Classical Dances of India

Odissi dance during Medieval Period

The Sangeet Natak Akademi recognizes eight classical dances in India – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam.


Bharatnatyam Dance of Tamil Nadu is considered to be over 2000 years old. Several texts beginning with Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra (200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) provide information on this dance form. 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 in Bharatnatyam Dance. On the gopurams of the Chidambaram temple, one can see a series of Bharatnatyam poses, frozen in stone as it were, by the sculptor. In many other temples, the charis and karanas of the dance are represented in sculpture and one can make a study of the dance form.

The origin of this dance is traced to the solo dance performance of Devadasis(Temple dancers) in Tamil Nadu. The art became nearly extinct after the decline of devadasi system. The efforts of prominent freedom fighter E.Krishna Iyer revived this dance form. Bharatnatyam dance is known to be ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance.

At first there is an invocation song. The first dance item is the alarippu, literally meaning – to adorn with flowers. It is an abstract piece combining pure dance with the recitation of sound syllables. Jatiswaram is a short pure dance piece performed to the accompaniment of musical notes of any raga of Carnatic music. Jatiswaram has no sahitya or words. As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance – the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime. The performance ends with a tillana which has its origin in the tarana of Hindustani music. It is a vibrant dance performed to the accompaniment of musical syllables with a few lines of sahitya.


Kathak is the traditional dance form of Uttar Pradesh. Kathak derives its name from the ‘Kathika’ or storyteller who recites verses from the epics with music and gestures. During the Mughal times, it was influenced by Islamic features, especially in costume and dancing style. Later in the twentieth century, Lady Leela Sokhey revived the classical style of Kathak. It is commonly identified with the court tradition in North India.

In the technique, Kathak follows Vertical lines with no breaks and deflection. Footwork is very important in training of dancers. Kathak is based on Hindustani music. It consists of different gharanas like Lucknow, Jaipur, Raigarh, and Banaras. Jugalbandi is one of the main features of Kathak recital. It shows a competitive play between dancer and tabla player. Gatbhaar is the dance without music or chanting. Mythological episodes are outlined by this. Kathak is accompanied by dhrupad music. During the Mughal period, Taranas, Thumris, and Gazals were introduced.

Lachha Maharaj, Shambu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj etc., are the main proponents of Kathak.


Around the third and fourth decade of this century it emerged out of a long rich tradition of dance-drama of the same name in Andhra Pradesh. In 17th century Kuchipudi style of Yakshagaana was conceived by Siddhendra Yogi a talented Vaishnava poet. Kuchipudi became prominent under the patronage of Vijayanagara and Golconda rulers.

The dance style is a manifestation of earthly elements in the human body. Dexterity of the dancers in footwork and their control and balance over their bodies is shown in techniques like dancing on the rim of a brass plate and with a pitcher full of water on the head. Acrobatic dancing became part of the repertoire. By the middle of this century, Kuchipudi fully crystallized as a separate classical solo dance style.

The music that accompanies the dance is according to the classical school of Carnatic music. Accompanying musicians, besides the vocalist are: a mridangam player to provide percussion music, a violin or veena player or both for providing instrumental melodic music, and a cymbal player who usually conducts the orchestra and recites the sollukattus(mnemonic rhythm syllables). Usually performance of Kuchipudi is broadly based on Lord Krishna and the tradition of Vaishnavism include an invocation, short dance- dharavu, nritta – pure dance and nritya –
expressive dance respectively.


Odissi derives its name from “Odhra Magadha” mentioned in Natya Shastra. Khandariya-Udayagiri caves of Odisha provide some of the early examples of Odissi dance. Odissi dance performs Natya combined with an element of dancing and acting.

The three bent form of dance called Tribangha posture is an important feature of Odissi. Tribhanga is a very feminine stance where the body is deflected at the neck, torso and the knees. Chowk is a position imitating a square – a very masculine stance with the weight of the body equally balanced.

The torso movement is very important and is a unique feature of the Odissi style. With the lower half of the body remaining static, the torso moves from one side to the other along the axis passing through the centre of the upper half of the body.

Creative literature inspired the Odissi dancer also and provided the themes for dance. This is especially true of the 12th century Gita Govinda by Jayadeva. It is a profound example ofthe nayaka-nayika bhava and surpasses other poems in its poetic and stylistic content. The devotion of the poet for Krishna permeates through the work.

The dancer is adorned in elaborate Odiya silver jewellery and a special hair-do. In each performance, a modern Odissi dancer still reaffirms the faith of the devadasis or maharis where they sought liberation or moksha through the medium of dance.


It is an art which has evolved from many social and religious theatrical forms of Kerala, which existed in the southern region in ancient times. Chakiarkoothu, Koodiyattam, Krishnattam and Ramanattam are few of the ritual performing arts of Kerala which have had a direct influence on Kathakali in its form and technique.

The temple sculptures in Kerala and the frescoes in the Mattancheri temple, Kerala of approximately the 16th century, dance scenes depicting the square and rectangular basic positions so typical to Kathakali are seen.

For body movements and choreographical patterns, Kathakali is also indebted to the early martial arts of Kerala. Kathakali is a blend of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from the Indian epics.


The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century A.D by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva as a powerful medium for propagation of the Vaishnava faith in Assam. This neo-Vaishnava treasure of Assamese dance and drama has been, for centuries, nurtured and preserved with great commitment by the Sattras i.e. Vaishnava maths or monasteries.

Sattriya dance tradition is governed by strictly laid down principles in respect of hastamudras, footworks, aharyas, music etc.


The dance in Manipur is associated with rituals and traditional festivals, there are legendary references to the dances of Shiva and Parvati and other gods and goddesses who created the universe.

Manipur dance has a large repertoire, however, 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 Ɵme of the year. The themes ofen depict the pangs of separation of the gopis and Radha from Krishna. The parengs or pure dance sequences performed in the Rasleela dances follow the specific rhythmic paƩerns and body movements.

Manipuri dance incorporates both the tandava and lasya and ranges from the most vigorous masculine to the subdued and graceful feminine. The facial expressions are natural and not exaggerated. The Ashtapadis of Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda is very popular and is sung and danced in Manipur with great religious fervour.


Mohiniyattam literally interpreted as the dance of ‘Mohini’, the celestial enchantress of the Hindu mythology, is the classical solo dance form of Kerala. The delicate body movements and subtle facial expressions are more feminine in nature and therefore are ideally suited for performance by women.

The hand gestures, 24 in number, are mainly adopted from Hastalakshana Deepika, a text followed by Kathakali. Few are also borrowed from NatyaShastra, AbhinayaDarpana and Balarambharatam. The foot work is not terse and is rendered softly. Importance is given to the hand gestures and Mukhabhinaya with subtle facial expressions.

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