8 Classical Dance Forms of India That Have a Rich History
Dance has been part of the rich culture of India since time immemorial. Even the great Vedas and texts have mention of different forms of dance. The cultural variation between our states can be particularly seen in the difference among the various native dances. Here, I have mentioned about 8 popular classical dance forms of India.
The history and evolution of Bharatanatyam can be dated back to the times of the great Hindu text Natya Shastra, by Bharata Muni. Hence, it may be identified as the birth point of many other Classical dances from India. Bharatanatyam popularized as an art form performed within the limits of Hindu temples. It was the Devadasis or women dedicated to serve the Gods who performed Bharatanatyam. Later the practice of this age-old art form was banned from India as the British Colonial rule came into existence.
But there were many passionate Indian art enthusiasts who refused to kneel to the Colonial declarations. One major figure in this movement was E. Krishna Iyer. He was even imprisoned for his actions to revive Bharatanatyam. Even among the great oppositions, Iyer along with Rukmini Devi Arundale formed the Madras Music Academy. Now, we see a revived and revised form of the dance, dealing with even non-religious themes.
The name can be found as the combination of ‘Bharata’ and ‘Natyam’, Bharata a mnemonic and Natyam meaning dance. Bharata can again be branched into ‘Bha’ from Bhava, referring to the feelings, ‘ra’ from Raaga, referring to the melody and ‘ta’ from Tala, referring to the rhythm.
This ancient dance form can be basically differentiated into its two expressions, ‘Nritta’ which is the pristine delivery of dance through gestures and ‘Nritya’ which is solely the expressive part of a dance. Natya Shastra adds the third in the stock which is ‘Natya’, a dramatic form of dancing which may be performed either in groups or solo.
Margam: The seven sequences involved in Bharatanatyam is named as Margam, meaning ‘the path’. This explains the order of the dance, from Alarippu to Mangalam.
Alarippu: This 3-5 long order helps in leading the dancer into a complicated sequence in the dance. It helps the dancer to concentrate on the routine and be free of all other distractions.
Jatiswaram: Here the dancer is involved in a complete nritta discourse. No emotions or mood is being expressed.
Shabdam: The dancer enters into a more dramatic realm of the dance. Abhinaya is introduced to the audience through the steps and the lyrical accompaniment.
Varnam: A 45-minute long discourse of nritta and nritya combination usually based on love.
Padam: Here the dancer shows the strength of expression. The songs in Padam matches with the mood and emotions being expressed.
Ashtapadi: An Abhinaya routine which is mainly focused on showing the audience the love shared between a devotee and the divine.
Kirtanam: Another Abhinaya item with Sahithya accompaniment.
Javali: A lighter form of Padam with lesser philosophical depth applied.
Thillana: An item solely dedicated to the nritta component. Very live music accompanies the thillana.
Shlokam: A brief wind up to the whole routine. This is the part which can be improvised according to the dancer’s interest.
Mangalam: This is where the dancer imparts the final salutation to the audience and gratitude towards the deities.
Costumes and Accompaniments
A Bharatanatyam dance would be dressed up as a traditional Hindu bride. A sari that is clad in a such a way that the special pleat attached would fall rhythmically from the waist. The draping also allows the saree to spread out as a huge fan when the dancer performs certain foot routines.
The jewelry and makeup are all in the traditional manner. The eye makeup is especially highlighted to make sure the dancer’s expressions are imparted to the audience properly.
The music that accompanies Bharatanatyam is pure of Carnatic origin, sung in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada or Telugu. The singer can be called as Taladhari, who would also be playing the cymbals.
In addition to this, Mridangam, Nagasawaram, and Veena are the other instruments used for harmony.
Kathak is a word that originated from ‘Katha’ meaning, story or ‘Kathakar’ meaning storyteller. It is said that Kathak evolved as an art form through the traveling musicians from Northern parts of India. They initially sang of the legendary stories and myths. Later, the verbal renditions were accompanied with rhythmic movements of the foot, hands, and eyes. Medieval Hinduism nurtured Kathak as a religious dedication more than an art form.
There are three different routines for Kathak known as the gharanas, from Jaipur, Banaras, and Lucknow. Kathak has been associated with the famous Bhakti movement in Hindu history. The first gharana that came into existence was from Lucknow. It was popularized by Ishwariya Prasad, a Bhakti enthusiast. He declared that Lord Krishna appeared in a dream and encouraged to develop a dance form that worshipped the divinity. Thus the Kathak routines of those times focused mainly on the love of Krishna and Radha.
Later, during the Mughal era, Kathak took a less religious turn into more erotic themes. Its predominant aim became entertaining a gathering of Muslim high-class men with more sensual
performances. The Indian foundation for the dance made way for Central Asian and Persian themes. The dance steps showed evident changes by adding the Sufi swirl. Even the costumes made way from Sari to a dress that exposed a bare midriff of the dancer.
Eventually, as the Colonial rule came to India, the dancers were marked with contempt and the dance saw a gradual decline. But many people came up to revive the dance form and was practiced among the Muslim and Hindu communities with more enthusiasm. It can be performed as a solo or in groups.
Margam: The path in Kathak includes an Invocation or Vandanam, a dedicated dance routine or Nritta and an expressive routine or Nrittya.
Vandanam: this is the initial part of the dance where the dancer salutes the audience and gives reverence to the divine entities. In the Hindu version of Kathak, the performer uses hand gestures and facial expressions to salute, whereas, in the Muslim version, the performer uses a simple ‘Salaam’ as the salutation.
Nritta: Starting with a combined movement of the wrist, neck, and eyebrows, this is the part of the routine that engages the senses of a viewer. The performer engages in a rapid, energetic movement of the limbs, eyes and other parts of the body in accordance with the musical beats or tala.
Nrittya: Here the more expressive part of the routine is performed by the dancer through slow gestures of the face and hands. These will be based on an underlying story about a legend or idea. The expressions and gestures transfer the mood of the story to the audience.
Costumes and Accompaniments
Depending on the Hindu or Muslim version of the dance, the costumes vary greatly. The Hindu version again has two different kinds of costumes for the female dancers. The first one is a sari that is draped such that it goes over the left shoulder and the second one is a long, light-weight skirt paired with a contrasting blouse and transparent dupatta.
Both the costumes have jewelry that goes with them but the skirt and blouse have comparatively more adornments. The male dancers wear a silk dhoti with a bare upper body or a loose jacket. They wear mostly stone ornaments.
The Muslim version of female Kathak dancers wear a skirt similar to the ones worn by the Hindu dancers but will be accompanied with close-fitting pants. The upper body will also have a long coat covering the hands as extra. They wear very light jewelry but will have a headscarf.
Dhrupad is the music genre usually being used as an accompaniment for the Kathak dance. The major instruments are tabla, sarangi and hand cymbals.
The age-old traditional dance of Kerala, Kathakali is a very intricate form of storytelling through vivid gestures and facial expressions. It is different from the other dances considering the heavy makeup and unique face masks. In addition to the gestures by the hand, there is an amazing range of footwork in Kathakali which can be connected to the various martial arts from Kerala.
It evolved as an art form which was patronized by the Hindu high community. When the other art forms found their ground in the temples, Kathakali flourished from the courts and other gatherings.
‘Krishnanattam’, a very ancient art form that illustrates the life and ideas of Lord Krishna can be seen as a precursor of Kathakali. If we do a study of the techniques and forms of Kathakali, it can be seen that various other ancient art forms like ‘Porattu Nadakam’, ‘Padayani’,’Theyyam’ and the popular martial art of ‘Kalaripayattu’ are all included in some way or the other.
The lines of narration are being delivered by a different artist. Initially, the themes of Kathakali performances were solely taken from the Hindu epics and Puranas. But the new age artists incorporate Christian themes and even the writing of William Shakespeare is being delivered as a Kathakali rendition. Another major change from the traditional form of Kathakali is the addition of female artists to the troupe. Even though changes have been brought about in the themes and artists, the language of narration still remains to be Malayalam mixed with Sanskrit.
As we discussed earlier, the sequences in Kathakali were traditionally centered around the instances from Hindu epics and Puranas. ‘Attakathas’ or ancient plays that differentiate between the action and dialogue parts are made as to the base for Kathakali performances. But the texts of Attakatha offers flexibility for the actors to improvise and perform. The performance is conducted at a ‘Koothambalam’, which is more like a theatre or simply a stage. In the earlier days, a Kathakali sequence would begin at dusk and proceed throughout the night till the break of dawn.
The first part of a Kathakali performance may be called Totayam. It is not seen to the audience and is done behind a curtain. Then comes Puruppattu, which is displayed in front of the audience. Both these are solely Nritta contributions, with importance to the dance skills.
The method of entry of the dancer may be done in different ways; With no special effects or drama, from among the audience and from behind a curtain that is set up on the stage. When the performance is led into the expressive part, there are four different sequences, namely, Kalasam, Iratti, Tonkaram, and Nalamiratti.
Costumes and Accompaniments
As we discussed earlier, the costumes, make-up, masks and other adornments of Kathakali are way much more elaborate than any other traditional dances from India. The make-up for each character in the sequence is different and can be used to recognize the characters. There are specific names for the make-up used and this is later related to the character. The make-up is made from rice paste and vegetable colors. The prime color used on the face can be called as the code and each color is the code for a different character.
Music is very essential for Kathakali and is made by using different instruments, like Chenda, Idakka, etc. The vocalist would be extremely trained in the various ragas and melodies to be in line with the performance on the stage. The highs and lows in their voice will deliver the mood and context of the scene being played.
Kuchipudi, Andhra Pradesh
Another ancient, traditional dance-drama that evolved from the village of Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh. Old texts have evidence that the currently practiced systematic version of this dance was formed back in the 17th century. It developed as a ritualistic tradition among the Hindu temples and beliefs. Kuchipudi has a Vaishnavism tradition linked to it by the renditions of Krishna worships. The historical inscriptions and relics give us a clear idea that Kuchipudi and its artists were patronized by the royalty of Ancient India. But it was banished during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb, thus leading to the decline of the art form from its motherland. Later in the colonial era, like all other dance forms, Kuchipudi also was banned from India. But it was revived by the efforts of some enthusiastic art lovers, led by Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri.
The traditional form of Kuchipudi was an all-male performance, where men dressed as women. But this changed in the revived period of the dance. Females were encouraged to practice and perform on stage. Thus many famous Kuchipudi dancers came to be known to the world. Many of the popular Bollywood actresses are well versed in Kuchipudi. Now it is being spread worldwide as an accepted art form.
Just like all other ancient dances from India, it has three elements, Nritta, Nritya, and Natya. Nritta giving out the dance in its technical excellence with movements, speed, and pattern. Nritya with the expressive part of the performance. It aims to give out the storyline and the emotion of the context to the audience. Natya, as we have discussed earlier, may be performed either in groups or as a solo. It has Nritya elements which give out a much-versed portion of the story to be implied to the viewer.
Like in the case of Bharatanatyam, it has sequences like Jatiswarams, Tillanas, etc with Shlokams, Padams, etc. The first invocation or Puvaranga is a prayer to the God Ganesha. It is interesting that unlike the other dance forms, Kuchipudi will have a presenter throughout the performance. The presenter is the one who introduces the artists to the audience. When each of the actor or dancer is being presented, they will perform a short dance piece, followed by the vocalist giving a short performance. ‘Adugu’ is the basic unit of Kuchipudi performance. Each Adugu would have a combination of different limb movements.
The steps are harmonized to the vocalist reciting mnemonic syllables with musical instruments. A very distinct feature of Kuchipudi is the Kavutvam, which is an aerobatic addition to the performance to increase the complexity of the dance. Here, the performer would balance pots on their head and dancing with complex footwork. There are also performances where the foot of the dancer would be dipped in wet ink and as the dance progresses, the movements would be creating a painting on the plain paper they are dancing on. At the end of the dance, this would be shown to the audience.
Costumes and Accompaniments
The female performer adorns herself in a colorful sari that is worn in such a way that as she stretches the legs, it will open up as a fan. Regional ornaments are worn with light make-up. A ghunghroo is the highlight among the ornaments worn. There will also be a waist belt made out of gold or brass. Eyes are highlighted using dark eyeshadow. The hair would be braided perfectly and adorned with flowers. The male performer wears a dhoti and very light make-up. When there are special characters presented in the performance, additional adornments like headpieces, etc are used.
The Nattuvarar or the presenter would be present throughout the performance and would be reciting musical syllables. But it would be a vocalist who sings out the story or message to be conveyed to the viewers. There are occasions where the dancers themselves take the role of vocalists. Tamburu, flute, cymbals, etc are the accompaniments used.
Another ancient Indian dance form from the Coastal state of Orissa. It was also performed as a religious art form, but unlike in the case of the other dances we discussed, Odissi has its connection with Buddhism and Jainism as well. This has been performed in reverence to the Hindu Gods, Siva Shakti, and Surya. Many relics have been found in relation to Odissi from the old temple spots in Orissa.
Odissi had been mainly performed by female dancers, who were talented to illustrate devotional ideas and religious stories through movements and expressions. But there is also a version of the dance wherein men dress up as women and perform with more athletic movements. Odissi also saw its decline in the country during the Islamic rule and the colonial era. Later, Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattanayak led the movement of reviving Odissi into its modern form with much support from art enthusiasts around the country.
It starts with an invocation and moves on to Nritta, Nritya, Natya and Moksha sequences. Bhumi Pranam or revering mother earth is the invocation or Mangalacharan part of Odissi. Then the performer steps into the nritta sequence. The first nritta element would usually be a piece dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is named Sthayee nrutya and is performed with no vocal accompaniment rather just rhythms. Next in line is the nritya sequence followed by natya which are similar to the other dances we discussed. The final one, Moksha is something that is unique to Odissi. This is the conclusion of the dance where the performer gives out a spiritual serenity and soul liberation to the gathering.
Costumes and Accompaniments
Traditional saris called Bomkai are used by the female Odissi performers. It is worn such that the movements are not hindered in any way. The ornaments used are usually made of silver and a ghunghroo adorns her legs. Traditional patterns are made on the legs and hands using a dye, red in color.
The make-up is light, but the eyes are prominently highlighted using Kajal to give the best impression out among the audience during the nritya and natya sequences. The performer’s hair will be tied up into a thick bun which may also be adorned with extra ornaments matching the character being portrayed. The male performer uses a pleated dhoti that is tucked between his legs. The upper body remains bare and he would be wearing a waist belt and very light make-up.
The music of Odissi stands out from all other dances. It is a mix of ragas from the Southern and Northern parts of our country, blended into extremely beautiful pieces. This would be supported by tabla, harmonium, flute, etc. It should be noted that music has much importance in the performance of Odissi. In fact, the dancer is visualizing the music being delivered by the musicians.
One of the most popular classical dance forms of India, Sattriya is an ancient Indian dance from the eastern state of the country, Assam. The dance is centered around Vaishnavi monasteries in the region. Themes performed are usually centered around stories of Krishna and Vishnu avatars. The performance is usually done in community halls of temples.
Sattriya was popularized by the Hindu monks, who performed to the texts written by Sankaradeva a famous poet who was also a religious saint. By the 20th century, it moved from the religious stages to the public stages to be watched by an interested audience. It helps in transferring the mythological stories and ideas to the viewers in a more enjoyable manner. Sankaradeva tried to incorporate parts of various local folk forms into Sattriya. The originally male-oriented dance was later passed on to female performers as well.
Sattriya follows the common sequence of other Indian classical dances, nritta, nritya and natya. But we can call them in three different names, Guru Vandana, Ramdani and Geet Abhinaya. It should be noted that Sattriya is focused on sharing themes of non-violence and truth to the audience through the performance.
This eastern classical dance takes inspiration from the other dances like Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, etc. But it also has an influence from the neighboring state of Manipur and their official dance form called Manipuri. The basic dance unit is called Mati Akhara, which is then subdivided into Ora, Saata, Jhalak, Sitika, Pak, Jap, Lon and Khar. Sattriya has two versions of performance, the masculine and the feminine.
Costumes and Accompaniments
The costumes of Sattriya is made from a locally obtained silk called Pat. It also has a very intricate touch of Assamese patterns and styles. Earlier when the dance was performed in the Sattras or the religious halls, the costumes were mostly white in color. Later when it became popularized and move to a more public stage, the costumes also had a slight change in them.
The female dancers wear their costumes in three different parts, the ghuri, chadar, and kanchi; and the male dancers wear theirs as dhoti, chadar, and paguri. Here, kanchi is the waist cloth and paguri is the turban. The jewelry adornments are also mostly Assamese local designs. The make-up employed is similar to the other Indian classical dances. But the Sattriya costumes and usually character-specific and gives a perfect idea of the characters to the audience.
Sankaradeva’s compositions based on classical ragas are accompanying the Sattriya performances. Khol, a local instrument played with the fingers is the major instrument used in Sattriya. There are two sides to the Khol, right side called Daina producing a high pitch and the left side called Bewa producing a lower or deep bass pitch. Other instruments like cymbals, flutes, violins, etc are also included.
Named after its motherland, Manipuri is another classical dance form from the Eastern regions of India. It is specifically famous for the Ras-Lila renditions based on the love story of Radha and Krishna. There is a legend that goes on to describe the Manipuri people as the Gandharva folk from the ancient Hindu epics. Manipuri is performed during religious festivals and other gatherings like weddings, etc. The dance was initially passed through oral sources, later through texts, after which it started being popularly spread among the region.
In the 18th century Ningthou Ching-Thang Khomba, a ruler of the region became the follower of Vaishnavism and systematized the dance. He divided Manipuri into three forms of Ras Lilas, ‘Kunja Ras’, ‘Basanta Ras’ and ‘Maha Ras’.
Furthermore, he brought about changes in the costumes used by Manipuri performers and made it a public event rather than a temple oriented performance. The colonial-era passed with a ban on performance and was rekindled by many passionate art enthusiasts. Later Rabindranath Tagore played a major role in giving a new life to the art form through Shantiniketan.
Manipuri can be described as a seasonal dance. This classical dance form of India has performances based on the different seasons; Spring, Autumn version, Full moon versions, harvest season versions, etc. The basic dance move is called Chari. The sequences are dedicated to the different Gopis is the story of Krishna and the longest one for Radha and Krishna. The movements are very subtle and gentle for the female dancers and comparatively faster pace for the male dancers. There are more acrobatic versions of the dance.
Costumes and Accompaniments
The male dancers wear a very colorful dhoti, clad in such a way that it moves gracefully as the dance progresses. The upper body is left bare but there will be a headpiece with peacock feathers, resembling Krishna. The female dancers are dressed similar to a Manipuri bride. The ‘Kumil’ is a notable feature of this costume. It is a barrel-like skirt, long and stiff with thick patterns. When the bottom part is made stiff, the top part is wavy and translucent. The upper body is adorned with a beautiful blouse and a translucent shawl is worn from the head and it flows down to the border of the Kumil. They wear round shaped ornaments, but no ghunghroo.
The music that accompanies Manipuri is very devotional in nature. The main instrument used is a barrel drum called Pung. The songs are taken from great texts or poetry.
Another classical dance form from the South Indian state of Kerala. Mohiniyattam is a more feminine form of dancing, Lasya. It is very graceful and pleasing to watch. The word is derived from ‘Mohini, meaning female avatar of Vishnu and ‘Attam’ meaning dance or movement. It is an art form, performed by females as a solo item after intense practice and training.
Sculptures and remnants that date back to the 11th century had been found, with women in Mohiniyattam poses, indicating that this dance form dates back into the rich past of our land. This is another art form which was related to the Devadasi system and shown to be abominable during the colonial rule.
But some artists continued performing the dance inside temples, disregarding the rules brought about by the government. Later, as a part of the freedom movement, many art enthusiasts joined to revive various art forms. Vallathol Narayana Menon, was one such person and he led the revival movement of Mohiniyattam. Later the inception of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 marked much stronger support to the dance form.
Mohiniyattam follows the Nritta and Nritya sequences. Furthermore, it has similar sequences like in the case of Bharatanatyam. The basic units are called Atavu. There are four kinds of Atavus: Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam, and Sammisram. It has slow movements of the body and there is very gentle footwork. These gentle body movements are related to elements of nature like the waves in the ocean, etc.
Costumes and Accompaniments
The dancer drapes herself in a type of Kerala saree or Kasavu saree. It is the kind of saree which is plain white or off white in color with a thick golden border. There is a blouse that remains closely fitted to the body and a waist belt is worn at the border of the blouse and the saree.
There is also an extra pleated piece, attached to the front of the saree, giving more flexibility to the dancer and also embellishing the movements. There are ornaments on the ear, nose, neck, and hands in addition to the ghunghroo. The make-up is light but the lips are painted dark red and eyes are made very prominent to make the eye movements more noticeable. Hair is tied into a tight bun to the left side and is covered using flower bands usually Jasmin.
Mohiniyattam is accompanied with the Carnatic style music and the lyrics are taken from Manipravalam, hence a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit. The vocals are either handled by separate artists or the dancer herself would be singing it. The slow melodious ragas are supported by Mridangam, Kuzhitalam, Idakka, flute, etc.
These classical dance forms of India are recognized by Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture.
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