Dance is one of the most ancient means of spiritual expression in India. Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form of South India, embodies music, dance, drama, poetry and mythology to create a complete and highly stylized artistic endeavor. The end result creates Rasa, which is the aesthetic emotion that ultimately transforms the viewer.
Bharatanatyam dates back to approximately the 5th century A.D. The word ‘Bharata’ is believed to derive from three main components: Bhava, emotion; Raga, melody; and Tala, rhythm. For the most part, this dance is a solo art form, historically performed in Hindu temples as a means of worship and devotion. The dancer draws from Hindu epics and mythology to create stories that are universally relevant.
Much of Indian dance and theatre is codified in an ancient treatise called the Natya Shastra, written by Sage Bharata. According to the Natya Shastra, classical dance has two distinct divisions: nrtta, or pure dance characterized by symmetry of line and movement, and abhinayam, or expressional dance, where the dancer, through stylized gestures, facial expressions, conveys emotions. The nrtta is notable for its complex rhythmic footwork, which includes striking of the feet, leaps, twirls, and geometric patterns created by the entire body. Much of the abhinayam of Bharatanatyam depicts the state of anticipation between the dancer/devotee and her desire for union with her lord/lover. The dance is incomplete without the music, which is the South Indian classical form known as Carnatic music.
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There are two main genres of classical music traditions that developed in India over many centuries; Hindustani music, which is prevalent in the northern parts of the country, and Carnatic music, which is more common in the south. Although there are some distinguishable differences, both traditions have much in common such as r_gas (melodic scales) and t_las (rhythmic cycles).
Carnatic music is considered to be one of the oldest classical traditions in the world. It possesses an intricate melodic structure of ragas and a highly complex rhythmic system of talas. The three most influential composers – Saint Thyagarajah, Shyamashastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar – also known as the trinity, contributed immensely to this art form and their compositions remain popular to this date.
Carnatic music allows for elaborate improvisations in various modes. Raga alapana, the main form, is a pure melodic improvisation. Tanam is a melodic improvisation with a rhythmic pulsation. Neraval means improvised melodic variations of a certain passage in a song whilst maintaining the verse. Kalpana Swara is improvisation using notes.
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