A YouTuber’s Guide to Bharatanatyam Banis
Bani or tradition is term used to describe the dance technique and style specific to the guru/school. These are named according to the village of the guru (with the exception of some banis).
Here’s a breakdown of the various banis along with links to videos of artists representing them:
Pandanallur and Thanjavur Thanjavur bani describes the practice of dance in the Thanjavur Royal Court, propagated by the Thanjavur nattuvanar family, descendants of the Thanjavur Quartet. The Thanjavur Quartet were four brothers who worked in the early 19th century Thanjavur Royal Court as musicians and dance composers. They created the current structure of the margam which is used by all styles of Bharatanatyam. Both Pandanallur and Thanjavur styles draw from their repertoire, maintaining some of the oldest compositions in Bharatanatyam.
Meenakshisundaram Pillai also descended from the Thanjavur Quartet, though he lived in Pandanallur village which his style is named after. It’s important to note that members of the family never considered the differences were enough to warrant classification as separate banis. The pure dance movements are linear and geometric, and abhinaya is more classically stylized rather than realistic.
Alarmel Valli – Learned from the doyen guru of Pandanallur, Chokalingam Pillai (son-in-law of Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai) and his son Subbarayya Pillai.
Vidya Sankaranarayanan and Kittappa Pillai – Kittappa Pillai also trained under Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, his grandfather.
Shridharan and K. N. Dhandayuthapani Pillai – Basically same as above.
T. Balasaraswati – The famous Balasaraswati was a student of Kandappa Pillai (also a descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet). Her style is renowned for it’s fast paced nritta and spontaneous abhinaya. For example in natya passages, ideas and poses remained the same, but dancers would frequently pace back and forth, having the freedom as a solo artist to explore the space on their terms, while depicting abhinaya. Kittappa Pillai (Kandappa Pillai’s cousin) also followed the same practice. (Timestamp at 19:16)
Although Kandappa Pillai came from the same family, he departed from the traditional Thanjavur style in a few ways. He implemented certain stylistic changes which emphasized the role of music and rhythm in a performance. For example, during jathis/theermanams, the singers will continue singing and instrumentalists will continue playing the melody, while the nattuvanar recites the sollukattu.
Students of Kalakshetra and Rukmini Devi – Rukmini learned from Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (father in law of Chokalingam Pillai), and made several changes to the Pandanallur bani, creating the Kalakshetra style. Her earlier training in ballet with Anna Pavlova’s dance company impacted her perspective regarding Bharatanatyam and it’s presentation.
The linearity and geometry is more expansive and certain movements are exaggerated (like the torso slanting in this particular arudi in this video at timestamp 4:29).
Compared with other styles, Kalakshetra does not use a wide range of adavus. Abhinaya is also very stylized and unrealistic, and certain sexually explicit mudras are avoided in sringara based items. The rendering of certain lyrics can also be very literal rather than metaphorical.
Vazhuvoor – Created by Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, this style is more feminine, emphasizing laasya over tandavam. Most traditional performances begin with a Thodaya Mangalam in praise of Gnana Sabesa, the reigning deity of Vazhuvoor town.
Chitra Visweswaran – Chitra learned from Ramiah Pillai the doyen guru of Vazhuvoor. Very fluid and feminine, with realistic abhinaya. Ramiah Pillai’s choreography incorporates static sculpturesque poses.
Padma Subrahmanyam – Also a student of Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. Here you can definitely see the realistic abhinaya. Her nritta is a little different with more emphasis on poses and karanas and she developed a different style later on, calling it BharataNrityam.
Kamala Lakshman/Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan – Star disciple of Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, she also performed dances for Tamil Cinema, many of which were choreographed by her guru.
Sumitra Nitin & Sunanda Narayan and Rhadha – Radha is Kamala’s sister and also learned from Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. As you can see there’s little more linearity and precision. Also note how the knees are bent in the dith-ith thei’s instead of extended out.
Priyadarsini Govind – Student of Rajaratnam Pillai, who was a disciple of Vazhuvoor Ramiah. To contrast her with Chitra Visweswaran, you can see she’s very precise with linear movements.
Malavika Sarukkai, another student of Rajaratnam, is also similar.
Mellatur – Created by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer, who revived Shudda Nritta and Perani (dancing on clay pots). His style eschews items praising living patrons (thus most of the Thanjavur Quartet repertoire) and encourages dancers to stamp the floor softly, focusing on the sound created by the salangai.
Harinie Jeevitha and Sri Devi Nrithyalaya – The most famous school representing this style. Lots of karana sculpturesque poses. Arched backs and deep araimandi looks to be common.
Manasvini and Revathi Ramachandran – Revathi was a student of Dorairaja Iyer and carries the torch of this bani forward.