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Indian classical dance

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An illustration of the Manipuri Raas Leela Dance (Meitei: Jagoi Raas, Raas Jagoi), one of the officially recognised classical dance forms of India, depicted on a postage stamp from Armenia.

Indian classical dance, or Shastriya Nritya, is an umbrella term for different regionally-specific Indian classical dance traditions, rooted in predominantly Hindu musical theatre performance,[1][2][3] the theory and practice of which can be traced to the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra.[4][5][6] The number of Indian classical dance styles ranges from six to eight to twelve, or more, depending on the source and scholar;[7][8] the main organisation for Indian arts preservation, the Sangeet Natak Academy recognizes eight: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam.[9] Additionally, the Indian Ministry of Culture includes Chhau in its list, recognising nine total styles.[10] Scholars such as Drid Williams add Chhau, Yakshagana and Bhagavata Mela to the list.[11][3] Each dance tradition originates and comes from a different state and/or region of India; for example, Bharatanatyam is from Tamil Nadu in the south of India, Odissi is from the east coast state of Odisha, and Manipuri is from the northeastern state of Manipur. The music associated with these different dance performances consists many compositions in Hindi, Malayalam, Meitei (Manipuri), Sanskrit, Tamil, Odia, Telugu, and many other Indian-Subcontinent languages; they represent a unity of core ideas and a diversity of styles, costumes, and expression.


Indian classical dancing started around 200 BCE in India, as a joyful and celebratory activity, often in devotion to Hindu deities. Many of the performances are choreographed to retell stories of the gods and other historical accounts. All styles of Indian classical dance are vibrant, expressive, and spiritual. Dance performances usually take place at festivals, universities, various cultural events, and more. The dancers who perform these styles are usually professionals who have devoted years of study and practice in their respective style of Indian classical dance. In performances, the dancers move to the beat of the song or music that is playing; in some styles, such as Kathak, bells are worn around the ankles at times for added rhythmic effect when the feet are stomped. The dancer takes the role of the character that they are portraying in the performance, the composition being specific, and become emotionally connected with the story and the audience.[12]

When dancers perform classical Indian dancing, they wear traditional clothes including sarees, lenghas, and kurtas. Usually, women are the main performers in Indian classical dancing, though men are not absent from the tradition. The costume for women usually consists of a long, colorful, handmade gown (worn without shoes), with an intricately embroidered pattern(s) and beading on it. For accessories, there is the use of much ornate jewelry, such as necklaces, rings, earrings, nose-rings, bracelets and anklets, sometimes with bells attached which ring each time the dancer stomps their foot in rhythm. The costume also includes a head-piece or some form of scarf, depending on the style. The women usually wear considerable amounts of facial makeup, not only to be noticeable from the audience, but to fully embody their character. [13]

Types of classical dances[edit]

The Natya Shastra is the foundational treatise for classical dances of India,[4][14] and this text is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni.[6][15][16] Its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE,[17][18] but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE.[19] The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters.[17][20] The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances.[17][21] Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues, and the essence of scriptures.[22][23]

Performance arts and culture

Let Nātya (drama and dance) be the fifth vedic scripture.
Combined with an epic story,
tending to virtue, wealth, joy and spiritual freedom,
it must contain the significance of every scripture,
and forward every art.

Nātyaśāstra 1.14–15[22][24]

While the Natya Shastra is the revered ancient text in the Hindu tradition, there are numerous other ancient and medieval Sanskrit dance-drama related texts that further discuss and expand on the classical repertoire of performance arts, such as the Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinava Bharati, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa and many others.[25][26][27] The term "classical" (Sanskrit: "Shastriya") denotes the ancient Indian Shastra-based performing arts.

The text Natya Shastra describes religious arts as a form as margi, or a "spiritual traditional path" that liberates the soul, while the folk entertainment is called desi, or a "regional popular practice".[28][29][30]

Indian classical dances are traditionally performed as an expressive drama-dance form of religious performance art,[3] related to Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, pan-Hindu Epics and the Vedic literature, or a folksy entertainment that includes story-telling from Sanskrit or regional language plays.[31] As a religious art, they are either performed inside the sanctum of a Hindu temple, or near it.[1][2] Folksy entertainment may also be performed in temple grounds or any fairground, typically in a rural setting by traveling troupes of artists; alternatively, they have been performed inside the halls of royal courts or public squares during festivals.[32]

However, this is not the case for Kathak, Manipuri and Chhau as it has their own uniqueness. Kathak can be also performed on courtyards of mosques and had Muslim elements while Manipuri had the huyen langlon genre which focuses on combat.[33][34][35][36] Like Manipuri, Chhau also had elements on combat.

Dance forms[edit]

The Natya Shastra mentions four Pravrittis (traditions, genres) of ancient dance-drama in vogue when it was composed – Avanti (Ujjain, central), Dakshinatya (south), Panchali (north, west) and Odra-Magadhi (east).[37]

Sources differ in their list of Indian classical dance forms.[38][39] Encyclopædia Britannica mentions six dances.[40] The Sangeet Natak Akademi has given recognition to eight Indian dances.[41] The Indian government's Ministry of Culture includes nine dance forms.[42] Scholars such as Drid Williams and others include Yakshagana and Bhagavata Mela to the nine classical Indian dances in the Sangeet Natak Akademi list.[3][11]

The classical dance forms recognised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture are:[41][43]

Eight classical dances recognised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture[edit]

Other dances also recognised by the Ministry of Culture of India[edit]


Some famous Indian classical dancers are :

Shared aspects[edit]

All major classical Indian dance forms include in repertoire, three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra. These are Nritta, Nritya and Natya:[44]

  • The Nritta performance is an abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance.[45] The viewer is presented with pure movement, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern.[44] This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of the story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses (Prakriti) of the audience.[46]
  • The Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions.[45] In a Nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The actor articulates a legend or a spiritual message. This part of the repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment, it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.[44][46]
  • The Natyam is a play, typically a team performance,[47] but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya.[44][48][49]

All classical dances of India used similar symbolism and rules of gestures in abhinaya (acting). The roots of abhinaya are found in the Natyashastra text which defines drama in verse 6.10 as that which aesthetically arouses joy in the spectator, through the medium of actor's art of communication, that helps connect and transport the individual into a super sensual inner state of being.[50] A performance art, asserts Natyashastra, connects the artists and the audience through abhinaya (literally, "carrying to the spectators"), that is applying body-speech-mind and scene, wherein the actors communicate to the audience, through song and music.[50] Drama in this ancient Sanskrit text, this is an art to engage every aspect of life, to glorify and gift a state of joyful consciousness.[51]

The communication through symbols is in the form of expressive gestures (mudras or hastas) and pantomime set to music. The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras (sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story.[52] In Hindu classical dances, the artist successfully expresses the spiritual ideas by paying attention to four aspects of a performance:

  • Angika (gestures and body language),
  • Vachika (song, recitation, music and rhythm),
  • Aharya (stage setting, costume, make up, jewelry),
  • Sattvika (artist's mental disposition and emotional connection with the story and audience, wherein the artist's inner and outer state resonates).[52]
  • Abhinaya draws out the bhava (mood, psychological states).[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica excludes Mohiniyattam from the list of the Indian classical dances.
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica excludes Sattriya from the list of the Indian classical dances.


  1. ^ a b Julius Lipner (2012). Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Routledge. p. 206. ISBN 978-1-135-24061-5., Quote: "It would be appropriate here to comment on Hindu classical dance. This developed in a religious context and was given high profile as part of temple worship. There are several regional and other styles as well as source texts, but the point we wish to stress is the participative nature of such dance. In form and content, the heart of dance as worship in Hinduism has always been 'expression' (abhinaya), i.e. the enacting of various themes".
  2. ^ a b Jean Holm; John Bowker (1994). Worship. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 85. ISBN 978-1-85567-111-9., Quote: Hindu classical dance-forms, like Hindu music, are associated with worship. References to dance and music are found in the Vedic literature, (...)".
  3. ^ a b c d Frank Burch Brown (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–196. ISBN 978-0-19-972103-0., Quote: All of the dances considered to be part of the Indian classical canon (Bharata Natyam, Chhau, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Odissi, Sattriya, and Yakshagana) trace their roots to religious practices (...) the Indian diaspora has led to the translocation of Hindu dances to Europe, North America and the world."
  4. ^ a b James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: N-Z. The Rosen Publishing Group. pp. 467. ISBN 978-0-8239-3180-4., Quote: "the Natyashastra remains the ultimate authority for any dance form that claims to be 'classical' dance, rather than 'folk' dance".
  5. ^ Ragini Devi 1990, pp. 60–68.
  6. ^ a b Mohan Khokar (1984). Traditions of Indian classical dance. Clarion Books. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9780391032750.
  7. ^ "6 Classical Dances of India | Britannica".
  8. ^ Sarwal, Amit; Walker, David (2015). "Staging a Cultural Collaboration: Louise Lightfoot and Ananda Shivaram". Dance Chronicle. 38 (3): 305–335. doi:10.1080/01472526.2015.1088286. S2CID 166744945.
  9. ^ Bishnupriya Dutt; Urmimala Sarkar Munsi (2010). Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity. SAGE Publications. p. 216. ISBN 978-81-321-0612-8.
  10. ^ "Dance | Ministry of Culture, Government of India".
  11. ^ a b Williams 2004, pp. 83–84, the other major classical Indian dances are: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Sattriya, Chhau, Manipuri, Yaksagana and Bhagavata Mela.
  12. ^ Aryan Singh A guide To Indias History
  13. ^ Aryan Singh A guide to Indias History
  14. ^ Tanvi Bajaj; Swasti Shrimali Vohra (2015). Performing Arts and Therapeutic Implications. Routledge. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-1-317-32572-7.
  15. ^ Schramm, Harold (1968). "Musical Theatre in India". Asian Music. 1 (1). University of Texas Press: 31–40. doi:10.2307/834008. JSTOR 834008.
  16. ^ Coorlawala, Uttara Asha (1993). "The Toronto conference on "new directions in Indian dance"". Dance Chronicle. 16 (3). Routledge: 391–396. doi:10.1080/01472529308569140.
  17. ^ a b c Natalia Lidova 2014.
  18. ^ Tarla Mehta 1995, pp. xxiv, 19–20.
  19. ^ Wallace Dace 1963, p. 249.
  20. ^ Emmie Te Nijenhuis 1974, pp. 1–25.
  21. ^ Kapila Vatsyayan 2001.
  22. ^ a b Coormaraswamy and Duggirala (1917). "The Mirror of Gesture". Harvard University Press. p. 4.; Also see chapter 36
  23. ^ Guy L. Beck (2012). Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 138–139. ISBN 978-1-61117-108-2. Quote: "A summation of the signal importance of the Natyasastra for Hindu religion and culture has been provided by Susan Schwartz, "In short, the Natyasastra is an exhaustive encyclopedic dissertation of the arts, with an emphasis on performing arts as its central feature. It is also full of invocations to deities, acknowledging the divine origins of the arts and the central role of performance arts in achieving divine goals (...)".
  24. ^ "Natyashastra" (PDF). Sanskrit Documents.
  25. ^ Tarla Mehta 1995, pp. xxix, 131–137.
  26. ^ Mandakranta Bose (2012). Movement and Mimesis: The Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic Tradition. Springer. pp. 13–32, 108–112. ISBN 978-94-011-3594-8.
  27. ^ Ragini Devi 1990, pp. 18–37.
  28. ^ Reginald Massey 2004, p. 32.
  29. ^ Ragini Devi 1990, pp. 67, context: 60-68.
  30. ^ Thera Mahanama-sthavira (1999). Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka. Jain Publishing. pp. 40–41. ISBN 978-0-89581-906-2.
  31. ^ Ragini Devi 1990, pp. 25–30, 67–68, 166.
  32. ^ Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann & Phillip B. Zarrilli 1993, pp. 3, 34–36, 47, 171–173, 215, 327–329.
  33. ^ "Kathak Dance Puts Hinduism and Islam in the Same Circle".
  34. ^ Chowdhurie, Tapati (13 May 2016). "Gem of a journey". The Hindu.
  35. ^ "Manipuri Dance: A Journey" (PDF). esamskriti.com.
  36. ^ "Manipuri dance elbowed out by Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Kathak".
  37. ^ Sunil Kothari; Avinash Pasricha (1990). Odissi, Indian classical dance art. Marg Publications. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-81-85026-13-8.
  38. ^ "Indian Classical Dance". One India. 2009-04-19. Archived from the original on 2009-04-17. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  39. ^ Narayan, Shovana (2005). Indian classical dances: "ekam sat vipraah bahudaa vadanti". Shubhi Publications. p. 5. ISBN 9781845571696.
  40. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. dance (performing arts) : Indian classical dance. Retrieved 03-11-2010.
  41. ^ a b SNA || Awards & Honours
  42. ^ a b "Dance". Indiaculture.nic.in. Retrieved 2022-05-27.
  43. ^ "Dance | Ministry of Culture, Government of India". indiaculture.nic.in.
  44. ^ a b c d Meduri, Avanthi (1988). "Bharatha Natyam-What Are You?". Asian Theatre Journal. 5 (1). University of Hawaii Press: 3–4. doi:10.2307/1124019. JSTOR 1124019.
  45. ^ a b Ellen Koskoff (2008). The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia. Routledge. p. 955. ISBN 978-0-415-99404-0.
  46. ^ a b Janet Descutner (2010). Asian Dance. Infobase. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-1-4381-3078-1.
  47. ^ Kavitha Jayakrishnan (2011), Dancing Architecture: the parallel evolution of Bharatanātyam and South Indian Architecture, MA Thesis, Awarded by University of Waterloo, Canada, page 25
  48. ^ Reginald Massey 2004, pp. 33–38, 83–84, 207–214.
  49. ^ Bruno Nettl; Ruth M. Stone; James Porter; et al. (1998). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South Asia : the Indian subcontinent. Routledge. pp. 516–521. ISBN 978-0-8240-4946-1.
  50. ^ a b Tarla Mehta 1995, p. 3.
  51. ^ Tarla Mehta 1995, p. 5.
  52. ^ a b c Tanvi Bajaj; Swasti Shrimali Vohra (2015). Performing Arts and Therapeutic Implications. Routledge. pp. 82–84. ISBN 978-1-317-32572-7.


External links[edit]