Indian Classical Dance Styles

Indian classical dance styles is quite a new term for referring to the different codified art forms found in Natya, which is the sacred musical styles of the Hindus. The Natya theories date back to the Natya Shastra of Bharata Muni in the 400 BC.

The Indian classical dance styles are basically about the same signs of hands that are 'mudras' used as a common language for expression. Most of these classical dance forms in India were originally executed at the temples for entertaining and invoking different Gods and Goddesses. These dances also serves as an effective medium for carrying forward the mythological stories to the upcoming generations, making them aware and also at the same time entertaining the audience.

Over the years, the classical dances of India evolved so as to include the various themes and expressions from social life and the experiences of people.

At present, eight dance styles in India have been conferred with the classical status by the Sangeet Natak Akademi while the Encyclopedia Britannica have recognized six classical schools of dance.

Bharatnatyam Dance

Among the popular Indian classical dance styles, Bharatnatyam originated in the South Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Almost 2000 years old, the Bharatnatyam dance prospered mainly at the Hindu temples in South India. The temple dancers also known as the Devdasis flourished in the early times under the royal patronage. The credit goes to Rukmini Devi and Bala Saraswati for reviving and also popularizing the Bharatnatyam dance form to the present day.

The present form of this dance was developed by Poniah Pillai and his brothers from Tanjore. There are several formats of Bharatnatyam such as Alarippu (invocation), Shabdam (lyrics and notes), Jathi Swaram (note combinations) Varnam (combination of abhinaya and dance), lighter items such as Padams and Javalis and the thillana (pure dance). Bharatnatyam has been considered as the mother art of many of the other Indian Classical Dance Styles and has also inspired many art forms such as painting, sculpture and icon-making.

Kathak Dance

Kathak has been taken from the word "katha", which means "the art of storytelling." Originating in north India, this Indian classical dance style is quite similar to that of Bharatnatyam dance.

The origin of this classical dance of India can be traced back to the nomadic bards from the ancient north India, called the Kathaks, or story tellers. With time, slowly several Gharanas or schools in Kathak came up such as the Jaipur Gharana and the Lucknow Gharana.

Kathak dances are executed straight-legged. The ankle bells that are worn by the performers are competently controlled as well. The emphasis in this particular form of dance is given more on the footwork. Both women and men can perform the Kathak dance. Birju Maharaj and Uma Sharma happens to be the modern exponents of the Kathak dance.

Kathakali Dance

Kathakali happens to be the popular classical dance of Kerala. It literally means "Story-Play". This classical Dance in India is popular for its elaborate make-up and heavy costumes. Kathakali dance is based on themes taken from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other Hindu epics, legends and mythologies.

Kathakali comprises of both pure dance that is nritya and also mime that is abhinaya. Initially though performed only by men, these days even women take part in this dance form. Most interesting is the fact that the only dance form in India where the whole body, muscles, skeleton and even the smallest of facial muscle are used while portraying emotions, is the Kathakali dance.

Kuchipudi Dance

Kuchipudi happens to be the classical dance form of South India. It derives its name from a village in the state of Andhra Pradesh, called Kuchipudi. This particular classical dance style in India demonstrates scenes taken from the Hindu legends, epics and mythological tales with the help of a combination of dance, music and acting.

Originally Kuchipudi dance was performed by the dancers in the open air and they were also given vigorous training in music, dancing, abhinaya and singing. Young good looking boys played the female roles; orchestral music including Madala, Mridanga, and cymbals accompanied the Kuchipudi dance in its earliest form. Invocation of the idol was also done with the aim to bless the dance performance.

The Kuchipudi dance has however gone through several changes and modification. The present form of the dance is different from that which was initially there. The performances nowadays are mostly solo while the danseuse herself sings the expressional numbers. Owing to more secular presentation, the invocation of deity doesn�t take place anymore. Erotic essence or 'sringar' is more predominant in the present day dance form.

Manipuri Dance

Manipuri dance is among the eight beautiful classical dances of India and is indigenous to the north east state of India, Manipur. The life style of the people in Manipur is inextricably and beautifully woven in the Manipuri dance style. The most fascinating feature of this classical dance style of India is the lightness of the foot, colorful decoration, delicacy of drama or abhinaya, the poetic charm and the lilting music. The Manipuri dance is generally mostly ritualistic and is completely about receiving the spiritual experience. While the music accompanying this dance in India is quaint, the Manipuri dance costumes happen to be colorful.

Apart from being a medium of delight and worship, the Manipurio dance also forms an essential part in the socio-cultural life of the Manipuri people. From an artistic and religious point of view, the Manipuri Classical dance is considered to be amongst the modest, purest, mildest, softest and meaningful dances in India.

Mohiniattam Dance

The popular Indian classical dance, Mohiniattam originated form the state of Kerala. The name has been derived from the two words, "Mohini" which means beautiful women and "attam" which means dance. The Mohiniattam dance developed as a part of the Devadasi tradition prevalent long back in the state. Over the years, this dance style of India developed to gain a classical status.

Mohiniattam happens to be a female, solo dance focusing mainly on emotions and feminine moods. Delicate subjects of love are executed by the performer, through the help of subtle gestures, rhythmic footwork, suggestive abhinaya and beautiful music. Vishnu or "Mohini" forms the essence of the Mohiniattam dance. Musical instruments such as Veena, Mridangam and violin accompany the Mohiniattam dance while the dancer herself narrates the episodes from legends and epics.


Mythological stories form the core of the Sattriya Nritya. This classical dance of India served as an artistic way to present the mythological teachings among the people in such a way that they are enjoyable, immediate and accessible. Initially, only the male monks or the bhokots performed the Sattriya dance in the monasteries where the dance formed a part of their daily practice. It also marked off special events and festivals. Today, however, the Sattriya dance is performed both by women and men who are not sattras. The themes also are not only mythological but varied.

Last Updated on : 16 March 2011

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