The Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama of India, confers classical status on eight dance forms of India — Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Sattriya, Kathakali, and Kathak. Out of these eight, four originated in South India. They are Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, and Kathakali.
Bharathanaytam and Mohiniyattam, the main focus of this blog post, are my two favorite dance forms.
Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest and most popular forms of classical dance that originated in Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu in South India. The origin of this dance can be traced to the sage Bharata Muni’s Natyasastra. This dance used to be taught by Nattuvanars (dance gurus/teachers) and was originally practiced by a group of temple dancers called the Devadasis who danced regularly during important festivals, ceremonies, and also at the time of worship in temples. Bharatanatyam declined under the British colonial rule in India but was later revived by Rukimini Devi Arundale and E. Krishna Iyer. Both of them were dancers as well as activists. Rukmini Devi Arundale established a cultural academy called Kalakshetra (which means holy palace of arts) to revive the traditional arts of India. To view some video clips of Bharatanatyam, check out the performance of Rajashree Warrier, a well-known dancer and Carnatic music (classical music of South India) vocalist. Her performances – Neelakkarmukil Varnan, Marulu Minchera, Gummana Karayadire, and Jo Achyuthananda are amazing to watch! Performing artists of other countries also come to India to learn Bharatnatyam. Recently, I watched a beautiful piece by Nikolina Nikoleski, a Croatian dancer, who learned the art in India at the famous Bharata Kalanjali School.
Mohiniyattam, the dance of an enchantress, is a traditional dance which originated in the state of Kerala in India. It is named after Mohini, the Hindu mythological beauty. Known for its depiction of feminine love in many forms such as divine, maternal, and carnal, it was originally practiced by Devadasis (temple dancers) in Kerala. It is a solo dance performed by a woman and closely resembles Bharatanatyam. In ancient times, it was only performed in the temples of Kerala and the royal courts. Early references to Mohiniyattam have been found in texts from the 16th and 18th century. In the 19th century, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal of Travancore highly patronized the dance and it evolved as a solo dance form based on Carnatic music. Unfortunately, during the British colonial rule in India, there was a period of decline. However, it was revived by the famous poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon who established the Kerala Kalamandalam to promote both Mohiniyattam and Kathakali, another classical dance. Would you like to see how Mohiniyattam is performed? Watch this mesmerizing dance of the enchantress performed by Dr. Deepti Omchery Bhalla, a reknown dancer and singer, attired in a stunning costume of white saree with golden border and adorned with gold jewelry.
There are many scholarly articles on these two classical dances. To locate them, check out some of the online resources listed on the South Asian Studies subject guide.
6 thoughts on “Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam – Classical Dances of South India”
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You are welcome, Isabelle!
Beautiful! Thanks for this very informative post, Chella!