A Brief Overview of the 8 Classical Dance Forms in India

India has always been a 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.

In 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 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 name Bharatnatyam literally means “the dance where ‘bhava’ (emotions), ‘raga’ (melody), and ‘taal’ (rhythm) is expressed". This dance was originally performed in the Hindu temples and is limited to women perfomers 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 the 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 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 from Radha and Krishna. Th