Dance Forms: An Introduction

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Dance Forms: An Introduction

The multifaceted dance forms of India—both classical and regional—have evolved from the earliest times to the present. Indian dance has permeated all other forms of art, including poetry, sculpture, painting, music, and theater. It is a composite art with distinctive characteristics, reflecting the Indian civilization's worldview, philosophy, religion, life cycles, seasons, and environment. As a dynamic art, dance forms continue to evolve, growing with the imagination of creative artists exploring human movement.

Evidence found in cave paintings and statues—from the "dancing girl" of Mohenjo-Daro to a wealth of later sculptures—and literary references from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the epics clearly attest to India's flourishing tradition of dance performance. Nātyashāstra, the classical text of dance and drama (2nd century b.c.–2nd century a.d.), codified India's ancient theatrical arts. With its roots in Hindu religion, as a temple offering to the gods, Indian dance inspired sculptural artists for millennia, from the simple dancing girl to the brilliantly complex and symbolic depiction of Shiva as Nataraja, "king of the dance."

Classical dance forms evolved along with a tradition of tribal, folk, and social dances in all parts of India. The Abhinaya Darpana, a text solely devoted to dance, followed the Nātyashāstra, indicating that by the tenth century classical dance flourished. Many kings supported the arts, and dance developed in the royal courts as well. An inscription from the eleventh century a.d. in the Brihadiswara temple mentions four hundred dēvadāsi (slaves of the gods) dancers, retained there for the entertainment of Brahman priests. Dēvadāsi emerged as an institution, its female members cultivating classical dance and sustaining it as a living tradition.

Classical Indian dance forms are governed by the codification and the aesthetic principles set forth in the Nātyashāstra. A vigorous "masculine" type of dance is called tandava, while the more graceful "feminine" style is lasya. There are specific divisions: nritta, or pure dance, is performed with abstract movement and rhythm patterns; nritya, or expressional dance, includes mime, facial expressions, and hand gestures, used to convey the meaning of a song to which the dance is performed; natya is drama, in which four elements of abhinaya, the histrionic representations are utilized to communicate a theme.

Those four elements of abhinaya are: angika, bodily movements; vachika, speech and dialogue; aharya, the costumes, stage settings, and properties; and sattvika, the mental states. In angika, an important role is given to the hastas, or hand gestures, popularly known as mudras, considered the most distinctive feature of classical Indian dance. A dancer narrates a story using facial expressions and bodily movements; he or she also uses hand gestures that have specific meanings, complementing the facial expressions.

The Nātyashāstra has also codified all human emotions into nine rasas (sentiments): shringara (love); vira (valor); raudra (ferocity); bhaya (fear); bibhatsa (disgust); hasya (laughter); karuna (pathos); adbhuta (wonder); and shanta (tranquillity). The aim of any representational dance or dance-drama is to evoke rasa, a state of sentiment, in the spectator according to the bhava (emotions) created by the dancer. This evocation is called rasanishpatti, or eliciting the aesthetic flavor.

Pure dance numbers with abstract movements are decorative, creating patterns in space and time. In expressional dance, however, a solo dancer assumes the role of narrator as well as various characters, impersonating many roles. This multifaceted performance is known as ekaharya lasyanga.

As one line or a single word may be interpreted in many ways to enhance the basic mood, improvisation further enhances the audience's enjoyment of the themes presented. Since dance dramas are taken from Hindu mythology and the epics, the stories are well known. The emphasis is therefore on the manner in which the dramas are enacted.

Most of the classical dances have close links with religion. Therefore the content of the dance usually concerns gods and goddesses, who behave much like human beings. Though temple dancing is now banned, the spirit of bhakti (devotion) permeates classical dance, and exceptional dancers always evoke it. A variety of folk dances and social dances are also performed on festive and religious occasions.

Bharata Natyam is the oldest classical dance style, but seven other regional styles have emerged: Kuchipudi (southeast coast); Kathak (north); Kathakali, Mohiniattam (southwest coast); Odissi, (east coast); Manipuri (northeast); and Sattriya (Assami northeast). Each of these dance forms has its own kinetic dance language, with codification of the hand gestures, movements, specific regional classical music, costumes, and conventions. Mohiniattam is performed only by women dancers, but all the other forms are performed by both men and women. They are neoclassical dance forms, based on oral and shastric traditions. Indian modern dance has also evolved, as classically trained dancers explore contemporary themes. Classical and modern dance exist side by side, continuing to attract modern audiences to the beauty of Indian dance.

Sunil Kothari


Kothari, Sunil. "Dance-Drama Tradition of Kuchipudi, Bhagavata Mela Nataka and Kuravanji with Special Reference to the Rasa Theory as Expounded in Bharata'sNātyashāstra." Ph.D. diss., Maharaja Sayajirao University, 1977.

——. Bharata Natyam. Rev. ed. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000.

Nātyashāstra. Part 1. Gaekwad Oriental series. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1956.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1974.

Venkataraman, Leela, and Avinash Pasricha. Indian Classical Dance: Traditions in Transition. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2002.