T. Balasaraswati tradition of Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam is an ancient dance style that developed in temples and palaces in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Bharata Natyam consists of two different kinds of dance:

Nritta: pure, technical dance steps with no meaning; and

Nritya: expressive, interpretative dance, a kind of storytelling through the use of expression (abhinaya) and hand positions (hasta mudras). Abhinaya literally means 'bringing the whole content to the viewers.' A story often has multiple layers: it tells about a heroine and her love, but also about devotion for a specific Hindu deity.

A traditional Bharata Natyam dance performance (margam) has the following items:

Alarippu (invocation, pure dance)

Jatisvaram (pure dance)

Shabdam (some pure dance but mainly storytelling, praising a king or deity)

Varnam (both pure dance but mainly storytelling, more elaborate than in a shabdam. A varnam is the main item of a performance)

Padam (only storytelling, devotional)

Tillana (pure dance)

Slokam (verse in Sanskrit)

Four brothers, Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam, and Vadivelu, are called the 'Tanjore Quartet'. They lived in Tanjore (Thanjavur) during the rule of King Saraboji II (1798-1832). The margam dance performance format was developed by them, and they organized dance steps (adavus) into groups ('families').

The great dancer T. (Tanjore) Balasaraswati (1918-1984) was a direct descendant of musicians and dancers of the Tanjore court. Moreover, her guru was Sri Kandappa Pillai, who was sixth generation Nattuvanar (dance master) of the Thanjavur Chinnayya line.

Here is a link to Satyajit Ray's documentary about Balasaraswati:


Two of my favorite statements by Bala: 

"Although the roots of Bharatanatyam run deep into the culture of South India, it has a universal domain because the human soul is the same everywhere and Bharatanatyam seeks to make it blossom in corporeal form."

"The end state of the dance, conceived as yoga for the artist as well as the audience, is to still the mind and to achieve, at least temporarily, an ego-less, thought-free, sense of complete joy and well-being."

Thanks to my teacher Saskia Kersenboom, I am very fortunate and blessed to be a student of this tradition. Even though I will continue learning, my repertoire will only be an extremely modest part of this tradition's legacy and Bala will always remain a much cherished and magnificent example.

Bala on Bharatanatyam, compiled and translated by S. Guhan, The Shruti Foundation, Madras 1991
Journey through a Tradition: Kandappa - T. Balasaraswati Bharatanatyam Technique, Dr. V. Raghavan, translated by Smt. Nandini Ramani, Dr. V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, 2010

For more information please visit Saskia Kersenboom’s website:



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