India is renowned for its diverse classical dance forms, demonstrating its rich cultural heritage and traditions
The Natyasastra, derived from the Natya Veda, delineates the significance and the central role of theater and dance in the rich art culture of India. As the text chronicles the theories of rasa, mudras, abhinaya, body language, lasya and tandava, different forms of dance found their genesis in preserving and sustaining the concepts of Natya. Today, India is home to diverse forms of traditional classical dances. To honor International Dance Day on 29th April, here is a brief account of the major classical dance forms of India.
Major Classical Dance Forms of India and their States of Origin
Bharatanatyam- Originated in Tamil Nadu
Bharatanatyam, the oldest classical dance form, was originated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Bharatanatyam is a blend of bhava, raga and tala, and was originally a temple dance performed by women to portray Hindu religious stories. The traces of its origin can be found in Bharatamuni’s Sanskrit Hindu text, Natyasastra. This art form was not made public or brought to the stage until the early 20th century. In technique, Bharatanatyam follows a well- defined, clear and structured body posture with the legs stepping to complicated, intermittent rhythms in squats, and the hands expressing a whole narrative through mudras, (ideally, through 11 mudras) or symbolic hand gestures.
Kuchipudi- Originated in Andhra Pradesh
The traces of Kuchipudi can be found in the Sanskrit text of Natyasastra. Distinguished with more rounded poses and intricate formations, Kuchipudi, that originated from a village in Andhra Pradesh that goes by the same name, is reckoned to be the toughest classical dance form in India. Performing Kuchipudi is accompanied by certain rituals including worshiping Gods with lit incense sticks and the sprinkling of water. Kuchipudi begins with an act to represent a story and to worship the Gods and ends with Tandavam, where the dancer performs on a plate and balances a pot filled with water on the head. This dance form is characterized by quick footwork and dramatic facial expressions, making it a combination of Tandava (majestic and masculine) and Lasya (feminine and graceful).
Kathakali- Originated in Kerala
Kathakali, a traditional classical dance form that originated in Kerala, highlights the storytelling aspect of a narrative art form. Kathakali adopts tales from the Indian epics, mostly religiously inclined (stories from Ramayana and Shaiva traditions), and depicts the narrative with intriguing footwork, elegant mudras and dramatic yet exquisite facial expressions. A performance of Kathakali is accompanied by music and vocal support, with musicians performing string and percussion instruments. The large headdress and the extravagant make-up used in Kathakali that mimics a vibrant mask derives character. Mastering this art form requires years of dedicated practice and patience.
Kathak- Originated in Uttar Pradesh
Kathak is a classical dance form originated in Uttar Pradesh that brings the storytelling aspect of the art to limelight. Kathak gives emphasis to intricate poses within a limited, complicated footwork woven into elegance. Kathak dancers adopt more stylized gestures with more flexible body movements and step to the tunes wearing large trinkets made of bells around their legs. The dance form, that was originally a temple dance, was soon a form that played in royal courts of the ruling houses.
Odissi- Originated in Orissa
Odissi was originally a temple dance form that included postures replicating that of the statues found in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Temples in Orissa. Odissi is characterized by impressive expressions, strings gestures, flexible body movements, and elegant mastering of the mudras with elevations, sharp steps and jumps. Traces of this dance form are also found in the text Natyasastra. Odissi was initially predominantly performed and perfected by women.
Manipuri- Originated in Manipur
Manipuri dance, also popularly known as Manipuri Raas Leela, is quite unlike the rest of the classical dance forms. The Manipuri dance is characterized by subtle and elegant movements. Female roles feature more fluid and easier by technique with flowy gestures of the body, while the male roles often indulge in sharper movements. Manipuri mostly depicts the stories from the life of Lord Krishna, as the name Raas Leela suggests. Manipuri was made nationally popular by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore when the art form caught his admiration after he saw a performance back in 1919. He invited teacher-gurus to teach at his Vishva-Bharati University at Santhinikethan.
Mohiniyattam- Originated in Kerala
Mohiniyattam, descended from the lasya style, is a traditional classical dance form that found its roots in Kerala. Mohiniyattam includes a graceful, subtle yet dramatic gestures that are more feminine and lasya. The dance form derived its name from Mohini, the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu. A performance of Mohiniyattam is accompanied by a musical recital singing songs that are mostly in Manipravalam (a blend of Sanskrit and Malayalam). Most poses embraced in Mohiniyattam are a rendition of feminine sculptures in temples of Lord Vishnu back in the 11th century. Mohiniyattam has its mentions in renowned literary texts dated in 16th century (‘Vyavaharamala’) and 17th century (‘Gosha Yatra’), and had intended its roots by then. The contributions of Swatithirunal Rama Varma had played its crucial role in perfecting and systematizing the dance form into its current state.
Sattriya- Originated in Assam
Sattriya is an Indian classical dance form, originated from Assam, that portrays episodes from the life of Lord Krishna. Its major themes also revolve around the tales of Lord Rama and Sita, the other incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Sattriya attained the status of classical dance in 2000 by the Sangeet Natak Academy. A performance of Sattriya enacts and propagates the Vaishnava faith. There are styles of tandav and lasya in Sattriya when the dancer wears a dhoti to perform in the tandav style and wears a skirt or ghuri to perform in the lasya style. A good number of stylized movements and footwork share a similarity with Bihu and Bodo, other dance forms from Assam.
Chhau- Originated from Jharkhand
Chhau is a classical dance form that harbors martial and folk traditions. These are mostly performed to the tunes played on dhol, a percussion instrument. The races of its origin can be traced back to the folk traditions from Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. The dancers wear a large headdress and mask their faces with dramatic make-up. In the act, dancers takes on the form and impersonate deities, birds, flowers and colors and enact their short themes of their performing narrative.