Classical Dances of India

India is blessed with an age old tradition of fine arts in form of folk and classical music fraternity. Both these sects include vocal, instrumental music and dance. Some of the globally acclaimed dance forms originated and evolved in India namely Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Odissi etc. India, widely and most popularly symbolizes a Nation that offers a rich assortment of performing arts and cultural diversity.

No one can ignore the poise and sensuality depicted by Anarkali to woo Prince Salim or an Umraojaan expressing her love for her paramour through the corners of her eyes soaked in passion. All this has been most effectively presented over the years in classical dance forms that travelled through a time warp frozen in oblivion. Our Nation offers all the connoisseurs of performing arts a great opportunity to delve deep, and experience the multitude of most enigmatic forms of dance.

How about taking a stroll while exploring the echelons of sensuous expressions…

This classical dance form prevalent in the north India has a long history to share. Tenderly nurtured in the holy precincts of the Hindu temples, Kathak has attained refinement over the centuries and enriched itself with various hues and embellishments. Kathak, originated from Sanskrit word ‘Katha’ meaning story and ‘Katthaka’ that means a ‘story teller’. Various themes from real life are enacted most gracefully, covering the face with a veil and looking through it in the most enticing manner at the lover. The experience is most sensuous.

Also, themes of divine love in form of Krishna, Radha, Shiva, Parvati and mythological characters find a prominent place in the repertoire of a Kathak dancer. This dance was developed as a form in which, a solo dancer tells and interprets stories from mythology. In Nritya (dance), the expressions called gat and bhava are conveyed through delicate glances of the eye, in addition to mime. Some of the most famous exponents of Kathak are Pandit Birju Maharaj, Sitara Devi and Shovana Narayana.

Regular Kathak performances are presented by renowned dancers in major cities like Delhi, Bhopal, Lucknow, and Banaras as these cities have a rich cultural history to boast of for this dance form.

Kathakali is synonymous with fine movements of the face, eyebrows, eyeballs, cheeks, nose and the chin. Various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, but most recently women have also adopted and contributed to this dance form.

The name Kathakali has a similar connotation as Kathak, since both these word are derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Katha’ which means ‘story’. Kathakali means ‘story play’ or a dance drama. Hailing from the State known as land of Gods – Kerala, Kathakali is apparently a dance drama form that is most colourful with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments and crowns. The performers use specific and symbolic makeup to portray various roles which are character-types, rather than individual characters. Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented through elaborate make-up and exquisite costumes.

The themes of Kathakali dance dramas are a direct representation of age old legends and stories from Hindu epics, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Puranas constitute. The moral depicted in this battle drama between good and evil, is the victory of good over evil, thus enlightening us on our karmas. Padma Bhushan Kalamandalam Ramankutty, the doyen of Kathakali, recently passed away at the age of 88 in 2013. One can enjoy mesmerizing dance performances in Cochin and Bangalore.

Kuchipudi, which derives its name from the village of Kuchipudi in the Southern State of Andhra Pradesh, is yet another extension to dance-drama tradition in India. In most recent years, this dance form has evolved as a solo dance performance for concert platform and is performed majorly by women. Till some time back it was an arena preserved only for men, but now women have joined this dance form and are performing with great aplomb. The legendary dance couple Dr. Raja and Radha Reddy is the undisputed doyen of Kuchipudi dance form.

The body movements in Kuchipudi are mercurial and fascinating. Performed to classical Carnatic music, it shares many common elements with Bharata Natyam. The dance theme denotes desire of a devotee to merge with God - symbolizing the blending of consciousness with the super consciousness. The songs are mimed with alluring expressions, swift looks and fleeting emotions, thus evoking the rasa.

A special form in the Kuchipudi repertoire is called Tarangam, wherein a dancer balances herself on the rim of a brass plate and executes steps to the drum beat. This sight is truly scintillating and rests all critics at bay. The dance displays myriad forms in the most subtle yet obtusely expressive manner. A visit to Hyderabad will surely give you an opportunity to enjoy some great performances.

Accompanied with the resonating sound of Mridangam and Ghatam, Bharata Natayam makes the audience feel simply ecstatic. Bharat Natyam, is a dance form whose name originated from Bharata Muni, known to have written the Natya Shastra, to which Bharata Natyam owes its innumerable ideas and bhavas. This dance form represents the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is globally known for offering a multiplicity of art, grandeur, heritage and delectable cuisine.

This dance form denotes the 19th and 20th century reconstructions of Sadir, the form of art of temple devdasis. Amalgamated with Carnatic music it display a deep form of Bhakti and is widely believed as an incarnation of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Some of the top exponents of this dance form are famous Bollywood actresses Vyjayantimala and Hema Malini. One can experience some scintillating Bharata Natyam performances in Chennai at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.

Another major dance form developed in Kerala is Mohiniattam. Performed by women, this dance reflects the epitome of grace coupled with gentle bobbing movements. The word ‘Mohini’ means an enchantress and a dancer with bewitching movements. Attired in a typical white saree with gold border, hair gathered in a bun on one side and with golden jewellery, the dancer epitomises an image of a beautiful maiden. In contrast to Kathakali dance form, Mohiniattam closely resembles the Bharata Natyam dance form, but defines its distinctness through portrayal of soft and sensuous movements.

Mohiniattam has enjoyed a revival in recent times, and is the most widely practiced dance form among the young aspirants in Kerala. Of late, Kerala’s Sopana music is being employed for Mohiniattam and the repertoire has also been enlarged with the choreography maintaining the emblematic movements of this graceful dance style.

If you ever visit Cochin or Bangalore, don’t miss the opportunity to feel the essence of Mohiniattam in one of the spellbinding recitals.

The Indian State of Karnataka has offered this form of Classical dance form, which is a mixture of dance and drama, estimated to be roughly 400 years old. Yakshagana is a separate genre of music, independent of Karnataka Sangeetha and the Hindustani music of India. It is believed to have survived as an indigenous phenomenon only in parts of Karnataka and Kerala.

In Yakshagana, the costumes are akin to Kathakali form of dance, and the style too seems to have drawn inspiration from Kathakali. As a theater form, Yakshagana concocts dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques each of which has a unique style and charm. This theater style, which has a unique resemblance to Western opera, is mainly found in the coastal districts, and the Malenadu region of India. Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn.

Through the centuries, innumerable artists have patronised Yakshagana, but names like Chittani Ramachandra Hegde, Naranappa Uppoor, and Kalinga Navada are the few ones to have gained both National and International acclaim.

Yakshagana is primarily a theater form, rather than dance, and can be abundantly enjoyed in Bangalore.

Over the last few years, Sattriya Nritya has received much awaited acceptance and acclaimed within the country and abroad. Bapuram Barbayan Atai and Maniram Dutta are names to reckon with in this dance form. This dance form has remained a living tradition in Assam's Vaishnava monasteries, known as Sattras, for over 500 years now. It was originally practiced by celibate monks in the form of mythological dance-dramas. These dance-dramas were, in the main, written and directed by the Assamese Vaishnava saint and social reformer Sankaradeva, and by his principal disciple Madhavadeva.

Sankaradeva 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 Assam's monasteries known as the Sattras. In modern times, despite the emergence of Sattriya Nritya from within the confines, the Sattras continue to use this dance form for ritualistic and other purposes, for which it was originally formed 500 years ago. This dance form may be enjoyed in abundance at the Sattriya Kendra in Guwahati, during the Annual festival of Sattriya.

Bhubaneshvar, the state capital of Orissa hosts various Odissi performances for classical dance aficionados. Odissi, as the name suggests is a dance form representing the East Indian state of Orissa. This dance form is considered the oldest Indian classical dance, which has been revived half a century back.

The various dance numbers include batunritya, pallavi and mokhya. The first form has the dancer striking poses synonymous to holding musical instruments like veena, cymbals and drums. Pallavi means elaborate, where in the dancer showcases pure dance to a chosen time cycle and a musical raga. In Mokhya, a dancer in tandem with various other dance units indulges in creating visuals. In nritya, the songs from the celebrated Gita Govinda of poet Jayadeva written in the 12th century A.D., are expended. Songs of other Oriya poets are also danced with subtle expressions, replete with emotions.

Most recently, dance dramas and group choreographic presentations have been experimented with to bring out the full glory and sculptural wealth of Odissi which is truly an alluring performance dance style.

The North Eastern state of Manipur presents some very capricious movements in a dancer’s steps. The dance form thus is Manipuri, which clearly derives its name from its native state. With an utterly devotional disposition, the Manipuri dances are a part of daily life of the local populace in Manipur. Basically presented as a group dance with eclectic and colorful costumes, and a whiff of gentle, swaying petal-soft movements, Manipuri dances disseminate a truly hypnotic impact on the audience.

The dances are influenced by Vaishnavism, the worship of Lord Vishnu – preserver of the universe and have blossomed into some exquisite Rasalila performances. Various festivals and occasions witness a variety of Rasalilas.

From the corpus of Manipuri dances, one sees contemporary stage solo, duet and group performances, while the music is typical to the region. These dances include Rasalila, Lai Haraoba, Choloms, Pung Cholom, Natasankirtana, KhubakIshai and other forms, most judiciously edited for the concert platform to suit the urban audience.