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Traditional Bharatha Natyam repertoire

The fascination of Bharatha Natyam lies in the uniqueness of its traditional repertoire. The repertoire of Bharatha Natyam recital was laid down in the late 19th Century by the Tanjore Quartette namely Chinniah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu.


Sathir dance was performed by Devadasis, handmaids of the Lord

To this day, the exponents of Bharatha Natyam faithfully follow this tradition.

The Alarripu, Jetheeswaram, Sabtham, Varnam, Padams, Thillana and Slokams are the correct sequence in the practice of this art. “… is an artistic yoga revealing the spiritual thoroughness,” says Bharatha Natyam queen Balasaraswathi.

The traditional repertoire is mainly followed in Arangetrams. Jetheeswaram and Sabtham are omitted in ordinary recitals. Constraints of time and the desire of audience to leave early are probably the deciding factors for the omission of these early items.

The Alarippu, the Pure Nirutha dance, which is compiled to Sollukaddu, based on thala (rhythm) and mingled with Carnatic music, reveals the beautiful movements of Anga, Upaanga, and Pirathi Anga of the dancer.

Alaripu follows another Nirutha piece called Jetheeswaram, in which sequence of adavus are interwoven to suit the particular swaras based on different ragas.

Then follows the Sabtham, which is always based on Misrasaapu thala. The term Sabtham is a Sanskrit word. Sabtham means seven; for instance Sabtha Swaras, Sabtha Rishis and Sabtha Thandavam. All these reflect the influence of Sanskrit. The word Sabtham in dance means seven because it is in the Misrasaapu Thala, which counts seven thala counts.

During early times Sabtham was called Salaamu, because it was introduced into Bharatha Natyam during the Muslim rule. Even today many Sabthams conclude with the word Salaamu.

In dance Alarippu, Jetheeswaram, and Sabtham are based on Carnatic music, but these are not used in Carnatic music recitals.

The Varnam, in all Classical Bharatha Natyam recitals, follows the Sabtham. The Varnam which is more suitable for Carnatic music is called Thaana Varnam. The Varnam often used in Bharatha Natyam is Patha Varnam. The Patha Varnams are more suitable for abinaya and expressions. Some Thaana Varnams can be used for dance, provided they are meaningful and capable of being adopted to dance forms.

The Varnam is followed by Padams, which are melodic compositions. In the Padams, the dancer implores the God to grant her spiritual upliftment and eternal bliss. Padams in general provide ample scope for display of Navarasa.


Dancer implores the God to grant her spiritual uplift and eternal bliss

Then follows Thillana, which encompasses all the aspects of dance. This includes brisk adavus, beautiful poses, footwork, excellent expressions and appropriate abinayas. The finale of the traditional classical dance recital is the Slokam or Virutham. The Slokam or Virutham brings spiritual fulfillment to the dancer.

Balasaraswathi says: “The Bharatha Natyam recital is structured like a great temple; enter through Gopuram the (Outer hall) of Alarippu, cross through Ardhamandapam, (halfway hall) of Jetheeswaram. Then the Mandapam (the great hall), Sabtham, and enter the holy precinct of the deity is Varnam.”

Bharatha Natyam was originated as temple dance Sathir and moved on to the palaces, and eventually to concert halls. It is a devotional dance and to this day, there is an aura of sanctity surrounding this art. Sathir dance was performed by Devadasis, handmaids of the Lord.

Moreover it was performed as a part of temple rituals, which were normally performed in the outer courtyard of the temple.

The handmaids who performed in Shivan temples were called Rishabathali-yea-Laalar, while those who performed in Vishnu temples were called ‘Sri Vishnavamaanikam.’

Except Arengetrams, or even sometimes in the Arangetrams, the traditional repertoire is often changed. New items such as Ganesher Anjali, or pushpa Anjali, or panchamoorthy Anjali, or Gurupatha Anjali, or different Anjalies (tributes) or different Guwthavams on different Gods of their own selective faith items are given utmost opportunity for their performances.

Hence, the basic temple structure repertoire, which was laid down in the 19th Century, is totally changed in the 21st Century Bharatha Natyam repertoire, mainly in the practical performing field.

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