October 2017

Types of Classical Indian Dance
[Culture-August 2008]

According to the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national level academy for performing arts set up by the Indian Government, there are eight Indian dance forms with classical status. These include: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniaattam, Odissi, Sattriya, and Yakshagana. The most ancient ones and the ones that have their origin in Agama Nartanam, a spiritual dance form, are Bharatanatyam and Odissi. Agama Nartanam are dances performed inside the temple according to rituals. Kuchipudi, Mohiniaattam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Sattriya are relatively recent forms of Darbari Aatam, which is a form of dance that appealed more to the commoners and educated them about religion, culture and social life. These dances were performed outside the temple and in courtyards. Manipuri and Sattriya are both very similar eastern Indian styles. Kathak was influenced in the Mughal period by other dance forms such as Persian dance. The third form of classical dance, in addition to Agama Nartanam and Darbari Aattam, is Carnatakam. This was an intellectual art form performed in royal courts and accompanied by classical music.

The mudra, hand gestures used to narrate stories and demonstrate concepts like objects, weather, nature, and emotions, are a very important feature of classical Indian dances. During the British Raj, in India, traditional dances were viewed by the British as immoral and corrupt. They were also broadly labeled as “Indian dance” without any regard to the specific styles. The British rule also prohibited the public performance of dance by linking it to tawaifs and devadasis. After India won her independence in 1947 classical forms of dance and regional distinctions were re-discovered and ethnic specialties were honored.

Bharatanatyam, one of the most popular forms of classical Indian dance, originated from Tamil Nadu. Bharatanatyam is a 20th century reconstruction of Cathir. Cathir, the art of temple dancers, is derived from ancient forms of dance. Bharatanatyam traces its origins to the Natya Shastra, the principal work of dramatic theory encompassing dance and music in classical India. In ancient times it was performed by mandir devadasis. Many ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on the bharatanatyam dance postures known as karanas. Apsaras in many scriptures are depicted as dancing the heavenly version of what is known as bharatanatyam. It is a dance form that is deeply ground in bhakti, or devotion and is considered to be a fire dance. The movements of an authentic bharatanatyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame.


Kathak, another popular form of classical dance, is originally from north India and is also the national dance of Pakistan. It is a partially narrative dance form that is characterized by tatkar (footwork), chakkar (spins), and the innovative use of bhav (feelings). Its present form has been influenced by various mythological narratives, temple dances, the bhakti movement, Persian dance, and Mughal courts. Performers draw their lineage from three major schools of Kathak: the Jaipur gharana, the Lucknow gharana, and the Benares gharana. There is also a Raigarh gharana that is less prominent and came later. It combined techniques from the three preceding gharanas but also became famous for its own distinctive compositions. The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha which means story and kathak is that which tells a story.

During the Bhakti era, the era of intense worship of Radha-Krishna, Kathak was used to narrate tales from their lives. Sri Krishna’s exploits in the holy land of Vrindavan and tales of Krishna’s childhood were included in popular performances. The dance acquired its distinctive shape and features when it reached the Mughal court. The environment shifted the focus from purely religious to entertainment. Dancers from the Middle East also spread their ideas to the Kathak dancers and borrowed ideas from them to implement into their own dance. Eventually the two dances became one and formed a common link between the Muslim and Hindu cultures. To emphasize the elaborate footwork 150 ankle bells were worn on each leg and the signature chakkars were introduced. Kathak went into a sharp decline due to the British rule in India. The Victorian administrators pronounced it as an unlovely form of entertainment despite the fact that they often privately enjoyed the pleasures of the tawaif. This caused the dance to acquire an unwholesome image. After its period of decline during the British rule, Kathak has regained its popularity today.

Kathak ghungroos or ghungrus, small bells tied around a dancer’s ankles, are different from those of other Indian dance styles. They are not affixed to a pad or strip of leather but instead are individually woven along a thick string. Usually there are a hundred bells on each ankle. However, for the initial stages of learning or for children, twenty five and fifty belled strings may be used to allow the dancer to adjust to them. There can be upto a hundred and fifty bells on each ankle but greater figures than this are generally unsuitable because of the distance of the upper bells from impact. This delays the sounds and can also be difficult to control because they are more likely than not to sound at unwanted moments. The costumes of dance have also changed along with dance styles. Traditional, and specifically Hindu, female costumes consist of a sari either worn in an everyday style or tied up to allow greater freedom of movement of dance. However, a lengha choli with an odhni is more common. The Mughal costume for women is an angarkha, similar to a churidar kurta, but tighter fitting above the waist to enhance the lower half during spins. A small peaked cap and bandi, to enhance the bust line, may also be worn along with a belt made of zari or precious stones. The traditional Hindu costume for men is a dhoti tied in the Bengali style that has many pleats. Men may also wear a bandi. The Mughal costume is a kurta that is at least knee length along with a churidaar. Men can also wear an angarkha and older variety costumes can include a small peaked cap as well.

Kathakali is a form of Indian dance-drama. It originated in the southern Indian state of Kerala during the late 16th century. The name Kathakali derives from the Malayalam words “katha” (meaning story) and “kali” (meaning play). The language of the songs used for Kathakali is a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit. A Kathakali dance is usually conducted at night and ends in the early morning. One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate makeup. The makeup is made from various minerals and pigments. They are stone ground and mixed with coconut oil before being applied to the face. Elaborate features, such as an enlarged nose or mustache, are made using cut paper which is stuck to the face with a mixture of rice paste and calcium carbonate.

Kuchipudi is a classical Indian dance from Andhra Pradesh. It is also the name of a small village in the Divi Talqu of Krishna district that borders the Bay of Bengal. It acquired its present name with the resident Brahmins practicing this traditional form of dance. The dance was once reserved for males by teaching it to young brahmin boys of the village. However, in modern times, it has been dominated by women. The dance is usually accompanied by a song in Carnatic music. The movements of Kuchipudi are quick and scintillating and the dance shares many common elements with Bharatanatyam.

Mohiniyattam is a traditional South Indian dance form from Kerala. It is very graceful and is meant to be performed by women. The term comes from the words mohini, meaning a woman who enchants onlookers and aattam, which means graceful and sensuous body movements. The entire word means “dance of the enchantress.” This form of dance has been influenced and has elements from two South Indian dance forms, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. The dance involves the swaying of the hips and gentle movements of the torso. This is reminiscent of the swinging of palm leaves and gently flowing rivers in Kerala. There are forty different basic movements. The costume is a white sari with bright golden embroidery.

The Odissi dance form has been kept up by the Maharis and Gotipuas. Maharis are the devadasis from Orissa. Odissi is the dance style of the state of Orissa in eastern India. Like other classical arts of India it has suffered a decline as temples and artists lost the patronage of feudal rulers and princely state. Its current form is the product of a 20th century revival. Sattriya has been a living tradition since its creation in the 15th century in Assam. The core is mythological stories and according to tradition it is only performed by male bhokots. The costumes are made of pat, a silk produced in Assam, woven with local motifs and the ornaments are based on local traditional design. Yakshagana has its origins in the state of Karnataka and its also popular in Kerala. The performance usually depicts stories from Hindu epics.

Indian dance is one of the oldest arts that has been through a steady development for nearly two thousand years. Indian classical dance has its origins in temples where it was used to illustrate Hindu mythologies. Although classical dance may have undergone many changes over the years, it has survived many centuries. Dance remains an important aspect of Indian religions and culture and will continue do so for many years to come.

[As seen in June 2008 of Rivaaj]

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2 Responses to “Types of Classical Indian Dance”

  1. baret Says:

    beautiful female dancers with a most charming sparkling feet what a paradise feet with ghungharoos real indian beauties

  2. Uma Maheswar Nakka Says:

    thanks for this wonderful article. Reminds me of “A small step but a big leap”.

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