Like any other dance form, Bharatanatyam too evolved over the ages. Naturally, this led to the development of different styles, also called bani. The overall appearance of the dance form within these styles is the same, however, each style has its own unique features in terms of technique as well as dramatisation and execution. While there are numerous banis, this article looks, in brief, at the most well-known and widely practiced ones.
This style was popularised by the Thanjavur Quartet that comprised four brothers, viz., Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, who were musicians first in the court of Maratha ruler Serfoji II and later in the court of Swati Tirunal in Travancore. The brothers also codified the format of present-day performances, known as the margam. Abhinaya (expression) is more classically stylised rather than realistic. More importance is given to music than to the rhythm as this bani ideally treats dance like visual music. The adavus (steps) are choreographed at a more leisurely pace. Vyjayanthimala Bali, and Narthaki Nataraj are well-known exponents of this style.
This style is mainly attributed to Dance Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a descendent of the legendary Thanjavur Quartet. This style places emphasis on linear geometry with intense and complex rhythmic patterns. Abhinaya (expression) is given importance and the kulukku nadai (graceful/lilting walk) is a key component of this. This style is also well-known for its choreography and its jatiswarams (pure dance sequence). Alarmel Valli, Jayalakshmi Nachiyar and Mambalam Geetha are famous dancers of this bani.
This style was established by Ramiah Pillai and focuses on lasya (beauty and grace) over tandava (vigour). The style is fluid and feminine, and is marked by realistic abhinaya (expression), elaborate movements, leaps and jumps, and a slight forward bend in the dancer’s torso from the waist up. Arm movements of the adavus (steps) stretch all the way to touch the toe. Ramiah Pillai also choreographed extensively for movies, especially for his star disciple, Kamala Lakshman. Some of the prominent dancers of this style are Kamala Lakshman, Rhadha, Chitra Visweshwaran, Padma Subhrahmanyam, and Priyadarsini Govind.
This style evolved from the Pandanallur bani. Its name comes from the school of the same name established by Rukmini Devi Arundale. It is known for stiff, controlled and geometric movements, minimal lasya and diminished importance to sringara-based (romance) pieces. Certain movements are also exaggerated. Abhinaya (expression) is highly stylised. Rukmini Devi was also the first to introduce group choreographies in Bharatanatyam. Rukmini Devi, Leela Samson, C.V Chandrasekhar, Adyar K. Lakshman, and VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan are among the renowned dancers of this style.
This style was created by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer, who reconstructed the Shuddha Nrittam (pure dance in the standing pose) from Kuchipudi and perani natyam (dancing on clay pots). This style largely came from the devadasi traditions. Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer refrained from items that glorified the poet’s human patrons as he believed that only deities and rishis were worthy of this glorification. Therefore, a lot of pieces performed by a dancer of this style are mainly ancient items performed at temples. A unique characteristic of this style is that it discourages stamping feet hard on the floor, instead placing emphasis on the sound of the salangai (ankle bells). This style also uses highly expressive and intricate abhinaya. Sheela Unni’s Sridevi Nrithyalaya as well as Revathi Ramachandran are well-known exponents of this style.
This bani is known for flowery hand gestures, using alapadmam over pathaka nad tripathaka. The abhinaya (expression) of this bani is distinct and aims to showcase the lyrical beauty of the composer. A majority of the pieces performed were those of the Tanjore Quartet as Chinnayya lived at the court of Mysore for a period of time. The dancers of this style also performed ashtapadis and slokas from the Gita Govinda much before they came into the mainstream. This style also makes use of the tribhangi. Jatti Thayamma and K Venkatalakshamma were well-known dancers of this style.