Interview with Ramaa Bharadwaj


When we follow our heart’s calling, all we need is given to us, says dancer Ramaa Bharadvaj
By Mallika Jayanti

Scott Ellis

Ramaa receiving the California Arts Council’s Director’s Award for exemplary contribution to the Arts in California







Ramaa Bharadvaj is an acclaimed choreographer, performer, dance activist and a writer. She studied dance in Chennai, India, under legendary gurus Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and Kamala (Bharata Natyam) and Vempatti Chinna Satyam (Kuchipudi).

As the founder and Artistic Director of Angahara Dance Ensemble, she has won multiple Lester Horton Dance Awards in Los Angeles. In 2003, she was selected as a Master Artist of California by the Alliance for California Traditional Artists and was the only performing artist to be honored with California Arts Council’s Directors’ Award for exemplary contributions to the Arts in California. She is included as one of 21 exceptional South Asian women living in the United States whose lives and stories are presented in the book Spices in the Melting Pot released in 2005.

A thought-provoking writer, her dance commentaries have been published by the Congress on Research in Dance, New York Foundation for the Arts, National edition of Indian Express (India), Narthaki web magazine, among others. Ramaa is on the Dance Faculty at Orange Coast College and Pomona College and also teaches at yoga conferences, retreats and spiritual centres.

In July 2000, Ramaa and her daughter Swetha became the first Indian dancers in over 45 years to be featured on the cover of the prestigious Dance Magazine (July 2000). Their critically acclaimed choreography, JWALA-Flame, which depicts the story of the immigrant experience of search, discovery and returning to the roots, was telecast nationally on PBS (December 2007). In a free-wheeling interaction with Mallika Jayanti, she discusses very many topics related to these two great dance forms.

You have learnt both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. What fundamental differences do you find in these dance forms?
: It’s mostly an energy shift that happens. It is necessary to tap into the male energy – almost as if the dancer is impersonating a man who is impersonating a woman. The speed is also much higher than the slightly relaxed pace of Bharatanatyam. As a dancer who was first trained in Bharatanatyam, I found Kuchipudi more intense. The variations in footwork, especially the traveling on the toes and the heels, are practically non-existent in Bharatanatyam, thus (as my daughter Swetha pointed out) requiring different groups of muscles in your legs to work. The foot positions such as knotting of the toes and crossing of the feet while creating pure dance rhythms also require attention. In contrast to the definitive crispness and sharp angles of Bharatanatyam, a Kuchipudi dancer creates more rounded and softer edges that are luscious to watch. The leans and lunges are deeper and farther. There is an up and down bobbing movement, which is also very unique to this style and which Dr. Sunil Kothari describes as “the playful jumping of a baby goat.” The movements flow with great deal of lyricism, in a continuous stream of sways and twirls, restraint and release, high leaps and bounces. Another important aspect is the outward hip thrust in certain lunges and poses. I often use the comparison of a Kuchipudi dancer’s movements to that of the sway of a bamboo tree.

It is also my opinion that some of the movements might have drawn their inspiration from everyday village activities. For example, the pure dance movement in which the dancer extends the arms in front with two Katakamukha gestures and pulls them back and forth over the shoulder while bobbing up and down with the feet might have been inspired by the rhythmic twist of the village women churning butter.

What is the difference in music for Bharatanatyam and music for Kuchipudi?
Answer: This is a complex subject and I am going to refer your readers to my guru Vempatti Chinna Sathyam’s website which has a thorough article by P. Sangeetha Rao, who was Vempatti master’s long-time music composer for many of his dance dramas.

Have you learnt them simultaneously? How difficult or easy do you find learning them?
Answer: My initial training was in Bharatanatyam. It was my guru the legendary Kamala who took me to Vempatti master when I was 14 years old and requested him to teach me Kuchipudi. Many years later, while traveling in a bus from Boston to New York City, Vempatti Chinna Satyam told me of the immense admiration and respect that he had for Kamala. He said that when he was young he would save the small allowance he received in order to buy a ticket for Kamala’s performance. The sculpturesque quality of her dance inspired him to later expand the vocabulary of Kuchipudi movements. The complete extensions of the arms, the frozen poses and full leaps found in Vempatti Chinna Satyam’s style of Kuchipudi are, to me, very reminiscent of Kamala’s dancing. In my performance of Kuchipudi I experience the helpful influence of Kamala’s Bharatanatyam technique – the perfect confluence of styles from two living legends flowing like liquid gold through my limbs.

Do you have any particular preference? Like Kuchipudi for certain items and Bharatanatyam for some?
: Not really. When you get into each style, it has its own appeal.

What difference do you think it makes while learning from teachers like Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and some dance teachers and schools? What is their style of teaching? What thing you would want the dance teachers to learn from them?
: When learning from the masters, a lot of focus and observation were necessary. There was no taping of songs or video taping the classes and things like that. They also did not kinesthetically break down the movements when they taught. These days dance teachers find it beneficial for students to learn when they can break down the movements in terms of space, weight, balance etc. This is also good in a way. But we never heard those words when we studied under the gurus. It was more a reverential surrender – not intellectual understanding.

Recently I was reading an article that makes me ask you this question- what do you think that differentiates a Nattuvanaar to a dance teacher?
: The same difference as between a cook and a chef. A cook (Nattuvanar) simply follows a recipe given to him/her to create a meal. But a chef (dance teacher) is also the creator of the recipe.

You have achieved a certain position in the field of dance now. How difficult or easy has been the journey. What did you learn that you would like to pass on?
: I wish I could tell stories of how I walked 5 miles in bare feet over mountains to get to where I am. But actually it was nothing like that. There is something called the Law of Attraction on which the Universe operates. When we follow our heart’s calling, all that we need is given to us. All lessons (both pleasant and painful) are taught to us so that we may accomplish our soul’s purpose. One of my colleagues, who was an actor, used to quote an African saying “Blessing is next to the wound.” My journey has been full of many blessings to be grateful for. As the Sufi saying goes, “all experiences are but preparations for something else”. So the idea of disappointment and difficulty does not arise.The formula for success in art (and life) is this:
* Practice equanimity and be neutral to both praise and criticism. Otherwise, it will be a long, tedious roller-coaster ride of elation and depression.
* Do not get attached to your work or let it define who you are. You define your work not vice versa. That way, your work will be able to change and grow as you do.
* Be objective about your work and invite constructive criticism but at the same time listen to YOUR heart and what inspires YOU. Many trend-setters have all been pooh-poohed away in the beginning by the public and the critics.
* Invite every experience into life with gratitude and surrender to the Divine Will.
* Feel free to make mistakes but once a lesson has been learnt never make the same mistake twice.
* It is not enough to simply present your work. You must also represent it both artistically and politically. So get involved and don’t shy away from writing and speaking and expressing yourself in other arenas.

Scott Ellis

Photo credit: Scott Ellis


Why did you choose the U.S. and not India?
Answer: That was destiny, not choice. It was the typical arranged marriage story. But it is the freedom (financial, artistic and personal) that this country has gifted me that is responsible for my growth as an artiste and a woman. I am grateful for that and wouldn’t change a thing.

How different is the audience perception towards these art forms in India and the U.S.?
Answer: To the western audience, these dances are international experiences (like travel) through which they see colors, sound, stories and movements that are different from their own – whether it is Kuchipudi or Bharatanatyam or Odissi or Kathak really is not discernible to them. It is Indian. And to them, Indian is mystical, Indian is spiritual, Indian is ancient and so on. They don’t really bother about the micro details such as there are 22 official languages in India, that Vaishnavism influenced Kuchipudi, that Tabla is different from a Mrdangam and is different from a Pakhwaj, that Hindustani music and Carnatic music do have their differences. They seek the “authentic” and so I have had presenters even asking me if all members of my dance company are of Indian origin. This is not to say that there are not successful Indian dance companies that have multi-cultural dancers in them. But this has been my experience.

In India when you perform within the cultural realm where the dance comes from (eg, Bharatanatyam for Chennai or for a Tamil audience) the nuances are understood and appreciated.

What changes do you want to see in Bharatanatayam and Kuchipudi- be it in the margam structure, costume, jewellery, music, length of items etc.?
: The one thing that I have been bringing up is the role of certain javalis in a traditional margam structure, especially while teaching it to children or performing it to an uninitiated audience. I would refer your readers to my article in Indian Express about this and would invite their response.

I was the brain behind Now I moved out and am building What is your take on so many online teachers these days? While you are at it, please also tell us your opinion on DVD teaching.
Answer: DVDs can serve as references and inspiration. But you cannot learn dance from an inanimate source like that. Baba Ramdev said this in one of his yoga camps recently about Yoga learning from a guru versus electronic medium and I am going to quote him here. “You can meet your partner on line – but can you make babies on line?” We are talking about human bodies here and the watchful eye of an expert teacher is required to make corrections on alignment and posture not to mention facial expressions. Moreover, there is direct energy transmission that happens between teacher and student when they are face to face.

On the DVDs, it is clearly stated that it is legally wrong to reproduce it in any form- your comments please.
: Copyright! In the U.S., it is taken seriously. And I am all for it.

How do you find Bollywood Bharatanatyam? Bharatanatyam on Mozart’s compositions or shall I say the English Bharatantaym?
: There is no such thing as Bollywood Bharatanatyam. That is a misnomer. Holding a few gestures and imitating footwork does not make it Bharatanatyam. It has a definite structure of its own and it is also a spiritual (I don’t mean religious) dance form. That means it can make you feel connected in a deep way with what you are seeing beyond the sensual physical aspect. We don’t have to necessarily tell the story of Hindu Gods and deities. I am reminded of Dhananjayan’s breathtaking choreography of a pregnant deer in a forest. My choreography Jwala-Flame about the struggles and discoveries of the immigrant experience and dedicated to the Statue of Liberty elicits that kind of deeply spiritual response from the audience every time we have performed it. Now tell me, what is spiritual about Bollywood dance? It is entertainment, that’s all.

Dancing to Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky is a completely different category. These were great classical composers who were divinely inspired. The choreographers who attempt such dances have put a lot of thought into it. They do not sacrifice the structure of the dance form. Only the music changes. It is beautiful when two classical art forms from two different worlds can merge like that, transcending linguistic, cultural and geographical limitations. I have seen Padma Subrahmanyam’s stunning portrayal of an episode from Ramayana and so I know how effective it can be.

If we can use Hindustani music and Bhajans (which do not belong to the Carnatic music system) in Bharatanatyam, why should Mozart be a problem?

There have been many talks on different forum for all the dancers to come together and help each other so that there could be some good classical dance and some funds. I personally have faced such situations where I had to perform without any money; respect is something I rather not comment on. But as an artist you would understand the importance for one to perform on stage. Do you believe in forming a group/team to help one another?
: Yes. Union power always helps. We do not and cannot live in a vacuum. In Chennai, they started something like that called ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artists of India), although I don’t know much about it. There is a disproportion in the rate which musicians charge in relation to what dancers get paid (or do they even get paid anymore?). This kind of greed has to stop. Dancers, musicians, lighting designers and set designers must all be part of this team.

As for performing without money, I think it is a sad state of affairs. The art must be self sustainable otherwise very few will take it up seriously. It will become the prerogative of the rich and that is wrong. Five years ago when I received my Lester Horton Dance Award in Los Angeles, I spoke about this on stage – about the need for economic stability for concert dancers. Here is a direct quote from my speech which should answer you.

“How many of you have heard presenters say to us, “we cannot pay you but we can give you great exposure? My answer to them is this: “Darling, if I want exposure I will strip naked and run on the beach. California is full of them.”

And that’s my take on that!!!

Since you have achieved such great heights in this field, how do you help other struggling artists? Is there a way one can approach you?
: I give a lot of my time to the dance community in an advisory capacity. Making your presence felt in the community is as important as spending time in your studio. What drives me is a desire to create a wider audience, a wider family that can provide a nurturing environment for Indian dance. I look at it as creating a family around myself, sharing my knowledge and contacts and connecting people with one another. Then people look up to you as a link, a conduit that brings the community together, as someone they can trust and turn to. That’s how you grow and succeed. Otherwise you are just a leech and nobody likes leeches.

What do you want to say about old and out of shape dancers who are not even graceful and flexible but are adamant on giving performances based on their one time great image?
: There are two separate aspects in this question. Old as in chronological aging is never a deterrent for there are so many nuances in classical dance that can be touched upon at each stage of a dancer’s performing life. Dancers like Vyjayanthimala, Dhananjayan and C.V. Chandrasekhar look good doing it because they know how to choreograph to their mature bodies and yet bring out the strengths of Bharatanatyam. They are not caught up in a time warp trying to re-create what they looked like or danced like in their younger days.

But being out of shape is an entirely different matter altogether. One can be out of shape at any age in which case one shouldn’t be dancing at all. As for dancers who are both old and out of shape, they do seem to have an audience! Otherwise why would they continue to dance? So are we to question the audience who go to see them or the dancers? It is better not to get into those discussions.

As dancers we carefully plan and choreograph entries and exits on and off the stage all our lives. But when it comes to that final exit off the performing arena, can we “exit” gracefully? This is a choice that we all have to make at some point. It is more important to focus on what we will do when we reach that point rather than worry about what somebody else is doing. As long as they have an audience, let them dance.

Bala Bharadvaj

Ramaa with her daughter Swetha on the cover of Dance Magazine. Photo credit: Bala Bharadvaj

Please also quote on how Vazhuvoor style is different from other styles
Answer: It was said to be known for its superb grace. I was watching Kamala’s old videos when she represented the Vazhuvoor style at the height of its glory. But I also notice that no one dances like that anymore. That style is pretty much extinct. With each passing generation, each dancer brings something of herself/himself to the style and what I notice is that this “style” or “pani” is getting crisper and more streamlined not just in the Vazhuvoor tradition but other traditions as well.

So it seems like there are actually two styles now – the old Vazhuvoor style and the new Vazhuvoor style. The performing artist who is the most well known in that style seems to define the style for her/his generation. Let’s remember that dancing is a body thing and no two bodies move the same way – if they did we would all turn into robots.

Your final word to our readers.
Answer: I will end with a beautiful story of conviction and confidence and an advice – both from a very wise and dear friend Nala Najan, who was a great Indian dancer.

The story: Once Tiruvarur Gnanam, a great Devadasi, was performing a padam (a lyrical dance) to the song “Manchi Dhinamu” which was a composition of the poet Kshetrayya. She portrayed astrological charts through gestures, to denote the idea of auspicious time. The Brahmin priests, who witnessed the dance, were highly offended by it. They felt that it was inauspicious and against the sastras for a woman to use these symbols and questioned her, to which, she is said to have replied, “when you see Kshetrayya, invite him over for tea, and I will discuss my improvisation technique with him.” Then pointing to the sacred rudraksha bead that she wore around her neck, she is supposed to have said, “Do you see this? I AM the sastra. I AM Siva.”

The Advice: On our final meeting before his death Nala said to me, “Don’t let anyone quote the Natya Sastra to you or tell you how you should dance or what you should dance about. It is you, the dancer, who creates dance. The Gods might have inspired it, but you are the living tradition. Without the human body, there would be no dance, no sastra. You are the Natya Sastra. Remember that always.”

Contact Info Of Ramaa:
Please note that this interview is already published on



Bharatanatyam And Yoga Part- 7



The concept of unification of Jivatma and Paramatma and the longing of the Jivatma for this union finds common manifestation in both dance and Yoga. Both aim to transcend the individualistic Ahamkara and evolve into the ultimate universality. The legendary pioneer Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra rightly observed that dance is a form of Yoga. She said, “It needs true Bhakti or devotion. We have no more temple dancing today, but we can bring the spirit of the temple to the stage. This will change our entire attitude towards this art and then our physical bodies will become transmuted and non-physical. Every performance becomes a means of not only making the dancer one with the higher Divine Self but the audience too. This oneness is Yoga”.

Martha Graham, one of the greatest of modern dancers was able to transcend his individuality when he said, “I am interested only in the subtle being, the subtle body beneath the gross muscles.”

The roles of the Nayaki pining for her lord are meant to portray the pining of the Jiva for the spiritual union with the Paramatma. The Sakhi, the friend who brings about this union in dance is in reality the Guru who helps the Sadhaka reach that state Ultimate Universal Unification. The legendary Balasaraswathi who became synonymous with Bharatanatyam  for many a Rasika said revealingly, “Bharatanatyam  is an artistic Yoga (Natya Yoga), for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal”.



The sixth step of Ashtanga Yoga is Dharana or concentration. This concentration when taken to its extreme leads us into the meditative state of Dhyana. Many of the concentrative practices of Yoga are based on the Mandalas that are assigned to the different elements of the manifest universe. The dancer requires a similar state of utmost concentration in order to bring about the union of Bhava, Raga and Tala in her presentation. The different aspects of Bharatanatyam  such as Nritta, Nritya and Natya must be seamlessly unified with great concentrative ability for the performance to peak in its intensity. When the dancer achieves that peak of concentration in her performance she loses herself into the state of meditation. The Yogic state of Dhyana and the trance like states experienced by the dancers while performing are quite similar in their universal nature. Shri Tiruvenkatachari, an eminent dance historian (1887) compared Yoga with the dance and said that the secret is ‘forgetfulness of the individual self’. He also mentioned that dance is a means of attaining Moksha just as is Yoga.


According to the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeswara, the important inner qualities of the dancer (Antah Prana) are as follows.





JAVAH –swiftness or speed

STIRATVAM –composure or steadiness

REKHA -symmetry

BRAHMARI –versatility and circular movements

DRISHTI –glances of the eyes

ASHRAMAHA –ease and tirelessness

MEDHA -intelligence

SHRADDHA –confidence and interest

VACHO –clear speech

GEETAM-capacity of song

All of these inner qualities can be developed and maintained through the practice of Yoga and in addition to the above mentioned aspects of the personality, it is important for the dancer to have numerous physical and mental qualities that can be obtained through a dedicated practice of Yoga as a way of life.


These physical qualities are essential for the dancer at all stages of their artistic career. The standing poses such as Padahastasana, Padangushtasana, Trikonasana, Natarajasana, Virasana and its variations, Garudasana, Padottanasana are especially useful to develop strength in the legs and thighs. One legged poses such as the Natarajasana, Garudasana, Vrikshasana, Vatayanasana, Eka Padasana and Ardha Chandrasana help develop an excellent sense of balance as well as improve single minded concentration.

The hand balancing poses such as Mayurasana, Titibasana, Vrichikasana, Dolasana and Hamsasana develop strength in the shoulders, arms and wrists that is essential for holding the arms up in numerous Nritta sequences such as in the Alarippu, Varnam and Tillana.



Yogasanas help develop proper carriage and back bending postures such as Ushtrasana, Bhujangasana and Chakrasana avoids the hunchbacks that are common in modern school going children from carrying heavy loads of books. Repeated practice of balancing poses on right and left sides as well as from different positions such as supine, prone, and the topsy turvy poses, the centre of gravity is improved and this leads to a perfect positioning of the body in performance of the various items.



Practices such as the solar plexus-charging Agnisara, the Hakara Kriya with the activating sound of HA and the Malla Kriya with the Nasarga Muka Bhastrika as well as the practice of Suryanamaskar help improve stamina and endurance. Padmashri Adyar K Lakshmanan, one of the most eminent Bharatanatyam  masters of modern India, has often marveled at the stamina and endurance that is possessed by the students of Yoganjali Natyalayam. He attributes it to their practice of Yoga and feels that Yoga gives them abundant energy to go through the most vigorous of items without requiring any rest at all in between lines or even in between items. The hand balancing poses such as Mayurasana, Titibasana and Bakasana as well as postures such as Paschimottanasana, Navasana, Sarvangasana and Halasana help greatly in this regard. Performance of Suryanamaskar slowly with emphasis on breathing and performance of various Pranayamas such as Vibhaga and Pranava Pranayamas helps to energize the entire system. We can balance the catabolic breakdown of the body by the anabolic activities of Yoga, thus retarding the aging process and also give the dancer the invaluable gift of a longer professional life.



Various Asanas and Pranayamas are useful in developing a sense of buoyancy and improving the agility of the dancer. Practice of Pranayama helps to achieve a state of lightness of the body that can be compared to the Yogic Siddhi of Lagima or being as light as a feather. Agility is an important quality required by the dancer as there are numerous variations of gaits (Gathi Bhedhams) in Bharatanatyam  and she needs to be extremely agile in order to execute them perfectly. The ten Gathi Bhedhams are usually described as Hamsee (Swan like gait), Mayooree  (Peacock like gait), Mrigee (Deer like gait), Gajaleela  (Elephant like gait), Thuranginee (jumping gait), Simhee  (gait of the Lion), Bhujangee (snake life gait), Mandookee (frog like gait), Veera (heroic gait), Manavee (man like gait). Single leg balancing postures such as Vrikshasana, Natarajasana, Rathacharyasana, Eka Padasana, Vira Bhadrasana, Hasthapadangusthasana and Garudasana as well as the back bending poses such as Chakrasana, Dhanurasana and Ushtrasana instill great agility in the dancer.


Bharatanatyam And Yoga Part-6


This article is contributed by Mallika Jayanti. The source of the above article is:



There are a great many facets of Yoga and Bharatanatyam  that are similar to each other. Some of these will be described in this section.


This is an important quality required in both Yoga and Bharatanatyam . Yoga can be defined as discipline and one of the important aspects of Yoga is the emphasis on Tapas as discipline. Yoga also emphasizes that Abhyasa or dedicated and determined practice is vital for success. No dancer can ever expect to master this art without a similar approach of dedicated, determined, sincere and regular Riaz or Sadhana. Sadhana and Abhyasa are vital for success.


GURU BHAKTI:               

Both arts stress the importance of Guru Bhakti and the role of Guru Krupa in achieving success in all endeavors. The Guru is held even higher than God and this is explained in the following way. A hypothetical question is asked as follows. If God and Guru appear before you at the same time, to whom will you bow down first? The answer is that we will bow to the Guru first as he is the one who will show us God. Without the Guru we cannot recognize the Divine even if he is standing in front of us.

The traditional method of learning in both of these arts was the Guru-Chela relationship that was often in the Gurukula pattern where the student lived with the Guru as a family member learning 24-hours-a- day for many years before mastering the art. This was a real trial by fire in many cases and only the true seeker would be able to pass such a test. Nowadays both these arts have become academic in nature and a lot has been lost in this transition from Gurukula to college method of imparting instruction.


One of the important streams of Yoga is Bhakti Yoga and this is related to the Bhakti Rasa of Bharatanatyam . All great Bhakti Yogis of our ancient Indian history were deeply immersed in music and dance in their love for the divine. Meerabhai, Thiyagaraja, Chaithanya Maha Prabhu, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Nandanar and Avvaiyar are some of the few examples of such Bhakti Yogis. It is said that Lord Shiva danced the Ananda Tandava at Thillai (Chidambaram) following the request of his great Bhaktas, Sage Patanjali and Sage Vyagrapadha. Similarly he also is believed to have given the benevolent Darshan of his Cosmic Dance for the great woman saint, Karaikal Ammaiyar.


Mantra Yoga and Nada Yoga are related to the Indian Classical Music that is an integral part of Bharatanatyam . The vibrations produced by the sounds of music and the use of the Bhija Mantras of Laya Yoga and Mantra Yoga has a similar effect in arousing latent and potent energies of our inner being. Bharatanatyam  utilises numerous shapes that are similar to the Mandalas of Yoga and Yantra and these shapes also produce a bio-electo-magnetic field that energizes not only the dancer but also her audience too. All matter is vibration and the differences are only due to the different speeds of vibration that result in differing degrees of freedom. This is well understood by modern physicists, one of whom, Fritjov Capra even went to the extent of declaring the principle of Lord Nataraja as the most apt symbol of quantum physics itself in his book, “The Tao of Physics”.


Bharatanatyam And Yoga Part-5


This article is contributed by Mallika Jayanti. The source of the above article is:



Acrobatic Natya Karanas are very much a part of the traditional Bharatanatyam  repertoire. 108 Natya Karanas have been described in the Natya Shastra. Natya Karanas are not only particular poses as is commonly believed, but also are cadences of movements. It is necessary for an understanding of the Karanas that the dancer masters the movements of the separate parts of the body like the neck, head, feet, thighs, waist and hands, and understands how geometric shapes can be created with the Angas (limbs), Evidence of Natya Karanas is very clear in studying sculptures and paintings in Gopuram walls, ceilings and courtyards of our ancient Dravidian temples, especially in Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and Tiruvannamalai, where dancers are depicted in acrobatic stances. These stances are very similar to Yoga Asanas. On the Gopuram walls at Chidambaram there are many classical dance poses, which are also Yoga Asanas.

Tandava, the classical dance, takes its name from Tandu, the celestial attendant of Lord Shiva who instructed the sage Bharata in the use of the Angaharas and Karanas, the plastic modes of Tandava at Lord Shiva’s behest. A Karana is a unit of dance in which gesture, step and attitude are coordinated in a harmonious rhythmic movement. A sequence of six or more Karanas is called an Angahara. Anga refers to the body and Hara is a name of Lord Shiva, creator of the Tandava, comprising 32 Angaharas composed of 108 Karanas.  The Nataraja temple of Chidambaram is sculpted with these 108 Karanas on the inner walls of the 4 gateways leading to the temple. These lovely sculptures vividly depict the Tandava dance form.

While Shiva performed the Tandava, several Karanas were linked together as a garland of dance poses with the help of Rechakas or pauses.  These became the Angaharas, garlands of dance poses for lord Hara.  Each combination of Angahara contains six, seven, eight or nine Karanas.  There are thirty-two Angaharas, according to Bharata.  Later, learned experts in the field of dance created several additional Angaharas in their own style.  These were in different combinations of Karanas and subsequently were different from those of Bharata.

According to experts of dance therapy, each of these 108 positions corresponds to one of the different human emotions. Holding a posture enhances the emotion it corresponds to. The length of time that the posture needs to be held will depend on how quickly you wish your energy sphere to become contented. You will need to perform the two or three postures for the counteracting emotion to the one you suffer from for a maximum total of 30 minutes per week for one year in order to get cured, and become contented in this respect. In practicing the opposing Karana, only the body, leg and arm movements need to be considered – not the detailed head, hand and foot gestures. Also, one does not need to be concerned with the movement into or out of the posture; nor with the actual emotion being represented – the mind needs to remain calm.

The Karanas in the Brihadeshwara Temple are sculpted on the walls of an inaccessible room on top of the Sanctum Sanctorum, and consist of about 87, four-armed, large figures of Shiva in Karana poses, with one pair of hands holding various weapons. There are other stray Karana figures, scattered all over Southern India in other temples. Strictly speaking, the Karana is an entire dance movement whereas the Karana-Sculpture is just one static pose taken from these. The beautiful bracket and wall figures of the Chennakesava temple at Belur, and the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebid depict dancers in a variety of poses that can be easily identified with the Caris, the Sthanakas and the Karanas described in the Natya Shastra. After a deep study of the sculptures at Chidambaram, scholars have classified Karanas into nine types. According to Sarangadeva in the Sangita Ratnakar, a beautiful classical pose, formed by changing the hands and legs in dance, conditioned by the mood or flavour, is known as a Karana. Bharata, in the Natya Shastra, merely defines a Karana as a combined movement of the feet and the hands that, though momentarily static, is a dynamic series of movements, which culminates in a specific pose. By themselves, the Karanas are beautiful aspects of dance, believed to have originated with Lord Nataraja’s Tandava. Pundits like Somanathkavi, Abhinavgupta and Sarangadeva suggested their use along with Bhava so as to expand their utility into the realm of Abhinaya. Over the years, Gurus interpreted Karanas with expressions in the Bhagavata Mela Natakam style, thereby incorporating these Karanas into Javalis and Padams.

The Natya Karanas give us a static element to offset the dynamic movements of the dance. This is important, for a pause is as important as a movement in classical dance.  Natya Karanas have not found prominence in the modern repertoire and one of the major reasons may be the physical inability of modern dancers to perform them. Most dancers today are overweight and inflexible due to the effects of modern lifestyle and diet. Unless a person has tremendous dedication and determination it will be very difficult to be able to perform most of the acrobatic Natya Karanas. We often see dancers struggle to stand even on one leg in a feeble attempt to recreate the masterly Karanas.

Under the dynamic leadership of Kalaimamani Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, Yoganjali Natyalayam, Pondicherry’s premier institute of Yoga, Bharatanatyam  and Carnatic music has tried to restore the acrobatic Karanas to the Bharat Natyam repertoire. According to Yogacharya Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, Chairman Yoganjali Natyalayam, acrobatic Natya Karanas are very much a part of the traditional Bharat Natyam repertoire, but have been practically lost in today’s performances. He says that evidence of their presence in this art form is very clear in studying bas relief, sculptures and paintings in Gopurams, walls, ceilings and courtyards of our ancient Dravidian temples, especially in Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and Tiruvannamalai, where dancers are depicted in acrobatic stances. He also points out that these stances are very similar to Yoga Asanas, and in the Gopuram walls at Chidambaram, at least twenty different classical Yoga Asanas are depicted by the dancers, including Dhanurasana, Chakrasana, Vrikshasana, Natarajasana, Trivikramasana, Ananda Tandavasana, Padmasana, Siddhasana, Kaka Asana, Vrishchikasana and others. Yoganjali Natyalayam has as one of its aims the restoration of these acrobatic Karanas to the classical Bharatanatyam  performance and this is possible only by combining sustained Yogic discipline with dance training from an early age. The sincere and regular practice of Yoga from early childhood helps to re-create the Karanas efficiently and many of the students of Yoganjali Natyalayam have become experts in the artistic presentation of these Karanas.


Bharatanatyam And Yoga Part-4



This article is contributed by Mallika Jayanti. The source of the above article is:



Nritya is that manifestation of dancing that includes both Rasa (aesthetic flavour) and Bhava (human emotions), as in the dance with Abhinaya, the art of expression.

There are nine major classical categories of emotions or Rasa, called Nava Rasas that are depicted in the Abhinaya of Bharatanatyam . These are Shringara (erotic love), Haasya (humour and laughter), Karuna (compassion), Roudra (anger), Veera (heroism), Bhaya (fearful terror), Bheebatsa (disgust), Adbhuta (wonder-awe) and Shanta (peacefulness).

The Nava Rasas are a major form of emotional catharsis and Natya (dance) helps cleanse the negative aspects of human emotions and sublimate them for higher emotions of Divine Bhakti. They are also a great means of psychological preventive therapy as most modern societies give little or no scope for expression of these emotions in the proper manner.

The Nava Rasas also help youngsters to learn about these emotions in a positive manner. They can then produce a balanced wholesome personality who embodies Sama Bhava or equal mindedness.

According to one of the greatest exponents of Bharatanatyam , Balasaraswati “Bharatanatyam , in its highest moment, is the embodiment of music in its visual form. For more than thousand years, the Shastras have confirmed that an individual dedicated to dance must be equally dedicated to music and must receive thorough training in both the arts. In demonstrating the art of Bharatanatyam  abroad, I have made a special point of showing audiences how delicately linked is the realisation of movement to Raga expression in Abhinaya, including the subtle expression of Gamakas, intonation of Sruti, and the unfolding of improvisation in Niraval. In the same way that we look for perfect blending of Raga and Tala and of Raga and Bhava in Abhinaya, so also it is essential that the Raga and the Sahitya be perfectly matched and in accordance with the necessities of expression in the dance.”

She also points out, “Shringara stands supreme in this range of emotions. No other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystic union of the human with the Divine. I say this with great personal experience of dancing to many great devotional songs, which have had no element of Shringara in them. Devotional songs are, of course, necessary. However, Shringara is the cardinal emotion, which gives the fullest scope for artistic improvisation, branching off continually, as it does, into the portrayal of innumerable moods full of newness and nuance”.

She continues in the same vein by saying, “If we approach Bharatanatyam  with humility, learn it with dedication and practice it with devotion to God, Shringara which brings out the great beauties of this dance can be portrayed with all the purity of the spirit. The flesh, which is considered to be an enemy of the spirit and the greatest obstacle to spiritual realization, has itself been made a vehicle of the Divine in the discipline of the dance. Shringara thus is an instrument for uniting the dancer with Divinity. Since the dancer has universalized her experience, all that she goes through is also felt and experienced by the spectator”.

Vimala Sarma: Dancing is a long journey without a destination


This interview with Vimala Sarma by Mallika Jayanti was first featured in &

Vimala Sarma is a classical Indian dance teacher and performer of the Kuchipudi style of dance, and her company, Nayika Indian Dance, is located in inner city Sydney.  Vimala’s guru is Satyapriya Ramana who was both a student of, and teacher at, Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam’s Kuchipudi Art Academy for many years.  The Kuchipudi dances she performs are either choreographed by Vempati Chinna Satyam, or herself.  Vimala has also learnt Mohiniattam, a graceful dance style from Kerala.  Vimala has performed in the prestigious annual Festivals of Music and Dance in Chennai, and in other South Indian Festivals.  She was awarded a Certificate of Excellence, the title “Natyakala Siromani” (crown jewel in the art of dance), and honored by leading Kuchipudi artists, at a felicitation ceremony.  Her company also conducts cultural tours to India.

Tell us about your association with Kuchipudi – when and where you started along with your gurus. 
I grew up in Malaysia have always liked classical Indian dance.  My first teacher was Shanta Dhananjayan, then Shanta Menon (before she was married), and I learnt Bharatanatyam (Kalakshetra style) from her for a short while, when I was in my early teens.  Some years later, I won a Colombo Plan scholarship in my final year of school in Kuala Lumpur and went to Adelaide University. After marriage, my husband subsequently gained research position at the Australian National University; I settled in Canberra and joined the Australian Public Service.  During that period, I saw a performance by a good Kuchipudi dancer and was attracted to the graceful and fast Kuchipudi style of the eminent Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, so I joined her classes with great enthusiasm.  However she soon made it plain that she was not at all interested in either correcting or teaching me, and subsequently left Canberra.  I then decided on an approach which, upon reflection, was breathtakingly foolhardy, and tinged with hubris.

Faced with the prospect of not having a teacher, I decided I was going to teach myself.  This is not an approach I would suggest to anyone – it is full of dangers and pitfalls, and I probably went through all of them, as I did not come from a family background well versed in music, the Telugu language (we spoke English at home) or in the traditional culture.  My approach was to go to India for my one-month annual leave from the Australian Public Service, learn as much as I could, come back and spend the rest of the year practising what I had learnt.  Not for me the traditional approach of spending years with adavus, then jathis, and then pieces.  There just was not the time in the one month for this.  So I just learnt whole pieces at a time – sometimes two or three pieces from Satyapriya Ramana, a student and teacher at the Kuchipudi Arts Academy in Madras, each time I went to India.  Satypriya was recommended to me by Guru Vempati.  After returning from each trip, I dissected the dance, line by line, and step by step, and worked out the best way to do each movement.  In the process, I learnt all the meanings of the words of the songs and expression.  Imagine learning about talam without having someone beat out the rhythm, and learning how to use the body to move, working out which muscles to use.  Because I learnt everything from first principles for myself, I can now pass all these skills and tips to my students who don’t have to learn the hard way.

I am now living in Sydney and more recently, I have been to a couple of other teachers – Kalpalatika, herself an excellent dancer, and Bala Kondala Rao, who has excellent abhinaya, and a beautiful singing voice to boot.  I have since also discovered Mohiniattam which I am also learning in the same way.

How different do you think it is to pursue this art form inside and outside India?
It is not difficult if one has the time to practice and a good teacher, but of course I did not, as I have explained previously – so it was a very difficult, lonely and perilous journey with little or no encouragement from the dance world in Australia.  However in India I have strong and lasting friendships with other dancers and rasikas.  The approach I chose also required a great deal of self-discipline, and looking back at it now, I am amazed that I persevered with it for a number of years, given all the difficulties.

Pursuing the arts inside India has its own difficulties.  Unless one is from a relatively well-to-do family, it is difficult to afford the auto fare to and from classes everyday, and classes have to be fitted in outside school hours.  Teachers’ fees are generally modest but the gurukula system, where one stays with the teacher, is not feasible when there are other demands upon time, and very good teachers may refuse to teach any other way.  The teaching method in India is basically a ‘see-and-do’ method, which involves students watching older students and imitating them.  This means that students never get to do something in a new way.   Gurus are not usually dancers, and focus mainly on talam.   It is difficult to get to performance level in India, not only because of the method of teaching, and the expense of hiring musicians, but also because of the sheer number of other good dancers competing for limited resources.  The most annoying thing in India is that nothing seems to be a straightforward business transaction, as in the west, but seems to be based on grace and favour.  For example, it is difficult to go to another teacher without giving grave offence to the teacher who has already accepted you.

How difficult do you find explaining to people the difference between Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam as you find not many Indians seem to know the difference? 
Yes, people are not even familiar with the word – which sounds like some strange stick dance to Tamil speakers!  I must confess I myself don’t like the word – it is not euphonic, not easy for a Westerner to remember or say, and it is the name of a village, which conjures up the image of a village dance.  However to a Western audience there is no need to make any distinctions.  If asked, I simply say it is a classical Indian dance style from Andhra Pradesh. Ideally it would be good to give this style the dignity and classicism of a Sanskrit name, but in the meantime perhaps Andhra Natyam will do.

Kuchipudi always seems to play second–fiddle to Bharatanatyam to the Tamil elite, and the Kalakshetra purists look askance at it, mainly because Kuchipudi also includes less appealing village styles, which suffer from plain bad technique.  The main differences between the style of Guru Satyam and Bharatanatyam, (and I am focusing here particularly on the Kalakshetra style), is the use of  the chest and back in almost all steps,  the pointed toe (suchi pada), turns with jumps, the triple bend (tribhangi), fluidity between one hand gesture and the next, greater range of steps, greater use of neck and eye attami, greater innovation in the use of syllables in voice percussion (sollukattus), and greater coverage of space on the stage by the dancer – all of these elements create vibrancy and visual interest.  In pure dance sequences (nritta), the pleasing aesthetics of posture and alignment are seen, as in Bharatanatyam, but the steps are faster, and the combinations more varied. 

From my perspective, the relative small number of adavus in the Kalakshetra style invariably becomes evident in a long performance, as it limits the choreography, so that even ardent rasikas find it difficult to sit through a long solo performance of more than two hours.   Another irritating thing about Bharatanatyam is the claim often heard in performances that the art is the ‘oldest dance form’ or that it is ‘thousands of years old,’ no doubt to lend some sort of canonical status to the dance form, and to establish its superiority over western arts.  Considering that all the choreography of the present repertoire has all developed from particular gurus in the last two centuries, this claim is hardly accurate.

Do you go to India often? 
I go to Chennai every year in the December season but in the last few years I have also been going to retreat in Kerala.  I must say what is lacking in Chennai – and perhaps some entrepreneur will achieve this one day –  is a cultural campus in pleasant ambience where visitors can go for few weeks, enjoy good food and accommodation, Carnatic music, dance performances and also delve in the arts with good teachers, all in a pleasant ambience.  Such a place exists in Kerala and you only need to book ahead of time and pay once. 

In Chennai, the continual hassles of going back and forth to classes and performances in different places, at inconvenient times, arguing with the autowallahs, braving the pollution and the streets, arriving at houses of gurus only to find they are otherwise occupied, waiting for things to happen, wondering where to eat the next meal, while paying all the time for everything, is getting me down, so maybe my trips to Chennai will become less frequent, particularly as I am not keen on learning any new pieces. On recent visits I have focused on performing in India and developing my own choreographic skills.   

Do you teach currently? 
I do teach but I don’t look for students – they tend to find me.  I have a few students from different cultural backgrounds, and I teach from a Western perspective using warm-ups and warm downs and specific exercises. 

How often do you stage performances? What difficulties do you face?
I stage two or so performances during the year, in inner-city Sydney to a predominantly non-Indian inner city audience.  My main difficulties are in the marketing of the shows.  It is difficult to be a performer and do all the marketing as well.  In the last performance I used a ticketing company and this took some of the work off me.  None of the Indian cultural organizations in Sydney are interested in promoting local artists.

One issue I face is that Indian audiences in Sydney, who live in the western suburbs, don’t seem to want to come into the inner city because they cannot take the car and park in the city, and need to use public transport.  They also do not like paying ticket prices which are comparable to Australian shows, such as plays or Western music concerts.

What other things do you do that help you to be a better dancer?
Pilates is good for building core strength and I do this regularly.  I have also learnt some modern dance technique based on the barre work done in ballet, which I found very helpful.  Barre works is useful for all dance movement.  I now have a routine of exercises which I have developed myself which is especially relevant to classical Indian dance – incorporating elements of barre work, balance, some yoga poses and stretching. I am also learning some Mohiniattam and the plies in that dance form are at different levels and that is a good exercise for all dancers.  When practising, I usually work on a piece and then leave it for a while.  I find going back to something after a break, helps internalize the piece, making it feel different.  I have also started learning Sanskrit at Sydney University and that has opened a whole new avenue of intellectual activity.  

What is your opinion about the current classical dance scenario in Sydney and in India?
The classical dance scenario in Sydney is a case of ‘every man for himself.’  All the dancers are either attached to particular teachers or are on their own – nobody seems to want to collaborate with anybody else.  I am not sure why this should be so, as collaboration always brings bigger audiences.  For example, I did a collaborative show two years ago with a Japanese koto player, a Gamelan group, and Adrian McNeil playing sitar in different segments of a show call “Moving East,” and all our separate audiences came to the show.  I have done the “Lotus & Phoenix” shows with Tony Wheeler, an excellent artist who plays string instruments and the clarinet in different styles including Indian raga music.

I suspect the reason the Indian dancers don’t work together is the fear of being compared.  However if the styles are different there can be no comparison.  Also in general, Indians may find it difficult to discipline themselves and subjugate their personalities to a common cause – which any good Western artist does as a matter of professionalism.  Their personas seem to get in the way of the performance.

In India, I have found that, in general, artists tend to recognize and respect other good artists.  However there is still not much collaborative work or shows considering that Chennai is teeming with good dancers, and egos are everywhere evident.

How difficult do you think it is to manage a career in dance, a regular job and family?  What is your suggestion to dancers who want to start a family and still manage a career in dance?
The first premise that is incorrect in your question is the idea that there can be a career in dance.  Dance may be a full time pursuit but in no sense is it a career, as it is impossible even for very good artists to earn a living purely from dance.  It may supplement other sources of income, and if a show covers all costs including artist fees, one is doing just fine.  Of course, fitting a nine-to-five job, family responsibilities and practice into one day is extremely difficult.  In Australia where extended family households are rare, and household help unaffordable, such a routine is almost impossible, requiring excellent organizational skills, unless the children are old enough to help.  So my suggestion is – go to India if you are able to afford a house and servants!!

Is there anything you want to tell the current young generation of dancers, especially those who are pursuing Kuchipudi?
Find a good teacher and persevere with your practice.  Dancing is a long journey without a destination, but it brings its own rewards.  It combines physical activity with the use of the mind, music and lyrics.  It is not necessary to be either a performer or a teacher; one can get enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment at every level of learning dance.  However it is also not something that can be picked up in a year a two, so be prepared for a long journey with personal highs, which more than compensate for the inevitable setbacks and disappointments.  The good news is that, like learning an instrument, anyone can do it given enough practice.

What is the difference between a Western audience and an Indian one?
One of the thrills of dancing to an Indian audience of rasikas in India is that there is no need to go into much explanation of mudras, etc, or even of the story being related.  The audience relates to the dancer’s expression immediately.  Hence the facial expression is most important to an Indian audience, closely followed by adherence to talam (timing).  Even if the dancer has technical perfection, Indian audiences will not consider her to be a good dancer unless she also engages the audience with her expressions.  Hence Swapnasundari draws packed appreciative audiences to her shows, purely through her excellent abhinaya, while sitting down through an entire piece. 

For a Western audience, pure movement for its own sake is everything, but it must be executed to perfection.  It does not necessarily have to have meaning.  So in the beginning I used to do nritta pieces for Western audiences as these were lively and full of action.   However investing a bit of time at the beginning of a dance to explain some hand gestures and the meaning of the piece has paid dividends, and Western audiences are very appreciative audiences.  There is usually a pin-drop silence and close attention.  Abhinaya in Kuchipudi pieces is very natural and transcends cultures.

What do you think of Bollywood, fusion dance and modern dance in Australia
Thanks to the film industry, Bollywood is now part of the party scene in Australia.  People often come to me and say “I love Indian culture – can you do Bollywood?”  This is bit like saying “I love Western culture – can you do rock?”  Bollywood may be a lot of fun to do, but it is not to taken seriously as an art form.  It is tacky – like the films it comes from.

Unfortunately, contemporary dance is what all the Australian granting bodies seem to like.  There is a tendency to pompously pseudo-intellectualize dance to the point of absurdity.  For example, a dancer, much supported by the dance bureaucracy, says in all earnestness about her performance: Dictionary of Atmospheres presents the body as a meandering topography, a roaming through shifts in terrain and flickers of scale. It is a range of perforations, folds, indentations and ridges which sweep and mould and precipitate different senses of domain.   She is not the only one, and I don’t mean to single her out.  There is also an alarming tendency to talk about “the process” afterwards.  While this may be of interest to the performers themselves, it is of little interest to the diminishing audience of other artists and their friends who go to the performances. 

I think genuine innovation is possible only after one has completely understood and mastered an art form, and should add to, or extend it, in new ways, rather than simplify or diminish it. 

Vimala Sarma can be contacted at: