The bharatanatyam dancer dances with her entire body. Her eyes, her mouth, her head, her neck, her shoulders, her arms, her hands, her fingers, her abdomen, her legs, her feet. Her movements are delicate but intentional, formulated but expressive. Her hands shift dexterously between mudras to express spiritual or narrative meaning to accompany Carnatic lyrics of the song. The belled-bands around her ankles keep time to the beat of the music. Her long braided hair is kept securely within the belt tied around her waist, but the tassel hanging from the end of the braid and the pleats of fabric falling in loose pants sway as she moves around the stage. She is a beautiful image of Indian cultural heritage.
Bharatanatyam is the classical dance of Tamil Nadu. The first evidences of its origin have been dated to sometime between 500 BC and 500 CE, but during this time the dance was probably known as Sadir. The term bharatanatyam was not coined until the 20th century, and this name is made of two parts: natyam, which means dance in Sanskrit, and bharata, which is short form for bhaga, rava, and tala, meaning emotion, melody, and rhythm. Bharatanatyam is traditionally set to Carnatic music played by cymbals, a flute, a long pipe horn called nagaswaram, drums known as mridangam and veena, and lyrics sung in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, or Sanskrit.
The dance was first performed exclusively by girls in Hindu temples, primarily for religions and ritual occasions. It has since grown to include male dancers and to find a place on the performance stage. But sometimes that performance space harkens back to the dance’s origins in the temple. The opening event of the 2017 Pondicherry Heritage Festival was one such performance: modern bharatanatyam, including both men and women in a dance-theater version of the art, danced in one of the region’s oldest temples, Mulanathaswami temple of Bahour.
Bharatanatyam can be divided into three main types. Nritta is the traditional ritual dance of “pure” bharatanatyam, in which the dancer emphasizes speed, form, pattern, range, and rhythm without any interpretive aspect. Nritya style bharatanatyam communicates a narrative or spiritual theme, which is expressed through gestures and slower body movements. The final type is called natyam, which is a form of dance theater usually performed in a group. The event in Bahour, The Legend of Bangari-Singari, was of this natyam type. In six segments, the dancers told the story of a local legend, in which two sisters initiate the digging of a canal to form Bahour Lake and alleviate problems of water scarcity in the region. The performance included acts with both traditional bharatanatyam dance and more theatrical miming and expression.
A Tamil voiceover narrative told the story between each dance segment. I tried to listen for any of the few words I can sort of understand, but the only one I could make out was tannir: water. I watched each segment closely, trying to follow the story. My German friend next to me did the same, and we checked our understanding between songs.
“The girls are going to be married,” she hypothesized after the first dance, an adoring presentation of the protagonist sisters by their parents.
“There is some problem that needs to be solved,” I gathered, after a discussion with elders and an exchange of ideas.
“Oh, now they are digging the canal,” we saw the clear rhythmic pantomime of performers in laborers’ costume.
“Ah, here comes the water,” when we saw young girls in flowing blue costumes preparing to enter the stage.
“And now a celebrative finale with the entire village,” we predicted.
The Bahour temple courtyard was filled with over 1,000 people; some of them associated with the sponsoring organizations – People for Pondicherry’s Heritage, Pondy Citizens Action Network, and Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage; some of them unaffiliated but still coming specifically to see the performance out of interest in Pondicherry’s Heritage or bharatanatyam; and still others, locals, who attended spontaneously after invitations from organizers drew crowds from the streets, or out of curiosity about the music coming from the town’s principal temple. Some attendees knew Tamil, some did not. Some were familiar with bharatanatyam, others probably were not. But sill the dancers told their story, through music and song and narration and dance.
This performed legend of Bahour falls into the current theme of social activism in the region, joining other recent events addressing the importance of water and water conservation: the Pondy Photo exhibition, Water; the Madras Players Auroville performance of Water; and the Bahour Water Festival. It is perhaps a reminder that our cultural heritage – that is, our arts, our knowledge, our customs, our beliefs – is inextricably linked to our natural heritage – the resources, energy, and foodstuffs that we borrow from the earth. After a long dry monsoon season where the rains were supposed to come in October, then November, then December, after which a drought was officially declared, the bharatanatyam performance of The Legend of Bangari-Singari reminds us not only of the rich cultural heritage of the Tamilian people, but also of the vulnerability and sanctity of the region’s natural heritage.