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maximum INDIA

Ragamala Dance

Learn about traditional Bharatanatyam dance

What is Bharatanatyam?

From the earliest days of Indian culture, there was music and dancing—and the love of both continues to this day. Throughout the maximum India festival, you’ll see one of the oldest dance forms from India, Bharatanatyam (pronounced BUR-uh-tuh-NAHT-yiam) and hear musicians performing classical as well as modern Indian music.

Tradition’s Footsteps
Bharatanatyam goes way back. This popular classical dance began some 2000 years ago as a religious ritual and lives on in modern times as an expressive dance form performed on stage. The name itself combines four Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) words meaning expression, melody, rhythm, and dance. The dancers stamp out complex rhythms with their bare feet and use very detailed movements, especially of the hands and face, to tell narratives inspired by mythology, epics (long poems about heroic deeds), and religious stories.

Music and Movement
Music is important for supporting the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the performance, and dances are usually accompanied by a small ensemble featuring a vocalist (singing lyrics from several Indian languages plus Sanskrit), a melody provided by an instrument like a violin, and rhythms created by drums and cymbals. 


Learn More

During the Performance (or when watching the in the resource carousel above)— 

In these clips and performance, the dancers from Ragamala Dance explain the structure, parts, and techniques of Bharatanatyam and show you how they work in performance. You can learn more about the company from their website.

Watch for …

  • the traditional costumes of handwoven silk (called saris), jewelry, dramatic eye makeup, and red coloring on hands and feet, which better highlights their movements and gestures
  • the half-seated position (with legs bent and knees and feet pointed outward) from which many movements start in Bharatanatyam
  • how the dancers become different characters

Listen for …

  • the variety of rhythms created by the music and the stamping of feet
  • the different styles of sounds that can be created from the sitar’s many strings being strummed together
  • how the cello sounds close in tone to the human voice

Think about …

  • how Bharatanatyam compares with other styles of dance you know
  • how you would describe Indian music to a friend

Dig Deeper

Founded in 1992 and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ragamala Dance maintains Bharatanatyam’s rich tradition while also carrying it forward into the 21st century. Its artistic directors (and mother and daughter) Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy travel to India every year to study their craft from Padma Bushan Alarmel Valli—widely considered the foremost exponent of Bharatanatyam. Fusing the ancient movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam with contemporary ideas, they create new dances and maintain old traditions.

Key to Bharatanatyam...

is the music, and for Ragamala Dance, this is no exception. In this performance, look and listen for 
    - Lalit Subramanian, a vocalist trained in the Carnatic (South Indian classical) style of music. 
    - Rajna Swaminathan, who plays a two-headed South Indian drum called a mridangam, and is one of only a few female players of this drum in the world. 
    - Her sister, Anjna, plays the South Indian violin. Rajna and Anjna are known for their performances in the U.S. and India, although they are only 18 and 20 years old.

For centuries, there was a clear divide between music from India (East) and music from Europe and North America (West). Classic Indian music—like what you’ll hear during the dancing—features these characteristics that distinguish it from classic Western music:

  • a strong melody
  • a steady note (drone) rather than harmony
  • different groups of notes and many rhythm patterns
  • improvisation
  • different instruments tuned differently

Building Musical Bridges

Like dance, music is evolving as musicians build on tradition to create new patterns and sounds. Pioneering musicians (and husband and wife duo) Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas demonstrate some of these new directions, starting with the unusual instrument pairing of sitar (si-TAHR) and cello—made even more unusual by the fact that the cello is an Indian cello, the only one of its kind in the world. (See the Resource Carousel for more on the cello.)

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