Dance in India, is rooted to age-old tradition. This vast sub-continent has given birth to varied forms of dancing, each shaped by the influences of a particular period and environment. The nation offers a number of classical dance forms, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Each form represents the culture and ethos of a particular region or a group of people.

  • Bharatanatyam       belongs to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

                                                           derived from the word “Bharatha”, and is associated with the Natyashastra

                                                            Bharatanatyam is a relatively new name.

                                                            It was earlier known as Sadir, Dasi attam,and   

                                                      Thanjavur Natyam.  

Noted Artists: Rukmini Devi, Bala Saraswathi, Shanta Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Kamala, Vaijyantimala, Sonal Man Singh, Samyukta Panigrahi etc.

 Yamini Krishnamurthyshobana


A rich and flourishing tradition of dance drama belongs to the South-Western state of Kerala.

Kathakali means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story, here actors depict characters from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and from the Puranas (ancient scriptures). It is extremely colourful. The dancers adorn themselves with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments and crowns.

. The most striking part of this dance form is that its characters never speak, its just the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gestures language and facial expression which unfolds the text of the drama. The macro and micro movements of the face, the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose and the chin are minutely worked out and various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.

Present day Kathakali is a dance drama tradition, which evolved from centuries of highly stylised theatrical traditions of Kerala, especially Kudiyattam. Ritual traditions like Theyyams, Mudiyattam and the martial arts of Kerala played a major role in shaping the dance into its present form.

Noted Artists: Ragini Devi, Shanta Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Rita Ganguly, Krishna Nair, and Gopinathan.

Kalamandalam Gopi
  • Kathak

The word Kathak, derived from ‘Katha’, literally means storyteller. In ancient times, storytellers used song and dance to embellish their narration. This took the form of Kathakalakshepam and Harikatha in Southern India, and the form of Kathak in the north. Around the 15th century, the dance form underwent a drastic transition due to the influence of Mughal dance and music. By the sixteenth century, the tight churidar pyjama became the staple attire of a Kathak dancer.

There are two main schools, or gharanas, of kathak dance, both of which are named after cities in northern India and both of which expanded under the patronage of regional princes – Lucknow gharana and Jaipur gharana.

In the present day kathak is performed straight-legged and the ankle bells worn by the dancers adeptly controlled. Kathak has an exciting and entertaining quality with intricate footwork and rapid pirouettes being the dominant and most endearing features of this style. The costumes and themes of these dances are often similar to those in Mughal miniature paintings.

Though not similar to the Natyashastra, the principles in Kathak are essentially the same. Here, the accent is more on footwork as against the emphasis on hasta mudras or hand formations in Bharatanatyam

Birju Maharaj

  • Odissi

Odissi is considered to be one of the oldest surviving dance forms based on archaeological evidence. The traditional dance form of Orissa, Odissi owes its origin to the temple dances of the devadasis (temple dancers). Odissi has been mentioned in inscriptions, depicted on sculptures, in temples like the Brahmeswara and the dancing hall of the Sun Temple at Konark. In the 1950s, the entire dance form was revitalised, thanks to the Abhinaya Chandrika and sculpted dance poses found in temples.

Like other Indian classical dance forms, Odissi has two major facets: Nritta or non-representational dance, where ornamental patterns are created using body movements in space and time. Another form is Abhinaya, or stylised mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to interpret a storyline or theme.

While the form is curvaceous, concentrating on the Tribhang or the division of the body into three parts, head, bust and torso; the mudras and the expressions are similar to those of Bharatnatyam. Odissi performances are replete with lores of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Krishna. It is a soft, lyrical classical dance which depicts the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath.

Odissi is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govinda are used to depict the love and devotion to God.

 Kelucharan Mohapatra

Madhavi Mudgal

Arushi Mudgal
  • Manipuri

Manipuri is the classical dance from the Manipur region in the north-east. Manipuri is different in many ways from the other dance forms in India. The body moves with slow, sinuous grace and the undulating arm movements flow into the fingers. The dance form evolved in the 18th century with the advent of the Vaishnava faith, from earlier ritual and magical dance forms. Themes from the Vishnu Purana, Bhagvata Purana and compositions from the Gitagovinda predominate the repertoire.

According to the legends of the Meitei tribes of Manipur, when God created Earth, it was lumpy. The seven Lainoorahs danced on this newly-formed sphere, pressing gently with their feet to make it firm and smooth. This is the origin of Meitei Jagoi. To this day, when Manipuri people dance, they do not stamp vigorously but press their feet gently and delicately on the ground. The original myths and stories are still practiced by the cultist Maibis, or Meitei priestesses in the form (Maibi) that is the root of Manipuri.

The female ‘Rasa’ dances, based on the Radha-Krishna theme, feature group ballets and solos. The male ‘Sankirtana’ dances, performed to the pulsating rhythm of the Manipuri dholak are full of vitality.

The musical forms of Manipuri dance reflect the culture of the state of Manipur. The art form primarily depicts episodes from the life of Vishnu and is paradoxically a most tender and vigorous form of expression. Balance and a restraint of power are the predominant features of this dance style.

  • Mohiniattam

Mohiniattam, the female semi-classical dance form of Kerala is said to be older than Kathakali. Literally, the dance of the enchantress, Mohiniattam was mainly performed in the temple precincts of Kerala. It is also the heir to Devadasi dance heritage like Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi. The word ‘Mohini’ means a maiden who exerts desire or steals the heart of the onlooker. There is a well known story of Lord Vishnu taking on the guise of a ‘Mohini’ to enthrall people, both in connection with the churning of the milk ocean and with the episode of slaying of Bhasmasura. Thus it is thought that Vaishnava devotees gave the name of Mohiniattam to this dance form.

The first reference to Mohiniattam is found in ‘Vyavaharamala’ composed by Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, assigned to the 16th century A.D. In the 19th century, Swati Thirunal, the king of erstwhile Travancore, did much to encourage and stabilise this art form. The post Swati period, however, witnessed the downfall of this art form. It somehow degenerated into eroticism to satisfy the Epicurean life of some provincial Satraps and landlords. It was Poet Vallathol who again revived it and gave it a status in modern times through Kerala Kalamandalam, which he founded in 1930. Kalamandalam Kalyaniamma, the first dance teacher of Kalamandalam was instrumental in resuscitating this ancient art form. Along with her, Krishna Panicker, Madhavi Amma and Chinnammu Amma, the last links of a disappearing tradition, nurtured aspirants in the discipline at Kalamandalam.

The theme of Mohiniattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often the hero. The spectators could feel his invisible presence when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through the circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions. The dancer in the slow and medium tempos is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive bhavas. In format, this is similar to Bharatanatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes sober and attractive. It is essentially a solo dance, but in present times it is performed in groups also. The repertoire of Mohiniattam follows closely that of Bharatanatyam. Beginning with Cholkettu, the dancer performs Jathiswaram, Varnam, Padam and Thillana in a concert. Varnam combines pure and expressional dance, while Padam tests the histrionic talent of a dancer and Thillana exposes her technical artistry.

The basic dance steps are the Adavus which are of four kinds: Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. These names are derived from the nomenclature called vaittari.

Mohiniattam maintains a realistic makeup and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in the beautiful white and gold bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala.

Mohiniattam like many other forms follows the Hastha Lakshanadeepika, as a text book for Mudras, or hand gestures. The style of vocal music for Mohiniattam as is generally seen, is classical Carnatic. The lyrics composed by Maharaja Swati Tirunal and Irayimman Thampi are in Manipravala (a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam). Till recently, Thoppi Maddalam and Veena provided the background music of Mohiniattam. These have been replaced in recent years by Mridangam and Violin.

  • Kuchipudi

Kuchipudi, the indigenous style of dance of Andhra Pradesh took its birth and effloresced in the village of the same name, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, a hamlet in Krishna district. From its origin, as far back in the dim recesses of time as the 3rd century BC, it has remained a continuous and living dance tradition of this region. The genesis of Kuchipudi art as of most Indian classical dances is associated with religions. For a long time, the art was presented only at temples and that too only for annual festivals of certain temples in Andhra.

According to tradition, Kuchipudi dance was originally performed only by men and they all belonged to the Brahmin community. These Brahmin families were known popularly as Bhagavathalu of Kuchipudi. The very first group of Brahmin Bhagavathulu of Kuchipudi was formed in 1502 A.D. Their programmes were offerings to the deities and they never allowed women in their groups.

In an era of the degeneration of dance due to exploitation of female dancers, an ascetic, Siddhendra Yogi redefined the dance form. Fifteen Brahmin families belonging to Kuchipudi have carried on the tradition for more than five centuries. Renowned gurus like Vedantam Lakshminarayana, Chinta Krishna Murthy and Tadepalli Perayya enriched the dance form by bringing women. Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam added several dance dramas and choreographed many solo performances, thus broadening the horizons of the dance form. The transition has been great from a time when men played female parts to the present when women play even the male parts.

Kuchipudi art, to be noted was intended as a dance drama requiring a set of character, never as a mere dance by a soloist which is common in present times. This dance drama are sometimes known as Ata Bhagavatham. The plays are in Telugu and traditionally all roles are taken by men alone.

Kuchipudi plays are enacted in the open air and on improvised stages. The presentation begins with some stage rites which are performed in full view of the audience.

Then the Soothradhara or the conductor and the supporting musicians come on the stage and give a play of rhythm on the drums and cymbals. In a Kuchipudi performance, each principal character introduces himself or herself on the stage with a daru. A daru is a small composition of dance and song specially designed for each character to help him or her reveal his or her identity and also to show the performer’s skill in the art. There are nearly 80 dharus or dance sequences in the dance drama. Behind a beautiful curtain held by two persons, Satyabhama enters the stage with her back to the audience. In Bhama Kalapam, Satyabhama is Vipralamba Nayaki, i.e., the heroine who is deceived by her lover and dejected by his absence.

The most popular Kuchipudi dance is the pot dance in which a dancer keeps a pot filled with water on her head and feet kept on a brass plate. She moves on the stage manipulating the brass plate, with the feet kept on its rim and doing some hand movements without spilling a drop of water on the ground thus astounding the audience.

Apart from Bhama Kalapam, the other famous dance dramas are Gollakalapam by Bhagavatha Ramayya, Prahlada Charitam by Tirumala Narayanacharyalu, Sashirekha Parinaya etc.

The make up and costumes are characteristic of the art. There is nothing elaborate in the costumes and the makeup is not so heavy. The important characters have different make up and the female characters wear ornaments and jewellery such as Rakudi (head ornament), Chandra Vanki (arm ornament), Adda Bhasa and Kasina Sara (neck ornament) and a long plait decorated with flowers and jewellery.

The music in Kuchipudi is classical Karnatic. The mridanga, violin and a clarinet are the common instruments employed as accompaniment.

Today Kuchipudi like Bharatanatyam has undergone many changes. The present day dancers having advanced training in Kuchipudi style, present this art in their own various individual ways. There are presently only two melams, or professional troupes of male performers. The bulk of the dancers are woman. In its present day dispensation, Kuchipudi has come to be reduced from a dance drama to a dance, from an uplifting theatre experience to a routine stage affair.

Vempati Chinna Satyam
  • Kutiyattam

Kutiyattam, the classical theater form of Kerala is second to none in terms of its antiquity. It claims to date back to 2000 years of antiquity and is the enactment of Sanskrit plays and is India’s oldest theatre to have been continuously performed.

King Kulashekhara Varman reformed the Kutiyattam in the tenth century A.D., and this form continues the tradition of performing in Sanskrit. The Prakrit language and Malayalam in its ancient form have also been kept alive through this medium. The repertory includes plays written by Bhasa, Harsha and Mahendra Vikrama Pallava..

Traditionally, the actors have been members of the Chakyar caste and it is the dedication of this group that is responsible for the preservation of Kutiyattam through the centuries. Nambiars, a sub-caste of drummers, have been associated with this theatre as players of the mizhavu (a pot-shaped, large drum unique to Kutiyattam). It is the women of the Nambiar community who act the female characterizations and play the bell-metal cymbals. While individuals of other communities do study this theatre and participate in stage performances, they do not perform in temples.

Performances usually last several days, the first few being devoted to introductions – of the characters and incidents from their lives. The complete performance – from beginning to end – is performed on the last day. However, it does not necessarily mean that the entire written text of the play will be enacted. An evening of Kutiyattam begins at 9 p.m. after the close of rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, and continues till midnight, sometimes till 3 am, before the commencement of the morning rituals.

Complicated gesture language, chanting, exaggerated expressions of the face and eyes, together with elaborate headdresses and makeup constitute a Kutiyattam play. Music is provided by the mizhavu drums, small cymbals, idakka (an hour-glass shaped drum), kuzhal (an oboe-like wind instrument), and the shankh (conch shell).