A country so diverse in every possible way, India unsurprisingly has many dance forms (both classical & folk) originating from different states. Each of the classical dances of India has a distinguishable style influenced by the regional traditions, but the central idea of them all is deeply rooted in the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra – one of the first notable works that mentioned dance. According to Natya Shastra, dance is spiritual in nature; it’s a way to connect the self with the higher self through art.
Classical dances are traditionally performed to express spiritual notions and the essence of scriptures whereas folk dances are characteristically celebratory. Nevertheless, these diverse dance forms add to the richness of Indian culture. On the occasion of the International Dance Day, here’s a look at the 8 classical dances of India recognized by the Sangeet Natak Academy, India’s national academy of music, dance and drama.
Bharatanatyam – Tamil Nadu
With a history that spans over 2000 years, Bharatanatyam is among the oldest classical dances of India. Once performed exclusively in the temples by devadasis, it was only in the 20th century that this dance rendition made it to the public stage. Bharatanatyam survived a great deal of oppression during the British times only to emerge as one of the most respectable dance forms of India today. The dancers, through their aesthetic mudras (hand gestures), rhythmic body movements, and articulate facial expressions, render various stories from Hindu mythology, keeping the audience glued to their beautiful performance. Carnatic music accompanies Bharatanatyam, which was once known by the names of Sadir Attam or Dasi Attam.
Kuchipudi – Andhra Pradesh
Indigenous to a small village named Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, this namesake dance is known for its grace and elegance in every movement, mime and mudra. The impressive footwork and subtle expressions to the classical songs/music can easily cast a spell on the spectators; teleporting them into the world being narrated. Bhakti is the recurrent theme of this art form and often, Kuchipudi performances portray tales related to Lord Krishna. Considered to be the toughest dance form of India, a Kuchipudi performance traditionally begins with the religious act of invoking God’s blessings and concludes with Tarangam, wherein the dancers perform on brass plates with incredible mastery while also balancing a pot on their heads.
Kathakali – Kerala
Kathakali is a combination of two words — Katha, which means a story, and Kali, i.e. art or performance. Kerala’s classical dance form is basically a dance drama with themes mostly derived from Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and other folktales and legends. Kathakali lays a huge emphasis on gestures and expressions to represent the conflict between good and evil. Even the elaborately colorful makeup is intended to highlight the traits of the roles portrayed by the dancers. This classical dance form is a pure spectacle to watch! Travelers booking flights to Kerala must not miss out on a Kathakali performance hosted regularly at the famous Kerala Kalamandalam.
Mohiniattam – Kerala
One more classical dance originating from Kerala, Mohiniattam/Mohiniyattam is named after Mohini, the mythological enchantress and the female avatar of Lord Vishnu. It is a soft dance form noted for its femininity (lasya element of classical dance). It has neither rhythmic steps nor difficult footwork, but its beauty lies in the restraint of heavy movement along with gentler expressions and elegant gestures. While Kathakali is chiefly dominated by male performers, Mohiniattam is performed mostly by females. The prince of Travancore, Swati Tirunal (who was an artist himself), contributed immensely to this beautiful dance form with a rich repertoire of songs to accompany the dance performance.
Odissi – Odisha
Another classical temple dance, Odissi was originally practiced in the temples of Odisha as a part of worshiping God. According to archeological findings, Odissi may be the oldest surviving dance form of India. It displays a beautiful blend of Lasya and Tandava, the male and female aspects of dance as mentioned in Natya Shastra. This complex dance form consists of more than 50 expressive mudras, some of them inspired by the postures sculpted on the temples. Odissi performances relay mythological stories of Lord Shiva, Surya Deva, and other Gods and Goddesses.
Manipuri – Manipur
The classical Manipuri dance is predominantly devoted to the Raas of Radha and Krishna and hence is also referred to as Manipuri Raas Leela. The various forms of this dance-drama have themes related to Shaivism and Shaktism and those influenced by the folk traditions and customs of the state. Unlike the other classical dances of India, Manipuri dancers do not wear ghunghroo (ankle bells) as the focus of this dance is more on the upper body movements and expressions. Characterized by unique costumes, a soft style, and gentle, peaceful expressions; the Manipuri performances elicit Rasanubhuti (experience of rasa) in the audience in a subtle manner.
Kathak – Uttar Pradesh
This classical dance form is widely practiced in the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other parts of western and eastern India. Kathak is believed to be an evolved version of the narrative of Kathakaras (storytellers), who traveled extensively across North India and presented stories from the Hindu scriptures using a combination of music, dance, and drama. Today, Kathak performances are known for their refined language of body movements and expressions; especially the skillful ankle movements in sync with the rhythm of classical music. Heavy ghunghroos are an indispensable part of a Kathak performance; further accentuating the charm of this classical dance.
Sattriya – Assam
Introduced by the Vaishnava saint and reformer Mahapurusha Sankaradeva, this classical dance form of India was originally performed in the sattras (Hindu monasteries) of Assam. Gradually, it was adopted by stage artists who then developed this dance form by adding more chorographical and expressive elements. Sattriya themes are centered on the life of Krishna but are not confined to just Vaishnavism. The dancers express stories beautifully through their hasta mudras, pada karmas, nritta and abhinaya.
So, how many of these classical dance forms have you witnessed in their state of origin during your trips to India?