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India’s Classical Dances: Types, Specifications

Utkarsh Classes Last Updated 30-04-2024
India’s Classical Dances: Types, Specifications Art and Culture 17 min read

India is a land of diverse culture and regional specialties. Some of this diversity can be seen in the cultural dances with classical and classical credentials that represent the country's rich cultural heritage across the world. Classical dance is one of them.

The Ministry of Culture identified 9 dances of India as Classical forms.

Bharatnatyam (Tamil Nadu)

  • The word Bharatnatyam is an amalgamation of three words- Bhava (Expression), Raga (Melody) and Tala (Rhythm). It is the most ancient dance form of India. It is mentioned in Silappadikaram and Bharat Muni’s Natya shastra.
  • The main source of textual material is the Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara for the study of the technique and grammar of body movement in Bharatnatyam Dance. 
  • It is a highly stylized solo feminine dance which evolved from the Devadasi System of South Indian Temples.
  • Bharatnatyam dance is known to be ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance. 
  • The famous Tanjore Quartette in the early 19th century under the patronage of Raja Serfoji, is responsible for the repertoire of Bharatanatyam dance which is present today.
  • The music accompanying the dance is Carnatic (Karnataka) style along with instruments like- mridangam, flute, cymbals, veena and violin. 
  • Late Rukmini Devi gave a new life and popularity to this dance. On par with her was T. Bala Saraswati, the queen of Bharatanatyam
  • Other exponents include Sonal Mansingh, Leela Samson, Shanta Rao, Yamani Krishanamurthy etc.

Kathakali (Kerala)

  • Kathakali is a highly powerful dance form that combines devotion, drama, music, costumes, and makeup to produce one of the world's most impressive forms of sacred theatre. 
  • It is known as the 'Ballet of the East' and is based on Hinduism. The textual sanction for Kathakali is derived from Balarama Bharatam and Hastha Lakshana Deepika.
  • Kathakali originated from the Theyyam, a ritual tribal dance of North Kerala, and Kalaripayattu. The word Kathakali is a combination of two words, Katha (Story), and Kali (Performance). Although traditionally performed by boys and men, even female roles are played by them.
  • The themes of Kathakali mainly revolve around Hinduism, and it requires control of body and emotion. 
  • The use of 'eyes' and 'eyebrows' is of utmost importance and is combined with 'Mudras' that follow the song sung backstage. The costumes and makeup are especially elaborate, with faces made to look like painted masks and enormous head-dresses.
  • Vallathol Narayan Menon was the inspiration behind the creation of an institute called 'Kalamandalam', which is associated with Kathakali. Other exponents of Kathakali are Kunju Kurup, Kalamandalam Krishnan, Shata Rao, Guru Gopinath, and so on.
  • Finally, Chakiarkoothu, Koodiyattam, Krishnattam, and Ramanattam are a few of the ritual performing arts of Kerala that have had a direct influence on Kathakali in its form and technique.

Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh)

  • The name of a dance form called Kuchipudi has its origins in a village of the same name located in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, where it was initially performed. 
  • In Andhra, there is a long tradition of dance-drama which is referred to as Yakshagana. In the 17th century, Siddhendra Yogi, a Vaishnava poet, conceived the Kuchipudi style of Yakshagana. 
  • Traditionally, the dance was performed only by men, even in the female roles, although now it is mostly performed by women. 
  • Except for its emphasis on animation, in all other aspects, it is similar to Bharatnatyam. 
  • The contribution of Lakshmi Narayan Shastri is the greatest, and other prominent exponents of this dance form are Raja and Radha Reddy, G. Sarala, Swapana Sundari, Sudha Sekhar, etc.

Odissi (Odisha)

  • The Natya Shastra mentions a variety of regional dance styles and one of them is the south-eastern style which is called Odhra Magadha. This style is considered as the earliest predecessor of present-day Odissi. 
  • The 2nd century BC has some archaeological evidence of this dance form, 
  • The dance was present in the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Bhubaneswar. 
  • The Jain King Kharavela was a patron of this dance form.
  • For centuries, maharis were the chief practitioners of this dance form. Originally, they were temple dancers but later, they were employed in the royal courts which resulted in the degeneration of the art form. 
  • During this period, a group of boys called gotipuas were trained in Odissi and they danced in temples and for general entertainment. Many of today's gurus of this style belong to the gotipua tradition.
  • Odissi is an intricate and expressive dance form that commonly uses over fifty mudras (symbolic hand gestures). 
  • The style of this dance is known as "lyrical" which follows a unique body posture called "tribhanga" that links philosophy and physical aspects.
  • Jayadeva's "Gita-Govinda", written in the 12th century, is considered as the Bible of an Odissi dancer and has a tremendous influence on the arts of Odisha. The credit of reviving Odissi in the modern era goes to Kali Chandra and Kali Charan Patnaik.

Kathak (North India)

  • Kathak is a form of classical dance that derives its name from the word 'Katha,' which means stories. In the past, Kathak dancers used to perform stories of Radha and Krishna in the Natwari style. 
  • However, the Mughal invasion of North India had a considerable impact on the dance. The dance form was introduced to Muslim courts, and it became less religious and more entertaining. 
  • As a result, the emphasis shifted from abhinaya, the expression of emotions, to nritta, the pure dance aspect.

Gharanas of Kathak

  • In the 19th century, Kathak reached its golden age under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh. He established the Lucknow gharana, which emphasized bhava, the expression of moods and emotions. 
  • The Jaipur gharana, which is known for its rhythmic virtuosity. 
  • The Benaras gharana are other prominent schools of Kathak dance.

Today, Kathak has emerged as a distinct dance form that represents a unique synthesis of Hindu and Muslim art

It is the only classical dance of India that has links to Muslim culture. Kathak is also the only classical dance which culminates in Hindustani or North Indian music. Some of the famous exponents of this dance form are Menaka, Sitara Devi, and Birju Maharaj.

Manipuri (Manipur)

  • Manipuri is a traditional dance form that originated from Manipur, a state in northeastern India. 
  • One of the main festivals still celebrated in Manipur is called Lai Haraoba, which has its roots in the pre-Vaishnavite period.
  • Lai Haraoba is the earliest form of dance in Manipur and it serves as the foundation of all stylized dances in the region. Manipuri has its roots in the state's folk traditions and rituals and it often portrays scenes from the life of Lord Krishna.
  • Manipur dance has a vast repertoire, but the most popular forms are the Ras, the Sankirtana, and the Thang-Ta. 
  • Female roles emphasize fluid movements in the arms and hands, while male roles tend to have more forceful movements.
  • The dance also has a theme based on the popular love tale of Khamba-Thoibi from Meitei legends. The music is provided by a musical instrument called the 'pung.'

Sattriya (Assam)

  • The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century AD by Mahapurusha Sankaradeva, a great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam. He created this dance form as a powerful medium for the propagation of the Vaishnava faith. 
  • For centuries, the Sattriya dance and drama have been nurtured and preserved by the Sattras, which are Vaishnava maths or monasteries.
  • The Sattriya dance tradition follows strictly laid down principles in respect of hasta mudras, footworks, acharyas, music, and more.
  • This tradition has two distinctly separate streams: the Bhaona-related repertoire, which includes Gayan-Bhayanar Nach, Kharmanar Nach, and independent dance numbers such as Chali, Rajagharia Chali, Jhumura, Nadu Bhangi, etc.

Mohiniyattam (Kerala)

  • Mohiniyattam is a classical solo dance form of Kerala. It is named after Mohini, the celestial enchantress of Hindu mythology. 
  • The dance form was structured into its present-day classical format by the Travancore Kings, Maharaja Karthika Thirunal and his successor Maharaja Swati Tirunal, in the 18th and 19th centuries AD. 
  • According to some scholars, the Perumaals, rulers from Tamil Nadu, ruled the Chera Empire in the 19th century AD, with their capital in Thiruvanchikulam (presently Kodungallur, Kerala). 
  • They brought along with them fine dancers who settled in temples constructed in different parts of the capital. 
  • Their dance was called Dasiyattam. The existence of Dasiyattam is further corroborated in the epic 'Silappadikaram', written by the Chera Prince Ilango Adigal between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD. 
  • However, Dasiyattam faced degradation due to the fall of the Chera empire. It was later revived with the able efforts of the Tanjore Quartets (Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Sivananda and Vadivelu). 
  • Mohiniyattam's footwork is not terse but is rendered softly. The importance is given to the hand gestures and Mukhabhinaya with subtle facial expressions. 
  • The hand gestures, 24 in number, are mainly adopted from Hastha Lakshana Deepika, a text followed by Kathakali. A few gestures are also borrowed from Natya Shastra, Abhinaya Darpana and Balarama Bharatham.

Chhau (Eastern India)

  • The Chhau dance is a popular dance form performed in Eastern India, specifically in the regions of Orissa, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. It combines martial traditions, temple rituals, and folk performances, which makes it a unique and distinct dance form. 
  • The Chhau dance has three distinct styles, which come from the regions of Seraikella, Purulia, and Mayurbhanj. The first two styles use masks
  • The dance is usually performed during regional festivals, with the spring festival Chaitra Parva being the most notable. 
  • The Chhau dance incorporates episodes from the epics Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas, traditional folklore, local legends, and abstract themes, presented through dance and music. 
  • The musical ensemble primarily consists of indigenous drums, such as Dhol, Dhumsa, Nagada, Chadchadi, and Jhanj. 
  • Reed pipes like the Mohuri, Turi-Bheri, and Shehnai are also used.
  • Although vocal music is not used in Chhau, the melodies are based on songs from the Jhumur folk repertoire, the devotional Kirtan, classical Hindustani 'ragas', and traditional Oriya sources. 


answer: Chhau

Answer: Sattriya (Assam)

Answer: Bharatnatyam

Answer: Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh
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