Classical Dances of India

The criteria for being considered as classical is the style’s adherence to the guidelines laid down in Natyashastra, which explains the Indian art of acting. The Sangeet Natak Akademi currently confers classical status on eight Indian classical dance styles: Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (North, West and Central India), Kathakali(Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Odissi (Odissa), Manipuri (Manipur), Mohiniyattam (Kerala), and Sattriya (Assam). All classical dances of India have roots in Hindu arts and religious practices.


  • c1Bharatnatyam dance – where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance.
  • style was kept alive by the devadasis, who were young girls ‘gifted’ by their parents to the temples and who were married to the gods.
  • devadasisperformed music and dance as offerings to the deities, in the temple courtyards.
  • As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance – the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime.
  • varnam– most important composition of the Bharatnatyam repertoire, encompasses both nritta and nritya and epitomises the essence of this classical dance form. Dancer here performs complicated well graded rhythmic patterns in two speeds showing the control over rhythm, and then goes on to depict in a variety of ways, through abhinaya the lines of the sahitya.
  • c2After the strenuousvarnam, the dancer performs a number of abhinaya items expressing a variety of moods.
  • bhava or rasa is woven into the sahitya and then expressed by the dancer.
  • Bharatnatyam performance ends with atillana which has its origin in the tarana of Hindustani music. The finale of the piece is a series of well designed rhythmic lines reaching a climax. The performance ends with a mangalam invoking the blessings of the Gods.
  • The accompanying orchestra consists of a vocalist, a mridangam player, violinist or veena player, a flautist and a cymbal player. The person who conducts the dance recitation is the Nattuvanar.


  • c3Kathakars or story-tellers, are people who narrate stories largely based on episodes from the epics, myths and legends.
  • It probably started as an oral tradition. Mime and gestures were perhaps added later on to make the recitation more effective.
  • Vaishnavite cult which swept North India in the 15th century. and the resultant bhakti movement contributed to a whole new range of lyrics and musical forms.
  • Dance in Raslila, however, was mainly an extension of the basic mime and gestures of theKathakars or story-tellers which blended easily with the existing traditional dance.
  • In both Hindu and Muslim courts, Kathak became highly stylised and came to be regarded as a sophisticated form of entertainment.
  • Under the Muslimsthere was a greater stress on nritya and bhava giving the dance graceful, expressive and sensuous dimensions.
  • c4The weight of the body is equally distributed along the horizontal and vertical axis.
  • full foot contact is of prime importance where only the toe or the ball of the foot are used, their function is limited.
  • no deflections and no use of sharp bends or curves 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 or upper chest and lower waist muscles.
  • Both the drummer (here the drum is either a pakhawaj, a type of mridangam, or a pair of tabla) and the dancer weave endless combinations on a repetitive melodic line.
  • A poetic line set to music is interpreted with gestures in other numbers, such as thetumribhajandadra – all lyrical musical compositions.
  • Both innritta (pure dance) and the abhinaya (mime) there is immense scope for improvisation of presenting variations on a theme.
  • Being the only classical dance of India having links with Muslim culture, it represents a unique synthesis of Hindu and Muslim genius in art.
  • Further, Kathak is the only form of classical dance wedded to Hindustani or the North Indian music.


  • c5‘At times, even though the dramatic situation did not demand, solo dancing was being presented to punctuate the presentation and to enhance the appeal. One such number istarangam inspired by the Krishna-leela tarangini of Teerthanarayana Yogi.
  • To show the dexterity of the dancers in footwork and their control and balance over their bodies, techniques like dancing on the rim of a brass plate and with a pitcher full of water on the head was introduced.
  • Acrobatic dancing became part of the repertoire.
  • there are now two forms of Kuchipudi; the traditional musical dance-drama and the solo dance.
  • c6A recital of Kuchipudi begins with an invocatory number, as is done in some other classical dance styles. Earlier the invocation was limited toGanesha Vandana. Now other gods are also invoked.
  • It is followed bynritta, that is, non-narrative and abstract dancing. A Kuchipudi recital is usually concluded with tarangam.
  • music that accompanies the dance is according to the classical school of Carnatic music and is delightfully syncopatic.
  • Orchestra- mridangam, violin/veena & cymbal.


  • c8Comparatively recent origin.
  • Chakiarkoothu, Koodiyattam,Krishnattam and Ramanattam are few of the ritual performing arts of Kerala which have had a direct influence on Kathakali in its form and technique.
  • Kathakali is a blend of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from the Indian epics.
  • Kathakali is a visual art whereaharya, costume and make-up are suited to the characters, as per the tenets laid down in the Natya Shastra.
  • The face of the artist is painted over to appear as though a mask is worn. The lips, the eyelashes and the eyebrows are made to look prominent. A mixture of rice paste and lime is applied to make thechutti on the face which highlights the facial make-up.
  • c7The characters in a Kathakali performance are broadly divided intosatvika,   rajasika and  tamasika Satvika characters are noble, heroic, generous and refined.
  • A large oil-fed lamp is placed in front of the stage and two people hold a curtain calledTirasseela on the stage, the main dancers stand behind it before the performance.
  • The technical details cover every part of the body from facial muscles to fingers, eyes, hands and wrists.
  • The facial muscles play an important part. 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 weight of the body is on the outer edges of the feet which are slightly bent and curved.


  • shrinika_performing_abhinaya_kede_chhanda_janilu_tuhiArchaeological evidence of this dance form dating back to the 2nd century B.C. is found in the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri near Bhubaneshwar.
  • With Hinduism taking roots in Orissa by about the 7th century A.D., many imposing temples were erected. The Sun Temple at Konarak, built in the 13th century, with itsNatya 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. Around this time, a class of boys called gotipuas were trained in the art, they danced in the temples and also for general entertainment. Many of today’s gurus of this style belong to the gotipua
  • c10Facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements are used to suggest a certain feeling, an emotion or one of the ninerasas.
  • The techniques of movement are built around the two basic postures of theChowk(above) and the Tribhanga(left). 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.
  • With the lower half of the body remaining static, the torso moves from one side to the other along the axis passing through the centre of the upper half of the body. 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. These are used in a variety of intricate combinations.
  • Almost all leg movements are spiral/circular
  • Hand gestures play an important role both innritta where they are used only as decorative embellishments and in nritya where they are used for communication.
  • orchestra –pakhawaj , flute, sitar / violin and manjira
  • In each performance, even a modern Odissi dancer still reaffirms the faith of thedevadasis or maharis where they sought liberation or moksha through the medium of dance.


  • c11Introduced 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.
  • This neo-Vaishnava treasure of Assamese dance and drama has been, for centuries, nurtured and preserved with great commitment by the Sattras ( Vaishnavamaths/monasteries). Because of its religious character & association with the Sattras, it has been aptly named Sattriya.
  • There were two dance forms prevalent in Assam before the neo-Vaishnava movement such as Ojapali and Devadasi with many classical elements.
  • Two varieties of Ojapali dances are still prevalent in Assam i.e. Sukananni or Maroi Goa Ojah and Vyah Goa Ojah. Sukananni Oja paali is of Shakti cult and Vyah Goa Oja paali is of Vaishnava cult. Sankaradeva included Vyah Goa Ojah into his daily rituals in Sattra. Till now Vyah Goa Ojah is a part of rituals of the Sattras of Assam. The dancers in a Oja paali chorus not only sing and dance but also explain the narration by gestures and stylized movements.
  • As far as Devadasi dance is concerned, resemblance of a good number of rhythmic syllables and dance postures along with footwork with 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.
  • Sattriya dance tradition is governed by strictly laid down principles in respect ofhastamudrasfootworksaharyas, music etc.


  • manipuri_danceBecause of its geographical location, the people of Manipur have been protected from outside influences, and this region has been able to retain its unique traditional culture.
  • Lai Haraoba(merrymaking of the gods)is one of the main festivals still performed in Manipur which has its roots in the pre-Vaishnavite period.  The principal performers are the maibas and maibis (priests and priestesses) who re-enact the theme of the creation of the world.
  • With the arrival of Vaishnavism in the 15th century A.D., new compositions based on episodes from the life of Radha and Krishna were gradually introduced.
  • Manipur dance has a large repertoire, however, the most popular forms are the Ras, the Sankirtana and the 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
  • A short fine white muslin skirt is worn over it. A dark coloured velvet blouse covers the upper part of the body and a traditional white veil is worn over a special hair-do which falls gracefully over 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 male dancers play the Pung and Kartal while dancing. The masculine aspect of dance – the Choloms are a part of the Sankirtana tradition. The Pung and Kartal choloms are performed at all social and religious festivals.
  • 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 Manipuri classical style of singing is calledNat – very different from both north and south Indian music, this style is immediately recognizable with its high pitched open throated rendering with particular type of trills and modulations.
  • The main musical instrument is thePung or the Manipuri classical drum.
  • Besides theRas and other leelas, each stage in one’s life is celebrated with Sankirtana performances – child birth, upanayanam, wedding and shradha are all occasions for singing and dancing in Manipur. The whole community participates as song and dance form part of daily life expressions.


  • The swaying coconut trees in the gentle breeze is reminiscent of the soft and languorous movements of Mohiniyattam – the feminine classical dance form of Kerala. 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.
  • Of all the classical South Indian styles, Mohiniyattam can be singled out with admirable distinction, for it’s 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 glances, postures, gait employed are so subtle and graceful that they convey the infinite suggestiveness of radiant love.
  • 15The traditional costume worn in Mohiniyattam is white with a gold border, and gold ornaments are worn.
  • The unique coiffure with hair gathered on the left side of the head reflect it’s aesthetic appeal, making it distinct from the other dance forms of India.
  • The regional system of music that Mohiniyattam follows is the SOPANA style which in it’s lyricism is evocative of the spiritual element.
error: Content is protected !!