“. . . A question came up in our family about whether this Indian dance should be practiced as an Art. Some of my family members took these dance classes when they were young, predominantly girls. It is common for Indian families, Christian or not, to send their daughters to these classes for merely the Art of dancing with no spiritual meaning. Can you please comment as to whether Christians should be learning this Art?”
For those who never heard of it, Bharatnatyam is classical Indian dance which is also known as natya yoga. It is believed to have been first practiced as a sacred dance by Narada, a divine sage from the Vaisnava tradition of Hinduism. Dating back 2,000 years, another famous sage named Bharata codified it in a Sanskrit text called the Natya Shastra.
“The Natya Shastra is one of the fundamental treatises on Indian drama and aesthetics,” explains the Cultural India website. “Natya Shastra divides dance into two distinct forms- nritta, and nritya. In nritta, focus is on mastery of abstract hand gestures and movements, whereas the dancer employs a complex system of hand signals and body language to depict emotional expressions in nritya.”
The dance flourished in the Hindu temples of South India where temple dancers named Devadasis or “servants of god” made it a part of the temple ritual.
Typical parts of the dance include a prayer to the Hindu god, Ganesh, followed by the todayamangalam, which is a dance created to show respect toward this god. The dancing is often accompanied by a poem with a devotional or romantic theme, as well as the padam, which is the most lyrical part of the performance where devotion is shown toward the Supreme Being, or of the love between a man and woman or mother and child.
As to whether or not a Catholic should participate in this kind of dance, there is quite a bit of controversy over that question similar to the controversy raging over yoga. Because Bharatnatyam was created as a sacred dance used in the worship of Hindu gods, many Christians have tried to “christianize” it to make it more palatable to Indian Christian audiences, much like Westerners have done with traditional yoga. This has angered many Hindus who are very offended by these attempts to “hijack” Bharatnatyam.
However, there are some Indian Catholics who have no problem performing the Bharatnatyam because of its deep immersion in Indian culture.
I see a distinction between this practice and yoga in that many yoga asanas are positions of worship to Hindu gods whereas the movements in Bharatnatyam are designed to express emotion; however, the dance in itself was designed to be devotional.
As a Catholic, I would not recommend participation in Bharatnatyam.