Classical Dances of India: A Cultural Overview

Classical Dances of India: A Cultural Overview

Classical Dances of India

India is a country with a rich and diverse cultural and artistic history. Over the centuries, Indians have developed a multitude of music and dance forms. The Sangeet Natak Academy has recognised eight out of the hundreds as classical dances of India, which are; Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam.

Let us go through these and understand their uniqueness.


  • Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu and grew out of the art of dancers dedicated to temples, and was earlier known as Sadir or Dasi Attam.
  • Bharatanatyam rests on principles of performance and an aesthetics set down in classics such as Bharata’s Natyashastra.
  • Archaeologists estimate the first compilation of the Natyshastra to be between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Bharatnatyam is known for its versatile body movements and gestures that are called Mudras.
  • It lays a special emphasis on the hand gestures, leg movement, and facial expressions of the dancer.
  • Bharatanatyam is considered as the oldest classical dance in the country.
  • It finds reference in classical Tamil texts such as Silapathikaram and Manimekalai.
The name Bharatanatyam is derived from
  1. Bha- means emotions
  2. Ra- means musical notes
  3. Ta- means the rhythm
  4. Natyam- is the Sanskrit word for Drama.
  • Currently, there are four styles of Bharatnatyam, namely, Melathoor, Pandanalloor, Vazhavoor, as well as Kalashetra.


  • Kathak is the principal dance of northern India, and is widely practised in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and even parts of western and eastern India today.
  • It is a mix of worshipping deities and story narration.
  • The word Kathak comes from the Vedic Sanskrit word ‘Katha’ meaning ‘story’. Thus, Kathak refers to a person who tells stories through dance.
  • Kathak is characterized stylistically by its footwork and pirouettes, and is pre-eminently a dance of rhythm-play.
  • Ankle bells called ‘ghungroos’ are an essential part of this dance form.
  • The music that accompanies a Kathak performance uses different classical instruments like Sarangi Seeta, Manjira, Tabla, Harmonium, etc.
The 3 main gharanas or, schools of Kathak dance are-
  1. Jaipur
  2. Lucknow
  3. Benaras


  • Kathakali or ‘story play’ took shape in Kerala in the seventeenth century.
  • Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata provide the content of most Kathakali plays.
  • The roots of this dance form lie in the ancient ‘Kutiyattam’ ( a classical Sanskrit drama) and ‘Krishnattam’ ( Dance-Drama depicting stories of Lord Krishna).
  • The faces of actors are painted according to the type of character they represent – green or pacha for heroes, kings, and divinities, red or kathi and black or kari for the evil and fierce, etc.
  • The characters in a Kathakali performance are broadly divided into satvika, rajasika and tamasika types.
  • The dance movements of Kathakali are influenced by ancient martial arts.
  • The dancer expresses himself through codified hastamudras and facial expressions, closely following the verses(padams) that are sung.
  • Traditional Kathakali dance performances used to last for a long period of time right from dusk to dawn.


  • Kuchipudi, one of the major dance forms of India originated from Andhra Pradesh, where it grew largely as a product of Bhakti movement beginning in the 7th Century AD.
  • Kuchipudi derives its name from the village Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Bharata Muni describes the graceful Kuchipudi as Kaishiki vritti in Natyashastra.
  • Kuchipudi, combines speech, Abhinaya (mime) and pure dance.
  • Kuchipudi dance is accompanied by Carnatic Music.
  • Kuchipudi today is performed either as a solo, duet or a group presentation, but historically it was performed as a dance drama, with several dancers taking different roles.
  • The themes in this dance form are related to Vaishnavism, Lord Krishna, Rukmini, Satyabhama, and other mythological folklores.
  • The devotees who practised this were known as Bhagavatulu in Andhra Pradesh.
  • The current form of Kuchipudi was conceived by Siddhendra Yogi a Vaishnava poet and his guru Teerthanaaraayana Yogi.
  • Bhaamaakalaapam of Siddhendra Yogi is considered as piece-de-resistance of the Kuchipudi repertoire.


  • Manipuri dance, evolved in Manipur in north-eastern India, is anchored in the Vaishnava faith of the Meiteis.
  • Manipuri dance is primarily based on Vaishnavism, depicting the bond of love between Radha and Krishna and the graceful performance of ‘Ras Leela’.
  • Unlike in other classical dance forms, Ghunghroos are not worn in this dance form.
  • Jagoi and cholom are the two main divisions in Manipur’s dance, the one gentle and the other vigorous, corresponding to the lasya and tandava elements described in Sanskrit literature.
  • Lai Haraoba is the earliest form of dance which forms the basis of all stylised dances in Manipur.
The 3 types of Manipuri Ras Leela are:
  1. Tal Rasak- is accompanied by clapping.
  2. Danda Rasak- it is supported by synchronized beats of 2 sticks where dancers create vivid geometric patterns
  3. Mandal Rasak- the gopis make a circle while Krishna sits in the center of the circle.


  • Mohiniattam, which belongs to Kerala, takes its name from the mythic enchantress Mohini.
  • The word ‘Mohini’ refers to the charming women avatar of Lord Vishnu- to end the evil powers.
  • It is a dance of feminine grace, and has grown out of performances connected with Kerala’s temples.
  • Characterized as it is by femininity, Mohiniattam has no heavy steps or rhythmic tension: the footwork is gentle, soft, and sliding.
  • The dancer’s body rises and falls with an easy grace, with the emphasis mainly on the torso.
  • Dancers adorn a white saree with a golden brocade, which is a highlight of the dance form.
  • Vyavaharamala, the 16th-century text by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Nampoothiri contains the first known mention of the term Mohiniyattam.
  • Another old text containing the mention of the art form was Ghoshayatra, written later by great poet Kunjan Nambiar.


  • Odissi dance has its origins in Orissa in eastern India, where in its rudimentary form it was performed as part of temple service by ‘maharis’ or female temple servants.
  • The Vaishnava faith of Orissa is intrinsic to Odissi dance and the lore of Krishna and Radha supplies its content.
  • The ‘mudras’, as many as 50 in number, are inspired by the idols and sculptors in ancient temples.
  • A unique feature of the Odissi dance form is that its music includes Southern and Northern Indian ragas using a variety of instruments such as a table, sitar, flute, cymbals, violin, pakhawaj and harmonium.
  • Love lyrics from Jayadeva’s Sanskrit work Gitagovindam therefore have pride of place on the Odissi dance repertoire, together with songs in Oriya by medieval and early modern poets such as Upendra Bhanja and Banamali Das.
The 2 traditional styles of Odissi dance form are-
  1. Maharis (performed by Devadasis or temple girls)
  2. Gotipua ( performed by a group of boys)


  • Sattriya dance’ refers to the body of dance and danced drama developed in the sattras or monasteries of Assam since the sixteenth century, when the Vaishnava faith propagated by the saint and reformer Shankaradeva (1449-1586) swept the land.
  • The male dancer wears a dhoti, chadar, and pagri (turban).
  • The female dancer wears white flowers, chadar, ghuri, kanchi (waist cloth).
  • It is a distinct genre within the fold of classical Indian dance, with an evolved language of hand gesture (hasta), footwork (pada karma), movement and expression (Nritta and Abhinaya), and a repertoire centered on devotion to Krishna.
  • The music is called Borgeet, which is Assamese and the dance comprises ‘ankiya bhaona’ and Ojapali in which the singer acts and sings with a group of dancers who play cymbals.