Indian Classical Dance

The common root of all Indian classical dance forms can be traced to Bharata’s Natyasastra. It contains deliberations on the different kind of postures, the mudras, the kind of emotions, the kind of attires, the stage, the ornaments and the audience. According to the Natyashastra, Brahma, the creator of the Universe, created drama. He took the following components to create the fifth Veda called Natyaveda:

  • Pathya (words) form the Rigveda
  • Abhinaya (gesture) from the Yajurveda
  • Geet (music and chant) from Samaveda
  • Rasa (sentiment and emotional element) from Atharvaveda

There are ample evidences of the popularity of dance in the Indian society right from the Mesolithic period. The first and the oldest of evidences to date are the discovery of the bronze figurine of a dancer from the Indus Valley Civilization excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Indian classical dances are dances of the mind and soul and are extremely traditional. It is very sensuous but the experience of ananda (bliss) it evokes is very spiritual.

There are eight classical dances recognized by the Government of India viz. Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Manipuri, Odissi and Sattriya.

Among them, the five classical dances of India are considered to be the mystic manifestation of the metaphysical elements of nature (Panchatatva) in the human body. These include Odissi (element of water), Kuchipudi (element of earth), Mohiniattam (element of air), Bharatnatyam(element of fire) and Kathakali (element of sky or aether).

Here we look at them very briefly:


Originated in Tamil Nadu, name possibly derived from Bharat. In Natya Shastra, Bharatanatyam is described as ekaharya in which one dancer depicts many roles. Siva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance is depicted in various dance forms. Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance – the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime (gestures and facial expression). Bharatanatyam is usually accompanied by the classical music. It is practiced by male and female dancers.

  • Noted Exponents: Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mallika Sarabhai, Yamini Krishnamurthy


Its name derived from a village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Its worth note that there are many similarities between the Kuchipudi and Yakshagana. In fact, the evolution of Kuchipudi and Yakshagana seems to be common. The Kuchipudi style was conceived by Siddhendra Yogi, a talented Vaishnava poet of 17th century. It begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha followed by nritta (non-narrative and abstract dancing); shabdam (narrative dancing) and natya. The dance is accompanied by song which is typically Carnatic music. The singer is accompanied by mridangam, violin, flute and the tambura. Like other classical dances, Kuchipudi also comprises pure dance, mime and histrionics but it is the use of speech that distinguishes Kuchipudi’s presentation as dance drama.

  • Noted Kuchipudi exponents are: Raja Reddy and Radha reddy, Sonal Mansingh, Yamini Krishnamurthy

Difference between Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi

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Kathak dance is a combination of music, dance and narrative.  The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story. This dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks, or storytellers. The present day Kathak dance mainly depends on the medieval period Ras Lila, a local dance in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh. Kathak became highly stylised in both Hindu and Muslim courts and came to be regarded as a sophisticated form of entertainment. There are three major schools or gharanas of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage. These include the Lucknow Gharana, Jaipur Gharana and the Banaras Gharana.

  • Noted Kathak exponents are: Shambhu Maharaj, Sitara Devi, Pandit Birju Maharaj


Originated in Manipur and associated with the rituals and traditional festivals. The central theme is the Raslila of Radha and Krishna. The themes often depict the pangs of separation of the gopis and Radha from Krishna. The vital elements of this dance are the characteristic symbols (kartal or manjira) and double-headed drum (pung or Manipuri mridang) of sankirtan into the visual performance. The most popular forms of Manipuri dance are the Ras, the Sankirtana and the Thang-Ta. Guru Naba Kumar, Guru Bipin Singh, Rajkumar Singhajit Singh, his wife Charu Sija Mathur, Darshana Jhaveri are some of the prominent exponents of this classical dance form.


The Kirtan form of congregational singing accompanies the dance which is known as Sankirtana. The male dancers play the Pung and Kartal while dancing. The masculine aspect of dance – the Choloms is a part of the Sankirtana tradition.


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. Today, Manipur has an evolved and sophisticated repertoire of martial dances, the dancers use swords, spears and shields. Real fight scenes between the dancers show an extensive training and control of the body.


Evolved from many social and religious theatrical forms of Kerala. This dance form is a blend of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from the Indian epics. Poet Vallathol, composed the classical Kathakali dance form. Noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. Kathakali is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art:

  • Expressions (Natyam, the component with emphasis on facial expressions)
  • Dance (Nritham, the component of dance with emphasis on rhythm and movement of hands, legs and body)
  • Enactment (Nrithyam, the element of drama with emphasis on “mudras”, which are hand gestures)
  • Song/vocal accompaniment (Geetha)
  • Instrument accompaniment (Vadyam)

Noted Kathakali exponents are: Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair


Odissi is known as the oldest dance form of India on the basis of archaeological evidences. The reason is the bass reliefs of 1st century BC in the Udaygiri caves. The Natya Shastra speaks of the dance from this region and refers to it as Odra-Magadhi. Characterized by various Bhangas (Stance), which involves stamping of the foot and striking various postures as seen in Indian sculptures. The common Bhangas are Bhanga, Abanga, Atibhanga and Tribhanga.

The techniques of movement are built around the two basic postures of the Chowk and the Tribhanga. The chowk is a position imitating a square – a very masculine stance with the weight of the body equally balanced. The tribhanga is a very feminine stance where the body is deflected at the neck, torso and the knees. There are three traditions of the Odissi Dance viz. Mahari, Gotipua and Nartaki Schools.


Maharis were Oriya devadasis or temple girls, their name deriving from Maha (great) and Nari or Mahri (chosen) particularly those at the temple of Jagganath at Puri. Early Maharis performed mainly Nritta (pure dance) and Abhinaya (interpretation of poetry) based on Mantras and Slokas. Later, Maharis especially performed dance sequences based on the lyrics of Jayadev’s Gita Govinda.


Gotipuas were boys dressed up as girls and taught the dance by the Maharis. Only this tradition out of these three remains extant today.


Nartaki dance took place in the royal courts. During the British time the misuse of devadasis came under strong attack, so that Odissi dance withered in the temples and became unfashionable at court..

  • Noted Odissi exponents are: Kelucharan Mohapatra, Sonal Mansingh


It is a classical dance form from Kerala.It is considered a very graceful form of dance meant to be performed as solo recitals by women.

The term Mohiniyattam comes from the words “Mohini” meaning a woman who enchants onlookers and “aattam” meaning graceful and sensuous body movements. The word “Mohiniyattam” literally means “dance of the enchantress”.

There are two stories of the Lord Vishnu disguised as a Mohini. In one, he appears as Mohini to lure the asuras (demons) away from the amrita (nectar of immortality) obtained during the churning of the palazhi or Ocean of Milk. In the second story Vishnu appears as Mohini to save Lord Shiva from the demon Bhasmasura.

The dance involves the swaying of broad hips and the gentle movements of erect posture from side to side. This is reminiscent of the swinging of the palm leaves and the gently flowing rivers which abound Kerala.

  • There are approximately 40 basic movements, known as atavukal.
  • The vocal music of Mohiniyattam involves variations in rhythmic structure known as chollu.
  • Noted exponents of Mohiniyattam are: T. Chinnammu Amma, Kalamandalam Sugandhi

Sattriya Dance

The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century A.D by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva as a powerful medium for propagation of the Vaishnava faith. Sankaradeva introduced this dance form by incorporating different elements from various treatises,then prevalent dance forms and local folk dances combined with his own rare outlook. Sattriya dance is a clear indication of the influence of the former on the latter. Other visible influences on Sattriya dance are those from Assamese folk dances namely Bihu, Bodos etc. Many hand gestures and rhythmic syllables are strikingly similar in these dance forms.

  • Noted Sattriya exponents are: Indira PP Bora, Maniram Datta Moktar


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