Indian Classical Dances

Updated on 2017/11/14 06:49

Indian classical dance, or Shastriya Nritya, is an umbrella term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical theatre styles, whose theory and practice can be traced to the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra. The number of recognized classical dances range from eight to more, depending on the source and scholar. The Sangeet Natak Akademi recognizes eight – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam. The Ministry of Culture of the Government of India includes Chhau, Ghoomar, Thang tha and Gaurdiya Nritya in its list of classical dances.[citation needed]

These dances are traditionally regional, all of them include music and recitation in local language or Sanskrit.


Classical Dances

Classical dances
  • Eight dances as per Sangeet Natak Academy
  • 11/12 as per Ministry of Culture[citation needed]
Important booksNatasutra, Natya Shastra, Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaba Bharati, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa


Indian classical dances are traditionally performed as an expressive drama-dance form of religious performance art, related to Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, pan-Hindu Epics and the Vedic literature, or a folksy entertainment. 

  • As a religious art, they are either performed inside the sanctum of a Hindu temple, or near it.
  • Folksy entertainment may also be performed in temple grounds or any fairground, typically in a rural setting by traveling troupes of artists.
  • They have also been performed inside the halls of royal courts or public squares during festivals.

Texts and Roots

The Natya Shastra is the foundational treatise for classical dances of India, and this text is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni. Its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. 

Other ancient and medieval Sanskrit dance-drama related texts that further discuss and expand on the classical repertoire of performance arts, such as the Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaba Bharati, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa and many others. The term "classical" (Sanskrit: "Shastriya") denotes the Natya Shastra-based performing arts.

Shared Aspects

All classical dance forms include in repertoire, three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra. These are Nritta, Nritya and Natya.

  • The Nritta (pada sanchalan): pure dance performance; abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance.
  • The Nritya (anga sanchalan): slower and expressional aspect that convey the feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes.
  • The Natya (abhinay): a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya. Most dance forms do not give emphasis to this aspect today with the exception of dance-drama forms like Kathakali

They also used similar symbolism and rules of gestures in abhinaya. The communication through symbols is in the form of expressive gestures (mudras or hastas) and pantomime set to music. The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras (sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story.

Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu

Bharatanatyam, sometimes referred to as Sadir originated in Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, it is performed as a solo dance exclusively by women, and expressed Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, but also of Vaishnavism and Shaktism. 

About Bharatnatyam

Bharatnatyam Performance


The term Bharatanatyam is a compound of two words, Bharata and Natyam.

Some views say that, the term Bharata in Bharatanaytam is named after sage Bharat Muni, but this view stands unvalidated. The tradition states that the word Bharata is a mnemonic, consisting of "bha"–"ra"–"ta". The bha stands for bhava (feelings, emotions), ra stands for raga (melody, framework for musical notes), and ta stands for tala (rhythm). The term Natyam is a Sanskrit word for "dance".

In its history, Bharatanatyam has also been called Sadir. It is also caled ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance.


It may be the oldest classical dance tradition of India. It's theoretical foundations trace to the Natya Shastra, its existence by 2nd century CE is noted in the ancient Tamil epic Silappatikaram and Manimegalai. The Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara is one of the main sources of textual material for the study of the technique and grammar of body movement.

The visual evidences of this dance form in paintings and stone and metal sculptures of ancient times. On the gopurams of the Chidambaram temple (~12th century) dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, 108 poses of the Bharatnatyam, that are also described as karanas in the Natya Shastra, are carved in stone. Many of the ancient Shiva sculptures in Hindu temples are same as the Bharata Natyam dance poses.

The 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. The devadasis performed music and dance as offerings to the deities, in the temple courtyards. Some of the renowned performers and gurus of the early part of the century belong to the devadasi families, a well-known name is Bala Saraswati.

Christian missionaries and British officials presented "nautch girls" of north India (Kathak) and "devadasis" of south India (Bharatanatyam) as evidence of "harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols and priests" tradition, and Christian missionaries demanded that this must be stopped, launching the "anti-dance movement" in 1892. In 1910, the Madras Presidency of the British Empire altogether banned temple dancing, and with it the Bharatanatyam tradition within Hindu temples. The classical art revivalists such as E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and someone who had learnt the Bharatanatyam dance, questioned the cultural discrimination. He along with others were even imprisoned. American dancer Esther Sherman moved to India in 1930, learnt Indian classical dances, changed her name to Ragini Devi, and joined the movement to save and revive Bharatanatyam and other ancient dance arts. After that, it expanded out of Hindu temples and was revived as a mainstream dance by Bharatnatyam artists such as Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati. They championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) and Thanjavur styles of Bharatanatyam respectively.



Bharatanatyam is performed by a team performance art that consists of a female solo dancer, accompanied by musicians and one or more singers. It is noted for its fixed upper torso, legs bent or knees flexed out combined with spectacular footwork, a sophisticated vocabulary of sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes and face muscles. The dance is accompanied by music and a singer, and typically her guru is present as the director and conductor of the performance.

Bharatanatyam remained exclusive to Hindu temples through the 19th century, was banned by the colonial British government in 1910, the Indian community protested the ban and expanded it outside the temples in the 20th century. Modern stage productions of Bharatanatyam have incorporated technical performances, pure dance based on non-religious ideas and fusion themes.

The performance repertoire of Bharatanatyam, like other classical dances, includes nrita (pure dance), nritya (solo expressive dance) and natya (group dramatic dance).


  • Alarippu: Literally - to adorn with flowers. The presentation begins with a vandana (rhythmic invocation) called the Alaripu. It is a pure dance, which combines a thank you and benediction for blessings from the gods and goddesses, the guru and the gathered performance team. It also serves as a prelim warm up dance, without melody, to enable to dancer to loosen her body, journey away from distractions and towards single-minded focus.
  • Jatiswaram: The next stage of the performance adds melody to the movement of Alarippu, and this is called Jatiswaram. The dance remains a prelim technical performance (nritta), pure in form and without any expressed words. The drums set the beat, of any Carnatic music raga (melody).
  • Shabdam: It follows the jatiswaram. The accompanying song is generally in adoration of the Supreme Being.
  • Varnam: It is the most important composition and encompasses both nritta and nritya. This portrays the dancer's excellence in abhinaya and also reflects the endless creativity of the choreographer. 
  • Padam: This is the stage of reverence, of simplicity, of abhinaya (expression) of the solemn spiritual message or devotional religious prayer (bhakti). The music is lighter, the chant intimate, the dance emotional.
  • Thillana: Performance ends with a tillana which has its origin in the tarana of Hindustani music.

Vocal Aspects and Musical Instruments

The accompanying music to Bharatanatyam is in the Carnatic style of South India, as is the recitation and chanting. The vocalist is called the nattuvanar (or taladhari), typically also the conductor of the entire performance, who may be the guru of the dancer and may also be playing cymbals or one of the musical instruments.

The instruments used include the mridangam (double-sided drum), nadaswaram (long type of oboe made from a black wood), nattuvangam (cymbals), the flute, violin and veena.


The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras (sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story. The gestures used in Bharatanatyam are called Hasta or mudras. These symbols are of three types: asamyuta hastas (single hand gestures), samyuta hastas (two hand gestures) and nrtta hastas (dance hand gestures).

Kathak, from Northern and Western India

It is the only major Indian classical dance to be associated with the Subcontinent's Muslim community. The origin of Kathak is traditionally attributed to the traveling bards of ancient northern India and Pakistan, known as Kathakars/ Kathakas or storytellers. Wandering Kathakas communicated stories from the great epics and ancient mythology through dance, songs and music. Kathak evolved during the Bhakti movement, particularly by incorporating the childhood and stories of the Hindu god Krishna, as well as independently in the courts of north Indian kingdoms. It transitioned, adapted and integrated the tastes of the Mughal courts in the 16th and 17th century particularly Akbar, was ridiculed and declined in the colonial British India, then was reborn in Independent India with its ancient roots and a sense of national identity.

Kathak: Introduction, history and evolution

Pure Dance of Kathak, performance on "tin tala" by Meghranjani Medhi

Etymology and Nomenclature

The term Kathak is derived from the Vedic Sanskrit word Katha which means "story", and Kathaka which means "he who tells a story", or "to do with stories".

Kathak has inspired simplified regional variants, such as the Bhavai – a form of rural theatre focussing on the tales of Hindu goddesses (Shakti), and one which emerged in the medieval era, is presently found in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Another variant that emerged from ancient Kathak is Thumri.


The earliest surviving text with Kathak roots is the Natya Shastra, attributed to sage Bharata, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The term Kathakas in the sense of "storytellers" appears in ancient Hindu texts, such as the Mahabharata. 

Bhakti Movement Era

Kathak as a classical dance form likely started in Benares (Varanasi) and from there migrated northwest to Lucknow, Jaipur and other parts of north and northwest India. The Lucknow tradition of Kathak dance attributes the style to a Bhakti movement devotee named Ishwari, who credited Hindu god Krishna appearing in his dream and asking him to develop "dance as a form of worship".

The evolution in Kathak dance theme during the Bhakti movement centered primarily around divine Krishna, his lover Radha and milkmaids (gopis) – around legends and texts such as the Bhagavata Purana found in the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism. The love between Radha and Krishna became symbolism for the love between Atman (soul within) and the supreme source (Cosmic soul everywhere).

Mughal Era

The Mughal era courts and nobles accepted Kathak as a form of aristocratic entertainment. However, the dance became more abstract and erotic, less as a means of communication of spiritual or religious ideas, and in cases the dancers innovated by emphasizing the eroticism and sexuality while keeping the message such as those of Krishna-Radha embedded in the dance.

Later, Kathak repertoire added Persian and Central Asian themes, such as the whirling of Sufi dance, the costumes replaced Saris with items that bared midriff and included a transparent veil. It was a synthesis of the ancient Indian tradition and Central Asian-Persian dance form, and the Kathak dance performers were called the "nautch girls" (also termed as devadasis and tawa'ifs in mid 20th century literature).

British Raj Era

Under British rule, Kathak along with all other classical dance forms were discouraged and it severely declined. due to the Victorian morality of sexual repressiveness and Anglican missionaries who criticized Hinduism. They even proposed to replace ancient Indian tales and Hindu legends with European legends and Christian tales. 

The seductive gestures and facial expressions during Kathak performances in Temples and family occasions were caricatured as "harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols and priests" tradition. It resulted in launching of "anti-dance movement" or "anti-nautch movement" in 1892. Many accused the dance form as a front for prostitution, while revivalists questioned the constructed histories by the colonial writers.

The educated Indian men colonial Britain who had adapted to Victorian prudery joined the criticism. They no longer understood the underlying spiritual themes behind the dance and considered it as "social ills, immoral and backward elements" in their heritage. Yet, Kathak was kept alive as an oral tradition by private performers. Kathak teachers also shifted to training boys to preserve the tradition. Kathak was brought to the attention of audiences outside India in the early 20th century through Kalkaprasad Maharaj.

Post Colonial Era

The Indian independence movement witnessed a revival of Kathak in effort to reclaim culture and rediscover history. The Kathak revival movements co-developed in Muslim and Hindu gharanas, particularly by the Kathak-Misra community. 



Kathak has three distinct styles (gharanas) named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved - Jaipur, Banaras and Lucknow. It emphasizes rhythmic foot movements, adorned with small bells (Ghungroo), and the movement harmonized to the music. The legs and torso are generally straight, and the story is told through a developed vocabulary based on the gestures of arms and upper body movement, facial expressions, stage movements, bends and turns. The main focus of the dance becomes the eyes and the foot movements. The eyes work as a medium of communication of the story the dancer is trying to communicate. The difference between the sub-traditions is the relative emphasis between acting versus footwork, with Lucknow style emphasizing acting and Jaipur style famed for its spectacular footwork.

Kathak performance can be solo, duo or team.


Kathak consist of three main sections - the invocation (vandana), one pure (abstract) dance recital and one expressive dance.

  1. Vandana: It consists of the dancer coming to stage and offering respect to his or her guru and the musicians on the stage
  2. Nritta: pure dance
  3. Nritya: expressive dance

Vocal Aspects and Musical Instruments

During the performance, the artists may interact with the audience, explain something, tell an anecdote in a particular language, or rhythmically recite a song.

The common instruments are tabla that syncs with the dancer's feet rhythms, sarangi or harmonium with manjira (hand cymbals) that meters the tal (cycle), and other instruments to add effect.


The most popular theme of love between Radha and Krishna, symbolism for the love between Atman and the supreme source is expressed. 


Kathak is a diffuse tradition, of which three gharanas (schools) are more well known and studied – Jaipur, Benares and Lucknow. The schools place different emphasis between acting versus footwork.

Kathakali, from Kerala

Kathakali is also a "story play" genre of art, but one distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and facemasks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. In modern compositions, Indian Kathakali troupes have included women artists too. It primarily developed as a Hindu performance art in Kerala.

A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance arts of India, synthesizes music, vocal performers, choreography and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas. However, Kathakali differs from other classical dances in two respects:

  •  It incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India. 
  • Its structure and details developed in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities, unlike other classical Indian dances which primarily developed in Hindu temples and monastic schools.

Introduction to Kathakali

Kathakali Performance - Duryodhanavadham

Etymology and nomenclature

The term Kathakali is derived from Katha (Sanskrit: "कथा") which means "story, or a conversation, or a traditional tale", and Kali (from Kala, "कला") which means "performance and art".


Kathakali's roots are unclear but tracable to temple and folk arts (such as Kutiyattam and religious drama of the southwestern Indian peninsula) of the 1st millennium CE. Elements and aspects of Kathakali can be found in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Natya Shastra. Kathakali emerged as a distinct genre of performance art during the 16th and 17th centuries in Kerala and developed fully around the 17th century.

Links to older performance arts

Kathakali shares many elements with ancient Indian performance arts such as Kutiyattam (classical Sanskrit drama) and medieval era Krishnanattam. Krishnanattam is the likely immediate precursor of Kathakali. These two art forms have tremendous influence on Kathakali.

Kathakali also incorporates several elements from other traditional and ritualistic art forms like Mudiyettu, Teyyam and Padayani besides folk arts such as Porattunatakam. The south Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu has also influenced Kathakali.

Despite the links, Kathakali is different from these temple-driven arts, because Kathakali separated dancer-actor roles unlike other older arts having overlaping roles of dancer-actor and vocal artist. It allowed the artists to excel in their respective specialities.



It is another "story play" genre of art with colorful make-up, costumes and facemasks wore by male actor-dancers. It synthesizes music, vocal performers, choreography and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas. It also incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India.

Kathakali is structured around plays called Attakatha ("enacted story"), written in Sanskritized Malayalam. Historically, all these plays were derived from Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana. An ancient story is playfully dramatized in long performances, starting at dusk and continuing through dawn, with interludes and breaks, some plays continueing over several nights.

Typically, all roles are played by male actor-dancers, though in modern performances, women have been welcomed into the Kathakali tradition.

Kathakali has the most elaborate costuming consisting of head dresses, face masks and vividly painted faces. Seven basic makeup types are used in Kathakali. 

  • Green: Green face with lips painted brilliant coral red portrays noble characters and sages and philosopher-kings.
  • Red: Someone with an evil streak such as Ravana, Dushasana and Hiranyakashipu.
  • Black: Forest dwellers, hunters, and middle ground character.
  • Black with Red patches: Demonesses and treacherous characters.
  • Yellow: monks, mendicants and women.
  • White beard: represents a divine being, someone with virtuous inner state and consciousness such as Hanuman.
  • Teppu: Garuda, Jatayu and Hamsa who act as messengers or carriers, but do not fit the other categories.

The character types reflect the Guṇa theory of personalities in the ancient Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy.

The stage with seating typically in open grounds outside a temple, but in some places special theatres called Kuttampalam built inside the temple compounds have been in use.


  1. Totayam and Puruppatu: Preliminary 'pure' (abstract) dances that emphasize skill and pure motion. Totayam is performed behind a curtain and without all the costumes, while Puruppatu is performed without the curtain and in full costumes.
  2. Expressive part.

Vocal Aspects and Musical Instruments

  1. The play is in the form of verses that are metered and lyrical, sung by vocalists. The vocalists deliver the lines and set the context and express the inner state of the character by modulating their voice. 
  2. Many musical instruments are used in Kathakali. Many types of drums are found. 

Symbolism and Themes

Traditional themes of the Kathakali are folk mythologies, religious legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. The mythical Hindu love story of Nala-Damayanti, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Prahlada Caritam are the most popular themes. It has also adapted western stories and plays such as those by Shakespeare and from Christianity.

Sampradayam (Styles)

These developed due to Gurukul system of its transmission from one generation to the next. By the 19th-century, many such styles were in vogue but two major styles have survived into the modern age.

  1. Kidangoor: developed in Travancore and strongly influenced by Kutiyattam.
  2. Kalluvayi: developed in Palakkad.

Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh

Kuchipudi is a dance-drama performance art, originated in a village named Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh. It developed as a religious art linked to traveling bards, temples and spiritual beliefs. It developed as a Vaishnavism tradition, and it is most closely related to Bhagavata Mela performance art found in Tamil Nadu.

Introduction to Kuchipudi

Kuchipudi performance at Nishagandhi Festival 2015, Thiruvananthapuram 


Kuchipudi is a shortened form of Kuchelapuram or Kuchilapuri – a village where it developed. Name of village is itself derived from Sanskrit Kusilava-puram, which means "the village of actors".


Kuchipudi traces its roots to the Natya Shastra. The region is mentioned in the Natya Shastra. The pre-2nd century CE text calls one raga as Andhri, that is from Andhra.

Dance-drama performance arts related to Shaivism, in Telugu-speaking parts of South India, are evidenced in 10th-century copper inscriptions and were called Brahmana Melas or Brahma Melas. The performers were the Brahmins.
These traditions were later adopted by Bhakti traditions of Vaishnavism in the 2nd millennium, whose devotees were called Bhagvatulus in Andhra region and Bhagvatars in Tamil region. In Andhra, this performance art evolved into Kuchipudi, while in Tamil Nadu it became known as Bhagavata Mela Nataka

Siddhendra Yogi
Siddhendra Yogi

Ganga rulers (13th century) from Kalinga patronised performance arts based on the 12th-century Sanskrit scholar Jayadeva, particularly the Gita Govinda. At that time, Kuchipudi is said to have been developed. 

The modern version of Kuchipudi is attributed to Tirtha Narayanayati, a 17th-century Telugu sanyasin and particularly his disciple, Siddhendra Yogi. Siddendra Yogi wanted performers for the play Bhama Kalapam he was following. He went to Kuchelapuram, the village of his wife’s family and present-day Kuchipudi, where he asked young Brahmin boys to perform the play, who agreed to perform the play once a year, and this came to be known as Kuchipudi.

Kuchipudi declined in 17th-century Andhra, until in 1678, when the last Shia Muslim Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah gave it a new life. But later, Aurangzeb, a Sunni ruler, banned public performances of all music and dance arts, along with ordering the confiscation and destruction of musical instruments in Indian subcontinent.

In 1910, the Madras Presidency altogether banned temple dancing. Kuchipudi, traditionally performed at night on a stage attached to a Hindu temple, was impacted. As the Indians protested against this order, from 1920s onwards, the classical Indian dances witnessed a period of renaissance.


A Kuchipudi performance traditionally is a night performance, when rural families return from their farms and are free of their daily work. It has been performed in or next to a Hindu temple, and the stage lit by the yellow lights of castor oil burning torches. The traditional Kuchipudi was performed by all males troupe. Women started performing later.


Kuchipudi has several regional banis (styles), which developed because of the uniqueness and creativity of gurus (teachers). The dance styles are based on the standard treatises, Abhinaya Darpana and Bharatarnava of Nandikeshwara, which is sub-divided into Nattuva Mala and Natya Mala.

  • Nattuva Mala is of two types — the Puja dance performed on the Balipitha in the temple and the Kalika dance performed in a Kalyana Mandapam.
  • Natya Mala is of three kinds — ritual dance for gods, Kalika dance for intellectuals and Bhagavatam for common place.

Dance on plate - by Raja-Radha Reddy

Bala Gopal Tarangam


A Kuchipadi show sequence always consists nritta and nritya in solo or group performance. When the underlying text is a play, it may include a natya.

  • The nritta may include parts such as darus, jatis, jatiswarams, tirmanas and tillanas.
  • The nritya or expressive performance in Kuchipudi includes padams, varnams, shabdams and shlokas.

The dance-drama begins with an invocation like an on stage prayer to Ganesha, or an invocation expressing reverence to various Hindu gods, goddesses, earth, or one's guru.

The conductor of the performance enters and plants an "Indra's banner" staff, then introduces all the actors and the characters they play. Each actor performs a short dance called the Pravesa Daru accompanied by a short musical piece, as the vocalist describes his or her role. The conductor is typically present throughout the performance, on the stage, explains the play, talks and humors the audience.

Then the nritta part of the Kuchipudi performance starts. A basic unit of dance in Kuchipudi is called a adugu (or adugulu). Each basic unit combines hand and foot movement into a harmonious sthana (posture) and chari (gait), that visually appeals to the audience wherever he or may be sitting.

Thereafter comes the nritya, the expressive part called abhinaya, and this is the heart of the play. The actor-dancer uses hand mudras, facial expressions and exacting footwork to convey emotions.

Kavutvams are a feature of the performance that is distinctive to Kuchipudi. These are performed either as nritta or nritya, to different talas, wherein the dancer adds acrobatics to the complexity of presentation. For example, the dancer may perform the footwork, while balancing a series of pots on his or her head, and then add burning Diya (lamp) in both hands, as the show goes on. Some artists dip their foot on a wet ink pad, then dance rhythmically on a blank white piece of paper, thus painting it; alternatively, the troupe places colored rice powder on floor and on top the white piece of paper, then dances the musical composition on it, their weight and steps causing the pigment to stick. At the end of the performance, the artist shows the audience the nature scenery or bird or flower or Ganesha or something that results. A Mayur Kavutvam dance produces a painting of a peacock, a Vinayaka Kavutvam of Ganesha, a Simhanandi Kavutvam yields the painting of a lion, each set to a certain classical composition and beat, for instance.

Vocal Aspects and Musical Instruments

Kuchipudi is performed to classical Carnatic music, it shares many common elements with Bharatanatyam.

The Kuchipudi performance is led by a conductor (chief musician) called the Sutradhara or Nattuvanar, who typically keeps the beat using cymbals and also recites the musical syllables; the conductor may also sing out the story or spiritual message being enacted, or this may be a role of a separate vocalist or occasionally the dancer-actors themselves. The Kuchipudi orchestra ensemble includes a drummer (mridangam), a clarinetist and a violinist. Depending on the legend being danced out, other musicians such as a flutist may be present.


The nritya is an expressive part called abhinaya. The actor-dancer uses hand mudras, facial expressions and exacting footwork to convey emotions.

A Kuchipudi artist braids her hair somewhat differently than a Bharatanatyam artist, to reflect the regional traditions, yet wearing flowers are common. Both have symbolic elements embedded in their hair and face jewelry, such as the Vedic symbolisms for the sun and the moon, the soul and the nature, and she sometimes sets her hairdo in the tribhuvana style which represents the three worlds.

Some special Kuchipudi plays may include unusual costumes and theatrics, such as round bottom water pot balanced on the head, dancing with gymnastics or stilt athletics. Other plays may include wing props, a transparent head sheet, or peacock feathered crown to identify the actor playing Krishna.

Major Kuchipudi Dramas

The most popular dance-drama is Bhama Kalapam of Sidhyendra Yogi. Narayana Teertha composed the Krishna Lila Tarangini, a story of Krishna’s life beginning from his birth to his marriage to Rukmini. Ramiah Sastri, inspired by the Bhama Kalapam, wrote the Golla Kalapam, which portrays the theme of an ethical satirical conversation between a Gopi and a Brahmin. Other commonly performed plays are the dance-songs (kritis) of Thyagaraja, and the 700 surviving padams out of 4500 composed by Kshetrayya of Muvvu.

Traditional compositions that have been internationally performed by Kuchipudi artists, particularly among Telugu diaspora communities, include Srinivasa Kalyanam, Rukmini Kalyanam (marriage of Krishna and Rukmini), Sakuntalam Bhamakalpam, Hara Vilasam, Prahlad Charitram (Holi festival-related story), Usha Parinayam, Sashirekha Parinayam, Rama Natakam (probably the oldest play), Mohini Rukmangada, Chamundeshwari Sabda, Ardhanareeswaram Sabda and Perini Thandavam

Manipuri, from Manipur

Manipuri Dance- A Short Introduction

Manipur Classical Dance Performance - "BASANTA RAAS"


Manipuri dance is an Indian classical dance form, named after the region of its origin – Manipur. It is also called Jagoi in a major Meitei language of the region and it traces a long tradition in Manipur. It is even often referred to as sankirtan.


Ancient Era

The roots of Manipuri dance is the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, but with influences from the culture fusion between India and southeast Asia. According to the traditional legend, the indigenous people of the Manipur valley were the dance-experts revered as Gandharvas in the Hindu epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and historic texts of Manipuri people calls the region as Gandharva-desa. The Vedic Usha, the goddess of the dawn, is a cultural motif for Manipuri women, and in the Indian tradition, it was Usha who created and taught the art of feminine dance to girls. This oral tradition of women's dance is celebrated as Chingkheirol in the Manipuri tradition. With evidence of Vishnu temples in the medieval era, the dance arts have been passed down verbally from generation to generation as an oral tradition. The first reliably dated written texts describing the art of Manipuri dance are from the early 18th-century.

Theories about the antiquity of Manipuri rely on the oral tradition, archaeological discoveries and references about Manipur in Asian manuscripts. Historical texts of Manipur have not survived into the modern era, and reliable records trace to early 18th century.

Medieval Era

Lai Haraoba is one of the main festivals performed in Manipur. It has its roots in the pre-Vaishnavite period.  It  is the earliest form of dance which is the basis of all stylised dances in Manipur. Literally meaning - the merrymaking of the gods, it is performed as a ceremonial offering of song and dance. The principal performers are the maibas and maibis (priests and priestesses) who re-enact the theme of the creation of the world.

Vaishnavism practices were adopted by the king of Manipur in the 15th century CE, arriving from Shan kingdom of Pong. Further waves of Buddhists and Hindus arrived from Assam and Bengal, after mid 16th-century during Hindu-Muslim wars of Bengal Sultanate, and were welcomed in Manipur. In 1704, the King Charai Rongba adopted Vaishnavism, and declared it to be the state religion. In 1717, the King Gareeb Niwaz converted to Chaitanya style devotional Vaishnavism, which emphasized singing, dancing and religious performance arts centered around Hindu god Krishna. In 1734, devotional dance drama centered around Hindu god Rama expanded Manipuri dance tradition.

Maharaja Bhagyachandra (r. 1759–1798 CE) of Manipur State adopted Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Krishna oriented). He documented and codified the Manipuri dance style, launching the golden era of its development and refinement. He composed three of the five types of Ras Lilas. He designed an elaborate costume known as Kumil (the cylindrical long mini-mirror-embellished stiff skirt costume, that makes the dancer appear to be floating). The Govinda Sangeet Lila Vilasa, an important text detailing the fundamentals of the dance, is also attributed to him. He also started public performances of Raas Lila and Manipuri dances in Hindu temples.

British Era

In 1891, the British colonial government annexed Manipur into its Empire, marking an end to its golden era of creative systematization and expansion of Manipuri dance. The Manipuri dance was thereafter ridiculed as immoral, ignorant and old-fashioned, like all other classical Hindu performance arts. The dance and artists survived only in temples. Later the dance was revived by Indian independence movement activists and scholars.

Modern Era

The Manipuri dance genre got a second life through the efforts of the Noble Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In 1919, he was impressed after seeing a dance composition and initiated its teaching at the Shantiniketan. Many celebrated teachers were invited to teach there and assisted Tagore with the choreography of several of his dance-dramas.


Manipur dance has a large repertoire and 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.

The Manipuri dance is a team performance, with its own unique costumes, aesthetics, conventions and repertoire. The Manipuri dance drama is marked by a performance that is graceful, fluid, sinuous with greater emphasis on hand and upper body gestures. It is accompanied with devotional music created with many instruments, with the beat set by cymbals (kartal or manjira) and double-headed drum (pung or Manipuri mrdanga) of sankirtan.

The lyrics used in Manipuri are usually from the classical poetry of Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Govindadas or Gyandas and may be in Sanskrit, Maithili, Brij Bhasha or others.


The traditional Manipuri dance style embodies delicate, lyrical and graceful movements. The dance features rounded soft sensuous movements of women, and occasional fast movements by male characters. Like in all traditional classical dances, there is Lasya, which is delicate and feminine, and Thandava, which is masculine and vigorous, in the Manipuri classical dance also. But a unique feature is, in Manipuri dance Lasya and Thandava are performed only by female and male dancers respectively.1

Unlike other classical Indian dances with religious themes, the Manipuri dance artists do not wear anklet bells and the footwork is subdued and gentle in the Manipuri style. The rhythmic complexities are usually overlooked as the dancers do not wear ankle bells to stamp out the rhythms in a theatrical display, as this interferes with the delicate body movements. However, Manipuri dance and music has a highly evolved tala system.

Chali or Chari is the basic dance movement in Manipuri Ras dances. The repertoire and underlying play depends on the season.

There are some dance forms like:

  • Pung cholom: Dancer plays the drum and performs the dance jumps and other movements.
  • Kartal cholom: It is similar to Pung cholom, but the dancers carry and dance to the rhythm created with cymbals. This is a group dance, where dancers form a circle, move in the same direction while making music and dancing to the rhythm.
  • Mandilla cholom: Performed by women, this is a group dance and these usually go with devotional songs and playing colorful tassels-string tied cymbals where one side represents Krishna and the other Radha.
  • Duff cholom and Dhol cholom: It is a tandava form in which Shaiva (tandava) dances are choreographed.

The traditional Manipuri Ras Lila is performed in three styles – Tal Rasak, Danda Rasak and Mandal Rasak.

  1. Tal Rasak is accompanied with clapping.
  2. Danda Rasak is performed by synchronous beat of two sticks but the dancers position it differently to create geometric patterns.
  3. Mandal Rasak places the Gopis in a circle, the Krishna character in the center, and they then dance in this mandala.

The Manipuri dance is also categorized as either tandav (vigorous, usually go with Shiva, Shakti or Krishna as warrior-savior themed plays) or lasya (delicate, usually go with love stories of Radha and Krishna). 


Pung Cholom

Sankirtana dance is accompanied by the Kirtan form of congregational singing. The Pung and Kartal is played by male dancers. 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.


Manipuri dance is completely spiritual and the dancer would have to ensure mind-body-soul coordination and connect with God. The plays and songs recited during the dance performance center around the love and frolics between Radha and Krishna, in the presence of Gopis. There is a composition and dance sequence for each Gopi, and the words have two layers of meanings, one literal and other spiritual.

Aspects of this performance art is celebrated during Hindu festivals and major rites of passage such as weddings among the Manipuri people, particularly in the ethnic majority of Meitei people. The dance drama choreography shares the plays and stories of 'Vaishnavite Padavalis', that also inspired the major Gaudiya Vaishnava-related performance arts found in Assam and West Bengal.

It is particularly known for its Hindu Vaishnavism themes, and exquisite performances of love-inspired dance drama of Radha-Krishna called Raslila. However, the dance is also performed to themes related to Shaivism, Shaktism and regional deities such as Umang Lai during Lai Haraoba.

Some themes are blending of music and dance with the day to day life of people. In other plays, the Manipuri dancers are more forceful, acrobatic and their costumes adjust to the need of the dance.


In keeping with the subtleness of the style, Manipuri abhinaya does not play up the mukhabhinaya very much - the facial expressions are natural and not exaggerated -sarvangabhinaya, or the use of the whole body to convey a certain rasa, is its forte.

Mohiniyattam, from Kerala

Mohiniyattam is one of two classical dances of India that developed and remain popular in the state of Kerala. The other classical dance form from Kerala is Kathakali.

Introduction and significance of Mohiniattam Dance

Mohiniyattam Performance - Mukhachalam


Mohiniyattam dance gets its name from the word Mohini – a mythical enchantress avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, who helps the good prevail over evil by deploying her feminine powers. Mohini refers to a "divine enchantress, supreme seductress". Appearing in her youthful bloom, dressed rapturously she uses her charms to seduce the Asuras.

Aattam is a Malayalam language word, and means rhythmic motion or dance. Mohiniyattam thus connotes "a dance of an enchantress, a beautiful woman".


Mohiniyattam's roots, like all classical Indian dances, are in the Natya Shastra – the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text on performance arts. However, it follows the Lasya style described in Natya Shastra, that is a dance which is delicate, eros-filled and feminine. It is traditionally a solo dance performed by women.

Mohiniyattam's history is unclear. Kerala has a long tradition of lasya style dances whose basics and structure may be at the root. The earliest evidence of Mohiniyattam, or a Mohiniyattam-like dance tradition is found in temple sculpture of Kerala. The 16th century Vyavaharamala by Nambootiri contains the first known mention of the term Mohiniyattam, in the context of a payment to be made to a Mohiniyattam dancer.

In the 18th and 19th century, Mohiniyattam grew as dance arts received patronage of competing princely states. In particular, the early 19th century sponsorship and building of a joint Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam team of artists by the Hindu king, poet and music composer Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma contributed to the growth and systematization of modern Mohiniyattam.

The dance was systematized in the 18th century, was ridiculed as a Devadasi prostitution system during the colonial British Raj.  The seductive gestures and facial expressions during temple dances were caricatured in The Wrongs of Indian Womanhood and Christian missionaries demanded that this must be stopped, launching the "anti-dance movement" or "anti-nautch movement" in 1892. This movement affected Mohiniyattam in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin in the British Empire. It was banned by a series of laws from 1931 through 1938, a ban that was protested and partially repealed in 1940. The socio-political conflict ultimately led to renewed interest, revival and reconstruction of Mohiniyattam by the people of Kerala, particularly the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon. He helped repeal the ban on temple dancing in Kerala, as well as established the Kerala Kalamandalam dance school and encouraged Mohiniattam studies, training and practice.


The repertoire of Mohiniyattam includes music in the Carnatic style, singing and acting a play through the dance, where the recitation may be either by a separate vocalist or the dancer herself. The song is typically in Malayalam-Sanskrit hybrid called Manipravala.


The basic posture of Mohiniyattam is parted feet, knees bent outwards, an erect upper torso, gentle 8-shape side to side swaying of body along with hips (Ati Bhanga). The footwork is soft, sliding and synchronous with the musical beat and acting. The body movement is sometimes described in terms of calming images of nature as the swinging of the palm leaves, and the gentle undulating of ocean waves.

Mohiniyattam dancer excels in Ekaharya Abhinaya form, that is a solo expressive dance performance aided by singing and music. The dance includes nritta (pure dance, solo), nritya (expressive dance, solo) and modern productions sometimes include natya (play, group dance).


The repertoire sequence of Mohiniyattam is similar to that of Bharatanatyam, and contains seven items that are performed to a structure described in classical dance texts: Cholkettu (invocation, but starts with offering reverence to a goddess Bhagavati and ends with a prayer to Shiva), Jatisvaram or more precisely Swarajeti, Varnam (a play wherein she embeds a mimicry for distraction while communicating the underlying story or message), Padam (song), Tillana (dancer's interpretation of melody the musician create), Shlokam and Saptam.

Music and Instruments

The vocal music of Mohiniyattam involves various rhythms. There are numerous compositions for a Mohiniyattam repertoire, most of whose lyrics are in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam.

The musical instruments usually used in Mohiniyattam are Mridangam or Madhalam (barrel drum), Idakka (hour glass drum), flute, Veena, and Kuzhitalam (cymbals). The ragas (melody) are rendered in the sopana (steps) style, which is a slow melodic style with roots in the Natya Shastra.

Odissi, from Odisha

Odissi, also referred to as Orissi in older literature, is a major ancient Indian classical dance that originated in the Hindu temples of Odisha. Odissi, in its history, was performed predominantly by women, and expressed religious stories and spiritual ideas, particularly of Vaishnavism (Vishnu as Jagannath). Odissi performances have also expressed ideas of other traditions such as those related to Hindu gods Shiva and Surya, as well as Hindu goddesses (Shaktism).


Odissi dance received its name from its state of origin - Odisha.


Ancient Era

The musical tradition of Odisha has ancient roots. Archeologists have reported the discovery of 20-key, carefully shaped polished basalt lithophone in Sankarjang, the highlands of Odisha, which is dated to about 1000 BCE.

The theoretical foundations of Odissi trace to the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, its existence in antiquity evidenced by the dance poses in the sculptures of Odissi Hindu temples, and archeological sites related to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Natya Shastra refers to four vrittis (methods of expressive delivery) in vogue – Avanti, Dakshinatya, Panchali and Odra-Magadhi; of these, the Odra refers to Odisha.

More direct historical evidence of dance and music as an ancient performance art are found in archaeological sites such as caves and in temple carvings of Bhubaneswar, Konarak and Puri.

  • The Manchapuri cave in Udayagiri shows carvings of dance and musicians, and this has been dated to the time of Jain king Kharavela in the first or second century BCE.
  • The Hathigumpha inscriptions, also dated to the same ruler, mention music and dance.

Medieval Era

The Buddhist, Jain and Hindu archaeological sites in Odisha state, particularly the Assia range of hills show inscriptions and carvings of dances that are dated to the 6th to 9th century CE. The Buddhist icons are depicted as dancing gods and goddesses in Odissi-like postures. Historical evidence shows that Odissi Hindu temple dancers (Maharis) and dance halls architecture (nata-mandap) were in vogue at least by the 9th century CE.

The Kalpasutra text of Jainism, in its manuscripts discovered in Gujarat, includes classical Indian dance poses of Odissi. Hindu dance texts such as the Abhinaya Chandrika and Abhinaya Darpana provide a detailed description. Similarly, the illustrated Hindu text on temple architecture from Odisha, the Shilpaprakãsha, deals with Odissi postures. The actual sculptures which survived are in Jagannath temple in Puri, as well as other temples of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Vedic deities such as Surya (Sun) in Odisha. There are several sculptures of dancers and musicians in Konark Sun Temple and Brahmeswara Temple in Bhubaneswar.

The composition of the poetic texts by 8th century Shankaracharya and particularly of divine love inspired Gitagovinda by 12th century Jayadeva influenced the focus and growth of modern Odissi.

There was a great deal of mobility between east and west and many migrations took place.

Mughal Period

After 12th-century, Odia temples and monasteries came under waves of attacks and ransacking by Muslim armies. It impacted all arts and eroded the freedoms previously enjoyed by performance artists. Destruction of temples, defacing of dancing statues, and ruining of dance halls led to a broad decline in Odissi arts.

But there were some benevolent rulers in this period who supported arts particularly through performances at courts. During the Sultanate and Mughal era of India, the temple dancers were moved to entertain the Sultan's family and courts. They became associated with concubinage to the nobility.

The Odissi dance likely expanded in the 17th century under King Ramachandradeva's patronage. This expansion integrated martial arts (akhanda) and athletics into Odissi dance, by engaging boys and youth called Gotipuas, as a means to physically train the young for the military and to resist foreign invasions.

British Rule

During the British Raj, the Odissi dancers were attacked as idol-worshipping prostitutes who expressed their devotion with "airy gyrations". They were dehumanized and stigmatized. In 1910, the British colonial government in India banned temple dancing  and the artists were reduced to abject poverty.


The temple dance ban and the cultural discrimination during the colonial rule marshaled a movement by Hindus to question the stereotypes and to revive the regional arts of India. Due to these efforts, the classical Indian dances witnessed a period of renaissance and reconstruction.

Odissi, along with several other major Indian dances gained recognition after efforts by many scholars and performers in the 1950s, particularly by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattanayak, an Oriya poet, dramatist and researcher. Pattanayak is also credited with naming the dance form as "Odissi".



Odissi, in the classical and medieval period has been, a team dance founded on Hindu texts. Traditional Odissi exists in two major styles:

  1. the first perfected by women and focussed on solemn, spiritual temple dance (maharis);
  2. the second perfected by boys dressed as girls (gotipuas) which diversified to include athletic and acrobatic moves, and were performed from festive occasions in temples to general folksy entertainment.

Modern Odissi productions by Indian artists have presented a diverse range of experimental ideas, culture fusion, themes and plays.

The traditional Odissi repertoire, like all classical Indian dances, includes Nritta (pure dance, solo), Nritya (dance with emotions, solo) and Natya (dramatic dance, group).

Odissi dance can be accompanied by both northern Indian (Hindustani) and southern Indian (Carnatic) music, though mainly, recitals are in Odia and Sanskrit language in the Odissi Music tradition.


Basic moves and mudras


Love is a universal theme and is expressed through sensuous love poems and metaphors of sexual union in Krishna-related literature, and as longing eros (Shringara).  It encourages the artist to "strive to suggest, reveal or re-create the infinite, divine self", and art is considered as "the supreme means of realizing the Universal Being". Physical intimacy is not a reason for shame, rather considered a form of celebration and worship, where the saint is the lover and the lover is the saint.

Post-independence, the emphasis has expanded to "expressions of personal artistic excellence as ritualized spiritual articulations".


Music and instruments


Sattriya, from Assam

Sattriya Dance performnce

Sattriya is a classical Indian dance

Sattriya, or Sattriya Nritya is a dance-drama performance art with origins in the Krishna-centered Vaishnavism monasteries of Assam, and attributed to the 15th century Bhakti movement scholar and saint named Srimanta Sankardev.

One-act plays of Sattriya are called Ankiya Nat, which combine the aesthetic and the religious through a ballad, dance and drama. The plays are usually performed in the dance community halls (namghar) of monastery temples (sattras). The themes played relate to Krishna and Radha, sometimes other Vishnu avatars such as Rama and Sita.

Recognized in 2000 as a classical dance by Sangeet Natak Akademi of India, modern Sattriya explores many themes and plays, and its performances staged worldwide.


The term Sattriya is derived from the art that grew as part of the Vaishnava bhakti movement, in Hindu monasteries called Sattra.


The history of dance arts in Assam go back into antiquity, as evidenced by copper plate inscriptions and sculpture relating to Shaivism and Shaktism traditions. Singing and musical traditions, similarly, have been traced to Assamese chorus singing tradition for the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sattriya traces its roots to ancient drama and music texts of India, particularly the Natya Shastra.

The modern form of Sattriya is attributed to the 15th century Sankaradeva, who systematized the dance using the ancient texts, and introduced drama and expressive dancing (nritta and nritya) as a form of a community religious art for emotional devotion to Krishna. The art was developed and practiced by monks in the form dance-dramas about legends and mythologies of Krishna.

These dance-dramas were, in the early days, written and directed by the Assamese poet-saint Sankaradeva, and by his principal disciple Madhavadeva. They were mostly composed during the 16th century. In the second half of the 20th century, Sattriya Nritya moved from the sanctum of Assam's sattras/monasteries to the metropolitan stage.


Sattriya posture by Ramkrishna Talukdar

Sattriya encompasses the principles required of a classical dance form: the treatises of dance and dramaturgy, like Natya Shastra, Abhinaya Darpana, and Shakaradeva's Sangit Ratnakara; The Sangit Ratnakara of Shankaradeva complements his Bhakti Ratnakara premising a theological foundation to Sattriya. To Shankaradeva, religious values, ethics, joys of life and performance arts were intimately linked, and he asked the leaders of Hindu monasteries to compose at least one play, during their tenure, before they die.

One distinctive part of the Sattriya dance inside temples and monasteries is that the dance is not celebrated before any idol, but is performed before a copy of the Bhagavata Purana placed in eastern (sun rise) corner called Manikut of the dance hall (namghar).

Sattriya repertoire (marg) includes nritta (pure dance, solo), nritya (expressive dance, solo), and natya (dramatic play, group). Like all major classical Indian dance forms.

A performance integrates two styles:

  • Paurashik Bhangi (masculine, energetic and with jumps, like Tandava)
  • Stri Bhangi (feminine, Lasya or delicate)

The basic dance unit and exercise of a Sattriya is called a Mati Akhara. It is a genre of dance drama that tells mythical and religious stories through hand and face expressions. The hand gestures (mudras), footwork (padas), postures, rhythms, training of artists and other aspects closely follow those described in Natya Shastra and other classical Hindu dance texts. Some basic elements and features of Sattriya match those found in the Manipuri dance found in neighboring Manipur state.

Traditionally, Sattriya was performed only by bhokots (male monks) in monasteries as a part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, Sattriya is also performed on stage by men and women who are not members of the sattras, on themes not merely mythological.


The plays choreographed in a Sattriya are those found in Hindu texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, the Epics, and the compositions by Assamese scholars. The stories related to the love between Radha and Krishna are particularly common.

Music and Instruments

Sattriya Nritya is accompanied by musical compositions called borgeets (composed by Sankardeva and Madhavdev, among others) which are based on classical ragas.

A key musical instrument that accompanies a Sattriya performance are khols (two faced, asymmetrical drum quite different from the rest of India) played with fingers. Sattriya khol produces a high pitch with the right side, while producing a deep bass sound on the left.

Accompanying the khol are various types of Talas or cymbals (Manjira, Bhortal, Bihutal, Patital, Khutital) and the flute (bansuri). Other instruments like the violin and the harmonium have been recent additions.


A Sattriya performance comes in many styles such as the Sutradhara (or Sutra-bhangi), character specific Bhangi, Prabesh, Nritya and Jhumura.

  • The Sutradhara is a style that tells a story and presents the spiritual values of Vaisnavism in a complete classical format: nritta, nritya and natya. One feature of the Sutradhara (or Sutradhari) style is the included commentary for the audience in local language.
  • The character specific different styles of Sattriya have their own costume variations, and focus on the various life stages and activities of Radha, Krishna and the gopis.
  • Ankiya Nat is a subgenre consisting of one-act plays of Sattriya. These are dedicated compositions but feature a ballad, dance and drama.


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Created by Vishal E on 2017/07/18 23:28