Design, Designers, Micro-history, Art History

Shringara: Ornaments worn by Bharatanatyam Artists


Bharatanatyam is one of the 8 kinds of classical dances in India. All classical dance forms share a common root in Natyashastra. Natyashastra, a treatise on dance, was written by Bharata Muni sometime between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD. The theory and technique of not only classical dances but also classical drama, stage design, music, costume, and make-up are based on Natyashastra.

The origin of the name Bharatanatyam came from 4 Sanskrit words. Divided in 4 sections, Bha-ra-ta-natyam, each syllable represents a different word and meaning. Bha comes from Bhava, which means expression. Ra comes from Raga, which means melody. Ta comes from Tala, which means rhythm. Natyam mean dance. If you broke Bharatanatyam into four Sanskrit words it would read Bhava, Raga, Tala and Natyam. These aspects: expression; melody; and rhythm; are very important in Bharatanatyam.

The origin of Bharatanatyam is from religious ritual. Bharatanatyam was a solo female performance. It was traditionally performed in Hindu temples to worship Gods and Goddesses by the temple dancer called devadasi. The devadasis were not only knowledgeable in dance and music but also in religious ceremonies.

Today, the stage of Bharatanatyam has moved from the temple to the theater. Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female performers in major cities of India and abroad.

The distinctive feature of Bharatanatyam is its basic posture, called the ‘Araimandi‘ or ‘Ardhamandali‘. It is the half sit position wherein the body is broken up in a series of triangles. A line joining the two outstretched knees, as the base and the heels as its apex, forms the first triangle. Similarly, the second triangle is forms by joining the two outstretched knees as the base and the waist as the apex. Third triangle is formed with waist being the apex and the line joining the shoulders being the base. This position is imperative in BharatNatyam and the entire dance is carried out in this position with a few exceptions.

The language of dance is conveyed through gestures. Abhinaya consists of lyrics, poetry or a narrative set to music and rhythm. The dancer interprets the sãhitya (lyrics) through a series of Angika abhinaya. Through hand gestures and movements of eyes, eyebrows, eyeballs, etc and through the expression on the face. Through the feet, the tempo (laya) is followed. These parts are categorized as Anga, Upaanga and Pratyanga.

The hand gestures are the focal point of language. The movements of hand gestures are grouped under those of single (asamyukta hasta) hand gestures and those of double (samyukta hasta) hand gestures. The movement of head, eyes, eyebrows, etc, help in conveying the bhaava and rasa, that is the mood and the inner emotions. The dancer learns all the gestures like Drishtibhedaas (movements of eyes), Grivaabhedaa (movement of neck), Shirobhedaa (movement of head), Pãdabheda (various movements and positions of leg and feet) and so on, in the form of shlokaas that are in sanskrit.

Traditionally, a Bharatanatyam performance follows a particular sequence called Margam:

  • Alaripu– an invocation that helps prepare the dancer and the audience
  • Jatiswaram– melody is added to the rhythm
  • Shabdam the dancer responds to the content of the song
  • Varnam – rich in rhythm, melody, mood and movement
  • Tilana – joyous and rhythmic with fine poses and movements

The costume, jewelry, and make-up maintain the tradition of Bharatanatyam.

The costume is made of six yards of hand-woven silk sari, interwoven with gold threads from the city of Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. For providing more freedom of movement, the costume was tailored in six parts from a sari.

The characteristic jewelry of Bharatanatyam is known as temple jewelry/ Kemp set. These ornaments are made of silver dipped in gold and the main work is of stone gems mostly in red and green. Initially the jewelry was created as offerings to the Gods and Goddesses. Later the temple dancers, devadasis, wore the jewelry.

The dancer wears at least ten pieces of the jewelry such as necklaces, chokers, bracelets, a belt, earrings, nose rings, and three hair ornaments. The dancer wears two broach-like ornaments that symbolize the moon and sun to the left and right of the central parting the hair. Around the dancer’s ankles are tied belts of bells (Gunghroos). The bells sound to accompany to the music when the dancer beats her bare feet on the floor.

Armlets, wristlets or bangles, earrings and necklaces serve to enhance the dancers appearance. Women wear a veni or semi circle of real or artificial flowers round the bun or plait of the hair. In the centre of the forehead a tika or dot is impressed.

The most typical items of jewelry are:

For the Head

  • Thalaisaamaan (head piece) consists of a heavy stone set, predominantly with rubies or red stones, though interspersed with emerald or green stone and uncut diamonds. One piece of this jewel is worn on the centre parting and another tied along the hairline on the forehead. Decorative pieces shaped like the sun and moon, Chandrasuryan are worn on either side of the head to invoke the blessings of the deities, the sun for good health, brilliance and power and the moon for romance and peace.

For the Ears

  • Maatal (chain), Jhumki (hanging earring) and the Thodu which fits on to the lobe.

For the Neck

  • Adigai which consists of a choker and pendant, and a longer chain (Maalai) with a broad Padakkam or pendant designed in red, green, and pearly stones with peacock or floral designs set in a half-moon like frame.

For the Arms

  • An undulating bangle, Vanki is worn on the upper arm and gold bangles are worn on the wrist

For the Waist

  • Oddiyaanam or broad ornament belt worn tightly around the waist completes the ensemble.

Most Bharata Natyam dancers from all over the country order their jewelry from centres at Mylapore and Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu which has the largest number of skilled goldsmiths.


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