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Dances of India

Tamarapu Sampath Kumaran
About the Author

Mr T Sampath Kumaran is a freelance writer. He regularly

contributes articles on Management, Business, Ancient Temples,
and Temple Architecture to many leading Dailies and Magazines.
His articles are popular in “The Young World section” of THE HINDU. His e-
books on nature, environment and different cultures of people around the world are
educative and of special interest to the young.
He was associated in the production of two Documentary films on Nava Tirupathi
Temples, and Tirukkurungudi Temple in Tamilnadu.

I wish to express my gratitude to the authors from whose works I gathered the
details for this book, Courtesy, Google for the photographs.
Dance is a performing form consisting of purposefully selected sequences
of human movements. This movement has aesthetic and symbolic value and is
acknowledged as dance by performers and observers within a culture. Dance can
be categorized and described by its choreography, by its repertoire of movements,
or by its historic or place of origin.
Archeological evidence for early dance includes 9,000-year-old paintings
in India at the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, and Egyptian tomb paintings depicting
dancing figures, dated c. 3300 BC. It has been proposed that before the invention
of written languages, dance was an important part of the oral and performance
methods of passing stories down from generation to generation. The use of dance
in ecstatic trance states and healing rituals (as observed today in many
contemporary "primitive" cultures, from the Brazilian rainforest to the Kalahari
Desert is thought to have been another early factor in the social development of
References to dance can be found in very early recorded history; Greek
dance (horas) is referred to The Bible and Talmud refer to many events related to
dance and contain over 30 different dance terms.

In Chinese pottery as early as the Neolithic period, groups of

people are depicted dancing in a line holding hands, and the earliest Chinese word
for "dance" is found written in the oracle bones. Dance is further described in
the Lush Chunqiu. Primitive dance in ancient China was associated with sorcery
and shamanic rituals.
During the first millennium BCE in India, many texts were
composed which attempted to codify aspects of daily life. Bharata Muni’s
Natyasastra’s (literally "the text of dramaturgye ") is one of the earlier texts. It
mainly deals with drama, in which dance plays an important part in Indian culture.
It categorizes dance into four types - secular, ritual, abstract, and, interpretive - and
into four regional varieties. The text elaborates various hand-gestures (mudras) and
classifies movements of the various limbs, steps and so on. A strong continuous
tradition of dance has since continued in India, through to modern times, where it
continues to play a role in culture, ritual, and, notably, the Bollywood
entertainment industry. Many other contemporary dance forms can likewise be
traced back to historical, traditional, ceremonial, and ethnic dance.
Dance is generally, though not exclusively, performed with the accompaniment of
music and may or may not be performed in time to such music. Some dance (such
as tap dance) may provide its own audible accompaniment in place of (or in
addition to) music.
Many early forms of music and dance were created for each other and are
frequently performed together. Notable examples of traditional dance/music
couplings include the jig, waltz, tango, disco, and salsa. Some musical genres have
a parallel dance form such as baroque music and baroque dance; other varieties of
dance and music may share nomenclature but developed separately, such
as classical music and classical ballet.
A musical rhythm requires two main elements; first, a regularly-
repeating pulse (also called the "beat" or "tactus") that establishes the tempo and,
second, a pattern of accents and rests that establishes the character of the meter of
basic rhythm pattern. The basic pulse is roughly equal in duration to a simple step
or gesture.
Dances generally have a characteristic tempo and rhythmic pattern. The tango, for
example, is usually danced in time at approximately 66 beats per minute. The basic
slow step, called a "slow", lasts for one beat, so that a full "right–left" step is equal
to one measure. The basic forward and backward walk of the dance is so counted -
"slow-slow" - while many additional figures are counted "slow - quick-quick.
Just as musical rhythms are defined by a pattern of strong and weak beats, so
repetitive body movements often depend on alternating "strong" and "weak"
muscular movements. Given this alternation of left-right, of forward-backward and
rise-fall, along with the bilateral symmetry of the human body, it is natural that
many dances and much music are in duple and quadruple. However, since some
such movements require more time in one phase than the other - such as the longer
time required to lift a hammer than to strike - some dance rhythms fall equally
naturally into triple meter. Occasionally, as in the folk dances of the Balkans,
dance traditions depend heavily on more complex rhythms. Further, complex
dances composed of a fixed sequence of steps always require phrases and melodies
of a certain fixed length to accompany that sequence.
The very act of dancing, the steps themselves, generate an "initial skeleton of
rhythmic beats" that must have preceded any separate musical accompaniment,
while dance itself, as much as music, requires time-keeping just as utilitarian
repetitive movements such as walking, hauling and digging take on, as they
become refined, something of the quality of dance.

Musical accompaniment therefore arose in the earliest dance,

so that ancient Egyptians attributed the origin of the dance to the divine Arthouse,
who was said to have observed that music accompanying religious rituals caused
participants to move rhythmically and to have brought these movements into
proportional measure. The same idea, that dance arises from musical rhythm, is
still found in renaissance. It is quite possible to develop the dance without music,
and music is perfectly capable of standing on its own feet without any assistance
from the dance, nevertheless the "two arts will always be related and the
relationship can be profitable both to the dance and to music", the precedence of
one art over the other being a moot point.
The early-20th-century American dancer Helen Moller stated simply that "it is
rhythm and form more than harmony and color which, from the beginning, has
bound music, poetry and dancing together in a union that is indissoluble."[26]
Concert dance, like opera, generally depends for its large-scale form upon
a narrative dramatic structure. The movements and gestures of
the choreography are primarily intended to mime the personality and aims of the
characters and their part in the plot. Such theatrical requirements tend towards
longer, freer movements than those usual in non-narrative dance styles. On the
other hand, the ballet blame, developed in the 19th century, allows interludes of
rhythmic dance that developed into entirely "plotless" ballets in the 20th
century and that allowed fast, rhythmic dance-steps.
The ballet developed out of courtly dramatic
productions of 16th- and 17th-century France and Italy and for some time dancers
performed dances developed from those familiar from the musical suite, all of
which were defined by definite rhythms closely identified with each dance. These
appeared as character dances in the era of romantic nationalism.
Ballet reached widespread vogue in the romantic era, accompanied by a larger
orchestra and grander musical conceptions that did not lend themselves easily to
rhythmic clarity and by dance that emphasised dramatic mime. A broader concept
of rhythm was needed, that which Rudolf Laban terms the "rhythm and shape" of
movement that communicates character, emotion and intention, while only certain
scenes required the exact synchronisation of step and music essential to other
dance styles, so that, to Laban, modern Europeans seemed totally unable to grasp
the meaning of "primitive rhythmic movements", a situation that began to change
in the 20th century.
Indian classical dance styles, like ballet, are often in dramatic form, so that there is
a similar complementarity between narrative expression and "pure" dance. In this
case, however, the two are separately defined, though not always separately
performed. The rhythmic elements, which are abstract and technical, are known
as nritta. Both this and expressive dance (nritya), though, are closely tied to the
rhythmic system (tala). Teachers have adapted the spoken rhythmic mnemonic
system called boll to the needs of dancers.

Japanese classical dance-theatre styles such

as Kabuki and Noh, like Indian dance-drama, distinguish between narrative and
abstract dance productions. The three main categories of kabuki
are daemon (historical), sewamono (domestic) and shosagoto (dance
pieces). Somewhat similarly, Noh distinguishes between Geki Noh, based around
the advancement of plot and the narration of action, and Furyū Noh, dance pieces
involving acrobatics, stage properties, multiple characters and elaborate stage

Dance in Africa is deeply integrated into society and

major events in a community are frequently reflected in dances: dances are
performed for births and funerals, weddings and wars. Traditional dances impart
cultural morals, including religious traditions and sexual standards; give vent to
repressed emotions, such as grief, motivate community members to cooperate,
whether fighting wars or grinding grain; enact spiritual rituals; and contribute
to social cohesiveness.
Thousands of dances are performed around the continent. These may be divided
into traditional, neotraditional, and classical styles: folkloric dances of a society,
dances created more recently in imitation of traditional styles, and dances
transmitted more formally in schools or private lessons. African dance has been
altered by many forces, such as European missionaries and colonialist
governments, who often suppressed local dance traditions as licentious or
distracting. Dance in contemporary African cultures still serves its traditional
functions in new contexts; dance may celebrate the inauguration of a hospital,
build community for rural migrants in unfamiliar cities, and be incorporated into
Christian church ceremonies.
All Indian Classical dances are to varying degrees rooted in the Natyashastra and
therefore share common features: for example, the mudras (hand positions), some
body positions, and the inclusion of dramatic or expressive acting or abhinaya.
Indian classical music provides accompaniment and dancers of nearly all the styles
wear bells around their ankles to counterpoint and complement the percussion.
There are now many regional varieties of Indian classical dances.
The Punjab area overlapping India and Pakistan is the
place of origin of Bhangra. It is widely known both as a style of music and a dance.
It is mostly related to ancient harvest celebrations, love, patriotism or social issues.
Its music is coordinated by a musical instrument called the 'Dhol'. Bhangra is not
just music but a dance, a celebration of the harvest where people beat the dhol
(drum), sing Boliyaan (lyrics) and dance. It developed further with the Vaisakhi
festival of the Sikhs.

The dances of Srilanka include the devil dances (yakun

natima), a carefully crafted ritual reaching far back into Sri Lanka's pre-Buddhist
past that combines ancient "Ayurvedic" concepts of disease causation
with psychological manipulation and combines many aspects including Sinhalese

The dances of the Middle East are usually the traditional

forms of circle dancing which are modernized to an extent. They would
include dabke, Tamara, Assyrian folk dance, Kurdish dance, Armenian
dance and Turkish dance, among others. All these forms of dances would usually
involve participants engaging each other by holding hands or arms (depending on
the style of the dance). They would make rhythmic moves with their legs and
shoulders as they curve around the dance floor. The head of the dance would
generally hold a cane or handkerchief.
Dances of India

Indian classical dance, or Shastriya Nritya, is an umbrella

term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical theatre styles,
musical theatre styles, whose theory and practice can be traced to the Sanskrit
text Natya shastra.
The classical dance forms recognised by the Sangeet Natak Academy and the
Ministry of Culture are –
 Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu
 Kathak, from Northern and Western India
 Kathakali, from Kerala
 Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
 Odissi, from Odisha
 Sattriya, from Assam
 Manipuri, from Manipur
 Mohiniyattam, from Kerala

Bharatanatyam is a major genre of Indian Classical dance that originated

in Tamil Nadu. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam has been a solo dance that was
performed exclusively by women, and it expressed South Indian religious themes
and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, as well Vaishnavism and Shakthism.
Bharatanatyam's theoretical foundations trace to the ancient Sanskrit text
by Bharata Muni’s Natya Sastra. Its existence of 2nd century CE is noted in the
ancient Tamil epic Silappathikaram, while temple sculptures of 6th to 9th century
CE suggest it was a well refined performance art by mid First millennium
CE. Bharatanatyam may be the oldest classical dance tradition of India.
Bharatanatyam, a pre-eminent Indian classical dance form presumably the oldest
classical dance heritage of India is regarded as mother of many other Indian
classical dance forms. Conventionally a solo dance performed only by women, it
initiated in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu and eventually flourished in South
India. Theoretical base of this form traces back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient
Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts. A form of illustrative anecdote of
Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer with excellent
footwork and impressive gestures its performance repertoire includes nrita, nritya
and natya. Accompanists include a singer, music and particularly the guru who
directs and conducts the performance. It also continues to inspire several art forms
including paintings and sculptures starting from the spectacular 6th to 9th century
CE temple sculptures.

Kathak is one of the main genres of ancient Indian classical dance

and is traditionally regarded to have originated from the travelling bards of North
India referred as Kathakars or storytellers. These Kathakars wandered around and
communicated legendary stories via music, dance and songs quite like the early
Greek theatre. The genre developed during the Bhakti movement, the trend of
theistic devotion which evolved in medieval Hinduism. The Kathakars
communicate stories through rhythmic foot movements, hand gestures, facial
expressions and eye work. This performing art that incorporates legends from
ancient mythology and great Indian epics, especially from the life of Lord Krishna
became quite popular in the courts of North Indian kingdoms. Three specific forms
of this genre that is three gharanas (schools), which mostly differ in emphasis
given to footwork versus acting, are more famous namely, the Jaipur gharana, the
Banaras gharana and the Lucknow gharana.
Kathakali an important genre in the Indian classical dance form, is
associated with storytelling form of this art. It is the dance drama from the south
Indian state of Kerala. Like other Indian classical dance arts, the story in
‘Kathakali’ is also communicated to audience through excellent footwork and
impressive gestures of face and hands complimented with music and vocal
performance. However, it can be distinguished from the others through the intricate
and vivid make-up, unique face masks and costumes worn by dancers as also from
their style and movements that reflect the age-old martial arts and athletic
conventions prevalent in Kerala and surrounding regions. Traditionally performed
by male dancers, it developed in courts and theatres of Hindu regions contrary to
other Indian classical dances which predominantly developed in Hindu temples
and monastic schools. Although not clearly traceable, this classical dance form is
considered to have originated from temple and folk arts that trace back to 1st
millennium CE or before.

Kuchipudi, a pre-eminent Indian classical dance form counted among

ten leading classical dance forms of India, is a dance-drama performance art that
originated in a village of Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Like all leading
Indian classical dance forms, Kuchipudi too evolved as a religious art rooting back
to the age-old Hindu Sanskrit text ‘Natya Shastra’ and connects traditionally with
temples, spiritual faiths and travelling bards. This ancient dance form finds place in
the 10th century copper inscriptions and in 15th century texts like ‘Machupalli
Kaifat’. Traditionally it is regarded that the sanyassin of Advaita Vedanta sect,
Tirtha Narayana Yati, and his disciple Siddhendra Yogi initiated, methodized and
arranged the present-day version of the dance form in 17th century. Usually
performance repertoire of Kuchipudi that is broadly oriented on Lord Krishna and
the tradition of Vaishnavism include an invocation, dharavu – short dance, nritta –
pure dance and nritya – expressive dance respectively.
Odissi or Orissa is one of the pre-eminent classical dance forms of
India which originated in the Hindu temples of the eastern coastal state of Odisha
in India. Its theoretical base trace back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient Sanskrit
Hindu text on the performing arts. Age-old tradition of Odissi is manifested from
Odisha Hindu temples and various sites of archaeological significance that are
associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the sculptures of which adorn
dance postures of this art form. A form of illustrative anecdote of mythical and
religious stories, devotional poems and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer with
excellent body movements, expressions, impressive gestures and sign languages,
its performance repertoire includes invocation, nrita, nritya, natya, and moksha.
This dance form includes themes from Vaishnavism and others associated with
Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Surya and Shakti.

The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century A.D
by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva as
a powerful medium for propagation of the Vaishnava faith. The dance form
evolved and expanded as a distinctive style of dance later. This neo-Vaishnava
treasure of Assamese dance and drama has been, for centuries, nurtured and
preserved with great commitment by the Sattras i.e. Vaishnava maths or
monasteries. Because of its religious character and association with the Sattras, this
dance style has been aptly named Sattriya

Manipuri dance is counted among major classical dance forms

of India, especially noted for themes based on Vaishnavism and spectacular
execution of ‘Ras Lila’, dance dramas based on love between Radha and Krishna.
Other themes included in this art form associate with Shaktism, Shaivism and on
the sylvan deities called Umang Lai during Manipuri festival ‘Lai Haraoba’. This
dance form is named after the north-eastern state of Manipur, India from where it
originated but it has its roots in ‘Natya Shastra’, the age-old Sanskrit Hindu text. A
mix of Indian and southeast Asian culture is palpable in this form. The age-old
dance tradition of the place is manifested from great Indian epics, ‘Ramayana’ and
‘Mahabharata’, where the native dance experts of Manipur are referred as
‘Gandharvas’. The Manipuris perform this religious art that aims at expressing
spiritual values during Hindu festivals and other important cultural occasions like

Mohiniattam or Mohiniyattam is an Indian classical dance form that

evolved in the state of Kerala, India, and is counted among the two popular dance
arts of the state, the other being Kathakali. Although its roots date back to the age-
old Sanskrit Hindu text on performing arts called ‘Natya Shastra’, like other Indian
classical dance forms, Mohiniattam adheres to the Lasya type that showcases a
more graceful, gentle and feminine form of dancing. Mohiniattam derives its name
from the word ‘Mohini’, a female avatar of Lord Vishnu. Conventionally a solo
dance performed by female artists, it emotes a play through dancing and singing
where the song is customarily in Manipravala which is a mix of Sanskrit and
Malayalam language and the recitation may be either performed by the dancer
herself or by a vocalist with the music style being Carnatic.

Yakshagana, dance-drama of South India, associated most

strongly with the state of Karnataka. Elaborate and colourful costumes, makeup,
and masks constitute some of the most-striking features of the art form.
Traditionally, yakshagana was performed in the open air by all-male troupes
sponsored by various Hindu temples. Since the mid-20th century, however, many
performances have been held on indoor stages, and women began to train in the
tradition in the 1970s.
With roots in Sanskrit and theatre, yakshagana emerged as a form of dance-drama
in the 16th century. During the following 500 years, the yakshagana corpus grew
to include hundreds of plays, most written in Telugu or in the Kannada languages,
but only about five dozen of the works were actively performed in the 21st
century. Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as from the tales of the
youthful God Krishna as recounted in the Bhagavata purana. Historically, the cities
of Tanjore, Madurai, both in the state of Tamil nadu, and Mysore, in Karnataka,
were centers of yakshagana compositions. Among the most-notable texts are the
Telugu Sugriva vijayam (“Sugriva’s Victory”; c. 1570) by Kandukur Rudra Kavi
and the Kannada works of Parti Subba (fl. c. 1800), who is known for his moving
episodes and songs from the Ramayana.
Yakshagana performances use standard character types that are readily identifiable
by the colour and design of the actors’ costumes and makeup of Red and black.

Dollu Kunitha dance, is a major popular drum dance

of Karnataka. Accompanied by singing, it provides spectacular variety and
complexity of skills. Woven around the presiding deity of Beereshwara chiefly
worshipped by the Kuruba Gowda of Karnataka presents both entertainment and
spiritual edification.

Chhau dance is a tradition from eastern India that enacts

episodes from epics including the Mahabharata and Ramayana, local folklore and
abstract themes. Its three distinct styles hail from the regions of Seraikella, Purulia
and Mayurbhanj, the first two using masks. Chhau dance is intimately connected to
regional festivals, notably the spring festival Chaitra Parva. Its origin is traceable
to indigenous forms of dance and martial practices. Its vocabulary of movement
includes mock combat techniques, stylized gaits of birds and animals and
movements modelled on the chores of village housewives. Chhau is taught to male
dancers from families of traditional artists or from local communities. The dance is
performed at night in an open space to traditional and folk melodies, played on the
reed pipes ''mohuri'' and ''shehnai.'' The reverberating drumbeats of a variety of
drums dominate the accompanying music ensemble. Chhau is an integral part of
the culture of these communities. It binds together people from different social
strata and ethnic background with diverse social practices, beliefs, professions and
languages. However, increasing industrialization, economic pressures and new
media are leading to a in collective participation with communities becoming
disconnected from their roots.

Bhagavata Mela connotes a folk festival, is a classical Indian

dance that is performed in Tamil nadu, particularly the Tanjavur area. It is
choreographed as an annual Vaishnavite tradition in Melattur and nearby regions,
and celebrated as a dance-drama performance art. The dance art has roots in a
historic migration of practitioners of Kuchipudi, another Indian classical dance art,
from Andhra pradesh to Tamil Nadu.

Koothu or Therukoothu, is an ancient art, where artists play

songs with dance and music in storytelling the epics, performed in Tami, it is a folk
art originated from the early Tamil country. While Terukkuttu referred to mobile
performances in a procession, Kattaikkuttu denotes overnight, narrative
performances at a fixed performance space. Koothu as a form of entertainment
reached its peak hundreds of years ago in Tamil nadu, as mentioned in
the Sangam texts about the development of iyal (literature), isai (music) and
natagam (drama). Going beyond just a means of entertainment, koothu educates
the rural people about religion and their history.