindu stories, and was performed exclusively to Carnatic music, the traditional classical form of Southern India. Today, especially in the diaspora, the boundaries of what music and what stories that dance can tell is expanding.

Anwesha Dutta: Either you wanna go, you know, do something, women’s issues, that’s controversial, go for it! That’s what you’re passionate about. Go for the topic that you wanna communicate to your audience.

At the Nava Nritya Dance Academy, Anwesha Dutta offers her students not only dance training, but help in navigating their cultural identity.

Dutta: The kids, as they grow up, a lot of times this is their only, only connection to their motherland. And it’s a cultural milestone to say, my family actually has preserved the traditions and we have evolved with time, so we are doing Bharatanatyam to different music now, but to them, it’s basically saying, “Even though I have never really been to India, I actually feel Indian.”

Indeed, dance was one of the main ways that Dadiala stayed connected to her homeland after coming to the US in 2000.

Dadiala: Immigration is not as easy as we like to think. Especially the stories we are told when we leave our native countries. That you are, you’re told, you’re sold, America has a great marketing plan. You’re sold of all the great things, but when you come here as a young person someone who’s 22, and who doesn’t know anything about real life, let alone, America, you realize that every day is difficult. It’s alienating, so you cannot regress. That’s what happened to me, I went back to bare bones of what do I know. I know that I’m Indian, and I had Bharatanatyam. That is something I don’t have to make a conscious effort, I did it as a child. So it became more important for me to do that. I had survival to keep being Indian in my life.

Yet, in colonial times, it was a struggle just to keep the form itself alive. Bharatanatyam was a holy dance practiced by Devadasees, women whose lives were dedicated to a temple instead of a husband. In addition to performing, they were expected to service noblemen. This so offended Victorian morality, that the British set about wiping out the entire system.

Priyadarsini: They separated the art from the lives of these women. But, in a sense, the art was very much intertwined with their lives.

But after British rule ended, Bharatanatyam experienced a renaissance. Today there are still aspects that to Western eyes might appear somewhat sensual, but, says Dutta, it’s not just about human affection.

Dutta: We actually work on nine different emotions that are very distinctly taught and nurtured throughout the whole progression of learning. So it’s less about, you know, it being erotic, and more about how do you interpret love in different contexts and tell your story.

AJC: And on those nine emotions you’re talking about, are they all nine positive emotions? Are they all nine emotions related to lover’s anger and sadness?

Dutta: No, there is anger, fear, sadness, happiness, peace, or calm, compassion, and wonder.

AJC: When you’re teaching very young children who may not yet have a grasp of what those words mean, does the dance make it easier for them to gain understanding of the emotions behind those words?

Dutta: Absolutely they do, and we actually have to relate to things like animals and princesses, things that they’re learning as a part of growing up being in America, we interpret it that way. So by the time they’re a little bit older and they can actually emote, you bring in the Indian stories and you merge it and then it makes sense to them.

And teachers like Dutta who are constantly innovating are only adding to a dance form that has been evolving constantly throughout its 5000 year history.

Priyadarsini: It doesn’t matter that we moved out of the country, or it doesn’t matter that we have moved out of the source. The beauty of this art form is it adapts so easily to different societies, to different languages, to different cultures that when you adapt it and then you have another form comes out, it’s beautiful.

From the beginning, Indian dance has been defined by three main tenants.

Priyadarsini: Natya, Nritta, and Nritya. Natya is theater.

Dutta: I may not be dancing, I’m just saying, “Hello, how are you?”, there’s hardly any dancing. But it’s a pure acting part, so that’s where the actor and the actress gets filled.

Priyadarsini: Nritta is pure dance.

Dutta: Which is basically just being able to keep up your beats and posture and hand angles, and things like that. Very precision in your movements. And the third is Nritya, when you combine the two. So now, to say, okay, you have trained in technique, you have trained in drama, or theater, now let’s bring the two aspects together.

Priyadarsini: You create a mood, you create a feeling, you create an emotion. The audience plays as crucial a role as an artist. In Indian theater, which we call “Rasa,” or the art of enjoyment. Just as the artist performs, the audience enjoys.

But however enjoyable in it’s final presentation, Bharatanatyam takes years of dedicated training. Though it’s physical ambitions are the polar opposite of it’s Western classical counterpart, ballet.

Dadiala: From what I understand and what I have seen, ballet is anti-gravity, that’s the whole point. And Bharatanatyam, and most percussive Indian classical dance forms, are more with gravity. So you lower yourself to the ground. So our equivalent of the “Plie” position which is called “Ardhamandala” is knees slightly pointed outwards, and hand up, arms out here. The mudras change, but you are in the squat position, bent down. And you stay in that, so you hold your spine upright, your abdomen upright, shoulders upright, and but you isolate, so when your legs move, your top half doesn’t move. And then there’s the “Complete Plie,” where again, knees pointed out, heels together, and you squat down completely on to the floor. But you stay on the balls of your feet, and then you dance in that position. So that takes years, and I don’t think that there’s any destination. It’s a process, always.

Add to that process a final fickle element that separates the master from the novices. Bells are how dancers coordinate with the musicians on stage.

Dutta: It has a lot of significance with maturity, too, so you will see little kids who are off rhythm, they’re trying to hear each other and say “Am I on beat?” versus somebody who’s been dancing for 7, 10, 15, 20 years, there is precision in that bell sounds.

AJC: And the better you are, the more bells you get?

Dutta: That is true, since you grew up, so junior bells are like two rows, as you grow up, you get more bells, and they’re heavier too. Because you’re more intricate, you have more control over rhythm, so when you go super fast foot work, you know, you can hear it completely clearly.

For a people so widely dispersed yet so deeply connected to their cultural heritage, Bharatanatyam represents a continuity of Indian identity for the ages.