Classical dance of india

“Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is not mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself. ” — Havelock Ellis

“The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.” -Agnes de Mille

Since ages human has depicted his joy and sorrow through the mystical representation of dance. Dance is therefore recognised as the earliest art and the most eternal form of communication, which directly appeals to the eyes. Dance is such an intricate art, that it brings out the innermost feelings and at the same time portrays the cultural aspects of a civilization. Indian dances are varied. While most of the Indian dances are traditionally constrained and unique in its own way; some are religiously bound and some are just a form of expressing emotions.


Native to Tamil Nadu, Bharatanatyam is one of the popular Indian classical dance forms. Previously referred to as Sadir, Dasiattam and Thanjavur Natyam, it demands unconditional and complete dedication from the performer. The dynamic and earthy style of this dance makes it one of the most chosen forms of Indian classical art forms. Although Bharatanatyam is predominantly performed by women, men are also known to engage in it. While the women wear a typical sari in the dance performance, men have bare chest and wear a dhoti-like outfit in the lower part of the body.

Bharatanatyam, which we know today, evolved during the late 18th or early 19th century. In the ancient India, the devadasis performed Bharatanatyam (previously known as dasiattam) in various parts of Tamil Nadu. With society losing its values, the art form fell from its supreme position to a ‘dance that was performed by shameless people’, during 1910-1930s. Nevertheless, the dance regained its lost popularity over the passing years, through the commendable works of renowned Bharatanatyam artists like E. Krishna Iyer. Another prominent name in the dance form is Rukmini Devi Arundale, who played a significant role in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the attention of the Westerners.

The Steps & Performance
Bharatanatyam is always performed with the knees of the dancers bent. The dance form emphasizes on the hand movements to convey different kinds of emotions to the spectator. While performing Bharatanatyam, the artist visualizes his/her body as made up of triangles. The steps of the dance are based upon a balanced distribution of body weight and firm positions of the lower limbs, allowing the hands to cut into a line, to flow around the body, or to take positions that enhance the basic form. In order to perform Bharatnatyam, the artist should have the knowledge of the numerous subtle features of the dance style.

Four Techniques
Described in Natya Shastra, Karanas are defined as the 108 key transitional movements of Bharatanatyam that also feature in other classical dance forms of India. Karana is a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘doing’. Classical dancer Padma Subramanyam is well known for her interpretation of Karanas, which predominantly includes the leg, hip, body and arm movements complemented by hasta mudras, as described in the Natya Shastra.

The use of expressive hand gestures is a highlighting feature of Bharatanatyam. As the name suggests, hastas are the wide variety of hand symbols used by the performer. Some of the most well known hand gestures of the dance form include Anjali, which is used as a symbol of salutation, when a person greets his/her fellow dancer. Hastas are broadly divided into two types – Asamyukta and Samyukta.

Adavus is defined as a series of steps in Bharatanatyam. The execution of the steps is different from style to style. The 108 principals of adavus are recognized by most schools of Bharatanatyam. As many as 60 adavus are used by many professional dancers. Jathis is the combination of adavus and forms the Nritta passages in a Bharatanatyam performance.

Bhedas And Eye Movements
Bharatanatyam is considered incomplete without bhedas and the expressive eye movements of the performer. Neck and eye movements are used extensively in the dance form. The shiro bheda (head movements) comprises of Sama, Udhvahita, Adhomukha, Alolita,Dhutam, Kampitam, Paravruttam, Utkshiptam and Parivahitam.


Based on Natya Shastra, Odissi is regarded as one of the oldest surviving dance forms of India, with well preserved archaeological evidence. It has originated from Orissa and its history can be traced back to the 2nd century BC. The dance form has been extensively depicted in the sculptures of Brahmeswara temple and Sun Temple at Konark. Kelucharan Mohapatra, an erstwhile Goti Pua, is the greatest exponent and guru of Odissi. Some of the other exponents of this dance form are Indrani Rehman, Sonal Mansingh, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Protima Gauri Bedi, Madhavi Mudgal, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Deva Prasad Das and Guru Durga Charan Das.

The form of Odissi that exists today is the result of a long process of renovation from various dance traditions of Orissa, which includes the Maharis, the Goti puas and the Bhandanritya traditions. Maharis were the counterparts of the Devadasis of the South, who danced in temples. Goti puas were men, who dressed as female dancers and danced like the Maharis. These artistes were not allowed to dance in temples after reaching adulthood. After 17th century, the popularity of Odissi declined largely, because dancers came to be considered as shameless creatures. Thus, there was no one ready to learn the dance form.

With the passing time and the modernization of the thinking of the Indian society, Odissi was brought back to the attention of the public and started gaining back the lost popularity. Kalicharan Pattanayaka is accredited with the revival of Odissi. He presented the Odissi artists to perform on stage and motivated others to follow the suit. In the 1950s, the entire dance form was revitalized by Abhinaya Chandrika, by taking assistance from the sculpted dance poses that already existed in temples.

Theme & Performance
Odissi is similar to Bharatnatyam in terms of the mudras and expressions used in the performance. The ‘Tribhang’ or the division of the body into three parts, including head, bust and torso, is one of the highlighting features of Odissi. The performances are replete with lores of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and his avatar of Lord Krishna. It is a soft dance backed by soothing lyrics. Through the performance, the Odissi artist personifies the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity – Lord Jagannath.

Apart from the depiction of Lord Jagannath, the artist also narrates the stories of Lord Krishna, through his/her performance that includes mudras and rasas. The verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govinda are also incorporated into the performance, in order to depict the love and devotion to God. Dashavataar, the depiction of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, is a popular performance of Odissi. The Odissi dancers use their head, bust and torso in soft flowing movements to express specific moods and emotions.


Kathak, which originated in northern India, represents one of the eight forms of Indian classical dances. The name Kathak has been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’, meaning story. Thus, ‘katthaka’ means the one who tells a story. Kathak focuses more on the footwork of the dancer. The movements are skillfully controlled and performed straight-legged, by dancers wearing the ankle bells (ghunghroo). The costumes and themes of Kathak are often similar to those in Mughal miniature paintings.

Initially, dancers known as ‘katthakas’ used to perform in village squares and temple courtyards across the country, unfolding mythological and moral tales from the ancient scriptures. They used to support their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. Music and dance were used by them to illuminate the story and to enliven it up. With time, this dance took the form of Kathkalakshepam and Harikatha in southern India and came to be known as Kathak in the north.

Kathak faced a drastic transition due to the influence of Mughal dance and music. In fact, it is believed to have gone through its greatest transformation around 15th century. Primarily a temple ritual, the dance form later changed to fit royal court entertainment, mainly due to the Persian and Mughal influences. The ‘kathakars’ developed a style for pure entertainment of the emperors. After the decline of Mughal Empire, these performers were patronized by other kings, such as those in Rajasthan and other minor princely states.


Female Costume
Sari is the traditional costume for women in Kathak. It can be worn either in an everyday style, or tied up to allow greater freedom of movement during dance. However, more commonly, lehenga-choli is worn by women dancers, with an optional odhni or veil. Then, there is the Mughal costume, which consists of an angarkha, with tight fitting above the waist and the skirt portion explicitly cut on the round, to enhance the flare of the lower half during turns. The legs are covered by the churidar. Peaked cap, bandi or small waistcoat and a belt made of zari or precious stones are the optional accessories.

Male Costume
Talking about the traditional costume for men, in the classical dance of Kathak, they go bare-chested. Below the waist is the dhoti, which is usually tied in the Bengali style. The dhoti is tied with many pleats and a fan finish is given to one of the ends. The Mughal costume for Kathak comprises of kurta-churidar. The kurta can be a simple one and is at least knee-length. Men may wear an angarkha as well and also have an option of wearing bandi. Their optional accessories include the small peaked cap.

Ghunghru (or ghunghroo) forms an important constituent of the Kathak dance. It comprises of small bells that are tied around the ankles of a kathak dancer. The kathak bells are different from those used in other Indian classical dance styles, as they are not affixed to a pad or strip of leather. Rather, they are individually woven along a thick string.

Kathak is the beautiful result of the Hindu and Muslim cultures. It embodies and reflects the dance characteristics of both the cultures. Drama, mood and sentiment and pure dance technique comprise of the three main aspects of this dance style. The elements of Kathak include linear and circular extensions of the body, controlled hand and body movements and intricate, rhythmic footwork and fast pirouettes. These elements, when combined with a dancer’s divine and spiritual state, make it one of the most mesmerizing dance forms in the world.


The picturesque state of Kerala has gifted India with a dance drama known as Kathakali. Embedded in stories from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and from the Puranas (ancient scriptures), the dance form is believed to have originated in the 16th century. Kathakali can be described as a highly stylized classical Indian dance-drama, noted for the heavy make-up and stunning costumes of the dancers. Detailed gestures and well-defined body movements (presented in tune with anchor playback music and complementary percussion) are some other notable features of the dance. Elaborate masks, huge skirts and big head-dresses are uniquely used by the performers of Kathakali.

Kathakali is thought to have originated from pioneer dance-drama forms – Ramanattam and Krishnanattam. The word “attam” means enactment. These two forms of dance, along with Kathakali, dealt with presentation of the stories of Hindu Gods Rama and Krishna. Kottarakara Thampuran, the ruler of the south Kerala province of Kottarakkara, composed several plays on the Ramayana, which led to the evolution of Kathakali. Today, Ramanattam and Krishnanattam forms have become completely extinct, but the story plays continue to be a part of Kathakali. It originated in the 16th century AD, approximately between 1555 and 1605, and has been improved miraculously over the years.

Long Recitals
Kathakali is emotive as well as narrative in nature and its recitals are generally very long. This form of dance is usually performed in the temples. The dancers encompass dance with dialogue and try to bring myth and legend to life. This dance form is accompanied by drums and vocalists. The dancers have such strong convictions about the characters they play that they even swap identities with the legends. Traditionally the performance begins after sunset and continues till late in the night. Sometimes, it takes the whole night for one performance to be complete. Nowadays, due to shortage of time, it isn’t rare to see performances as short as three hours or even lesser.

Three Groups of Performers
Kathakali has three groups of performers, including actor/dancers, vocalists and percussionists. Without one another is not possible. The actor or dancers play a variety of roles, including those of kings, gods, demons, heroines, animals, priests, etc. Each role has a particular style of makeup and costume as its code. Hand gestures or mudras, along with extensive facial expressions and eye movements, are used by the actors to convey their dialogs to the audience. The legend is narrated in the voice of the vocalists. The instruments consist of cymbals and 3 types of drums – cena, edakka and maddalam, with each of the drum producing a distinct sound, used by the third group (of percussionists).


Kuchipudi was introduced as a dance drama, but its present day dispensation tells a different story altogether. It has now been reduced only to dance form, with the drama missing completely. With proficient training and knowledge, the Kuchipudi dancers have started presenting the dance form in their individualistic ways, today. In the present timesd, majority of the Kuchipudi dancers are women. Kuchipudi dramas are enacted during nights, in open air, on improvised stages. The audience generally sits on the ground.

Kuchipudi originated from a hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, in the 3rd century B.C. This dance style, like many other classical dance forms, was initially presented at temples and was performed by the Brahmin men (known as Bhagavathalu). These dances were meant to prove as offerings to the deities and women were never allowed to participate in the dance group. The very first group of Brahmin performers (Bhagavathalu) was formed in 1502 A.D.

Women Playing Male Parts
Siddhendra Yogi championed the cause of redefining the Kuchipudi dance form, with the aim of eliminating exploitation of women. Owing to his efforts, Kuchipudi came to be enriched by the advent of the female dancers, with time. Renowned gurus, like Vedantam Lakshminarayana, Chinta Krishnamurthy and Tadepalli Perayya, broadened the horizons of the dance form further. The reforms brought in, at that time, have today led to the women even playing the male parts in this dance form.

Rituals Before Kuchipudi
Before the dance drama of Kuchipudi, there are certain rituals that are performed in front of the audience. After the rituals, the Soothradhara or the conductor, with the supporting musicians, comes on stage, gives a play of rhythm on the drums and cymbals and announces the title of the dance drama. After this, two people enter, holding a curtain, behind which is a dancer in the mask of Ganpati (the elephant headed god). The dancer dances for some time, to worship Ganpati, so that the dance drama goes on without hitches.

Introduction of Characters
In a Kuchipudi performance, each principal character introduces himself or herself on the stage with a daru. A daru is a small composition of dance and song specially designed for each character, to help him/her reveal his/her identity and also to show his/her skill in the art. There can be as many as 80 darus or dance sequences in a Kuchipudi performance. All of them help set the mood of the drama as well as the characters in it. Thereafter, the performance finally begins.

The Performance
After the initial rituals as well the introduction of the characters is complete, it is the time to finally begin the performance of Kuchipudi. Through the show, the dance is accompanied by song, typically Carnatic music. Accompanying the singer, in the performace, is by mridangam (a classical South Indian percussion instrument), violin, flute and the tambura (a drone instrument with strings which are plucked).

Make-up, Costumes and Music
Make-up and costumes are the unique characteristics of Kuchipudi dance form. Apart from the make-up, the female characters also wear ornaments and jewelry, such as Rakudi (head ornament), Chandra Vanki (arm ornament), Adda Bhasa and Kasina Sara (neck ornament), and a long plait decorated with flowers and jewelry. Most of the ornaments worn by the artists are made of a light weight wood, called Boorugu.

Popular Kuchipudi Dance
The most popular Kuchipudi dance forms is the pot dance, in which a dancer keeps a pot filled with water on his/her head, while the feet are balanced on a brass plate. He/she moves on the stage, manipulating the brass plate with the feet kept on its rim and doing some hand movements, without spilling a drop of water on the ground. Bhama Kalapam, Gollakalapam, Prahlada Charitam, Sashirekha and Parinaya are some of the other famous dance dramas in Kuchipudi.


Manipuri is the classical dance from the Manipur region in the North East. Very much religious and associated to Vaishnav cult of Hinduism, the art form primarily depicts episodes from the life of Lord Vishnu. Manipuri dance style is multifaceted and ranges from the softest feminine to the vigorous masculine. Dignified grace is found in every aspect and the range it offers in technique, rhythmic and tempo, which makes a Manipuri recital an absorbing and exhilarating experience. Originating from a north-eastern state of India, Manipur, the movements of the body, feet and facial expressions in the dance are delicate and aspire to exhibit complete devotion and gracefulness.

The past and origin of Manipuri dance is not clear, as there are many myths and legends that have been associated with it. The Manipuris consider themselves the descendants of the Gandharvas, who were the legendary musicians, and dancers in the celestial courts of Indira. The earliest records of this dance form date back to about 100 AD. It was King Bhagyachandra of 17th century, who established Manipuri dance on a systematic basis. He gave the Rasleelas (dance dramas) and Sankirtan (form of invocation) a new outlook and composed three of the five types of Ras Lilas – the Maha Ras, the Basanta Ras and the Kunja Ras.

Apart from codifying the style of Ras Leela, King Bhagyachandra also designed the beautiful Manipuri dance costume. In the 19th century, Maharaja Gambhir Singh composed the two parengs of the tandava type – the Goshtha Bhangi Pareng and the Goshtha Vrindaban Pareng. During this time, Maharaja Chandra Kirti Singh shaped the 64 Pung choloms or drum dances and two parengs of the Lasya type – the Vrindaban Bhangi Pareng and Khrumba Bhangi Pareng. Nitya Ras have also been accredited to him. However, it was the continuous efforts of Rabindranath Tagore and other Gurus that the dance became popular even outside the region.

The dance form took a step ahead in 1954 when the Manipur Dance College of Imphal was formed. Today named as, Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, the institution had started with three great exponents of the genre as its faculty member – Guru Amubi Singh, Guru Amudon Sharma and Guru Atomba Singh. With time, Manipuri dance gained much appreciation and admiration. Later in 1972, Manipuri Nartanalaya was founded in Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal, while in New Delhi, Manipuri Nrityashram was established.

Dance Form
The Vaishnava faith brought along with it the origin of the Manipuri dance. The repertoire is dominated by the themes from the Vishnu Puranas, Bhagvata Puranas, and Geeta Govinda. Slow and gracious movements differentiate Manipuri from other dance styles. The delicate arm movements and gentle foot work characterizes this dance form. Any form of jerks, sharp edges or straight lines in the dance is not seen, which is the only reason as to why Manipuri dance is known for its undulating and soft appearance. While the female ‘Rasa’ dances is based on the Radha-Krishna theme feature group ballets and solos, the male ‘Sankirtana’ dances are performed to the pulsating rhythm of the Manipuri Dholak and are full of vitality and energy.