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Classical Dance forms of India


Dance in India, is rooted to age-old tradition. This vast sub-continent has given birth to varied forms of dancing, each shaped by the influences of a particular period and environment. The nation offers a number of classical dance forms, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Each form represents the culture and ethos of a particular region or a group of people.

Indian dances and music were not only seen as ways to celebrate, but also as offerings of worship and thanks giving to the deity. All the dance forms were structured around the nine ‘Rasa’ or emotions, Hasya (happiness), Shoka (sorrow), Krodha (anger), Karuna (compassion), Bhibatsa (disgust), Adhbhuta (wonder), Bhaya (fear), Viram (courage) & Shanta (serenity).


Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form originating from Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. This popular South Indian dance form is a 20th century reconstruction of Cathir, the art of temple dancers. Cathir in turn, is derived from ancient dance forms. The word Bharata, some believe, signifies the author of the famous Sanskrit treatise on stagecraft, called NatyaShastra, and the word Bharatanatyam is sometimes given a folk etymology as follows:Bha for Bhava or abhinaya and expression, Ra for raga or melody, and Ta for tala or rhythm. Bharata refers to the author of the Natya Shastra, and natya is Sanskrit for the art of sacred dance-drama brought to the stage at the beginning of the 20th century.


A rich and flourishing tradition of dance drama belongs to the South-Western state of Kerala. Kathakali means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story, here actors depict characters from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and from the Puranas (ancient scriptures). It is extremely colourful. The dancers adorn themselves with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments and crowns. They use a specific type of symbolic makeup to portray various roles which are character-types rather than individual characters.

Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented through fantastic make-up and costumes. The most striking part of this dance form is that its characters never speak, its just the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gestures language and facial expression which unfolds the text of the drama. The macro and micro movements of the face, the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose and the chin are minutely worked out and various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.

Present day Kathakali is a dance drama tradition, which evolved from centuries of highly stylised theatrical traditions of Kerala, especially Kudiyattam. Ritual traditions like Theyyams, Mudiyattam and the martial arts of Kerala played a major role in shaping the dance into its present form.


The word Kathak, derived from ‘Katha’, literally means storyteller. In ancient times, storytellers used song and dance to embellish their narration. This took the form of Kathakalakshepam and Harikatha in Southern India, and the form of Kathak in the north. Around the 15th century, the dance form underwent a drastic transition due to the influence of Mughal dance and music. By the sixteenth century, the tight churidar pyjama became the staple attire of a Kathak dancer.

The Kathak dance form is characterized by rhythmic footwork danced under the weight of more than 100 ankle bells, spectacular spins, and the dramatic representation of themes from Persian and Urdu poetry alongside those of Hindu mythology. Kathak originated in the North, but Persian and Muslim influences later altered the dance from a temple ritual to a courtly entertainment.

The origins of the kathak style lie in the traditional recounting of Hindu myths by Brahmin priests called kathiks, who used mime and gesture for dramatic effect. Gradually, the storytelling became more stylized and evolved into a dance form. With the arrival of the Mughals in northern India, kathak was taken into the royal courts and developed into a sophisticated art form; through the patronage of the Mughal rulers, kathak took its current form. The emphasis of the dance moved from the religious to the aesthetic.


Odissi is considered to be one of the oldest surviving dance forms based on archaeological evidence. The traditional dance form of Orissa, Odissi owes its origin to the temple dances of the devadasis (temple dancers). Odissi has been mentioned in inscriptions, depicted on sculptures, in temples like the Brahmeswara and the dancing hall of the Sun Temple at Konark. In the 1950s, the entire dance form was revitalised, thanks to the Abhinaya Chandrika and sculpted dance poses found in temples.

Like other Indian classical dance forms, Odissi has two major facets: Nritta or non-representational dance, where ornamental patterns are created using body movements in space and time. Another form is Abhinaya, or stylized mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to interpret a storyline or theme.

While the form is curvaceous, concentrating on the tribhang or the division of the body into three parts, head, bust and torso; the mudras and the expressions are similar to those of Bharatnatyam. Odissi performances are replete with lores of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Krishna. It is a soft, lyrical classical dance which depicts the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath.

Odissi is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govinda are used to depict the love and devotion to God.


Manipuri is the classical dance from the Manipur region in the north-east. Manipuri is different in many ways from the other dance forms in India. The body moves with slow, sinuous grace and the undulating arm movements flow into the fingers. The dance form evolved in the 18th century with the advent of the Vaishnava faith, from earlier ritual and magical dance forms. Themes from the Vishnu Purana, Bhagvata Purana and compositions from the Gitagovinda predominate the repertoire.

According to the legends of the Meitei tribes of Manipur, when God created Earth, it was lumpy. The seven Lainoorahs danced on this newly-formed sphere, pressing gently with their feet to make it firm and smooth. This is the origin of Meitei Jagoi. To this day, when Manipuri people dance, they do not stamp vigorously but press their feet gently and delicately on the ground. The original myths and stories are still practiced by the cultist Maibis, or Meitei priestesses in the form (Maibi) that is the root of Manipuri.

The female ‘Rasa’ dances, based on the Radha-Krishna theme, feature group ballets and solos. The male ‘Sankirtana’ dances, performed to the pulsating rhythm of the Manipuri dholak are full of vitality.

The musical forms of Manipuri dance reflect the culture of the state of Manipur. The art form primarily depicts episodes from the life of Vishnu and is paradoxically a most tender and vigorous form of expression. Balance and a restraint of power are the predominant features of this dance style.


Mohiniattam is derived from the words “Mohini” and “attam”. Mohini means a beautiful woman and attam means dance. So this dance is an exquisite feminine style with undulating flow of body movements. The theme of the dance is generally “sringara” or love. Delicate themes of love are performed with suggestive abhinaya, subtle gestures, rhythmic footwork and lilting music.

After almost virtual extinction early this century, it is gratifying to note, that Mohiniattam survived its difficult phase and emerged as a full fledged dance form and credits itself to be one of the most exquisite dance styles of India.

The theme of Mohiniattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often the hero. The spectators could feel his invisible presence when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through the circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions. The dancer in the slow and medium tempos is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive bhavas. In format, this is similar to Bharatanatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes sober and attractive. It is essentially a solo dance, but in present times it is performed in groups also. The repertoire of Mohiniattam follows closely that of Bharatanatyam. Beginning with Cholkettu, the dancer performs Jathiswaram, Varnam, Padam and Thillana in a concert. Varnam combines pure and expressional dance, while Padam tests the histrionic talent of a dancer and Thillana exposes her technical artistry.


Kuchipudi, the indigenous style of dance of Andhra Pradesh took its birth and effloresced in the village of the same name, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, a hamlet in Krishna district. From its origin, as far back in the dim recesses of time as the 3rd century BC, it has remained a continuous and living dance tradition of this region. The genesis of Kuchipudi art as of most Indian classical dances is associated with religions. For a long time, the art was presented only at temples and that too only for annual festivals of certain temples in Andhra.

According to tradition, Kuchipudi dance was originally performed only by men and they all belonged to the Brahmin community. These Brahmin families were known popularly as Bhagavathalu of Kuchipudi. The very first group of Brahmin Bhagavathulu of Kuchipudi was formed in 1502 AD. Their programmes were offerings to the deities and they never allowed women in their groups.

In an era of the degeneration of dance due to exploitation of female dancers, an ascetic, Siddhendra Yogi redefined the dance form. Fifteen Brahmin families belonging to Kuchipudi have carried on the tradition for more than five centuries. Renowned gurus like Vedantam Lakshminarayana, Chinta Krishna Murthy and Tadepalli Perayya enriched the dance form by bringing women. Dr Vempati Chinna Satyam added several dance dramas and choreographed many solo performances, thus broadening the horizons of the dance form. The transition has been great from a time when men played female parts to the present when women play even the male parts.

Kuchipudi art, to be noted was intended as a dance drama requiring a set of character, never as a mere dance by a soloist which is common in present times. This dance drama are sometimes known as Ata Bhagavatham. The plays are in Telugu and traditionally all roles are taken by men alone.

Kuchipudi plays are enacted in the open air and on improvised stages. The presentation begins with some stage rites which are performed in full view of the audience.


Kutiyattam, the classical theater form of Kerala is second to none in terms of its antiquity. It claims to date back to 2000 years of antiquity and is the enactment of Sanskrit plays and is India’s oldest theatre to have been continuously performed.

King Kulashekhara Varman reformed the Kutiyattam in the tenth century AD, and this form continues the tradition of performing in Sanskrit. The Prakrit language and Malayalam in its ancient form have also been kept alive through this medium. The repertory includes plays written by Bhasa, Harsha and Mahendra Vikrama Pallava..

Traditionally, the actors have been members of the Chakyar caste and it is the dedication of this group that is responsible for the preservation of Kutiyattam through the centuries. Nambiars, a sub-caste of drummers, have been associated with this theatre as players of the mizhavu ( a pot-shaped, large drum unique to Kutiyattam). It is the women of the Nambiar community who act the female characterizations and play the bell- metal cymbals. While individuals of other communities do study this theatre and participate in stage performances, they do not perform in temples.

Performances usually last several days, the first few being devoted to introductions – of the characters and incidents from their lives. The complete performance – from beginning to end – is performed on the last day. However, it does not necessarily mean that the entire written text of the play will be enacted. An evening of Kutiyattam begins at 9 p.m. after the close of rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, and continues till midnight, sometimes till 3 am, before the commencement of the morning rituals.


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