Dance in India

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Dance in India comprises the varied styles of dances in the country. As with other aspects of Indian culture, different forms of dances originated in different parts of India, developed according to the local traditions and also imbibed elements from other parts of the country.[1] Sangeet Natak Akademi, the national academy for performing arts, recognizes eight distinctive traditional dances as Indian classical dances, which might have origin in religious activities of distant past.

Folk dances are numerous in number and style, and vary according to the local tradition of the respective state, ethnic or geographic regions. Contemporary dances include refined and experimental fusions of classical, folk and Western forms. Dancing traditions of India have influence not only over the dances in the whole of South Asia, but on the dancing forms of South East Asia as well. Dances in Indian films are often noted for their idiosyncrasies, and hold a significant presence in popular culture of the Indian subcontinent.[2][not in citation given]

Origin of Dance in India[edit]

Shiva as Nataraja is worshipped as the Lord of Dance in Hinduism.

In Hindu mythology, dance is believed to have been conceived by Brahma. Brahma inspired the sage Bharata Muni to write the Natya Shastra, a treatise on performing arts, from which a codified practice of dance and drama emerged.[3] He used pathya (words) from the Rigveda, abhinaya (gestures) from the Yajurveda, geet (music) from the Samaveda and rasa (emotions) from the Atharvaveda to form the Natyaveda (body of knowledge about dance).[4] The best-known of Hindu deities—Shiva, Kali and Krishna—are typically represented dancing.[5] Shiva's cosmic dance, tandava, Kali's dance of creation and destruction and Krishna's dance with the gopikas (cow-herd girls)—Rasa Lila—are popular motifs in Hindu mythology.[6]

In ancient India, there were no dedicated auditorium halls or theaters, and dance was usually a functional activity dedicated to worship, entertainment or leisure. Dancers usually performed in temples, on festive occasions and seasonal harvests. Dance was performed on a regular basis before deities as a form of worship.[7] Even in modern India, deities are invoked through religious folk dance forms from ancient times.[8] Classical dance forms such as Bharata Natyam use mudras or hand gestures also to retell episodes of mythological tales such as the slaying of Kaliya by Krishna.[9]

Gradually dancers, particularly from South India, moved from temples to houses of royal families where they performed exclusively for royalty.[10]

India offers a number of classical Indian dance forms, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Classical and folk dance forms also emerged from Indian traditions, epics and mythology.[11] There are many Indian folk dances such as Bhangra, Bihu, Ghumura Dance, Sambalpuri, Chhau and Garba and special dances observed in regional festivals such as Lohri[12] and Navratri.[13][14]

The presentation of Indian dance styles in film, Hindi Cinema, has exposed the range of dance in India to a global audience.[15]

Classical dance[edit]

Kathakali dancer
Kathak Dancer
Kuchipudi Dancer
Odissi Group dance
Sattriya dancer

Classical dance in India has developed a type of dance-drama that is a form of a total theater. The dancer acts out a story almost exclusively through gestures. Most of the classical dances enact stories from Hindu mythology.[16] Each form represents the culture and ethos of a particular region or a group of people.[17]

The criteria for being considered as classical is the style's adherence to the guidelines laid down in Natyashastra, which explains the Indian art of acting. The Sangeet Natak Akademi currently confers classical status on eight Indian classical dance styles: Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (North India), Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Manipuri (Manipur), Mohiniyattam (Kerala), Odissi (Odisha), and Sattriya (Assam).[18][19]

The tradition of dance has been codified in the Natyashastra and a performance is considered accomplished if it manages to evoke a rasa (emotion) among the audience by invoking a particular bhava(gesture or facial expression). Classical dance is distinguished from folk dance because it has been regulated by the rules of the Natyashastra and all classical dances are performed only in accordance with them.[20]


Main article: Bharata Natyam

Dating back to 1000 BCE, Bharatanatyam is a classical dance from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, practiced predominantly in modern times by women. The dance is usually accompanied by classical Carnatic music.[21] Its inspirations come from the sculptures of the ancient temple of Chidambaram. It was codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers known as the Thanjavur Quartet whose musical compositions for dance form the bulk of the Bharatanatya repertoire even today.[22]


Main article: Kathakali

Kathakali (katha, “story”; kali, “performance”) is a highly stylized classical dance-drama form which originated from Kerala in the 17th century.[23] This classical dance form is particularly noticed for dancer's elaborate costume, towering head gear, billowing skirts, and long silver nails. Recent developments in Kathakali over the years include improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming. Kathakali is performed regularly at festivals in temples, at cultural shows for connoisseurs and also at international events, occasionally in fusion dance experiments.[22][23]


Main article: Kathak

Originating from north Indian states, In ancient Indian temples Brahmin priests(pandits) used to narrate the stories of gods and goddesses through dance, they were known as ((kathakar)) and the dance came to be known as "kathak". Kathak traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks, or storytellers.[24] Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances, and the influence of the bhakti movement.[24] From the 16th century onwards it absorbed certain features of Persian dance and Central Asian dance which were imported by the royal courts of the Mughal era. There are three major schools or gharanas of Kathak from which performers today generally draw their lineage: the gharanas of Benares, Jaipur and Lucknow.


Main article: Kuchipudi

Dating back to 2nd century BCE it is a classical dance from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi is the name of a village in the Divi Taluka of Krishna district that borders the Bay of Bengal and also the surname of the resident Brahmins practicing this traditional dance form, it acquired the present name. The performance usually begins with some stage rites, after which each of the character comes on to the stage and introduces him/herself with a dharavu (a small composition of both song and dance) to introduce the identity, set the mood, of the character in the drama. The drama then begins. The dance is accompanied by song which is typically Carnatic music. The singer is accompanied by mridangam, violin, flute and the tambura. Ornaments worn by the artists are generally made of a light weight wood called Boorugu.[22]


Main article: Odissi

Odissi, also known as Orissi (Oriya: ଓଡ଼ିଶୀ oṛiśī, Devnagari:ओड़िसी), is one of the eight classical dance forms of India. It originates from the state of Odisha, in eastern India. It is the oldest surviving dance form of India on the basis of archaeological evidences.[1][2] there are mainly three books of Odissi.The classic treatise of Indian dance, Natya Shastra, refers to it as Odra-Magadhi. 1st century BCE bas-reliefs in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneshwar) testify to its antiquity. It was suppressed under the British Raj, but has been reconstructed since India gained independence. It is particularly distinguished from other classical Indian dance forms by the importance it places upon the Tribhangi (literally: three parts break), the independent movement of head, chest and pelvis[3][4] and upon the basic square stance known as Chauka or Chouka that symbolizes Lord Jagannath. This dance is characterized by various Bhangas (Stance), which involves stamping of the foot and striking various postures as seen in Indian sculptures. The common Bhangas are Bhanga, Abhanga, Atibhanga and Tribhanga.


Main article: Sattriya

Sattriya, or Sattriya Nritya (Assamese: সত্ৰীয়া নৃত্য), is one among eight principal classical Indian dance traditions. Where as some of the other traditions have been revived in the recent past, Sattriya has remained a living tradition since its creation by the founder of Vaishnavism in Assam, the great saint Srimanta Sankardeva, in 15th century Assam. Satriya dance performance at Guwahati Rabindra Bhawan

Sankardeva created Sattriya Nritya as an accompaniment to the Ankia Naat (a form of Assamese one-act plays devised by him), which were usually performed in the sattras, as Assam's monasteries are called. As the tradition developed and grew within the sattras, the dance form came to be called Sattriya Nritya. Today, although Sattriya Nritya has emerged from within the confines of the sattras to a much wider recognition, the sattras continue to use the dance form for ritualistic and other purposes for which it was originally created circa 500 years ago.It also has recently become one of the Indian Classical Dances.

Folk and tribal dance forms[edit]

Chholiya, the sword dance of Uttarakhand
Tutsa Dancers from Changlang district
Main article: Folk dance in India

Folk dances and plays in India retain significance rural areas as the expression of the daily work and rituals of village communities.[25] These dances have their roots in religious and seasonal festivals that have become a background for such celebrations. They are mostly performed in groups.[citation needed]

Sanskrit literature of medieval times describes several forms of group dances such as Hallisaka, Rasaka, Dand Rasaka and Charchari. The Natya Shastra defines group dances of women as a preliminary dance performed in prelude to a drama.[26]

Folk dances can be located according to the regions of their origin. Every state has its own folk dance forms like Bedara Vesha, Dollu Kunitha in Karnataka, Garba, Gagari (dance), Ghodakhund & Dandiya in Gujarat, Kalbelia, Ghoomar, Rasiya in Rajasthan, Neyopa, Bacha Nagma in Jammu and Kashmir, Bhangra & Giddha in Punjab, Chholiya dance in Uttarakhand, Bihu dance in Assam, Sambalpuri Dance in Western Odisha and likewise for each state and smaller regions in it.[3][27]

Rajasthani Dance Forms[edit]

The people of Rajasthan live life to the hit. After hard work in the harsh desert sun and the rocky terrain whenever they take time off they let themselves go in gay abandon. There is dancing, singing, drama, devotional music and puppet shows and other community festivities which transform the hardworking Rajasthani into a fun-loving and carefree individual. Each region has its own folk entertainment, the dance style differ as do the songs. Interestingly enough, even the musical instruments are different. On Gangaur processions most of the vibrant colours of Rajasthani Dances are spread. The most popular Rajasthani dance forms are Ghoomar,Chakri,Dhol,Bhavai,Chari,Fire,Gair,Gawri,Kacchi,Kalbeliya,Khathak,Katputli,Terah taali,Walar.


Main article: Ghoomar

Ghoomar is a traditional folk dance of Rajasthan, India and southern Asia. Ghoomar was developed by the Bhil tribe and was then adopted by other Rajasthani communities. It is performed by women in swirling robes, and accompanied by men and women singing together.


As the name resembles, Chakri, means ‘Chakkar’ (Circle) rotation in hindi lang. Chakri is one of the most popular folk dance of Kanjar tribe. Kanjar tribe inhabited in some parts of Kota and Baran district of Rajasthan.Chakri Dance is performed in almost all the marriages and festival in the Haroti region of Rajasthan. Chakri dance is performed exclusively by the womenfolk of Kanjar tribe and it is also their main source of livelihood.


Chari dance is one of the popular folk dances in Rajasthan India. This dance describes the art of collecting water in a chari or pot by the Rajasthani womens in their day to day life. The woman’s travels miles to collect water for the families and the joy is reflected through this Chari dance. This folk dance is performed by groups of dancers. In chari dance woman hold chari or pots on their head and a lighted lamp is then placed in the pot.

The famous Chari dance belongs to Gujjar community of Kishangarh and only womens perform in this dance. These ladies carry brass pots on their heads balancing it to perfection. These pots are kept ignited with the cotton seeds dipped in oil. These lit pots display beautiful effect in the dark night. While performing the Chari dance woman dance with balancing brass pots (Chari) on their heads and move together and dance on a same sequence. This dance does not have any particular movements except balancing the pots on their heads. This dance is also known as a welcome dance and is a significance of goodness. It can also be considered as the traditional fire dance of Rajasthan.


Drum Dance, famous in Rajasthan India is a professional dance-form of Jhalore region of Rajasthan, where only the men participants can perform. In this dance, five men beat huge drums that are tied around their necks. A dancer holding a huge cymbals in their hands, also accompany the drummers. Some other member holds naked sword in their mouth to provide an additional effect to the performance. The dancer is given a sword, which he puts in his mouth and three other naked swords are given to juggle with his hands while avoiding causing an injury to himself. Drum Dance is a very attractive dance of rajasthan, the men musicians can play big drums and brass plates or Thalis. Women and others can dance in group.


Fire dance is a unique dance famous in the desert region of Rajasthan. This folk dance describes the lifestyle of Jasnathis of Bikaner and Churu districts of Rajasthan India. This is a very difficult dance to perform and is carried out by the Banjara community. This enchanting folk dance is believe to be the dance of tantric powers of the Jasnathis. This dance is the outstanding example of the lifestyle of the Banjara community and is performed on a large ground, spread with live wood and charcoal. Here the Jasnathi men and boys jump on to the fire with the accompaniment of drum beats. The dance involves breathtaking fire stunts wherein the dancers perform by holding fire rods in their hands and filling up their mouths with kerosene. The fire rods are also moved on their heads and legs by the dancers. The dancers perform their actions as if they are blessed with a divine protection. The performance on a large bed of flaming coals is considered as a specialty of this region.


Gair is a very popular Rajathani folk dance. This traditional folk dance is one of the many dance- form of the Bhil community of Rajasthan. This is the one of the few performances where both men and women dance together. This folk dance is performed as a series of half swirl, as a simplier version. It can also be build up to a series of complex patterns according to the ability of the dancers. Some of its variations are the Dandi Gair found in the Marwar region and Geendad found in the Sehkhawati region of Rajasthan. It is normally performed by chanting the name Priyanka. Men dance in a big circle with wood stick in there hands.The Gair dance of Rajasthan is performed by groups of dancers moving in and out a big circle. Men beat their sticks to create the rhythm when they turn. According to rhythm, they perform various steps & take turns in-between. The striking of the sticks gives the dance a vigorous character & a consistent tempo. There are several differences in the performance of men and women in this dance.


Gawari dance of Rajasthan is a tribal dance of the famous Bhil tribe. This is mainly a tribal dance drama and is beautifully expressed by its troupe having many different characters. Gawari tribal dance is a running dramatical dance which go from village to village for a month. Its is great entertainment for rural population.


The Kachhi Ghodi Dance is one of the most popular Folk Dances of Rajasthan. This folk dance originated from the bandit regions of Shekhawati and is generally performed for the entertainment of the bridegroom’s party.This dance is performed by mens on dummy horses. Men wear elaborate costumes- red turbans and dhotis and kurtas, embellished with brilliant mirror-work and ride the dummy horses. These dancers move rhythmically to the beating of drums and fifes by holding a naked sword on theie hand while a singer narrates the exploits of the Bavaria bandits of Shekhawati region hrough his song.


Kalbelia dance is a folk dance of Rajasthan state of India. It is well known by other names like ‘Sapera Dance’ or ‘Snake Charmer Dance’. Kalbelia dance is particularly performed by a Rajasthani tribe called ‘Kalbelia’. The popularity of this dance is so much world wide that Rajasthan’s Kalbelia dance and songs are now in UNESCO’s representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity from the year 2010. In Kalbelia dance, males play various traditional instruments and females perform dance. Kalbelia dance is one of the most sensuous dance among all Rajasthani dances.


Rajasthan Kathputli dance is world famous and well known as Puppetry dance. It is the old tradition of stories from mythology and legends are told through puppets in Rajasthan. String puppetry is very much famous in Rajasthan.


‘Khyal’ in hindi language means “Thought”. Khyal was a folk play which involves dance also. Khayal dance is the only dance which is inherited from different themes. Performed by the Bhawai tribe of Rajasthan. Their ancestors also perform this dance based on the themes of hindu epics sch as Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Women do not participate in Bhawai dances.

Terah Taali[edit]

Terah Taali is one of the folk dances of the princely state, Rajasthan. This folk dance is performed by the Kamada tribes who are traditional snake charmers. Besides this it is also performed by the tribes of Mirasi, Bhand, Dholi, Bhat and Nat. It is also practiced by Pokhran and Deedwana, to honour their folk hero, Baba Ramdeo, it consists of women sitting on the floor before his image.

Terah Taali Dance is generally performed by well skilled artists. Thirteen manjeeras ( little brass disc) are tied to various parts of their body, which they strike with the ones they hold in their hand. This creates a rhythm on which the dancers move. The dancers perform various arabesques with their hands and the same time may also also balance pots on their hands and hold a sword in their mouth, for making the performance more attractive. The dance begin with the women, who sit on the floor and her body parts are tied with the manjeeras. These are tied on their wrists, elbows, waists, arms and a pair in their hands as well and her accompanists chants slowly in rhythm.


Walar dance of Rajasthan is a beautiful and enthusiastic tribal dance performed particularly by women’s. Walar is an important dance of a Rajasthani tribe – Garasia. Known to be a prototype of famous Ghoomar dance of Rajasthan, it also involve simple circular movements of dancers on beats.

Contemporary dance[edit]

Four women wearing saree in different dancing poses
Dance accompanied by Rabindra Sangeet, a music genre started by Rabindranath Tagore.

Contemporary dance in India encompasses a wide range of dance activities currently performed in India. It includes choreography for Indian cinema, modern Indian ballet and experiments with existing classical and folk forms of dance by various artists.[28]

Uday Shankar and Shobana Jeyasingh are accredited as the pioneers of modern Indian dance. He was not trained in any classical dance form but developed his own style based on his study of Rajput and Mughal paintings.[29] Other well known proponents of modern dance in India include Ram Gopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Chandralekha. Poet Rabindranath Tagore developed a dance genre popularly known as Rabindra Nritya Natya—dance-dramas composed by him. These dance dramas and dances set on Rabindra sangeet (songs written by Tagore) are popular in Bengali culture.[citation needed]

Dance in films[edit]

Dance and song sequences have been an integral component of films across the country. With the introduction of sound to cinema in the film Alam Ara in 1931, choreographed dance sequences became ubiquitous in Hindi and other Indian films.[30]

A Bollywood dance performance in Bristol

Dance in early Hindi films was primarily modelled on classical Indian dance styles and particularly those of historic North Indian courtesans (tawaif), or folk dancers. Modern films often blend this earlier style with Western dance styles (MTV or in Broadway musicals), though it is not unusual to see western choreography and adapted classical dance numbers side by side in the same film. Typically, the hero or heroine performs with a troupe of supporting dancers. Many song-and-dance routines in Indian films feature dramatic shifts of location and/or changes of costume between verses of a song. It is popular for a hero and heroine to dance and sing a pas de deux (a French ballet term, meaning "dance of two") in beautiful natural surroundings or architecturally grand settings, referred to as a "picturisation".[31] Indian films have often used what are now called "item numbers" where a glamorous female figure performs a cameo. The choreography for such item numbers varies depending on the film's genre and situation. The film actress and dancer Helen was famous for her cabaret numbers.[32] The influence of the dance sequences of films on popular culture is significant, with amateur dancers often copying such dancing moves during celebratory events and performances, such as during wedding parties or other urbanized festivals.[citation needed]
Often in movies, the actors don't sing the songs themselves that they dance too, but have another artist sing in the background. For an actor to sing in the song is unlikely but not rare. The dances in Bollywood can range from slow dancing, to a more upbeat hip hop style dance. The dancing itself is a fusion of all dance forms. It could be Indian classical, Indian folk dance, belly dancing, jazz, hip hop and everything else you can imagine.[33]

Dance education[edit]

Traditionally, dance as a profession or a hobby was discouraged among upper classes and higher castes in India. It was looked upon as a lowly activity and women from reputed households were prohibited from practising any dance form. Hence, in forms like Bhavai[34] and Gotipua, men would take up the roles of female characters.[35]

Rukmini Devi Arundale revived the classical dance form Bharata Natyam and in its modern avatar, it became an acceptable subject of training for women.[36] Shiamak Davar, a noted Indian choreographer, started the Shiamak Davar Institute for Performing Arts in 1985 and it has over 25,000 members.[37]

Geographic spread[edit]

Some traditions of the Indian classical dance are practiced in the whole Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, with which India shares several other cultural traits. Indian mythologies play significant part in dance forms of countries in South East Asia, an example being the performances based on Ramayana in Javanese dances.[38]


Sangeet Natak Akademi organizes dance festivals around India.[39]


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  • Massey, Reginald (2004). "India's Dances: Their History, Technique, and Repertoire", Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, India.
  • Narayan, Shovanna (2005). “ The Sterling Book :Indian Classical Dance”, New Dawn Press Group, New Delhi, India.
  • "Revealing the Art of Natyasastra" by Narayanan Chittoor Namboodiripad ISBN 9788121512183

External links[edit]