Time ceased to exist for Jaahnavi as she watched in star-struck
awe the dancer performing. One moment she seemed like a
fleet-footed gazelle streaking across the stage at lightning speed,
her movements making Jaahnavi’s heart beat in excitement.
The next, she was serenely graceful, like the calm waters of an
unruffled pool. The dancer’s delicate hands and supple fingers
seemed to tell a whole story in a special sign language—one
moment becoming a flower, the next a bee sucking nectar, and
then a bird, a snake, the moon and so many other things, all of
which Jaahnavi was not able to understand fully.
Every now and again Jaahnavi’s eyes would go to the corner of
the stage, on the right side of the dancer, where the musicians
were seated. As the singer sang and the drummer played, and
the notes on the flute and the violin joined in, it seemed as if
the music and the dance were made for each other. When the
performance ended, there was a loud clapping from the audience
as the dancer stood with folded hands and humbly accepted the
Images of the dance kept flashing across Jaahnavi’s mind as
she returned home with her grandmother. "The performance
was so beautiful! Can I ever learn to dance like that?" she asked
her. "What dance was it, Grandma?"
"That was a dance called Bharatanatyam. It is a classical dance,"
replied her grandmother.
"What is classical? Is it different from other dances?"
"Classical is that which has an ancient history and its own set of
conventions, performance rules and technique," her grandmother
- explained. "But before I tell you about Bharatanatyam, there are
some things you must know about the art form in general," she
said. Then she narrated to her the history of the Indian classical
dance that goes back several hundred years.
The origin of Dance
The oldest text in India on dance, music and theatre is about
two thousand years old. Known as the Natya Sastra, it was
written by Sage Bharata, who is believed to have been a very
learned man. Story goes that the gods in heaven were bored and
approached their creator, Lord Brahma, to think of something
new to entertain them. So Brahma looked into the four sacred
texts, The Vedas, to see what new ideas he could gather from
them. He took speech and language from the Rig Veda, music
from the Sama Veda, gestures from the Yajur Veda and emotions
from the Atharva Veda, and with all this He created a fifth called
Natya which was inclusive of dance, music and drama. Soon a
special stage was designed and constructed by Vishwakarma,
the architect of the gods, to put on the first presentation called
The performance, using dance, music and drama was about
the story of the tussle between the gods and the demons to
- procure the ambrosia churned out of the ocean. The gods and
their leader, Indra, due to a curse, had lost their power and
were being constantly thwarted by the demons. When the gods
pleaded with Vishnu to bail them out of their predicament,
He advised them to churn the ocean for ambrosia, partaking
of which would make them immortal. Armed with this power,
there would be little harm the demons could inflict upon them.
A plan was formulated on how to set about this mammoth
task of churning the ocean. The gods needed the help and
strength of demons to accomplish this task, but foremost was
the requirement of a firm base on the ocean floor to mount
the churning rod which was none other than the mighty Mount
Meru. Vishnu transformed himself into a giant tortoise providing
the base on whose back the mountain rod was fixed. Since no
ordinary rope would do to churn such a rod, the large serpent,
Vasuki, whose coiled length forms the bed on which Vishnu
rests on the ocean, became the rope. The two ends of the rope,
after being wound round the mountain rod, were held by the
gods on one side and demons on the other.
The churning began, and as it progressed, the enormous strain
of being pulled back and forth made Vasuki’s breathing hard
and heavy, his poisonous breath creating noxious fumes in the
ocean, making it difficult for the gods and the demons to pull
any more. Shiva came to their rescue and swallowed all the
poison gathered in the ocean, holding it in his throat without
allowing it to reach his stomach.
The poison gave Shiva’s throat the blue colour and He came to
be called ‘Neela-kantha’ or Blue-throated one. After the gods had
partaken of the ambrosia, they forgot to thank Shiva for his timely
help, till they were reminded by Sage Narada of their lapse. Then
falling at the feet of Shiva, the gods begged for forgiveness and
thanked Him. They then requested Shiva to perform the Tandav
Nritya to regale them and He obliged. The tandav nritya was a
vigorous dance with a strong rhythm. In order to bring grace
and softness into the dance, Brahma introduced the apsaras
or the celestial maidens. The singing and playing of different
instruments was the task of the gandharvas or celestial beings.
"How did the humans learn
this art which was performed
by the gods?" asked Jaahnavi.
"There is an interesting
story about that too," her
grandmother replied and she
narrated the following story:
"When King Nahusha,
grandson of Pururavas, the
son of Ayus and father of
Yayati died, he went straight
to heaven because of all the
good deeds he had done. In
heaven he was so struck by the
Natya he saw, that he urged
this wonderful art be taught
on earth to mortals through
the hundred sons of Bharata.
Thus this art form came to be practised on earth by human
beings. It is said Shiva’s attendant, Tandu, who is believed to
have been a great dancer, taught the same to Bharata.
``Where the hand goes, the eyes must follow,
Where the eyes go, the mind and heart go too,
Where the mind and heart are, there is true expressions,
Where is expressions, there is Enjoyment."
The Indian classical dance, a heady combination of traditional
Storytelling, physical art and musical compositions is a
Distinguished visual art form that impacts the audience
Through its abhinaya, rasa, attire and ornaments. Captured
Within the pages of this book is the essence of various dances
Explained in a manner only a great guru can tell.
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