Bharata Natya Vidya, the science of Indian classical dance, forms one of the approaches to divinity through art. It is a deeply significant sadhana for God-realization through the avenue of kala, art. The spiritual basis underlying Bharata Natyam is brought out most graphically, as well as scientifically, in the first complete dance sequence learned by a student of Bharata Natyam, called the Alaripu.
Alaripu, which means ‘flowering bud’ is the first regular sequence. It is most significant, for in it we find the revelation of the inner sadhana of Bharata Natyam.
To understand the significance one must have an idea of the Alaripu. To state it simply, it is made up of rhythmic movements of all the various parts of the body, one after the other, in a definite order and sequence. These rhythmic movements are set to music and are carried out with accurate and perfect timing.
This timing of talam, rhythm, is one of the most essential factors in the dance. The bodily movements begin with the eyebrows and end with the soles of the feet. The hands and feet move almost continually throughout the dance performance.
The dancer assumes the opening pose and commences the nritya, dance, which is usually done before the deity. The dancer proceeds by first moving the eyebrows. Then, movements are made with both eyes. With beautiful rhythm, the pupils of the eyes are made to dart up and down and from side to side.
Next, the dancer moves the neck to the right and the left in perfect rhythm. This neck movement is an important item in the dance and is kept up throughout the dance.
An inspired smile, accompanied by incessant movements of the neck and eyes, forms the background of the entire sequence. The combined effect of these three gestures indicates that the soul’s dedication is cheerful and spontaneous, and that the result of this dedication is supreme and perfect happiness.
With the head movements completed, movements of the hands follow. The shoulders, the elbows and then the wrists are deftly moved in a beautifully well-controlled manner, which is a pleasure to watch and follow. One of the features which enhances the beauty is the perfect symmetry of the right and left sides of the body, executing these movements alternately. The movement of the arms and hands are completed with a series of graceful graduated motions of the open palms, which are held in a definite scientific position. Then, the dancer moves the chest, the waist and the hips in a poised, well-defined manner and to accurate timing.
The graceful dance proceeds onward and the movements of the trunk now begin to give way to those of the lower limbs, as the thighs, knees and ankles are skilfully brought into play. Movements of the feet naturally follow, leading the dance to a thrilling finish via the rapid manipulation of the soles of the dancer’s feet upon the boards. A finale of soles pattering upon the floor is a sheer delight of wonderful rhythm and marvellous timing. The Alaripu ends and the dance comes to a close with a beautiful prostration.
From a purely physical point of view, this comprehensive dance sequence serves as an excellent preparation for taking up higher lessons. It prepares the dancer through a comprehensive exercise enabling him to gain control over every part of the body by mastering every possible movement with perfection, accuracy and grace. Found in the Alaripu are complete dance movements involving the entire body from head to toe.
The movements are performed with utmost devotion and deep reverence. The entire dance is filled with the bhava, feeling, of earnest dedication and complete surrender. Herein is revealed the secret of the spiritual foundation and the inner sadhana of Bharata Natyam. The movements of the entire body, part by part, symbolize the dedication of the dancer’s entire being, in every aspect of his existence. Bharata Natyam is a process of ecstatic and blissful atmanivedana, self-surrender to the divine. Deep sincerity and intense bhava are the predominant elements in the process of atmanivedana. Through the Alaripu, Bharata Natyam reveals its aim and purpose, meaning and significance. The Alaripu conveys the message, “Oh! Live a life of perfect dedication, live a life of complete surrender and sacrifice, let all parts of your being, let your entire life and its activities, be offered most reverentially unto the Lord. Live for God. This is the way to come face to face with the Supreme Being and to realize Him.” Alaripu is an exposition through dance of the inner Bhagavad Gita sadhana (9:27):
Yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat;
Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam.
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give, whatever you practise as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto Me.
The bhava of surrender and dedication is the philosopher’s stone which transforms the base metal of mundane secular life into the pure gold of spiritual sadhana. Bharata Natyam brings this message to both dancer and audience as the Alaripu reveals the process of complete dedication of one’s being before the Lord.