Indian classical dance is a relatively new umbrella term for various codified art forms rooted in Natya, the sacred Hindu musical theatre styles, whose theory can be traced back to the ‘Natya Shastra’ of Bharata Muni (200 BCE). So, classical dance has a history of more than 2000 years.
The term ‘classical’ or ‘Shastriya’ was introduced by Sangeet Natak Akademi to denote the Natya Shastra-based performing art styles.
A very important feature of Indian classical dances is the use of the mudra or hand gestures by the artists as a short-hand sign language to narrate a story and to demonstrate certain concepts such as objects, weather, nature and emotion. Many classical dances include facial expressions as an integral part of the dance form.
Despite regional variations, the basic principles of Natyashastra tradition hav been followed by all schools of classical dances. Dance continued to be divided into Natya and Nritta on the one hand and into Tandava and Lasya on the other.
The Indian classical dance form is said to be influenced by the Devadasi system which previled in temples of India. Various Indian kingdoms also provide proof about brilliant temple dancers. There were dancing halls where young female dancers were given intensive training.
Religious element always played a vital role in dancing. In ancient India, Shaivite tradition of dance originated on the belief and worship of Lord Shiva, the lord of dance. ‘Lasya’ and ‘Tandava’ were the very genesis of Lord Shiva’s dancing style.
Bharata discusses and analyses the fundamental units of movement. The Chari has been described by him as the most important single unit of movement in the Nritta element. The movement with one foot is generally termed as Chari; the movement with both feet is called Karanas.
Sangeet Natak Akademi currently confers classical status on eight Indian dance styles. Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu) Kathakali (Kerala) Odissi (Odisha) Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh) Manipuri (Manipur) Kathak, Mohiniyattam (Kerala) and Sattriya (Assam) are those defined by Akademi.
The kathaks were originally a caste of story-tellers in temples of north India, who embellished their performances with gestures and songs. Kathak began evolving into a distinct mode of
dance in the 15th and 16th centuries with the spread of the bhakti movement. Like many other classical dances, it also revolves around Vaishnav themes. Radha-Rrishna and their Ras Leela is one of the central themes. Contemporary form owes much to the Ras-Leela dances of Braj.
Under the Mughal emperors and their nobles, Kathak was performed in the court, where it acquired its present features and developed into a form of dance with a distinctive style. It absorbed certain features of Persian dance and Central Asian dance which were imported during the Mughal era.
Its main features are –
It is secular as well as religious. Religious themes are Vaishnavite
It is performed with fast footwork and legs remain straight and knees are not bent.
Another feature is fast spins and jumps.
Artists also make ample use of eyebrows and bhavas.
Kathak conceives of space only in straight lines. There is only a front-back treatment of space.
Ankle bells are also an essential part of adornment.
Both, Indian and Persian costumes are used.
Both the dhrupad and the khayal accompanied the dance. The distinctions between Lasya and Tandava and between Nritta and Abhinaya were kept intact in Kathak.
Its main elements include – Opening with ‘Vandana’, Thaat, Jugalbandi which is a competitive play between dancer and tabla player.
This dance also has considerable freedom to the dancers and as a result many Gharanas evolved. Gharanas are integral to this dance form and this is only classical dance form to have Gharanas. Gharanas mainly owe to their patrons and their original gurus. Lucknow, Benras and Jaipur are three important Gharanas.
The Lucknow Gharana of Kathak dance came into existence mainly in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah the ruler of Awadh in the early 19th century and has marke Islamic influence and is hence secular in themes. It was in this period that the Lucknow gharana of Kathak attained maturity and perfection. This was due to the pioneering efforts of Thakur Prasad Maharaj, the court dancer and guru of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Presently, Pandit Briju Maharaj is considered the chief representative of this gharana and he founded Kathak Academy in Delhi. The Jaipur Gharana developed in the courts of the Kachchwaha kings of Jaipur in Rajasthan and pioneer of this Gharana was – Bhanuji. It has marked Vaishanvite influence. Importance is placed on the
more technical aspects of dance, such as complex and powerful footwork, multiple spins, and complicated compositions in different talas.
Kathakali originated in the state of Kerala and literally means story play derived from the Malayalam words ‘katha’ which means story and ‘kali’, which means play. Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world.
The art of Kathakali incorporates the characteristic features of many of the dances and dramas of South India. It evolved out of the earlier dance forms like the Koodiyattom, Mudiyettu, Theyyattom, Sastrakali, Krishnanattom and Ramanattom of Kerala.
It is believed to be a blend of five elements of fine art i.e. Nritya, Nritta, Natya, Geeta and Vaadya.
Its major features are –
Dance starts with continuous sound of drums.
It is a form of dance as well as drama, in fact one cannot make distinction between dance and
drama portions of the dance. Its many elements are taken from Koddiyattam.
Its themes are taken from Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas etc.
Kathakali is a male art and the dancing is masculine. Female characters are also played by males.
Kathakali is traditionally enacted outdoors and goes on all night.
Kathakali is a group presentation, in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Its unique features are – elaborate costume, make up is very detailed and intricate. It involves a painting on the face of the actors with different colours which have different implication and are used to portray evil or good with colour variations. Green is used for noble characters, red for evil, black also for uncivilized ones. Women and saints are portrayed with lustrous yellowish faces.
The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigorous.
It is best suited to an open air theatre performance against green scenery of Kerala.
It is distinct from other dance forms in following respects –
It is not a solo dance like Bharatnatayam.
It is not a court dance like Kathak.
It is also not lyrical like Manipuri.
One cannot make distinction between dance and drama portions of the dance.
Kathakali is a male art and the dancing is masculine. Men dressed in women’s costume portray female characters.
Kathakali remained in the shadows till the great poet V Krishna Menon initiated Kerala Kalamandalam. Kathakali thereafter has acquired worldwide recognition. Major exponents are M V Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi and Kalamandalam Ramakutty Nair.
Kuchipudi, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram after a village in Krishna district is the classical dance form from Andhra Pradesh, where it grew largely as a product of Bhakti (devotion) movement beginning in the 7th century AD.
It shares many common elements with Bharatanatyam.
It is known for its graceful movements and its strong narrative or dramatic character. Kuchipudi dance can be best understood as located between the classical dance styles of Odissi and Bharatnatyam.
Main features of Kuchipudi are –
It begins by an invoking to Lord Ganesha.
The technique of Kuchipudi is called Kanyakole and it makes use of fast rhythmic footwork and sculpturesque body movements.
Use of speech in the dance distinguishes it from other dance forms.
The music used in Kuchipudi is classical Carnatic and the violin, mridangam and clarinet are the common instruments used as an accompaniment.
Director or Sutradhar plays an important role in this dance form. Sutradhara announces the theme of the play and introduces the characters thereafter.
Initially it was a prerogative of men who had tried to keep it outside the influence of Devdasi system. The tradition has remained so unbroken that even today in some of the coastal areas of Andhra, Kuchipudi is still performed by all-male troupes. However, in modern times, women have dominated the art.
Another unique feature of Kuchipudi is the Tarangam, in which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated rhythmic patterns with dexterity, while sometimes also balancing a pot of water on the head.
Its current form largely owe to Siddhendra Yogi – a 17th century Vaishnavite poet. It remained an obscure temple dance before it was brought into prominence by Balasaraswathi and Ragini Devi. Raja Reddy, Radha Reddy, Swapansundari, Satya Narayan Shastri, Laxmi Narayan Shastri and Sonal Mansingh are famous exponents.
It is known as the ‘youngest and oldest’ dance of India. Though its origin is ancient, its current form is quite new and is the youngest of all classical dances. It has two traditions – Lai Haroba and Khamba Thoibi. In the older one, couples dance to a local theme. They danced to an abstract design which symbolized the tangled snake. No specific deity of any religion was invoked. In the 17th Century it came under influence of Vaishnav Hinduism and its themes are predominantly taken from Puranas and Gita Govinda.
Main features of Manipuri dance are –
It is a pure female dance and faces of females are generally covered with a thin veil. And wear a long skirt.
Manipuri was a temple dance form and is religious in nature and depicts Hindu deities Radha and Krishna.
Manipuri drum – punga – is soul of this dance. Musical instruments like pena, khartal, bansuri and small cymbals are also used.
Colorful decoration, slow and lilting
music, gracious slow movements and gentle footwork make it distinctive.
Its aim is to make rounded movements – attempt to connect body through curves with a pose in the shape of 8 – thereby avoiding jerks, sharp edges and straight lines. This movement gives this dance a soft appearance.
It doesn’t pay much attention on facial movements, but pay emphasis on hands and knee position.
Spreading of legs is not possible in this dance form, but the foot movements plays a very important role in this dance. The dancer puts his or her feet down with the front part touching the ground first. The ankle and knee joints are also used.
It was Raja Bhag Chandra of Manipur who revived it in 18th century and later on Rabindranath Tagore also promoted this form by introducing it in Shantiniketan. The Jhaveri sisters – Nayana, Suverna, Darshana and Ranjana Jhaveri are well known Manipuri dancers.
Mohiniyattam is a traditional South Indian dance from Kerala, developed by the Tamil nattuvanar (dance master) Vadivelu. Mohiniattam though born out of the fusion of Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, has developed its own identity. In the word Mohiniattam, ‘Mohini’ means a maiden who charms the onlooker and ‘attam’ means dance. The name Mohiniyattam may have been coined after Lord Vishnu, who took the role of enchantress mohini to entice a devil Bhasmashur.
Its main features are –
Theme of the dance is love and devotion to God, with usually Vishnu or Krishna being the hero.
It is considered a very graceful dance meant to be performed as a solo recital by women. The dance was developed from the Devadasi system in Kerala temples.
It is a solo dance form unlike Kathakali.
It mainly focuses upon feminine moods and hence Lasya element dominates.
It takes elements from Bharatnatyama
and Kathakali – grace from Bharatnatyam and vigour from Kathakali.
The distinctive style of Mohiniattam is the complete absence of heavy stamping and rhythmical tension, where the footwork is gentle, soft and sliding which resembles the soft waving of palm leaves on Kerala beaches.
There are approximately 40 basic movements which are used in this dance which are collectively known as ‘atavakul’.
One of the distinctive features of Mohiniattam is the simplicity of the costumes. There is a typical costume for Mohiniattam, which is a mixture of white and gold.
The practical aspect of the style was revived in the 19th century by Swathi Thirunal, the enlightened ruler of Travancore, in Southern Kerala who promoted its study. He composed many of the musical arrangements and vocal accompaniments, which are hymns in praise of Lord Vishnu, and provide the musical backdrop for the Mohiniattam dancers’ performance. Jayaprabha Menon, Hema Malini, Sunnda Nair, Kalamandalam Sugandhi etc are some of famous exponents of this dance form.
Odissi has been revived in the past fifty years and can be considered as the oldest classical Indian dance on the basis of archival evidence and reliefs of Udaigiri caves of 1st century BCE near Bhubneshwara. It is referred as Odra Magadhi in Natya Shastra.
Odissi has a close association with the temples and its striking feature is its intimate relationship with temple sculpture. The essence of Odissi dance lies in its sculpturesque quality. Its beautiful poses resemble the sculptures of the famous temples, which once nourished this art.
Currently, three sub-genre of Odissi are there – Mahari, Gotipura and Nartaki belonging to devadasi, males and royal courts respectively.
Main features of Odissi are –
It has a vast range of sculptural body movements which gives one the illusion of the sculptures coming to life. Various poses called – bhanga – are struck during dance which gives a look like a sculpture. Bhanga, Abhanga, Tribhanga and Atibhanga are some of
It is also a Vaishnavite dance and the Odissi dancer personifies the lord Jagganath philosophy. Apart from depicting the lord, the dance includes verses from Gita Govinda. It is a temple dance. Major theme is the love and separation of Radha and Lord Krishna. The Devadasis were responsible for the popularity of this dance.
It has 4-5 elements which include – Mangalcharan and Bhoomi pooja at the beginning and Moksha at the end.
It has similar foot movements as Bharatnatyam.
Hip deflection is the characteristic feature of this dance.
This dance form lays emphasis on sensitive facial expression. It has vigorous movements that make the dancer emotional, tired and exhausted.
Odissi dance uses silver jewellery. The dancer wears a choker, a longer necklace, armlets, bracelets, a belt, anklets etc. She wears on her ankles bells strung together on a single cord.
An Odissi dancer has elaborate hair-do in a knot adorned with the ‘Tahiya’ which represents a temple tower.
Odissi music is a unique blend of North and South Indian classical music but has its own distinct qualities.
Some of the famous Odissi dancers areMadhavi Mudgal, Rekha Tandon, Sreyashi Dey, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Sanjukta Panigrahi etc.
It is a classical dance form from the state of Tamil Nadu, nowadays practiced predominantly by girls. Bharatnatyam originated in Tamil Nadu which is also referred to as artistic yoga and Natya yoga. The name Bharatnatyam is derived from the word ‘Bharata’ and, thus, associated with Natyashastra. It s also said that it comes from the words Bhava (expression), Raga (Music), Tala (rhythm) and Natya (classic Indian musical theatre).
It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since ancient times. The art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians forming part of the elaborate rituals. Its inspirations come from the sculptures of the ancient temple of Chidambaram and Tanjore.
It is evident from chronicles that the Chola and the Pallava kings were great patrons of the arts. Rajaraja Chola maintained dancers in the temples in his kingdom.
Bharatnatyam is a solo dance performed primarily by females.
It is a devotional dance and it is the only classical dance which is primarily Shaivite, the
rest are Vaishnavite. Shiva as lord Natraja is the prime inspiration behind this dance and it draws heavily from Chola temples of Tanjore.
Its prime focus is on abhinay part.
Bharatnatyam usually begins with a composition called ‘Alarippu’ and is concluded with ‘Tilhana’ and ‘Shloka’.
Bhartanatyam is considered to be a ‘fire dance’. The movement of a Bharatnatyam dancer resembles that of the movements of a dancing flame.
It is always performed with knees of the dancer bent and the artists visualize that their body is made up of triangles.
The chief musical instruments used in
Bharatnatyam are the Mridanga and a pair of Cymbals. The cymbals provide the timing and the Mridangam provides fractional measures of the broad beats. The dancer follows both. A tambura is also used to provide the scale for the refrain.
E Krishna Iyer was the one who raised the status of Bhartanatyam and popularized it. The current form is developed by Poniah Pillai of Tanjore. Rukmini Devi Arundale was influential in reviving it and bringing it to the attention of the West as well and established Kalakshetra in Chennai. Mrinalni Sarabhai, T Balasraswati, Mallika Sarabhai, Padma Subhramaniam, Geeta Chandran etc are some of the noted dancers. BHARATNATYAM KUCHIPUDI
Ancient in origin
Primarily a women’s dance
Performed by both
Panchtatva – Fire element
Panchtatva – Earth Element
Precise and Rhythmic Steps
Lot of focus to the ‘aramandi’ (half–sit in ground) and trianglulr shapes
Dancers don’t sit low on ground
Speech not used
Use of speech as distinguishing element
Sattriya is one among eight principal classical Indian dance traditions and have origins in Assam. Its origin lies in five hundred years old theatre tradition nourished in the Vaishnava Monasteries of Assam called sattras. Its current form is attributed to Assamese Vaishnav saint Srimanta
Sankardeva, in 15th century Assam. Sankardeva created Sattriya Nritya as an accompaniment to the Ankiya Naat (a form of Assamese one-act plays devised by him), which were usually performed in the sattras. It has been extracted from a massive organisation of theatrical activities which constitutes the Ankiya Bhaona form.
Its main features are –
The core of Sattriya Nritya has usually been mythological Vaishnava stories.
Sattriya Nritya is performed with musical composition called borgeets (composed by Sankardeva among others) which are usually based on
For traditional performance, the instruments that are used are khole (drums), taals (cymbals) and the flute.
It has also included many elements of the local dance traditions like – Bihu etc.
Conventionally, this dance form was performed only by male monks (also known as Bhokots) in monasteries as part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals.
In the modern days, Sattriya is performed on stage by women and men, who are not members of sattras, on themes not merely mythological.
Some of the major proponents of this dance are – P P Bohra, Maniram Dutta etc.