Karnataka Music and Dance

Karnataka music and dance feature a wide variety of classical and folk forms. Music and dance from Karnataka are meant not only for entertainment but also for the spiritual betterment of the performers and the beholders. Influences have filtered in from every corner of southern and even northern India and have enriched the world of Karnataka's music and dance.

Carnatic classical music lies at the very center of Karnataka music and dance traditions. From ancient times, Karnataka has contributed largely in ascertaining its structure and form. It has also presented the world with some of its major composers and performers. The veena along with violin and mridangam form the chief musical instruments. Unlike most states of southern India, the contribution of Karnataka to the world of North Indian Classical music has also been noteworthy. Kuchipudi is the original dance form with its origin in Karnataka. However, other classical dance forms like the Bharatanatyam also form important parts within the tradition of music and dance of Karnataka.

Folk performance are very significant parts of Karnataka music and dance. They beautifully blend music, dance and theatrical performances. Most of these folk forms still continue in their primary ritualistic mode. Kunithas are traditional dance dramas that employ a great deal of music and dance. Some of the major forms of these kunithas are dollu kunithas, pata kunithas, dorava kunithas. The highly spectacular yashagana is a major folk musical performance. Krishna Parijatha and Bhoot Aradhane are some of the other major folk forms of Karnataka music and dance.


Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular classical dance forms in India. Although founded in Tamil Nadu, Bharatanatyam in Karnataka enjoys great popularity as well. The particular schools of Karnataka's Bharatanatyam dance is being taken to great heights by practicing artists who teach and perform around Bangalore and various other cities of the state.

Bharatanatyam traces its origin to the Fifth Veda or Natya Shastra by the Hindu sage Bharatmuni. The dance form is derived from the name of the sage. However, legend has it that the name of the dance embodies the triple essence of emotion (bhav), music and song (raga) and rhythm (tala) in its name. Bharatanatyam was originally practiced by the temple dancers or Devadasis, but found its form largely in the hands of the famous Tanjore Quitnet: Chinniah, Sivanandan, Ponniah an Vadivelu. Bharatanatyam employs nritta (rhythmic dance), abhinaya (mime acting) and nritya (a combination of the two) in its performance and each part employs a great degree of intricate sub-parts. Together, they are believed to uplift the performer and the audience to a divine state of being.


Kuchipudi is essentially a form of classical dance-drama that developed at Kuchelapuram in the southeastern part of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi at Karnataka enjoys great popularity and is practiced widely by men and women alike.

The knowledge in performing Kuchipudi in the earlier days were confined among the Brahmins and were disseminated within the closed doors of tradition. However, presently great masters and efficient performers instruct the pupils on the nuances of Kuchipudi in Karnataka through various dance forms though art schools and dance academies built specifically for the purpose.

Siddhendra Yogi, a sage of great repute and wisdom is considered to be the founder of Kuchipudi. He instructed his students in representing various mythological themes in a dance form built on the lines of the Natya Shastra of Bharatmuni. Practiced widely by the Brahmins, the dance was not considered to be a form of entertainment in the early years. It was a mode of personal enlightenment and at times was used as a tool of social reform as well. The dance employs a series of graceful movements and fast rhythmic patterns accompanied by traditional Carnatic musical instruments and songs. Often presented as solo or group performances in the present day, it still retains various events taken from Hindu mythology as its theme.

Dollu Kunitha

Dollu Kunitha is a major form of folk-dance performance in Karnataka. Dollu Kunitha is performed mainly by men and women of the Kuruba community of Nothern Karnataka.

Dollu Kunitha in Karnataka is generally performed to commemorate an auspicious event. The districts of Shimoga and Chitradurga are particularly noted for their excellence in the performance of this folk form. The performance like almost all other folk performances of India is not only a mode of entertainment but is intended towards the spiritual well being of the performers and the spectators.

Dollu Kunitha at Karnataka has distinct religious overtones. They are traditionally performed at the temples of Bireshwar. Traditionally the themes were religious and were known as the 'Halumatha Purana' or simply the 'Kuruba Purana'. However, recently it has been used to propagate various government schemes and programs including adult education, literacy programs, etc. It forms the center of attraction at all religious festivals of Karnataka specially Northern Karnataka. Often it is used to welcome the harvest season. However, it can also be arranged to commemorate a wedding, the birth of a child or even a burial or a funeral.

Puja Kunitha

Puja Kunitha is a popular ritualistic folk dance of Karnataka practiced largely around Bangalore and Mandya districts. It is extremely colorful and visually delightful.

Visual splendor is emphasized at the expense of elaborate oral narration. Puja Kunitha in Karnataka is ritually used to worship the cult of the Shakti. Karnataka's Puja Kunitha is an important part of the Kunitha tradition of the state which literally means ritualistic folk dances.

The primary ruling deity for the Puja Kunitha of Karnataka is the goddess Shakti in her various forms of incarnation. It forms an integral part of all religious ceremonies, particularly those related to the worship of Shakti. They are performed profusely in religious processions, fairs and festivals. With its pomp and elegance, it creates an aura of high spirituality among the performers and the spectators. Despite the distinct religious overtones of the performance, Puja Kunitha of Karnataka enjoys wide appreciation because of its grace and colorfulness.

Pata Kunitha

Pata Kunitha in Karnataka is a popular folk-dance form extremely popular among the inhabitants of the Mysore region. Like other Kunithas or dance-drames with a ritualistic overtone, the original significance of Pata Kunitha is primarily religious.

However, there is not much of a narration that is used and the emphasis is on the rhythm and the skill of the dancers. Pata Kunitha of Karnataka is an extremely colorful dance form and provides great visual delight.

Karnataka's Pata Kunitha is preformed mainly by men. Each performance usually employs the participation of 10 to 15 men. Pata Kunitha typically employs the use of the pata, which are primarily long bamboo poles decorated with color ribbons. Each of the bamboo poles are about 10 to 15 feet high. A silver or brass umbrella usually crown the poles. The artist manipulate the poles with great dexterity and to the accompaniment of a largely rhythmic music. Pata Kunitha, Karnataka, is widely performed in the rural religious gatherings in the villages of the state. Though some narration is used, it is not of much significance. The skill of the dancers in maneuvering the long bamboo poles attract the greatest attention.

Although there was some kind of an original religious significance to Pata Kunitha at Karnataka, it is now largely lost. However, it is still considered to be a largely ritualistic performance. The elaborately decorated bamboo poles could have had some kind of totemic significance. However it is the visual delight of the dance that now characterizes this extremely popular folk dance form in Karnataka. Along with Beesu Kamsale, it is the most popular folk dance form in the Mysore region of the state.

Bhootha Aradhane

eans devil worship. Widely practiced in the coastal regions of Karnataka, the festival is a great mix of folk beliefs, awesome spectacle and ritualistic magic to ward away the evil through a worship of the devil himself.

Karnataka's Bhootha Aradhane is widely popular because of its unique spectacle and strange aura. The folk origins of the ritual is clear and is carried on undisturbed as they were in the ancient times.

Bhootha Aradhane of Karnataka involves much visual splendor. Typically, it involves a procession in which idols are carried with great pomp. The idols are painted in a traditional manner and are meant to represent the bhootas or the devils. A curious scary feel is consciously imported in the demeanor of the idols. All throughout the procession, drums are beaten and firecrackers are burnt as the big crowd carry the idols towards a raised platform placed at a distance where the final rites of the procession take place.


Nagamandala of Karnataka is a variant of serpent worship rituals prevalent among Hindus in all parts of India. This night-long elaborate ritual is performed in the regions of Southern Karnataka and involve ritualistic appeasement of the serpent.

The serpent of Karnataka's Nagamandala celebration is usually considered to be the symbol of fertility and an embodiment of life-force. The celebration of Nagamandala at Karnataka employs music, dance, ritual chanting in Sanskrit and Kannad and possession of the head-priest.

Nagamandala in Karnataka is usually performed by male dancers called Vaidyas who specialize in this form of specialized worship. In the time of the ritual they dress themselves up as nagakannikas or female serpents and dance around an elaborate design painted on sacred ground which represent the serpent spirit and is the object of their worship. A Brahmin resides at the center of the activities and gets possessed somewhere in the middle of the ritual signifying the presence of the serpent spirit among the devotees. The design of the Nagamandala is in itself an artistic feat. It is an elaborate pattern drawn in natural colors. Traditional and symbolic patterns hold the serpent image at the very center.

Gorava Kunitha

Gorava Kunitha is an unique form of ritualistic folk dance in Karnataka. This dance form is extremely revered among the Shaivite cults of Karnataka and is practiced in both the northern and the southern parts of the state with slight variations.

However, the Gorava Kunitha performances in and around the districts of Mysore, Shimoga and Belgaum are the most popular. Gorava Kunitha in Karnataka is distinct from the other ritualistic dance forms or Kunithas of Karnataka.

Gorava Kunitha of Karnataka is typically performed by groups of 10 to 11 men. They usually belong to the singing tribe of the Goravas, who are strong worshipers of Lord Shiva. The Gorava fairs are usually venues for the performance of Gorava Kunitha at Karnataka. The participants are members of the Gorava clan.

There is no well defined form of Karnataka's Gorava Kunitha performance. The dancers are clad in rug dresses of black with white patches. They also wear black fur caps usually woven out of the fur of a bear. Damaru in hand, they get into a procession intoning mystic song. The songs come down from an age old oral tradition and are believed to be replete with deep mystic meanings. They are sung to the accompaniment of small bronze bells and flute-like blowing instruments. To the accompaniment of this extremely esoteric music, the dance takes place. The dance usually involves trance like movements. And the dancers do actually get into a trance like state in the middle of the performance. In its northern variant, the dancers smear their heads with yellow pastes. The distribution of prasadas to the gathering devotees after the performance is also not infrequent.


Kamsale of Karnataka, also known as Beesu Kamsale is a vigorous dance form of the Kannad speaking inhabitants of the state that employs a great blend of aesthetic sublimity and martial dexterity.

Karnataka's Kamsale is mainly practiced in the districts of Mysore, Nanjagud, Kollegal and Bangalore. The religious aspect of Kamsale is prominent. It narrates the glory of Lord Mahadeswara Shiva and the performers are vowed to a lifelong allegiance to the god. The art is transmitted orally and through closely guarded tradition transmitted from the preceptor to the pupil.

Kamsale in Karnataka is closely associated with the rituals of Shiva worship. Kamsale derives its name from the musical instrument used in th performance. Usually Kamsale is performed by a group of three to five dancers, although the number can go up to twelve with singers included. They wear traditional dresses in gold and red. However, the color schemes worn by the singers are slightly different from the dancers. They are a pair of cymbal-like discs made of bronze. The brass discs are scooped out from the middle and is hollow at the center. The disc on the left hand is held close to the palm while the one in the right hand hangs loose generally at an arm's length. When they collide, one gets a loud clang. The Kamsale are hit in rhythm with the songs which typically are taken from the Mahadeswara epic exalting the glory of the lord Mahadeswara. There is no written documentation of these songs. They are orally handed down by tradition with great respect for the purity of the form.


Yakshagana is one of the most popular tradition theatrical forms of Karnataka. It is difficult to categorize Karnataka's Yakshagana as folk, rural or classical.

It can be said to be a form of theater that encompasses many performance traditions. Having its origin in the Bhakti movement in southern India, Yakshagana literally means the songs of the celestial beings.

The themes employed in Yakshagana of Karnataka are typically taken from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and other important episodes of the Hindu mythology. However being a theater form, it enjoys more aesthetic freedom than the dances. Yakshagana is traditionally presented by specialized traveling artists who travel from village to village in groups of 15 to 20. Performances of Yakshagana at Karnataka usually take place in the night. They start towards the end of the afternoon and go on till the early hours of the dawn. The villagers gather from far and wide to see them and there are no tickets charged for the performances.

The dresses and the make-up of the artists in Yakshagana, Karnataka are extremely codified and ascertained by tradition. The different characters use dresses and make-ups suiting their roles. The bhagavat holds the narrative together and the artists indulge in dialogues in verse and prose to carry the plot forward. The dress of the heroes are different from the demons and they are in turn different from the comedians and the narrator or the 'Bhagavat'. Songs are often employed as are dances.

Togalu Bombeaata

Togalu Bombeaata is an ancient form of puppetry still popular in certain parts of rural Karnataka. They employ leather puppets and typically employ themes drawn from the epics and mythological stories.

They are used both as instruction and entertainment. Sometimes Togalu Bombeaata at Karnataka is used to perform certain beneficial magical purposes; they are still believed to be infused with divine power in certain parts of Karnataka.

Togalu Bombeaata in Karnataka is essentially a form of puppet theater. The puppets are made of leather. The structures of the various mythological characters are stylized and can be identified from the dominant iconography practiced by the puppet makers since very early days. Tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata are the most common themes for the presentation of Togalu Bombeaata of Karnataka. The mode of communication and the scripts are as old as the form itself and is handed down by tradition.

Krishna Parijatha

Krishna Parijatha of Karnataka is a traditional folk theater form that is sometimes considered to be a blend of yakshagana and Byalatta and sometimes as a regional variant of yakshagana.

The open air performances make it a Byalatta performance whereas the use of a single narrator akin to the 'Bhagavat', brings it closer to the performance techniques of the yakshagana. Krishna Parijatha is popular in Northern Karnataka. From village squares to open markets, Krishna Parijatha in Karnataka continues to be a popular folk religious theatrical form.

Krishna Parijatha at Karnataka employs traditional themes taken from the extended corpus of Hindu mythology. The tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata are the most commonly employed themes of Karnataka's Krishna Parijatha. The use of make-up is common, as is the elaborate use of music and dance. Both prose and verse forms are used to elucidate the age-old themes. They are extremely enthralling folk-performances usually held at night time. A single narrator sometimes with the help of a clown or Vidushaka hold the narrative key to the performance.

Carnatic Music

Carnatic music is one of the two main forms of classical music in India. Karnataka has made immense contribution to the field of Carnatic music. Shaarjnadava is the earliest known exponent of Carnatic music from Karnataka.

Later on, Karnataka's Carnatic music tradition has been graced with the works of such legendary composers as the Shivayogis, Purandara Daasa, Govinda Dikshit and his legendary son Venkata Mukhi, who revolutionized Carnatic music. Tyaagraja and Muttu Swamy Deekshit followed in their footsteps to create the great legacy of Carnatic music in Karnataka.

Considered to be one the most ancient musical traditions still alive, Carnatic music employs a system of 72 scales within an octave and is mainly monophonic in nature. The knowledge of Carnatic music has been handed down through tradition from ancient times. Its popularity continues undiminished. With a tradition of innumerable vocal and instrumental virtuosos, Carnatic music is one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Like all classical forms of Indian music, Carnatic music is seen as a way for an individual to transcend the self and experience the divine.

Last Updated on 27 June 2013 March 2013