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Experience Of Advaita Through Bharatanatya

Advaita Bharatnatya

As Ananda Coomaraswamy says1:

“Whatever the origins of Siva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.’ The essential significance of Shiva’s dance is threefold: First, his dance is taken as the source and image of all movements within the cosmos; second, the purpose of his dance is to release the countless souls of human beings from maya or illusion; third, the place of the dance, Chidambaram, the centre of the universe, is within the heart.’

Bharatanatyam is a yoga, a spiritual discipline to control the wayward mind and perfect it to thought­free serenity. The expertise of the artist enables him or her to gain the equipoise of yoga in a rapid change of differing moods. Single ­minded contemplation is difficult even when there is no activity. In Bharatanatyam actions are not avoided, but it is the harmony of various actions that results in the concentration we seek.

Dance symbolizes detachment from all earthly connections. ‘The dancer gets so engrossed in the rhythm as she has to produce the sound the percussionist is playing and concentrate on her balance that all other worldly thoughts simply disappear from her mind and the supreme bliss is experienced.

It is also the responsibility of the performer to allow the well informed audience, to get a feel of this spiritual transformation. In their shared involvement, the dancer and the spectator are both released from worldly woes and experience the divine joy of the art with a total sense of freedom.

In a spiritual country like India, where the realization of consciousness or spirit has been the supreme goal of life, it is not a wonder that dance became a form of sadhana”2

Advaita in Bharatanatyam Margam

The theme of margam presentation by Tanjore Quartet is about spirit of man, and permeates the essence of spirituality. Here, the word spirituality deals with the sense of connection to the absolute soul within us. The connection of the individual manifest spirit or soul to the Ultimate spirit or Absolute soul; and this is represented by metaphor of jivatma yearning for union with paramatma. The theme is “Evolution of the spirit set on the spiritual path towards salvation”.

”As a result, at the outset, the truth of the human life (allaripu) is put forward, then the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padams and javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of life (shloka).” Like the acts of the play are connected to narrate a story, in the same manner all items connect to the theme and narrate the stages of spiritual growth of man, in a sequence.  The whole of margam is one presentation. Naturally to appreciate a mature theme such as this, one needs to have knowledge of the concept of inner being – spirit, and belief in the oneness of humanity and conviction in human values.

The metaphysical position of this relationship can be found stated in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. “In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without,” “In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without.”3 With this metaphysical position, the simplistic relationship of husband and wife is given legal status to be used as a concept for portraying the union of jivatma with paramatma. This allows the concept to work at both levels -empirical and metaphysical.

Rasa is an aesthetic experience where a higher reality of life is brought in focus through mental perception which is formed in the mind. Moksha is a spiritual realization where one realizes the Absolute Self in oneself through intuition of the mind. Thus, both experiences involve the spirit or atma, but are far apart from each other.

An artist must evoke an emotional response or rasa-experience in the minds of the spectators through his art is the underlying philosophical theory of art, while moksha is the goal of the spirit of man as explained in philosophy of life in the Vedas.

Alarippu is philosophically considered as an offering or prayer to paramatman (Self), who resides in all living beings as jivatman (self). This atman takes rebirths or is born many times, till it achieves spiritual liberation which happens only when it cultivates detachment, acquires knowledge of the ultimate reality and transforms that knowledge into direct experience. In alarippu, this atma  (limited self) of God prays to the Ultimate Being (unlimited Self). The physical body here is the vehicle of the atman (inner self), to help one set out on the path of spiritual realization.

Alarippu, the initial nritta item is a prayer to God (bhakti marg). The dancer, as a devotee, uses elemental movements to awaken the different limbs of the body and in the culminating movements propitiates to God with the whole body. This awakening is said to be the blossoming of the body and is symbolically compared to blooming of the lotus flower. It is performed to a rhythm pattern set within a metrical cycle.

Jatiswaram is an nritta item, and precedes all nritya and abhinaya numbers. This item corresponds to yoga philosophy. “The term yoga comes from the root yuj, “to yoke or join.” Here it is used to mean the evolution of the individual spirit (jivatman) with the Universal Spirit (paramatman).The yoga system pertains to the individual condition of nature. This subtle aspect (atman) is but a spark of the divine (atman)…can be known only by the power of spiritual perception to be known only through the practice of Yoga.”4

Nritta in classical dance is a coordinated unit of movement which is well structured with geometric precision and harmony. Nritta has evolved from the systematization of body movements which were perhaps the very initial way man used to express his joy and sorrow before he learnt to speak. “In India, dance took two directions. One, it developed as a way of amusing oneself and others on occasions i.e., the desire of man to express his sense of fun through dancing. Another is, to use dance as ritualistic practices of our faith.  Not only has man known that the mortal form can express joy and sorrow through movement, but he has also realized that this movement must have discrimination and selection and just as he must organize society to transcend the selfishness of the personal man on the horizontal plane, he must formalize movement to transcend himself along the vertical plane and devote himself to a being higher than himself, a power which he evokes and evolves himself by removing the sheeths of illusion. This direction of growth is most important for our purpose as it is this instinct for sublimation, for transcendence, that gives true fibre and character to classical dance. That dancing was and is an essential feature of the Hindu temple is not a casual happening.  It results directly from a continuous process of thought and living: this ritualistic dancing, in both its religious and classical richness, ascends and descends – grows and declines, with the other sociological processes of history.”5 Nritta item is called a pure dance number for it lays the foundation to perceive pure consciousness and therefore a Bharatanatyam artist can get in touch with one’s inner self or embodied being, like a yogi through his practice of meditation.

In jatiswaram, with the help of the variety of dance patterns, the body raises the energy levels in the kinesphere. It is known that in adavus, “the point of perfect balance can be maintained if there is the minimum possible deviation from the centre of gravity.”6 The centerline or the vertical median of the body demarcates the bilateral symmetrical system of the body. It represents the direction of the pull of gravity. This centre line is where the chakras lie. Automatically, the araimandi posture helps concentrate on the chakras.  The effect of concentration on the chakras has been well explained by yoga practitioners. When the chakras are concentrated upon, the coiled energies are awoken. The energies spread through the body. The angular, triangular and circular dance patterns in Bharatanatyam end in angular and triangular postures. Hastas and mudras lock the energies in the body preventing their escape through outstretched hands. Thus the body creates an electrical space (spherical shaped) around itself, inside which the self/devotee communicates with God (bhakti marg). Perhaps, it is like a séance; the dancer makes a purified sanctum around himself/herself, where the spirit meets its Original Source.

sabdam comes next. , The theme is evolution of the self/spirit on the path to spiritual goal. It is only after acquiring the knowledge of the ultimate truth (sravana) and reflecting upon it (manana) does one realize the self. Knowledge, according to this doctrine, is a state or modification of the empirical self. In sabdam, the dancer interprets words and verses of devotion through abhinaya. Here, the devotee expresses his profound devotion which leads to the realisation of inner self. Then we come to items where abhinaya is performed extensively. To do abhinaya convincingly, the dancer requires an analytical mind, power of reasoning, logical thinking, a sense of correctness, a good understanding of human nature and an ability to express accurately.  Although there is diversity around us, all are united by the same human values and emotions. Through Bhakthi,the dancer can realise that he is surrounded by Maya.

The reflection of other philosophies is seen in varnam and padams -“The purpose of mimamsa is to inquire into the nature of Right action (dharma)” The term dharma is derived from the root dhar, ‘to hold, maintain, preserve’.  It has reference, therefore, to anything that holds, supports or preserves. When used in the metaphysical sense, it means those universal laws of Nature that sustain the operation of the universe and the manifestation of all things, without which nothing could be. When applied to the individual, it has reference to that code of conduct that sustains the soul, and enables man to fulfill his divine destiny. Here it has reference to the actions, practices and duties that will benefit man in the world to come; therefore, it is that which produces virtue, morality, or religious merit leading toward the development of man.”7 “Action is the very essence of human existence. without action human destiny cannot be fulfilled; therefore, Right Action (dharma) is the spiritual pre-requisite of life.”8 It says, “right action is proved and defended by the means of knowledge; all the effects of right action lead to the evolution of consciousness…The soul to achieve salvation must first exhaust its potentialities through action…It must survive the earthly manifestations.”9 It is necessary that one understands life, its source and value of existence which can be done only by living through it. Thus the soul has to undergo actions, emotions and feelings while experiencing various relationships one’s life offers and pass through the principles of purushartha – dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Dharma and moksha have to support and guide all the human activities. All activities are symbolized by artha and kama and are bracketed by dharma and moksha. Dharma means support while moksha means release, deliverance, freedom from ignorance, bondage and birth and death phenomenon. Thus, the Vedas show the right path to be followed, i.e. path of moral conduct to reach the ultimate goal of life – release, liberation, salvation.

The performing arts express emotions and feelings of humanity or emotional experiences that are the basic truth of life, through the medium of various actions and relationships. The art of abhinaya through varnam, padam and javali in Bharatanatyam, portrays actions and reactions which are the outcome brought about by various relationships one gets to experience in life. This is where the empirical world is portrayed and emotions and feelings of human beings are expressed out in the open along with poetry and rhythm. The padams and javalis constitute the larger part of the traditional repertoire where the strengths and frailties of human beings are to be dealt with.

The emotions of love, affection and devotion to each other become important for these emotions alone bring us happiness and keep us united with our beloved ones. Thus the idea of pining for self realisation through the paramatma and jeevatma concept shown through emotions of shringara (lover), vatsalya (child) and bhakti bhava (devotee) in varnam, padam and javali .

Varnam points out that only through love, devotion and surrender to God (bhakti marg) can one attain salvation. “If you use your emotions and try to reach the ultimate, we call this bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. Devotion is another dimension of intelligence. Intellect wants to conquer the truth. Devotion just embraces the truth. Devotion cannot decipher but devotion can experience. Intellect can decipher but can never experience. A devotee is someone who has the right perspective of his place in the existence”.10 Varnam is a comprehensive item in the margam.  It combines nritta and abhinaya. The dancer portrays a lovelorn heroine pining for union with the hero – her Lord. She conveys her love and devotion to Him by speaking about his goodness and greatness that attracts her to Him. She considers him as epitome of perfection. She pleads with her sakhi personifying guru to help her. The significance of nayika pining for the nayaka is ‘jivatma’ seeking spiritual union with ‘paramatma.’

In padams, there is a gamut of human emotions displayed. The navarasas come into play. The artiste can choose from any of the classification of nayikas and nayakas in their different moods to express his/her feelings and thoughts and relationships, with God (bhakti marg), to portray the empirical world. Even so, underlying idea in padams also is to be taken as jivatma’s yearning for union with paramatma or the rearning for self realization.Many of the songs used in padams are written by bhakti poets. In padams and javalis, which are pure abhinaya items, the dancer portrays the nayika as awaiting the nayaka’s arrival, or is angry for His infidelity (Indenthu  vachithivira), or how she dresses up for nayaka’s arrival (Dari  juchu). Or he/she could expresses his/her wish to stay at His feet forever and remember Him always (Varugalamo aiyya), or surrender to God, (as in charanam charanam  raghurama).

A point to be noted here is that, in Natyasastra, Bharata says, “There are no limitations of theme or content in this art. It depicts the exploits of gods, asuras, kings and ordinary human beings.  Its range extends to the seven divisions of the world (sapta dvipa). The limitless range of human nature, with its joys and sorrows, is depicted by means of representation through abhinaya.”11 This explains the import of mimamsa philosophy that social themes and issues are part of natya.  Then depiction of social life and issues in Bharatanatyam a derivative of natya are also valid.

Tillana is essentially the expression of joy. Tillana expresses the happiness of the devotee, as a certain promise of union has been obtained or it represents the bliss experienced by a devotee through self-realisation. Here the song is sung in syllables. In tillana, the dancer dances intricate dance patterns to the music of rhythmic syllables. The dance patterns are choreographed such that the space of the cuboid or sphere created around the artist is covered with large movements. The movements after charanam look artistically and geometrically designed and quite fast to show the excitement of self-realisation. The energy levels are increased to fortify the purified sanctum.

Shlokam or viruttam reflects vedanta philosophy. It is a simple devotional verse. A prayer to the Lord is offered (Kasturi  tilakam) and is the last item in margam; here the devotee describes the God (bhakti marg) as seen by her. One becomes that Ultimate Being realized by self.

Mangalam (bhakti marg) is to thank God for His divine vision and pray that His beautiful image thus should eternally be perceived in the mind of the devotees throughout their worldly existence.

Realization of one’s own true nature is becoming Brahman. Final freedom does not therefore mean any actual change in the nature of the self but the attainment of release (moksha) from the empirical state of being. “‘Tat tvam asi” (That art thou) is the goal of life. To see the Self one must become “calm, controlled, quiet, patiently enduring and contented.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishanan explains the spiritual nature of man as emphasized in Vedanta philosophy, “The Self (Atman) is existence, knowledge and bliss. It is universal and infinite.….. Our ignorance is born of a confusion of the transcendental subject (atman) with empirical existence (anatman)….. Atman is the same as Brahman; the essence of the subject, the deepest part of our being, is one with the essence of the world…Ignorance affects our whole empirical being…To remove ignorance is to realize the truth. We reach wisdom when error is dissipated. While absolute truth is Brahman, empirical truth is not false. In this empirical universe, we have God (Isvara), selves and the world… By the practice of ethical virtues and by the pursuit of devotion and knowledge we reach the goal of self-realization (moksha). Moksha (self-realization or freedom) is the direct realization of the truth which has been there from eternity.  On the attainment of freedom nothing happens to the world; only our view of it changes. Moksha is not the dissolution of the world but is the displacement of a false outlook (avidya) by the right outlook wisdom (vidya).”12

Hindu philosophy defines spiritual practice as one’s journey towards moksha, awareness of self, the discovery of higher truths, true nature of reality, and a consciousness that is liberated and content.”13 The Tanjore Quartet margam imparts this knowledge through its structure or line-up of items. It makes an effort to understand life and reality, which is the function of natya, by analyzing human emotions in its innumerable tones through abhinaya. It has made a judicious use of rhythm, movement and feelings and thoughts for the expression of the inner self or the embodied being. It puts forward at the outset the truth of the human life (allaripu), then the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padamsand javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of life (shloka). It explains Hindu philosophy through bhakti marg as the unifying base through which the common man can contemplate on God or ‘Self’ – the Supreme Truth, goodness and beauty of which perfect happiness essentially consists – easily.

– Tanjore Quartet margam educates and elevates society by giving the spectator a foretaste of moksha, the ultimate spiritual experience through rasa – experience. Even mediate knowledge of the reality of ‘self’ brings bliss. This elevating experience perhaps can be credited for the increase in viewership for Bharatanatyam; for encouraging the spectators to view the art for the charm and magic that envelops them after a presentation; and stimulating them to take keen interest in the presentation.

According to Adwaitha philosophy – Distracted as we are by various thoughts, if we continually contemplate on self, which is itself god, this single thought would in due course replace all distraction and would itself ultimately vanish. The pure consciousness that alone finally remains is God. This is liberation. Even though the mind wanders restlessly, involved in external matters, and so is forgetful of its own self, one should remain alert and remember that the body is not the self and should constantly contemplate on turning the mind backwards to its primal state. These are the transformations a spiritually bent dancer may undergo through the performance of a Margam. or we can say that this margam is a symbolic representation of spiritual transformation of a soul to experience oneness as said in Adwaitha.

Dr. Chethana Radhakrishna’s lecture on experiencing Advaita through Brahmacharya is also available here.


1. Ananda Coomaraswamy ‘The Dance of Shiva’ Paperback – 1957

2.  Chandra Anand, Spiritual expression and spiritual exercise,, 2014.

3. William Dalrymple, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art,, 2014.

4. Theos Bernard, Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. ltd., New Delhi, India, 1999, chapter 4, pg 86-90.

5. Kapila Vatsyayan, Classical Indian Dance in literature and the Arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, second edition, 1977, chapter 1, pg 8.

6.  Ibid, chapter 1, pg 8.

7. Theos Bernard, Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt ltd., New Delhi, India, 1999, chapter 5,102.

8. Ibid, pg 102.

9. Ibid, pg 103.

10. Sadhguru on Bhakti yoga, what is devotion

11. Kapila Vatsyayan, Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, second edition, 1977, chapter 1, pg 8

12. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, Princeton University Press, USA, 1957, chapter II, pg 38.


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