The diversity intrinsic to cultures that define the very title of India is not unknown to the world at large. The massive celebration of festivals in India is characterized by myriad traditions, rituals, and garnished food. Moreover, all of which has become an irresistible source of attraction for tourists from all corners of the globe. Also, talking about tourist attractions, there are so many Indian classical dance forms, which are loved worldwide.
Dance is something integral to any culture known to humans. India is home to a sea of cultures where festivities are always round the corner. Therefore, the lustre of the many festivities comes into light through the different dance forms of India with states, each, having poured a blend of its colour and culture.
Classical dances of Indian states are much more than mere body movements. Right from ancient times, the classical dance forms are acknowledged as a discipline and a way to devote oneself to God through art.
Origin of Dance in India
The history of dance in India has a long and intricate story to tell, with the intuition of sages who were once artists identifying the art as a means to devote oneself to god. In the golden decades of ancient India dance never was a shallow form of entertainment but devotion itself. Also, men and women who indulged in this devotion knew about their identity with the supreme self. Thus, their body movements, postures, exhilarations, titillations, countenance, smile, and vibrations all were oblations to please the divine, immortal, birthless, and supreme power.
The earliest texts that help us understand the essence of classical Indian dance was the Natasutras. These texts were the creation of a learned sage, Panini, who has contributed immensely to Sanskrit grammar. Late Vedic texts also provide information on the art of dance led by two pioneers of ancient singing and dance- Shilalin and Krishashva. As per researchers and scholars like Richmond, the Natasutras are said to have been composed around 600 BCE. However, the complete manuscript has not survived to this day.
The compilation of classic text that has survived and is recognized widely in the Hindu text, Natya Shastra. This text bears the name of the sage Bharata. He articulates that the text is attributed to Brahma. Further, Brahma divined the text from the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. The first text was compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
The root of the classical dances that adorn the culture of India can be found in the Natya Shastra. Indian classical dance forms have links from different parts of the country, and they are a result of Indian traditions, epics, and mythology.
Do you know how many classical dances in India are recognized at the national level?
There are only six forms recognized at the national level. These are Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, and Odissi.
Have a look at the different Indian classical dance forms
Tamil Nadu, South India
Bharatnatyam dance is considered the origin of classical dance forms in India. It is performed at the sound of the celestial tunes that remind one of heaven on earth, which used to flourish before the rapacious advent of man. Bharatnatyam originated in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. The dance form dates back to 1000 BC and took the shape we know today in the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu. Moreover, in these temples, women prayed to the sublime through the art of dance.
This dance form is known for its beautiful body movements and gestures, which are called Mudras in the traditional language. In addition, the focus is on the hand gestures, leg movements, and facial expressions of the dancer. This dance form was very much prevalent before the British era. Due to lack of recognition, and patronage, the dance form suddenly began to lose all its once granted glory.
However, the beauty of this Indian classical dance was preserved in the confines of the households. Thus, today it is recognized as one of the most respectable art forms in India. Especially, in South India where a sense of pride overwhelms any woman who takes a part in the glory of the Bharatnatyam dance.
Uttar Pradesh, North India
Born in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Kathak dance comes from the word ‘Katha’ meaning “story” in Hindi. The Indian classical dance, Kathak, is referred to as the dance of love. In this art, both the partners weave a tryst through the precise movement of their physical selves.
The primary focus is on the ankle movements, which must be at par with the throbbing beat of the music. Ghungroos, as called in the traditional language, is an important part of the discipline. Various distinctions are witnessed in this dance form, as it is known in different places like Jaipur, Benaras, and Lucknow.
Kerala, South India
Kathakali is among the most renowned folk dances of India. This form is said to be a distinct way of storytelling. It originated from the Southern part of the country, Kerala. Moreover, it vividly portrays tales from the life of Shiva and Ramayana.
Kathakali is characteristic of the intriguing face movements and heavy costumes. The vocal music in whose rhythm the art unfolds is known as soppanam.
The storytelling of the epic Hindu mythology- Ramayana depicting both evil and good are portrayed through a conversation in the form of body gestures and facial expressions. No wonder why, one feels oneself rare among rares, after witnessing this jewel of a dance form.
Manipur, North East India
As one meanders towards the North-eastern part of India, which is rich in tradition and culture, Manipuri emerges as an important symbol for the state of Manipur. This dance form is a manifestation of platonic romance between the Hindu Gods Radha and Krishna, famously known as Raas Leela.
This Indian classical dance when performed is done in a team with the traditional Manipuri costumes and makeup. The dance is performed with intervals of narrative chanting. The chanting is facilitated by the crescendo of music that emanates from the many classical instruments.
Birthplace Andhra Pradesh, Kuchipudi is probably the toughest form of Indian classical dance. Kuchipudi is not just a dance but a form of devotion dedicated to God. It includes certain rituals such as the sprinkling of the holy water, burning incense sticks, and praying to God.
Kuchipudi is a famous dance tradition of India which has originated from the Natya Shastra- an ancient Hindu Sanskrit text. Also, its roots lay in the cherished cultural characteristic of the Bhakti movement. Like many other classical dances in their most pristine forms, this dance form is also a means to realize the divine. In addition, Lost bards, devotees whose music and songs ring throughout the temple walls, spiritual men and austere-ridden saints are the true sources behind the creation of this dance, Kuchipudi.
Copper inscriptions and texts such as the Machupalli Kaifat shine as concrete evidence of the existence of Kuchipudi. The modern and systematic art of Kuchipudi we see today is credited to Tirtha Narayana Yathi and his disciple Siddhendra Yogi. The dance form is largely derived from Vaishnavism, a Krishna-oriented tradition. It is in close relation to Bhagavata Mela.
Kuchipudi requires both singing and dancing, thus, raising its level of difficulty. In the past, Kuchipudi was performed only by the male dancers in the temples, specifically cherished by those belonging to the Brahmin caste. However, with time, women gained mastery over the art surpassing men to a great extent. Nowadays, women are seen to be the sole masters of this art.
Odisha, East India
The Odissi dance form comes from the state of Odisha in the eastern part of India. This Indian classical dance was nourished in the Hindu temples of Odisha. Most of the gestures and movements (Mudras) are inspired by the sculptures and idols that adorn the ancient temples of India.
Moreover, the dance is performed as a way to express the mythological tales of Hindu Gods, including Shiva and Surya. The dance when accompanied by a mythical story is conveyed through mellifluous music and poignant lyrics.
To sum up, Odissi is considered the oldest dance form of India, which has survived to this day. Performed mostly by women, it consists of more than 50 artistic mudras.
Kerala, South India
In Indian mythology, Mohini is the female avatar of Lord Vishnu. The meaning of ‘Attam’ in Malayalam is rhythmic motion hence adhering to the dance of the divine enchanter. It is the second most popular dance form in Kerala. This classical Indian dance has its roots in the age-old Sanskrit text – Natya Shastra.
Traditionally performed by women, it follows a repertoire of Carnatic music and singing and acting. Sometimes the performer sings the song himself, which is a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit, called Manipravalam.
With a school of instruments such as Mridangam, Madhalam, Flute, Idakka, Veena, and Kuzhitalam, the music is given in ragas and performed in a slow melodic style. Although the dance is portrayed to be gentle, graceful, and feminine, it also exhibits a vigorous Tandav relating to Lord Vishnu.
Besides its popularity, the dance was condemned during the colonial British Raj as a Devdasi system of prostitution. The ban was withdrawn as an aftermath of the vehement protests by the locals of Kerala. Thus, the art of Mohiniyattamwas again revived and rejoiced.
Punjab, North India
In the classical dances of India list, Bhangra is no doubt the most famous from Punjab. Bhangra is the other name of joy where the beat of the heart is more sonorous to sound than the chord of the many instruments. This beat of the heart along with the beat of the dhol makes the sky gallop and dive towards the earth. This dance of victory in which the victors are the sole performers is not just a dance, but a celebration.
Amongst other folk dances of India, Bhangra folk dance and music infused with the blend of western popular beats. It is like a dream which comes true whenever India wins a cricket match, or to be more in general any victory, small or big.
Designated as a particular dance form, performed by Sikh and Muslim men in the rural districts of the Punjab region. This dance form was and still is associated with Baisakhi, which is celebrated during the spring harvest season.
The tantalizing fruit liquor—bhang(hemp) with which the farmers relieve themselves of all the stress, strain and toil. This liquor is from where the name originated as Bhangra.
A typical type of Bhangra includes several dancers executing vigorous kicks, leaps, and bends of the body with the accompaniment of short songs called boliya. This boisterous Indian classical dance turns the atmosphere into one full of life likened to the waves of an ocean.
Gujarat, West India
Garba, a creative dance form from the state of Gujarat, is performed in devotion to the Goddess Durga. It is performed by a couple; in the backdrop of typical Gujarati music, each step breaking all stillness to awe and life. Garba performances often include singing accompanied by rhythmic-crisp music and clapping of hands. Historically, the shehnai (a double-reed instrument) guided the singers, but by the early 21st century, the instrument had largely been replaced by the synthesizer or harmonium.
Garba celebrates fertility, honours womanhood, and is performed as a means of devotion to an array of mother Goddesses. In Gujarat, the dance customarily marks a girl’s first menstrual cycle and, later, her imminent marriage. Garba dancing also takes place during the nine-day Navratri festival, held annually during the Hindu month of Ashvina (September–October).
Although men do participate on some occasions, women are the indubitable maestros of the art. The basic dance formation is that of a circle that moves counterclockwise.
Garba dance has spread beyond Gujarat gaining much popularity not only in many other parts of India but also in Hindu communities worldwide. The dance comes to life during Holi, with colours and cheers that rent the sky to a thousand glittering pieces. Especially since the late 20th century, there has been a notable proliferation of Garba competitions and university dance troupes.
Kashmir, North India
A dance form performed by the Kashmiri people as the celebration of their festivals and important occasions. Rouf is an artistic form of dance in which each step, movement, and expression are intricately designed and drawn at par with the mellifluous traditional Kashmiri music.
Maidens decked in jewellery and vivacious colours, dance in complete freedom and joy to the beat of a crescendo of sweet notes, such as the magnificence that the parched earth of Rajasthan suddenly brims with greenery and life. Ghoomar includes intriguing circular movements complemented by distinct hand gestures.
Women dressed in elegance, and beauty pirouette with their whole being, performing the art of Chhau as proof that Kolkata is indeed the city of joy. A popular art whose wings spread from the eastern part of India is considered a dance of martial arts.
Assam, North-east India
Young men and women indulge in this joyous folk dance of Assam during the Bihu festival. The dancers follow a pattern of rapid hand movements, quick steps, and a rhythmic swaying of hips as their traditional Assamese clothing billows magnificently in the breeze.
Marking the beginning of the spring season, Bihu is a recitation of the happiness and heritage of Assam and is performed on the occasion of Rangali Bihu. The dhol, Xutuli, Toka, Baanhi, Gogona are the instruments used to play the traditional tunes that facilitate the performance.
The origin of Bihu is unknown, although the records state that its origin lies in the Bisu dance performed by communities of Upper Assam like the SonowalKacharis, Deoris, Moran, Chutias, and Borahis. This popular Indian Dance form was performed at the London Olympics in 2012.
Maharashtra, West India
Once a celebration of the Maratha empire; Lavani is now a famous dance form of Maharashtra. The female-oriented dance is a blend of traditional music and tales of deities. The origin of Lavani comes from the word Lavanya meaning beauty. Lavani has two forms; one that’s philosophical – NirguniLavani and the other that’s sensual- ShringarLavani.
With the powerful and quick foot-tapping tempo, the dance form is performed along with the beats of the Dholak. The stories or subjects this dance is based on revolves around themes of religion, politics, society, and mostly romance. Dancers are dressed in nine yards of saree with golden jewellery.
The dance initially staged at local temples in the form of worship, is now a sensual dance rocked with the boisterousness of desires, at the same time the fulfilment that comes with those desires.
Astonishing it is to ponder on the classical dances of Indian states; an apparent paragon to the ideal of ‘unity in diversity. These artistic Indian classical dance forms reflect the cultural richness of India.