Dance is a performing art form consisting of purposefully selected sequences of human movement. This movement has aesthetic and symbolic value. Dances in India have rich religious as well as cultural tradition. In traditional Indian culture the function of dance was to give symbolic expression to religious ideas. The famous figure of Lord Shiva as Nataraja represents the creation and destruction of the cosmic cycle. There is not a single temple atleast in the southern part of the country which does not show the sculptures of the dancers in their different forms.

Dances in India is one of the most important topic asked in UPSC prelims and mains exam. This chapter will cover all the important aspects like origin, evolution, classification, contemporary activities related to art of dance in India.


Dances in India
Dances in India

TypesClassical and Folk dances
Classical dances
  • Eight dances as per Sangeet Natak Academy
  • 11/12 as per Ministry of Culture[citation needed]
Folk dancesMany dances distributed geographically
Important booksNatasutra, Natya Shastra, Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaba Bharati, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa
Listings in World Heritage List
  • Sankirtana, Manipur
  • Chhau dance
  • Kalbelia, Rajasthan
  • Mudiyettu, Kerala


Dating back to ancient times, dance in India has a rich and vital tradition. Excavations, inscriptions, chronicles, genealogies of kings and artists, literary sources, sculpture and painting of different periods provide extensive evidence on dance. There are a number of major styles of 'art' dance are known to us today, known as Classical dances. Myths and legends also support the view that dance had a significant place in the religious and social life of the Indian people. The regional dance forms of rural and tribal areas, range from simple, joyous celebrations of the seasons, harvest or birth of a child to dances for the propitiation of demons or for invoking spirits.

Classification of Dances

Dance can be categorized and described by its choreography, by its repertoire of movements, or by its historical period or place of origin. 

Ancient Classification

An ancient classification followed in all styles is of Tandava and Lasya.

  • Tandava: the masculine, is heroic bold and vigorous.
  • Lasya: the feminine is soft, lyrical and graceful.

Modern Classification

Different forms of dances originated in different parts of India, developed according to the local traditions and also imbibed elements from other parts of the country.

Today, the dance forms are classified as follows:

  • Classical dance: The dance whose theory, training, means and rationale for expressive practice is documented and traceable to ancient classical texts, particularly the Natya Shastra. These dances historically involved a school or guru-shishya parampara (teacher-disciple tradition) and require studies of the classical texts, physical exercises and extensive training to systematically synchronize the dance repertoire with underlying play or composition, vocalists and the orchestra.
  • Folk dance: The dance which are largely an oral tradition, whose traditions have been historically learnt and mostly passed down from one generation to the next through word of mouth and casual joint practice.
  • Semi-classical dance: The one that contains a classical imprint but has become a folk dance and lost its texts or schools.
  • Tribal dance: This is a more local form of folk dance, typically found in one tribal population; typically tribal dances evolve into folk dances over a historic period.
  • Martial dance: We also have some dances which are called martial dances like Chholia of Uttranchal, Kalari paittu of Kerala, Thang-taa of Manipur among the more famous ones.
  • Contemporary dance: These dances include refined and experimental fusions of classical, folk and Western forms. It includes choreography for Indian cinema, modern Indian ballet and experiments with existing classical and folk forms.

Origin and Evolution of Dance in India

It is difficult to say at what point of time dance originated, but it is obvious that dance came into existence as an effort to express joy.

Some of the Pre-historic times cave paintings suggest the dance performances performed during this period. For instance the cave paintings in Bhimbetaka, Madhya Pradesh.

Excavations from the Indus Valley Civilization have brought to light a bronze statuette of dancing girl from Mohenjodaro and a broken torso from Harappa (the precursor of the Nataraja pose of dancing Shiva). Dating back to 2500-1500 B.C.E., these are suggestive of dance poses.

In literature, the first references come from the Vedas. The Rig Veda mentions dance (nrti) and danseuse (nrtu) and compares the brilliant dawn (usas) to a brightly attrived danseuse. In the Brahmanas, Jaiminiya and Kausitaki dance and music are mentioned together. The Sanskrit verses in Shatapatha Brahmana (~800–700 BCE), for example, are written in the form of a play between two actors.

The Vedic sacrifice (yajna) is presented as a kind of fight, with its actors, its dialogues, its portion to be set to music, its interludes, and its climaxes.
— Louis Renou, Vedic India

A reliable history of dance is reconstructed from the epics, the several Puranas and the rich body of dramatic and poetic literature known as the nataka and the kavya in Sanskrit. The Epics are full of references to dances on earth and heaven.

The evidence of earliest dance specific texts are in Natasutras, which are mentioned in the text of Panini, the sage who wrote the classic on Sanskrit grammar, and who is dated to about 500 BCE. This performance arts related Sutra text is mentioned in other late Vedic texts, as are two scholars names Shilalin (Śilālin) and Krishashva (Kṛśaśva), credited to be pioneers in the studies of ancient drama, singing, dance and Sanskrit compositions for these arts. Natasutras are estimated to have been composed around 600 BCE, whose complete manuscript has not survived into the modern age.

The classic text of dance and performance arts that has survived is the Hindu text Natya Shastra, attributed to sage Bharata. The first complete compilation of Natya Shastra is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The roots of Natya Shastra extend at least as far back as the NatasutrasThe classical dances are evolved out of Natya Shastra which is also known as the fifth veda

According to the Bharatmuni, he has evolved this veda by taking:

  • word from the Rigveda
  • melody from the Samaveda
  • mime (gesture) from the Yajurveda
  • emotion from the Atharvaveda

There is also a legend that Brahma himself wrote the Natyaveda, which has over 36,000 verses. 

As per Natya Shastra, dance and music are an inextricable part of drama. Natya comprises all these constituents and the actor is himself the dancer and the singer, the performer combined all the three functions. With the passage of time the status of an independent and specialised art, marked the beginning of the 'art' dance in India.

Gradually dances came to be divided as folk and classical. A development of classical Sanskrit drama was an amalgam of the spoken word, gestures and mime, choreography, stylised movement and music. From the 12th century to the 19th century there were many regional forms called the musical play or sangeet-nataka. Contemporary classical dance forms are known to have evolved out of these musical plays.

Both men and women took keen interest in dance but generally women dancers were looked down upon in society. However, with the efforts of great music thinkers and various religious and social reform movements, people have started to hold women performers with great respect.


Aspects of Dance

Bharata has discussed dance and its various angas (limbs) in detail. Facial expressions, body movements, hasta mudras and the footsteps have all been brought together under three broad categories namely, as natya (abhinay), nritya (anga sanchalan) and nritta (pada sanchalan).

As per the ancient treatises, dance is considered as having three aspects: 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

To present natya and nritya effectively, a dancer should be trained to communicate the navarasas.

Dance also involes Abhinaya, which broadly means expression. This is achieved through:

  • angika: the body and limbs
  • vachika: song and speech
  • aharya: costume and adornment
  • satvika: moods and emotions

The style or vrittis are classified into: 

  • Kaishiki: the deft lyrical more suited to convey the lasya aspects
  • Arbati: the energetic masculine
  • Satvati: used while depicting the rasas
  • Bharati: the literary content


To present nritya and natya effectively, a dancer should be trained to communicate the navarasas. These are: love (shringaara), mirth (haasya), compassion (karuna), valour (veera), anger (roudra), fear (bhayanak), disgust (bibhatsa), wonder (adbhuta) and peace (shaanta).


Navarasas in Indian dances

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Relation with Human Body

Bharata and Nandikesvara, the main authorities conceive of dance as an art which uses the human body as a vehicle of expression. The units of body are classified into:

  • Anga: The major units of the body identified as the head, torso, the upper and lower limbs
  • Upangas: The minor human parts, as all parts of the face ranging from the eyebrow to the chin and the minor joints

Modes of Presentation

Two further aspects of natya are the modes of presentation and the style. There are two modes of presentation:

  • Natyadharmi: formalised presentation of theatre
  • Lokadharmi: the folk, realistic, naturalistic or regional

Classical Dance

Main Page: Classical Dances of India

The classical form of dance was performed in temples as well as in royal courts. The dance in temples had a religious objective whereas in courts it was used purely for entertainment. But in both, dancing was considered not less than praying to God.

  • Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam: the rituals in temples.
  • Kathakali in Kerala: It tells us stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata
  • Kathak and Manipuri: mostly related to the stories of Krishna and his leela (exploits).
  • Kathak: Though the Krishna leela and the stories related to Lord Shiva was the main theme, this dance came to be performed in royal courts in medieval times.
  • Manipuri dance was also preformed for religious purposes.
  • Odissi: Related to worship of Lord Jagannath.

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 tradition of dance has been codified in the Natyashastra and a performance is considered accomplished if it manages to evoke a rasa (emotion) among the audience by invoking a particular bhava (gesture or facial expression).

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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.

Folk and Tribal Dance Forms

Main Page: Folk and Tribal Dances

Folk dances evolved from the lives of common people and were performed in unison. They retain significance in rural areas as the expression of the daily work and rituals of village communities.

The Natya Shastra includes group dances of women as a preliminary dance performed in prelude to a drama. Sanskrit literature of medieval times describes several forms of group dances of this tradition.

India has numerous folk dances. Every state has its own folk dance forms.

Geographical Spread

Dancing traditions of India have influence over the dances in the whole of South Asia and South East Asia as well. Indian mythologies play significant part in dance forms of countries in South East Asia, an example being the performances based on Ramayana in Javanese dances.

Dances in Indian films are often noted for their idiosyncrasies, and hold a significant presence in popular culture of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List

Main Page: UNESCO World Heritage List

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity contains intangible cultural heritage elements that "help demonstrate the diversity of [cultural] heritage and raise awareness about its importance".

The list contains the following dancing forms from India:

  • Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur (2013)
  • Chhau dance (2010)
  • Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan (2010)
  • Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala (2010)

Competitions and Awards


Created by Vishal E on 2019/01/11 13:05
Translated into en by Vishal E on 2019/01/11 13:05


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