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A Brief Overview of the 8 Classical Indian Dance Forms

India has always been home to different types of art forms. Among all these art forms, there is folk art and classical art. Folk art is generally performed in groups and does not have many rules or regulations (shastra) to abide by. On the contrary, the beauty of classical art lies in their Shastra i.e. their rules and regulations.

Between 500 BCE and 500 CE, a book named Natyashastra was written by Bharat Muni. Natyashastra is one of the most ancient encyclopedias associated with the arts. In fact, all the Indian classical dance forms originate from this ancient treatise. At present, India has eight types of classical dances. Let's take a brief look at each one of them.


Image by Strobilus via Wikimedia Commons

Bharatnatyam is one of the most ancient dance forms of India, originating in the state of Tamil Nadu. The term Bharatnatyam literally means “the dance where ‘bhava’ (emotions), ‘raga’ (melody), and ‘taal’ (rhythm) is expressed". This dance was originally performed in makeHindu temples and is limited to women performers only.

The costume for Bharatnatyam dancers is similar to a Tamil Hindu bride’s traditional wedding attire. The performers wear a saree consisting of a cloth specially stitched in pleats. It falls in the front from the waist so that when the dancer bends her legs, it opens up like a handmade fan. The dancer also wears traditional jewelry to enhance the overall look. Her hands and feet are painted with henna so that her gestures are clear to the audience. Her hair is braided and adorned with flowers. Her eyes are lined with kohl to make them look bigger and making it easier for the audience to understand her expressions. Anklets called ghungroos are tied around her ankles so that when she stomps her feet, the music of the ghungroos adds rhythm to each step of the performer, making her dance more beautiful to watch.

Another distinguishing feature of Bharatnatyam is that it is performed with bent legs on classical music or songs in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada.


Namrata Rai Kathak Dancer by Nishasinghrai via Wikimedia Commons

Literally, the term Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word, "Katha" meaning a story. This classical dance originated from the travelling bards of Northern India who narrated tales through music and dance. Today, it is a highly popular dance form including three genres- The Jaipur Gharana, the Benares Gharana, and the Lucknow Gharana. Kathak includes leg stomping and different hand mudras generally on the beats of a tabla.

The costume for Kathak depends on the orientation of the dancer, as Kathak is famous in both Hindu and Muslim communities. The dance form is popular in both communities and hence, divided into these two groups, though not in writing. If the female dancer is Hindu, then she wears a saree and traditional jewelry. She wears ghungroos on her ankles and adorns her hair with flowers or jewelry. The male Hindu dancers wear minimal make-up compared to the females. They wear Dhotis and silk Odhnis on their torso, which is generally bare. Sometimes, they wear loose jackets. On the other hand, a Muslim female dancer wears a long Kurta and Churidaar Salwaar with an odhani covering her head. The look is completed with light jewelry.


Kathakali dancer by NamoNikumbh via Wikimedia Commons

The Indian classical dance of Kathakali originated in Kerala. It is also used as a medium for narrating a story performed by male dancers only.

The most distinguishing feature of Kathakali is the attire of the performers. The faces of the dancers are painted in vibrant colors depending on their roles. The male protagonists of the dance drama are painted in green color and the antagonists in an aggressive red color. The female characters (who are also played by Mem) are painted in yellow color. The dancers wear huge headdresses, which are beautiful and distinct.

The sharp eye-brow movements of the dancers are also a classic feature of this dance form.


Krishnakahi Kashyap performing Sattriya Dance via Wikimedia Commons
Sattriya Dancer Dipankar via Wikimedia Commons

Sattriya dance originates from ‘Sattras’. They were established by Vaishnavites, which later became social and cultural hubs for Assamese.

The Sattriya dance can be classified into two dance styles which are ‘Paurushik Bhangi’ (male) or ‘Stree Bhangi’ (female). There are twelve forms of Sattriya namely- Mati Akhara, Krishna Nritya, Nadubhangi, Jhumura, Chali, Rajaghoria, Behar Nach, Sutradhari, Bor Prabesh, Gosain Prabesh, Gopi Prabesh, Ojapali.

The costume for the male dancers consists of Dhoti, chadar, and turban. The female costume has ghuri, chadar, and Kanchi (waist cloth). The look is completed with traditional Assamese jewelry.


Manipuri Dance via Wikimedia Commons

Manipuri is counted among the major classical dances of India. Its name is derived from the state of its origin- Manipur. It is famous for its dance dramas based on the ‘Ras Leela’ theme showcasing the love of Radha and Krishna.

The costumes of the Manipuri dancers are also inspired by Radha and Krishna. The female attire matches the traditional outfit of the Manipuri bride while the male outfit contains a bright-colored Dhoti and a peacock feather strapped in the headdress. This makes the male performer look like Krishna and the female performers look like Gopis, thus fulfilling the theme of ‘Ras Leela’.

Many musical instruments like cymbals, harmoniums, flutes, drums, etc. accompany the singer. The dancers perform unique footwork and torso movements while reenacting a story.


Kuchipudi performer by Augustus Binu

Like every other classical dance of India, the roots of Kuchipudi are in the Natyashastra. It originated in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi involves the narration of stories by performing a unique story-based dance.

The costume for males includes Dhotis, while for females, there are colourful sarees with stitched pleated cloth attached from the waist, like in the Bharatanatyam costume. The female dancers wear light make-up and traditional jewelry. Their hair is braided and adorned with flowers and jewelry. They also wear ghungroos that make beautiful tinkling sounds while they perform.


Mohiniyattam by Shagil Kannur via Wikimedia Commons

The word Mohini means a woman who enchants, and thus, Mohiniyattam means "the dance of the enchantress." The legend goes that this dance was performed by Lord Vishnu at the time of Samudra Manthan (the churning of the ocean). Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini to enchant the Asuras (demons) so that the Devas (gods) could consume the Amrita, the elixir of life.

Mohiniyattam originated in Kerala and shares similarities with two other South Indian classical dances- Bharatnatyam and Kathakali. The dance involves the swaying of hips and torso movements. It has 40 different basic movements called advakul. The lyrics of the song for Mohiniyattam are in a distinct language called Manipravalam which is a fusion of Sanskrit and Malayalam.

The costume for Mohiniyattam is very simple; it consists of a white saree with golden brocade. It is performed by women only.


Odissi performance by Augustus Binu via Wikimedia Commons

Odissi traces its roots to the eastern coastal state of India, Odisha. This is also a religious dance, traditionally performed in temples. Odissi is mostly known for its impressive hand gestures, sign language, leg movements, and facial expressions.

The female dancers wear a brightly colored saree with stitched pleated cloth in the middle to ensure fluid and easy leg movements. They wear silver jewelry, and tie their hair in a neat bun. They also tie ghungroos around their ankles, and paint their hands and feet in Alta (red color).

The male dancers. on the other hand, wear a Dhoti, belt and keep their torso bare. The unique part of this dance's music is that it contains the ragas from both the South Indian and the North Indian regions of India, which shows the fusion of Indian culture. Shokabardi, Bhairavee, Dhanashree, Shree Gowda, Nata, Panchama, Baradi, Karnata, and Kalyana are the main ragas of Odissi.



Aayushi Wadale

Pratha Content Writing Intern

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Sep 02, 2021

Keep bringing us all this....Good going 🖖


Sep 02, 2021

Keep writing keep rocking 😎

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