The Neurology of Bharatanatyam

Prahlad K Sethi1, Nitin K Sethi 2

Departments of Neurology Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, India 1

New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, U.S.A 2

Nataraja: the cosmic dancer

Address correspondence to:

Nitin K Sethi, MD, MBBS, FAAN


It all began with my friend Nagi inviting me to be chief guest at his daughter’s Arangetram. Arangetram, the debut on-stage performance of a Bharatanatyam student after successful completion of years of arduous training under her guru is certainly a matter of immense pride and joy not only for the student but also family and friends. Ekanta had worked hard for many years to achieve this milestone and finally was about to graduate. Touched by Nagi’s affection, I readily accepted to preside over the function.  

But being the chief guest meant that I would have to give a short speech to the assembled august gathering. As a neurologist I knew precious little about Bharatanatyam, the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Well maybe you can talk about the neurology of Bharatanatyam advised my son Nitin, himself a neurologist. While I had seen Bharatanatyam performances a few times, I had never studied the art form from a neurologist’s viewpoint. I opened Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice and to my dismay found nothing about the neurology of dancing let alone the neurology of Bharatanatyam. After a PubMed search was unhelpful, an Internet search via Google yielded two interesting articles, one from Scientific American magazine and the other in the Journal of Aesthetic Education.

Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form from South India dating back to 1000 B.C.  It is based on ‘Adavu’ (steps) and ‘Hasthamudra’ (hand gestures). The dancer expresses herself via ‘bhavabhinaya’ (facial expression) and ‘hasthamudra’. The dancer is dressed bright colors and adorned with a garland in her hair and foot trinklets. The music is Carnatic classical music yielded by instruments such as violin, flute, mridangam (South Indian drum) and veena (string plucked instrument). The nattuvanar is the most important member of the Bharatanatyam orchestra and plays a set of cymbals known as talam and sings ‘Vaaythari’ (chanting). In a Bharatnatyam performance the dancer attempts to become the character she portrays be it Rama, Krishna or his beloved Radha and mimics all actions of the Supreme as best as she can.  During the duration of the program all participants, the artist and the audience alike are elevated to a spiritual dimension which the Upanishads call ‘Raso vai sah Rasam hyevayam labdhvanandi bhavati’ (he the highest self is bliss in itself). Every recital starts by invoking the blessing of Ganesha and Nataraja (the cosmic dancer) and it ends by seeking their blessings again.

The complexity of the central nervous system is evident even in the simplest of hand movements such as movement of the right index finger. Neurons in the contralateral motor strip are activated as are neurons innervating the corresponding antagonist muscles which need to relax so that movement can take place. Neural impulses travel down from the cortex via the internal capsule, mid brain, brain stem, pyramidal track, cervical spinal cord, peripheral nerve finally reaching their target muscles. The accompanying facial expressions add yet another dimension and convey a story to the spectator. 

Let us take the example of ‘Shabdam’ bharatanatyam performance – a scene from the epic Mahabharata where Draupadi is in great peril. The Pandavas have just lost her to the Kauravas in a game of dice and Draupadi is forcibly brought to the court being dragged by her hair. The evil Duryodhana attempts to disrobe her by pulling her sari.  The bharatanatyam artist performs this scene with just her facial expressions. A look of contempt towards her five husbands who wagered her in a game of dice and the next instant pleading with her eyes to Lord Krishna to help protect her modesty which he does so by extending the length of her sari repeatedly. At the same time the artist covers her bosom with her hands to save her modesty, eyes turned down exhibiting shame. Thus, a story involving many characters is conveyed by a single artist all with the use of hand and face gestures as well as eye movements. The artist during this complex performance is keeping time and synchronizing her actions to the vocalist who is singing and narrating the complex story. She also needs to keep pace with the music with her feet to the beat of mirdamgam.

It is indeed fascinating how the artist’s brain is able to accomplish all these complex actions simultaneously, eyes moving in different directions at times independent of each other with  facial expressions changing depending on the scene as narrated by the vocalist.

Behind every bharatanatyam recital there is intense ‘tapasya’ (practice) of several hundreds of hours and repetitive rehearsals starting from a very tender age under the watchful eyes of the guru. This extra ordinary coordination of movements of the hands, eyes and facial expressions synchronized to music is indeed a testament to the wonder of the human brain and incorporates several neuronal pathways.

To hop on one foot patting your head at the same time requires calculations relating to spatial awareness, balance, intention and timing, among other things, in the brain’s sensorimotor system. A region called the posterior parietal cortex (toward the back of the brain) translates visual information into motor commands, sending signals forward to motion-planning areas in the premotor cortex and supplementary motor area. Several neuronal networks are involved. The cortical center (s) and networks perceive the sound of vocalist, sound of mridangam and taalam, coordinate and then perform appropriate hand movements, eye movements and facial expressions. Simultaneously the brain coordinates the act of dancing keep rhythm with vocalist and other musical instruments. The whole performance requires multiple neuronal circuits of brain to plan and execute. How much role do the frontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum part we do not know.

At present we don’t have knowledge of the whole neuronal network involvement involved to perform this complex dance form. Unlike singing where functional MRI imaging has added to our knowledge, there are no functioning MRI imaging studies for dancing. One thing which is definite is that this art can be learnt when one is young because there is lot of plasticity of brain. Dance is indeed the essence of life. Now the role of dance as a form of therapy in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease is also well established.

The Nobel laureate Eccles in his famous book “THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE BRAIN” wrote “how can a brain understand a brain”. The human brain still remains the LAST FRONTIER to conquer.