Indian Dance

The Age-Old Opulence

Indian dance has its genesis in antiquity. The first formal mention of dance in textual form is found in the famous treatise “Natya Shastra”, penned down by the 2nd century BCE sage Bharat Muni. He narrates that dance was created alongside drama as a part of recreational activities for Gods. So, in their pristine forms, Indian dance was indispensably intertwined with drama, i.e., theatre art. Even the Archaeological findings have provided overarching evidence to date the genesis of dance back to thousands of years ago. The earliest evidence or representation of dance comes from the palaeolithic period, on the walls of the Bhimbetka caves of Madhya Pradesh. Several group dancing episodes were illustriously painted on the walls of these caves. Later, the Harappan civilization is evidently found to have practiced and promoted dance arts. The bronze statue of a girl, cast in tri-Bhang posture, found in Mohenjo-Daro, stands testimony to the Harappan’s love for Dance. Later, Dance was widely depicted in various paintings like those of Ajanta and Ellora, and it was patronized by many Kings.

As we discussed above, Dance was traditionally a religious pursuit. Indian mythologies where Shiva was depicted as a cosmic dancer galore. Indian temples, since the ancient period, had richly-carved dancing figures on their walls. Dance, which was once restricted to the confines of the temple complexes, i.e., devadasi, has breached the temple walls and ventured into the king’s courts. Thus, what was one spiritual, has started to be a recreational activity as well. Later, depending on the style, composition, and intricacies, Indian dance was broadly classified into different types like Classical Indian dance, Folk dance, Tribal dance, etc.

Sources and Basic tenets of Indian Dance

  • According to the ‘Natya Shastra’, as Brahma was requested by the Gods to create a pastime, he created Dance. He then sourced the words for dance, i.e., Pathya from the Rigveda; gestures, i.e., Abhinaya from the Yajurveda; chanting and music, i.e., Geet from Samaveda; and emotional element, i.e., Rasa from Atharvaveda to consolidate all of them into the ‘Natya Veda’, regarded as the ‘Fifth Veda’.
  • Most of the Indian dances revolve around 9 rasas, i.e., Navarasa or emotions. Abhinav Gupta, an 11th-century scholar who penned down Abhinaya Bharati, a commentary on Natyashastra, mentions the following Navarasas; ‘krodha’ (anger), ‘hasya’ (happiness), ‘karuna’ (compassion), ‘bhaya’ (fear), ‘bhibasta’ (disgust), ‘adbhuta’ (wonder), ‘shoka’ (sorrow), ‘viram’ (courage), and ‘shanta’ (serenity).
  • ‘Abhinaya Darpana’, written by Nandikeshwara, is a well-reputed manual on gestures and postures employed in dance and drama. The treatise mentions nine gestures of the head, eight gestures of the eyes, four gestures of the neck, twenty-eight gestures of one hand, and twenty-three of both hands, besides gestures representing gods, deities, and castes.
    • The themes of most of the Indian dance performances are sourced from India’s rich mythology and folk legends.
    • Indian dance essentially is comprised of three elements: ‘Nritta’ that denotes rhythmic elements, ‘nritya’ denoting the combination of rhythm with expression, and ‘Natya’ denoting the drama.
    • In terms of the masculine and feminine aspects, the Indian dance comprises two elements, i.e., Tandava, which expresses a powerful, strong, or masculine aspect, and the Lasya, which expresses a soft, gentle, subtle or feminine aspect.

Types of Dances

Owing to the millenniums of history, wide geography, diverse cultures and traditions, and multiple ethnicities, there are scores of dance forms in India, each being grounded in the social milieu that it dawned from.

Classical dances

Indian classical dance are those art forms that are rooted in ‘Natya Shastra‘ of Bharata Muni. So, Indian classical dance has a rich history of over 2000 years. The term ‘classical’ or ‘Shastriya’ was attributed to the dance forms by Sangeet Natak Akademi to certify their adherence to Natya Shastra. A striking feature of Indian classical dances is the ornamental use of the mudra (hand gestures) by the artists, which are indicative of certain stories, objects, weather, nature, etc. There are scores of classical dance forms in India, each emanating from varied geographies, reflecting the cultural heritage of the respective regions. A few of those are,

Info 1Kuchipudi: Kuchipudi, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, is named after a village in the Krishna district and is a classical dance form from Andhra Pradesh. It is largely an outgrowth of the Bhakti (devotion) movement beginning in the 7th century AD.

Salient features

  • It essentially involves a technique called Kanyakole, which is a fast rhythmic footwork and vigorous body movements.
  • What sets it apart from the rest is the usage of speech during the performance.
  • Tarangam is another unique feature of Kuchipudi, in which the artist dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing a complex set of dance patterns.

Info 2Kathakali: The much popular Kathakali has its profound origins in Kerala. In Malayalam, ‘Katha’ literally means story, and ‘Kali’ means to play. So, it actually means story-play. Kathakali encapsulates several characteristic features of many of the dances and dramas of the Southern part of India. It evolved out of its predecessors like the Kootiyattom, Sastrakali, Mudiyettu, Ramanattom, Theyyattom, and Krishnattom of Kerala. It is widely regarded to be a composite blend of five elements of theatre art, i.e., Nritya, Nritta, Natya, Geeta, and Vaadya.

Salient features

  • Dance begins with continuous drumming sounds.
  • It’s a blend of both dance and drama, so much so that it’s hard to differentiate between the both.
  • Many of its elements have been picked from Koodiyattam.
  • Its themes are based on Hindu epics like Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc.
  • It’s a male privy, and the dance is predominantly masculine. Even female characters are played by males.
  • It is traditionally enacted in the outdoor setup, and play goes on till the dawn.
  • Its unique features are ornamental costumes, intricate makeup, and paintings on faces in different colours, each representing a particular character.

Info 3Kathak: Kathak derives its name from Kathaks, who were temple dancers of north India. It began to spread during the medieval period as a part of the bhakti movement. As with any other dance form in India, kathak is also centred around Hindu mythological themes. Ras Leela is indispensable from kathak.

During the Mughals, Kathak had reached the premises of royal courts, and it acquired the present shape under the influence of the confluence of local, Persian, and central Asian luminaries present in the court.

Salient Features

  • It is both secular and religious in nature.
  • Swift footwork, legs maintained straight, and knees are not bent.
  • Swift leaps and body spins
  • Elaborate use of eyebrows
  • Movement is confined to the front and back.
  • Usage of both Indian and Persian costumes

Info 4Mohini Attam: Kerala’s pride, Mohini attam, was developed by the great Tamil nattuvanar (choreographer) Vadivelu. Mohini attam, despite being the result of the fusion of Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, has evolved its own identity. In Malayalam, the literal meaning of the word “Mohini” is female enchanter, and attam means dance, i.e., an enchanting dancer. In the word Mohiniattam, ‘Mohini’ means a maiden who charms the audience, and ‘attam’ means dance.

Salient Features

  • Essentially a solo female dance, i.e., lasya dominant, centred around religious themes.
  • Borrowed grace and elegance from Bharatanatyam and vigour from kathakali.
  • Believed to have its genesis in Kerala’s devadasi system.

Info 5Odissi: Based on the archaeological evidence, it is safe to conclude that Odissi has been the oldest classical dance in India. Inscriptions of Udayagiri caves dating back to the 1st century BCE stand testimony to the above assumption. It is primarily a religious dance, patronized by the kharvela kings. It has its origin in temple complexes of Odisha. Over time, it evolved into three distinct sub-styles, i.e., Mahari, a temple dance; Nartaki, royal court dance and the Gotipua, young boys enacting female roles.

Salient Features

  • It is widely regarded as the moving sculpture due to the sculpturesque body postures.
  • Tribhanga posture: Body flexed at Head, Bust and Torso.
  • Bending of Hip is the unique feature of this dance.

Info 6Bharatanatyam: It is a Pan-India popular classical dance hailing from Tamil Nadu. It is one of the oldest classical dances of India and originated from the devadasi system. It is a highly stylized solo dance predominantly performed by females. It derives its name from the words Bhava (expression), Raaga (Music), Taala (rhythm) and Natya, which means dance.

Salient Features

  • It is the only classical dance that’s centred around Shaivism. Shiva in the form of Natraja is the primary inspiration behind this dance, and it is primarily from Chola temples of Tanjore.
  • Abhinaya has been given a great emphasis.
  • It is regarded as the fire dance, representing the meta-physical fire in human body. Movement of the dancer resembles a dancing flame.
  • Knees are vigorously bent.
  • Katukamukhahastha and Ekacharya lasyam are unique elements of this dance.

Sattriya: Sattriya is the sole classical dance hailing from the eastern part of India. It has its inception in the medieval age Vaishnava monasteries of Assam called Sattras and was a male privilege. The current refined form of sattriya is attributed to 15th century Shankaracharya. In the present day, it has been performed by both men and women outside the sattras.

Salient Features

  • It is essentially accompanied by a musical composition called ‘borgeets’. 
  • Involves both Tandava and lasya.
  • In the modern days, Sattriya is performed on stage by women and men, who are not members of sattras, on themes not merely mythological.


Though it has dawned long ago, its current form is relatively new and is the youngest of all the recognised classical dances. It has evolved into two traditions – Lai Haroba and Khamba Thoibi.

Salient Features

  • Manipuri drum, called punga, is an essential instrument.
  • Rasleela is inseparable.
  • Involves both Tandava and lasya, but lasya predominates.
  • Nagabandhamudra: turning the body into the shape of ‘8’.

Folk Dances

Dances in folk culture are generally enacted to express festivity and joyful events. Folk dances are performed during a multitude of occasions, such as the arrival of seasons, the birth of a child, a wedding event, carnivals, etc., making folk dance an integral part of the social lives of Indians. Some of the features of Indian folk dances are;

  • Extreme simplicity with minimum technical requirements
  • full of energy and vigour
  • mostly, the dancers sing themselves, accompanied who play instruments.
  • Some are gender-specific, while others are flexible in terms of gender.
  • Widely penetrated to all corners of India.
  • The costumes worn for folk dancers, are colourful with extensive ornamentation.

 Some of the famous folk dances of India are;

  • Chau: Bihar
  • Bihu: Assam
  • Dhandia: Gujarat
  • Ghumar: Rajasthan

Tribal Dances

India harbours a vast tribal population hailing from diverse races and cultures. The majority of their population resides in the forests and hilly regions. Dance has been so vital to their lifestyles, so much so that it’s hard for the tribal men to find a mate if they do not know dancing. Also, dance has been so intricately weaved around their lifestyles that usually the dance form of mongoloid tribes, who subsist on fishing and hunting activities, resembles fishing and hunting activity, and similarly, the dance of tribes dwelling on plains resembles group activities. Some of the tribal dances are,

  • Bamboo Dance, Mizoram
  • Kalbelia Dance, Rajasthan
  • Elelakkaradi Dance, Kerala
  • Bhagoria Dance, Madhya Pradesh

Modern Dances

These are the result of increasing westernization and globalisation among the Indians. However, western dances haven’t replaced Indian dances in totality. Rather there was a fusion between traditional Indian dances and western dances like hip-hop, Jazz, Ballet, etc. Modern dances have already made deep inroads into rural India as well, thanks to the increasing transportation and mass media.

Doyens of India’s Age-Old Opulence

During the medieval periods, owing to the active patronizations by the kings, Indian dances have been thriving well. However, with the advent of Europeans, art forms were relegated and as a result of which they were left to gasp for breath. However, due to the priceless efforts of a few individuals in the recent centuries, Indian classical dances have breathed a fresh lease of life. A few of those pioneering luminaries were,

  • Rukmini Arundale: Bharatanatyam.
  • Radha and Rajareddy: Kuchipudi
  • Sonal Mansingh: Odissi
  • Kalamandalam murali: Kathakali
  • Sunanda Nair: Mohini Attam
  • Javeri sisters: Manipuri
  • Birju maharaja: Kathak
  • Pradeep chaliha: Sattriya

These luminaries, along with many others, have shouldered the responsibility to revive this fading opulence of India and pass the baton to posterity.

A State of Crisis

The ceaselessness of Indian classical dance has probably not been so endangered since the Victorian British era’s Anti-Nautch Laws as it is now. The Indian dances that have once been integral to the social lives of people haven’t found equal footing in 21st century India. This could be attributed to several threats, some of which are,

Globalisation: The increased traffic of ideas, ideologies and tastes between the global countries has often resulted in western tastes prevailing over their oriental counterparts. Consequently, western dances like jazz, hip-hop, ballet, etc, have been gaining more traction at the cost of Indian dance forms.

Urban lifestyles: The fast-paced lifestyles of Urban audiences are bereft of longer attention spans and would tend to prefer a “fast food” sample of a dance show rather than sit down patiently to watch out the entire duration of the performances.

Government’s apathy: Our government which is already burdened finds little time for cultural activities like this, which reflects in the minimal efforts and budgetary allocations. So, it’s now largely down to individual and organisational efforts.

Modernity rush: The FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) syndrome is increasingly driving the neo-middle classes and the millenniums away from the classical Indian heritage so as not to fall behind the so-called contemporary modernity. When the Bollywood, national media, and social media are going gaga over western arts, naturally, the individuals would feel that subscribing to classical Indian arts would result in their ostracization.

Further compounding the woes, not many academic institutions in India offer courses and provide a conducive environment to propagate Indian classical dances.

The Government’s Efforts 

Arts are timeless wealth for any country. To keep this wealth intact, the government, through the ministry of Culture, instituted the Sangeet Natak Academy in 1953, with the mandate to promote Indian music and Dance. It undertakes a few measures like,

  • Set up seven Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs) with headquarters stationed at Allahabad, Patiala, Nagpur, Kolkata, Tanjore, Udaipur, and Dimapur to take Indian folk dances to all the corners of India.
  • Provides grants to various organizations involved in production of Dances.
  • Training and Programme support.
  • Awards and honours.

Apart from this, Kalakshetra Foundation at Chennai operates a college-Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, for promoting Bharatnatyam and Carnatic Music.

However, the budgetary allocations to carry out these activities amount to less than 50 crores per annum, as per the 2022-23 budget. For a country with such an abundance of population and a huge wealth of dance forms, probably numbering in hundreds, this budgetary allocation looks very paltry and a mere formality. On the other hand, China outsmarts India in hogging the limelight in the global cultural landscape by pro-actively establishing its institutions in many prominent countries to propagate its cultural wealth to the world. Even India has embarked on this mission, but it a no match to China in terms of the sheer scale.

The Imperative to Revive

By now, we are all well apprised of the centrality and the vitality of the dances to the Indian culture and diverse heritage of India. It is vital to note that the Dance still renders a litany of services in the 21st century India, such as;

Safeguarding the heritage: Indian dance has a recorded history of at least many millenniums, and thereby they encapsulate volumes of Indian traditions and ideas. Keeping the several dance forms alive would go a long way in preserving our rich and proud heritage for posterity.

Asserting soft power: Indian dance, particularly classical dances, have a huge audience the world over. India can encash this craving by translating it into soft power. Indian dances are increasingly hogging the limelight all across the west, especially in Europe and North America. This helps India extend its cultural footprint on the global atlas of heritage.

Recreational services: It isn’t an exaggeration when we state that we cannot find a single festivity or wedding event in India without the enactment of dance. That is the gravity of joy that dance renders to the Indian populace. Probably and arguably, after the Indian drama, dance is the biggest source of recreation for Indians.

The Soothing effect: Arts are wonderful tools to calm the otherwise hustle and bustle-ridden modern lives. They help calm down the nerves, leave a soothing impact on mind, tranquilizes the mind, physical exercise for the performers, and act as a kind of meditation for the body and soul.

The arts enable us to comprehend and respond to external and internal realities. The age-old dancing tradition of India is a perfect bill that facilitates interacting with our ancient heritage. To overcome the restlessness of fast-forward lives of the artists, audience, and nations, the meditative core of these art forms has to be preserved. This eternal need is never an exaggeration, overstatement, or outdated. Dance has the mystic power of delighting, educating, and entertaining the masses. So, let’s give back the dance its due glory that it once enjoyed during its heydays.



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