Since a long time ago, many have perceived Bharatanatyam as a medium of worship,a vehicle for bhakti. But it is a misconception of art to believe its purpose is to express devotion to god, notwithstanding instances of artists offering music and dance ostensibly as anjali. If we would adapt Ashok D. Ranade’s broad categorisation of music- as primitive, folk, devotional, art and popular- similarly to categorise dance also, we would see that what we call classical dance belongs to the art category. Indeed, it lends itself admirably to artistic interpretation of various subjects- ideally, in consonance with the Indian conception of aesthetics. Thus, Bharatanatyam performed on the proscenium stage, even if badly, should be recognised as an art-form, and its purpose as the elicitation of rasanubhava or rasanubhooti or aesthetic relish. Its purpose must be seen as going beyond mere entertainment, to encompass the elevation of the empathetic onlooker to another, higher level of experience beyond the mundane. In this sense, it can be said to have a spiritual thrust, even as the non-religious, non-verbalised symphonies of Beethoven do.
Depending on individual perceptions, this subjective experience may yet transcend the aesthetic and may seem religious to some, or spiritual to some others. At least one rasika of music- Peggy Holroyde, an admirer of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s music making has said, in her book titled The Music of India that her experience of one of Panditji’s recitals resulted in an orgasm.
Yes, the perceptions of individuals may vary, but this does not alter the fact that, within the framework of Indian aesthetics, the purpose of Bharatanatyam, like that of other secular dance-forms, is to pave the way to an aesthetic experience.
Bharatanatyam is not gender specific. It has space both for the male and the female; and it accommodates tandava as well as lasya without reference to gender. We believe the greatest of all dancers is Siva-Nataraja, a purusha. Historically, the dancers were almost all females, but during the last seven decades, many outstanding male dancers have emerged. It is notable, in this context, that the dance has essentially remained ekaharya, that is, a dancer in a single costume portraying indirectly or directly more characters than one, regardless of their gender. It has been a different case in dance-dramas presented in the idiom of Bharatanatyam.
Since, however, virtually all of the other classical dances of India are also not gender specific, Bharatanatyam does not stand alone in this aspect.