Classical Dances of India: Everything you need to know about

Classical Dances of India

India has thousands of year old tradition of fine arts and classical and folk music and dances. Some of the world-famous dance forms that originated and evolved in India are Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and Odissi. All these dance forms use basically the same ‘mudras’ or signs of hand as a common language of expression and were originally performed in the temples to entertain various Gods and Goddesses. They were also effective in carrying forward the various mythological stories from generation to generation while entertaining the audiences. It eventually became a part of ‘Natya Shashtra’, as propounded by Sage Bharata to compile and forge some rules and regulations of entertaining arts.

Classical Dances of India

Classical Dances of India

With time, the classical dances evolved to include the expressions and themes from social life and experiences. Lord Shiva is said to be the ‘Nataraja’ meaning ‘King of All Dances’, who is said to perform the Cosmic Dance that delicately balances life and death and all that is happening in the Universe in harmonious cycles. Bharatnatyam, popular in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is said to be revealed by Lord Brahma to Bharata. Kathak is the art to tell a story and is a form of North Indian classical dance. Later, it became courtly entertainment.

Kathakali from Kerala makes use of colorful masks and costumes and belongs to Kerala. Kuchipudi is the dance drama of Andhra Pradesh that combines Natya, Nritta and Nritya. Manipuri, as the name suggests, is from Manipur, the Northeastern state of India, and is a combination of many dances prevalent in the region. Mohiniattam from Kerala is a solo female dance and is known for its rhythmic and unbroken flow of the body movements. Odissi from Orissa is a dance of love, joy and intense passion.

जरुर पढ़े… 

  • The principles of Indian Classical dance is derived from ‘Natya Shastra’ by Bharat Muni.
  • He traces its origin from lord Bramha & dictated that Lord Bramha created a fifth veda known as ‘Natyaveda’, representing the essence of four existing Vedas.
  • Pathya (words) were taken from Rigveda, Abhinaya (gestures) from Yajurveda, Geet (music) from Samaveda, Rasa (emotions) from Atharvaveda.
  • Can only be performed by trained dancers
  • Has very particular meanings for each step, known as “Mudras
  • Three main components form the basis of these dances viz.
    Natya the dramatic element of the dance (i.e., the imitation of character)
    Nritta pure dance, in which the rhythms and phrases of the music are reflected via body gestures
    Nritya the portrayal of mood through facial expression, hand gesture, and position of the legs & feet
  • There are two basic aspect of Indian classical dance:
    Tandava emphasize on male characteristics of power strength and firmness
    Lasya denotes grace, bhava, rasa and abhinaya, which represents the feminine aspect of dance


Bharatnatyam (Tamil Nadu)

  • One dancer takes on many roles in a single performance → Also known as Poetry in motion
  • Style was kept alive by the devadasis (young girls ‘gifted’ by their parents to the temples & who were married to the gods)
  • Devadasisperformed music and dance as offerings to the deities, in the temple courtyards
  • Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance → Dancer expresses the sahitya through movement
  • The performance ends with amangalam invoking the blessings of the Gods.
  • The accompanying orchestra consists of a vocalist, a mridangam player, a violinist or veena player, a flautist and a cymbal player.
  • The person who conducts the dance recitation is known as the Nattuvanar


Kathak (Uttar Pradesh)

  • Kathakars or story-tellers, are the people who narrate stories, largely based on episodes from the epics, myths and legends
  • Probably started as an oral tradition with Mime & gestures added lately to make the recitation more effective
  • Vaishnavism (15th century) became the prominent range of lyrics and musical forms – Krishna and his leela
  • Dance in Raslila was mainly an extension of the basic mime and gestures of theKathakars
  • In both Hindu & Muslim courts, Kathak became highly popular source of entertainment
  • Weight of the body is equally distributed along the horizontal & vertical axis
  • Full foot contact is of prime importance; with no use of sharp bends of the upper or lower part of the body
  • Torso movements emerge from the change of the shoulder line rather than through the manipulations of the backbone
  • Both the drummer and the dancer weave endless combinations on a repetitive melodic line
  • Being the only classical dance of India having links with Muslim culture, it represents a unique synthesis of Hindu and Muslim genius in art.
  • Kathak is the only form of classical dance wedded to Hindustani or the North Indian music.


Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh)

  • This dance originated in Kuchipudi village, Krishna district of modern Andhra Pradesh.
  • It was conceived in 17th century by Vaishnava poet Siddhendra Yogi.
  • It begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha followed by Nritta (non-narrative pure dancing), Nritya (narrative dancing) and Natya.
  • The dance is performed on Carnatic music where singer is accompanied by musical instruments like mridangam, violin, flute and tambura.
  • Marked by fast rhythmic footwork & sculpuresque body movements.

Kathakali (Kerala)

  • Kathakali is a blend of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from the Indian epics
  • Conducted at night & ends in early morning → Originated from Ramanattam (Ram story via 8 plays)
  • A mixture of rice paste and lime is applied to make the chutti on the face, which highlights the facial make-up
  • The face of the artist is painted over to appear as though a mask is worn
  • The lips, the eyelashes and the eyebrows are designed to look prominent
  • The technical details cover every part of the body from facial muscles to fingers, eyes, hands and wrists.
  • The weight of the body is on the outer edges of the feet which are slightly bent and curved.
  • The movement of the eyebrows, the eye-balls and the lower eye-lids as described in the Natya Shastra are not used to such an extent in any other dance style
  • The characters in a Kathakali performance are broadly divided into SatvikaRajasika Tamasika types
  • Satvika characters are noble, heroic, generous and more refined


Odissi (Odissa)

  • Archaeological evidence of this dance form dates back to the 2ndcentury BC → Found in the caves of Udayagiri & Khandagiri near Bhubaneshwar
  • Probably it the the oldest classical dance of India & denotes the worship of Lord Jagannath
  • The Sun Temple at Konarak, built in the 13th century, with its Natya mandap or Hall of dance, marks the culmination of the temple building activity in Orissa
  • These dance movements, frozen in stone, continue to inspire Odissi dancers even today
  • Themaharis, who were originally temple dancers came to be employed in royal courts which resulted in the degeneration of the art form
  • Facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements are used to suggest certain feelings or emotions
  • With the lower half of the body remaining static, the torso moves from one side to the other
  • Great training is required for this control so as to avoid any shoulder or hip movement
  • There are certain foot positions with flat, toe or heel contact; with almost all leg movements being spiral/circular
  • Prominent Feature → independent movement of head, chest and pelvis
  • The techniques of movement are built around the two basic postures of the Chowk (above) and the Tribhanga (left).
  • The chowk represents a very masculine stance with the weight of the body equally balanced.
  • The tribhanga represents a very feminine stance where the body is deflected at the neck, torso and the knees
  • Odissi dancer still reaffirms the faith of the maharis where they sought liberation or moksha through the medium of dance
  • The accompanying orchestra includes Pakhawaj , flute, Sitar / Violin and Manjira 

Sattriya (Assam)

  • Introduced by the great Vaishnava saint, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva in Assam around 15th century
  • Nurtured & preserved till today with great commitment by the Sattras (male dancers) in Vaishnava monasteries

Manipuri (Manipur)

  • Manipur dance has a large repertoire; however, the most popular forms are the Ras,  Sankirtana & Thang-Ta
  • There are five principal Ras dances of which four are linked with specific seasons, while the fifth can be presented at any time of the year
  • In Manipuri Ras, the main characters are Radha, Krishna and the Gopis
  • Dancers feet never strike the ground hard
  • Radha wears a short fine white muslin skirt with a dark velvet blouse; & a traditional white veil to cover the face.
  • Krishna wears a yellow dhoti, a dark velvet jacket and a crown of peacock feathers
  • The Kirtan form of congregational singing accompanies the dance which is known as Sankirtana in Manipur.
  • The martial dancers of Manipur – the Thang-ta – have their origins in the days when man’s survival depended on his ability to defend himself from wild animals.
  • The main musical instrument is the Pung or the Manipuri classical drum

Mohiniyattam (Kerala)

  • A feminine classical dance form; literally meaning the Dance of the Enchantress
  • It is deeply rooted in femininity, Grace (Lasya) and  Beauty (Sringara)  forming the quintessence of this dance form
  • Distinguishing feature → Characteristic body movements, marked by the graceful sway of the torso
  • What is unique is the easy going rise and fall of the body, with emphasis mainly on the torso
  • The movements are never abrupt, but dignified, easy, natural, restrained and yet subtle
  • The swaying coconut trees in the gentle breeze is reminiscent of the soft and languorous movements of Mohiniyattam
  • The traditional costume worn in Mohiniyattam is white with a gold border, along with the gold ornaments
  • The unique coiffure with hair gathered on the left side of the head reflect its aesthetic appeal
  • Accompanying music → Sopana style, which in its lyricism, is evocative of the spiritual element

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