India is known for its diverse cultures and traditions, and its classical dances are a beautiful reflection of this rich heritage. These dances go beyond just being artistic performances; they offer a glimpse into India’s history, stories, and spiritual beliefs. India has several classical dance styles, each with its unique characteristics, techniques, and cultural importance. The Ministry of Culture in India officially acknowledges nine major classical dance forms as part of the country’s cultural legacy. These nine styles include Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri, Mohiniattyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Sattriya, and Chhau.
Origin: Tamil Nadu
Bharatanatyam is one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India which is widely regarded as the oldest surviving classical dance form, with its origins rooted in the temples of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Renowned for its graceful and expressive movements, this traditional dance style incorporates intricate hand gestures and facial expressions to narrate tales from Hindu mythology and epics. It is believed to have evolved from ancient temple rituals and devotional dances, holding deep cultural and spiritual significance.
Ancient Roots: Bharatanatyam’s roots can be found in the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian manual on the performing arts written by the sage Bharata Muni. This text authored between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, played a pivotal role in shaping several classical dance forms in India, including Bharatanatyam, by providing fundamental principles and guidelines.
Temple Origins: Bharatanatyam is closely associated with the temples of Tamil Nadu, particularly in the Chola dynasty era (9th to 13th centuries). It was initially performed as a form of worship and storytelling in the temples. Temple dancers, known as Devadasis, played a crucial role in propagating and preserving this art form.
Devadasi Tradition: The Devadasis were dedicated to temple service and performed Bharatanatyam as an offering to the deities. They were well-versed in dance, music, and religious rituals and played a central role in temple ceremonies and festivals.
Colonial Influence: During the colonial era, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bharatanatyam faced significant challenges and criticism from British colonial authorities, who viewed it as immoral and decadent. This led to the decline of the Devadasi tradition and the suppression of the dance form.
Revival and Transformation: In the early 20th century, several stalwarts of Indian culture and arts, including Rukmini Devi Arundale, E. Krishna Iyer, and others, worked tirelessly to revive and transform Bharatanatyam. They removed the stigmas associated with it and reintroduced it as a pure classical art form, emphasizing its cultural and spiritual significance.
Modern Bharatanatyam: Today, Bharatanatyam is a globally recognized and respected classical dance form. It has evolved and adapted over the years, incorporating elements of technique, expression, and storytelling. Dancers undergo rigorous training to master intricate movements, mudras (hand gestures), and expressions.
Bharatanatyam is a very technical dance form. The dancers must have a high level of physical fitness and coordination in order to perform the complex footwork and hand gestures.
Origin: Northern India ( Uttar Bharat)
Kathak is one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India which is characterized by fast footwork, spins, and storytelling through expressive facial expressions.
Ancient Roots: Kathak’s origins can be traced back to the Sanskrit word “Katha,” which means storytelling. The dance form is believed to have evolved from the storytelling traditions of ancient India, where performers would narrate religious and mythological tales through dance and mime.
Temple and Courtly Traditions: Kathak initially found prominence in the temples of North India, where it was performed as a form of religious storytelling. Over time, it began to evolve in the courtly settings of North Indian rulers, including the Mughals.
Mughal Influence: The Mughal emperors, particularly during the reign of Akbar (16th century), played a pivotal role in shaping Kathak. They patronized the art form and encouraged a synthesis of Indian and Persian artistic elements. Under their patronage, Kathak incorporated elements of Persian poetry, music, and costume, leading to the emergence of new styles.
Gharanas: Kathak developed distinct regional styles known as “gharanas.” These Gharanas, such as the Lucknow Gharana, Jaipur Gharana, and Banaras Gharana, had their unique techniques, repertoire, and nuances. Each gharana was associated with a particular lineage of dancers and teachers.
British Colonial Era: Like many traditional Indian art forms, Kathak faced challenges during the British colonial era, which saw a decline in patronage and support for the arts. Nevertheless, dedicated artists continued to preserve and pass on the tradition.
Revival and Modernization: After India gained independence in 1947, there was a resurgence of interest in traditional Indian art forms, including Kathak. Dancers and scholars worked to revive and modernize the dance form, ensuring its survival and relevance in contemporary times.
Contemporary Kathak: Today, Kathak is a dynamic and versatile dance form that combines intricate footwork, spins, expressive hand gestures, and storytelling. It often explores a wide range of themes, from classical mythology to contemporary social issues. Kathak performances may be solo, duet, or group presentations, and they continue to captivate audiences both in India and around the world.
Kathakali is one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India which is from the state of Kerala in southern India. Kathakali is famous for its elaborate makeup, costumes, and highly stylized movements. It often portrays stories from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and uses a unique form of sign language for communication.
Ancient Roots: The origins of Kathakali can be traced back to ancient Sanskrit texts like the Natya Shastra, which laid the foundation for various classical performing arts in India. It evolved from earlier forms of dance-drama and traditional rituals.
Temple Rituals: Kathakali, in its early form, was closely associated with temple rituals and ceremonies in Kerala. It was performed as a sacred offering to deities, particularly in temples dedicated to Lord Krishna.
Ramanattam: A significant precursor to Kathakali was a dance-drama known as “Ramanattam,” which was created by the ruler of Kottarakkara, King Kottarakkara Thampuran, in the 17th century. Ramanattam played a pivotal role in the development of Kathakali.
Kottayam Kottarathu Thampuran: It was during the reign of Kottayam Kottarathu Thampuran, another influential ruler in Kerala, that Kathakali saw significant development and refinement. He is credited with codifying the facial expressions (rasas) and emotions used in Kathakali performances.
Elaborate Makeup and Costume: One of the most distinctive aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate makeup and costumes. The makeup, known as “chutti,” and vibrant costumes help convey the character’s emotions and identity to the audience.
In Kathakali, there are seven basic types of makeup are used. These include green (Pachcha), ripe (Pazhuppu), Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, Minukku, and red (Teppu). These makeups are created using rice paste and vegetable colors.
Stories from Epics: Kathakali often portrays stories from the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These stories are narrated through intricate gestures, facial expressions, and stylized movements, making them easily accessible to all audiences.
Character Roles: The characters in Kathakali are categorized into different roles known as “Bhavas.” These include heroes (Pacha), heroines (Minukku), anti-heroes (Kathi), and demons (Kari), each with distinct makeup and costumes.
Modern Revival: During the colonial era, Kathakali faced challenges, but it persevered. In the post-independence period, efforts were made to preserve and promote this art form. Today, Kathakali continues to thrive and is celebrated not only in India but also on the global stage.
Odissi, one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India which is, originated in the medieval period within the temple precincts of Jagannath Puri in the state of Odisha, India. This sacred setting played a central role in the development and preservation of Odissi as a form of worship, storytelling, and cultural expression. The dance has since evolved into a cherished classical art form, embodying the cultural and spiritual essence of the region.
Ancient Origins: Odissi has deep-rooted origins in the temples of Odisha, where it was initially performed as a form of worship and storytelling. It was closely associated with temple rituals and was a means of conveying religious stories and texts to the masses.
Dance Sculptures: Odissi draws inspiration from the exquisite dance sculptures that adorn the temples of Odisha, particularly the famous Sun Temple at Konark and the temples at Bhubaneswar. These sculptures, dating back to the 2nd century BCE, provided valuable insights into the dance’s ancient form.
Devadasis: Like many classical dance forms in India, Odissi was historically practiced by Devadasis, who were dedicated to temple service and performed dance as part of their religious duties. They played a significant role in preserving and passing on this art form.
Decline and Revival: Over time, Odissi faced challenges during the colonial period, and its practice and patronage dwindled. However, after India gained independence in 1947, there was a renewed interest in preserving and promoting traditional Indian art forms.
Gurus and Revivalists: Several influential figures, such as Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Deba Prasad Das, and Guru Pankaj Charan Das, played a pivotal role in the revival of Odissi. They worked diligently to refine and codify the dance style, bringing it back into the mainstream.
Codification and Modernization: These gurus, along with subsequent generations of Odissi artists, codified the dance form, establishing its grammar and repertoire. Odissi was modernized to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences while retaining its traditional essence.
Distinctive Features: Odissi is known for its lyrical and fluid movements, intricate hand gestures (mudras), and graceful poses. It often portrays stories of love and devotion, particularly those involving Lord Krishna and the Radha-Krishna mythology.
Global Recognition: Today, Odissi is celebrated not only in India but also internationally. It is a recognized and respected classical dance form that continues to captivate audiences with its beauty, expressiveness, and cultural significance.
Odissi has evolved and adapted, reflecting the rich heritage of Odisha and its enduring contribution to Indian culture.
Origin: Andhra Pradesh
Kuchipudi is one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India which is a dance-drama that combines dance, acting, and singing. Dancers often perform intricate rhythmic patterns while portraying various characters from mythology.
Ancient Roots: Kuchipudi has ancient roots, dating back to the 2nd century BCE. It finds its origins in the village of Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh. Initially, it was performed as a solo dance-drama by male dancers known as Bhagavathalu.
Temple Traditions: Kuchipudi was closely linked to the Bhagavata Mela tradition, which involved the storytelling of mythological tales through dance and drama in temple settings. It was performed predominantly in the temples of Andhra Pradesh.
Siddhendra Yogi: Siddhendra Yogi is often credited with the transformation and formalization of Kuchipudi into a classical dance style during the 17th century. This saint and performer played a crucial role in refining the dance-drama, giving it a more structured and solo performance-friendly format.
Rasa and Bhava: Kuchipudi places a significant emphasis on the concepts of “rasa” (emotion) and “bhava” (expression). This dance form excels in conveying the emotional and spiritual dimensions of narratives from Hindu mythology, particularly those centered around Lord Krishna.
Gurukul System: Kuchipudi traditionally followed the Gurukul system of learning, where students lived with their gurus and underwent rigorous training in dance, music, and literature. This guru-shishya tradition fostered a strong connection between the teacher and the disciple.
Blend of Natya and Nritta: Kuchipudi seamlessly blends elements of “natya” (drama) and “nritta” (pure dance). Dancers often switch between expressive storytelling and intricate dance sequences, making it a dynamic and versatile art form.
Female Inclusion: Historically, Kuchipudi was performed exclusively by male dancers, even for female roles. However, in the 20th century, women began to actively participate in Kuchipudi, enriching the dance form with their contributions.
Global Recognition: Today, Kuchipudi is a celebrated classical dance form, recognized worldwide for its beauty and expressive storytelling. It has evolved and adapted over the years while preserving its cultural authenticity.
a classical dance form that hails from the southern Indian state of Kerala, is a tale of grace, mythology, and cultural revival.
Ancient Roots: Mohiniyattam’s origins can be traced back to the temple traditions of Kerala. It was traditionally performed by the Devadasis, female temple dancers dedicated to temple service and the expression of devotion through dance.
The Legend of Mohini: The name “Mohiniyattam” is derived from the word “Mohini,” which refers to the enchantress form of Lord Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu took on the form of Mohini to seduce the demons and retrieve the nectar of immortality during the churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthan).
Influence of the Devadasis: Over centuries, the Devadasis played a significant role in developing and preserving Mohiniyattam. They performed it as an offering to deities and during temple festivals, conveying stories of Hindu mythology and folklore.
Decline and Revival: Like many classical art forms in India, Mohiniyattam faced challenges during the colonial period and later. The Devadasi tradition declined, leading to a decline in the practice of the dance form.
Resurgence: The revival of Mohiniyattam began in the mid-20th century when artists and scholars, including Kalyani Amma, Guru Kalyani Kutty Amma, and others, worked to restore and promote the dance. They played a crucial role in codifying its techniques and repertoire.
Distinctive Features: Mohiniyattam is characterized by its graceful, fluid movements, subtle expressions, and the use of hand gestures (mudras) to convey emotions and stories. Dancers often wear the traditional white and gold costume, which adds to the elegance of the performance.
Narratives and Themes: Mohiniyattam often portrays themes of love, devotion, and tales from Hindu mythology. It explores the stories of Lord Krishna, Lord Shiva, and other deities, creating a spiritual and aesthetic experience for the audience.
Modern Adaptation: In contemporary times, Mohiniyattam has evolved and adapted to suit the tastes and sensibilities of modern audiences while preserving its traditional essence. It continues to be performed by both women and men and enjoys recognition on both national and international platforms.
Manipuri dance, one of the Nine Classical Dance Forms of India originated from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, is a fascinating blend of mythology, spirituality, and cultural heritage.
Ancient Origins: Manipuri dance has ancient roots, dating back to the 2nd century CE, and is closely associated with the Vaishnavite religious traditions of Manipur. It was initially performed as a form of worship in the temples of Manipur.
Influence of Lord Krishna: The dance form is deeply influenced by the stories and devotion to Lord Krishna. The Raslila, a form of Manipuri dance, is particularly associated with depicting the divine love and playful antics of Lord Krishna and the Gopis (cowherd maidens).
The Lai Haraoba Festival: Manipuri dance is also performed during the Lai Haraoba festival, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the life of Lord Vishnu, and the dance of Lord Shiva. It involves storytelling through dance, music, and ritualistic elements.
Incorporation of Local Traditions: Manipuri dance incorporates elements of the indigenous traditions and rituals of Manipur, including folk dances and martial arts. These elements contribute to the unique flavor of the dance form.
Gurus and Codification: In the 18th century, King Bhagyachandra of Manipur played a significant role in codifying and promoting Manipuri dance. He also introduced written records and codified techniques for the dance, which helped in its preservation and propagation.
Distinctive Features: Manipuri dance is known for its gentle, flowing movements, intricate hand gestures (mudras), and the use of vibrant costumes and makeup. Dancers often wear traditional attire, including cylindrical skirts and conical headgear.
Choreography and Storytelling: Manipuri dance is characterized by its narrative style, with intricate choreography and expressive storytelling. It often depicts episodes from Hindu mythology and Manipuri folklore.
Modern Adaptations: While rooted in tradition, Manipuri dance has evolved over the years to accommodate contemporary themes and sensibilities. It has gained recognition on both national and international stages.
Sattriya, a classical dance form originating from the northeastern Indian state of Assam, is one of spirituality, religious devotion, and cultural revival. Here’s a brief overview of Sattriya:
Ancient Origins: Sattriya has ancient roots, dating back to the 15th century, and is closely associated with the Vaishnavite monastic culture of Assam. It was developed as a form of worship within the monasteries known as “Sattras.”
Influence of Saint Sankardeva: The origin and codification of Sattriya dance are often attributed to the 15th-century saint and cultural icon, Srimanta Sankardeva. He played a pivotal role in shaping Sattriya as a means of expressing devotion to Lord Krishna.
Religious Significance: Sattriya dance is deeply rooted in the Bhakti (devotion) and Bhagavata (divine love) traditions of Assam. It is often used as a medium to convey stories from the life of Lord Krishna and other divine narratives.
The Sattras: Sattriya dance was traditionally practiced within the Sattras, which are religious institutions in Assam. These monasteries served as centers for spiritual and artistic pursuits, with Sattriya being one of the prominent forms of expression.
Distinctive Features: Sattriya is known for its graceful, fluid movements, elegant hand gestures (mudras), and the use of traditional Assamese attire. Dancers often wear costumes that include richly woven Mekhela-Sador (traditional Assamese attire).
Choreography and Music: Sattriya dance is characterized by its intricate choreography, which combines dance, drama, and song. The music for Sattriya is often classical Assamese and is integral to the performance.
Modern Revival: In the 20th century, Sattriya faced a decline but was revived and popularized by scholars and artists who recognized its cultural significance. It was eventually recognized as a classical dance form by the Government of India in 2000.
Preservation and Promotion: Today, Sattriya continues to be performed and promoted not only in Assam but also on national and international platforms. It remains an essential part of Assamese cultural heritage and is appreciated for its spiritual and artistic depth.
Origin: Eastern India (Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal)
Chhau dance, an enchanting dance form originating from the eastern regions of India, specifically Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, boasts a rich history that fuses elements of martial arts, tribal traditions, and storytelling.
Ancient Roots: Chhau dance has deep historical origins that span over a millennium. It can be traced back to the tribal communities residing in the border regions of Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal.
Incorporation of Martial Arts: Chhau dance integrates martial arts elements, leading some to speculate that it may have been developed as a form of combat training. The dance movements emulate the techniques and agility of warriors, often featuring performers donning masks to represent various characters.
Themes of Religion and Folklore: As time passed, Chhau dance evolved to incorporate themes from Hindu mythology, particularly narratives from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Additionally, it draws inspiration from local folklore, tribal rituals, and the natural world.
Distinctive Masks and Costumes: One of the most striking aspects of Chhau dance is the use of elaborate masks that depict various characters, including gods, goddesses, demons, and animals. Dancers wear vibrant, ornate costumes that enhance the visual appeal of the performance.
Three Styles of Chhau: Chhau is typically categorized into three distinct styles, each originating from a specific region:
Seraikella Chhau: Originating from Seraikella in Jharkhand, this style is known for its precision, graceful movements, and storytelling through dance.
Mayurbhanj Chhau: Hailing from Mayurbhanj in Odisha, this style places a strong emphasis on martial arts techniques and intricate footwork.
Purulia Chhau: This style, found in the Purulia district of West Bengal, is known for its energetic and vigorous movements.
Celebration and Preservation: Chhau dance is often performed during festivals, particularly during the Chaitra Parva festival in the spring. In recent years, efforts have been made to promote and preserve this unique art form, including its inclusion in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Modern Adaptations: While Chhau remains deeply rooted in tradition, it has also evolved to incorporate contemporary themes and styles, making it accessible to wider audiences.
Indian classical dance forms are a testament to the country’s cultural diversity and artistic richness. These dance styles have evolved over centuries, preserving their unique identities and traditions. They not only serve as a means of artistic expression but also carry forward the stories, mythology, and spirituality of India. Whether you’re captivated by the precision of Bharatanatyam or the storytelling of Kathak, each classical dance form offers a glimpse into the enchanting world of Indian culture and heritage. So, the next time you witness one of these performances, take a moment to appreciate the beauty and significance of Indian classical dance.
About the Author: – Neha Khunteta
Neha Khunteta is a highly experienced Kathak dancer and trainer with over 15 years of experience. She is the founder of Kathak By Neha, one of the Best Kathak Dance Academies. With her profound expertise and experience, Neha has established herself as one of the foremost educators in Kathak.
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