Classical dance can be defined as a theatrical representation of a story, theme, or a musical piece with graceful and precise movements of the body accompanied by different musical instruments. In the classical dance forms, the performers dress up in ornate costumes and enliven the representation with their charisma and elegance. The concept of classical dances of India falls under the umbrella term of ‘Shastriya Devesh,’ the roots of which can be traced back to the ancient Sanskrit text ‘Natya Shastra.’ According to the Sangeet Natak Academy, there are 8 forms of classical dances of India with states, namely Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Manipuri, Kathakali, and Sattriya. The origins of these different classical dance forms originate from 4 pravrittis or genres of ancient dance drama. These 4 genres are Avanti or Ujjain in central India, Dakshinatya in South India, Panchali in the northwest, and Odra- Magadhi in the east.
In India, dance has always been a part of all the Indian festivities and ceremonies. From time immemorial, the fabric of Indian art and culture has been enriched by the mesmerising performances of Indian classical dancers like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Uday Shankar, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Padma Subramanyam, Yamini Krishnamurthy, and so on. To follow the footsteps of these maestros and make a career in classical dances of India, one has to start training from the age of 5 or 6 under a good teacher. To shine further as an Indian classical dancer professionally, one has to hone the inherited talent with proper guidance and training, until the graceful art has been mastered. Usually, the dance training can be done through a certificate course of one year, followed by bachelor courses for 3 years and finally the diploma and postgraduate level courses for 2 years. In order to increase physical stamina and improve the sense of rhythm in classical dance forms, it’s no surprise that regular practice is very important.
To take that first step towards building a career in classical dances of India, it is important to know about the different dance forms first.
Originating from the state of Tamil Nadu, Bharatnatyam is chiefly known as the dance of the devadasis and hence is also known as Dasiattam. The inception of this dance form can be traced back to 2000 years ago. Its mentions can be found in the Kannada text called ‘Manasollasa’ and Bharat Muni’s ‘Natya Shastra.’ Performed by both genders, Bharatnatyam mainly comprises 3 features namely Natya, Nritta, and Nritya, and different forms of gestures known as Mudras or Hastas. It is believed that the dance form mainly celebrates different spiritual ideas and themes related to Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism.
Having originated in the cultural milieu of Kerala, Kathakali is a dance style that is renowned as a temple dance. This style entails signature hand-to-eye coordinated movements, expressive inherently that narrate interesting tales out of the pages of Hindu mythology. What sets this dance form apart from the other classical dances of India is the elaborate face mask that the dancers wear. This dance form is very popular with the Malayali community as well as the rest of India and involves some vigorous and collective movements from the Indian martial arts and athletic traditions from the southern part of India.
Originally from Andhra Pradesh, this dance form is named after the village ‘Kancheepuram.’ The dance is an ode to and celebrates the eminence of Lord Krishna in our culture and mythology and worships the deity through diverse poses and steps. Unlike the other classical dance forms in India, the Kuchipudi dance form has predominantly rounded poses. It can be said that this dance form is mainly an invocation to God accompanied by the traditional instrumental Carnatic music with instruments like flute, mridangam, veena, tambura, and cymbals.
This dance form is traditionally attributed to the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. There are mainly 3 independent forms or Gharanas of this classical dance based on the 3 cities, and they are Lucknow, Jaipur, and Banaras. The Lucknow and Banaras Gharanas are mainly known for their graceful hand gestures and facial expressions whereas the Jaipur Gharana has an inclination towards working on foot movements. The most unique characteristic of this dance form is its accent on the rhythmic foot movements that are invigorated with the use of ghungroo.
As its name suggests, this dance form is from Manipur and it revolves around the theme of Radha and Krishna’s love story. Usually, this dance form can be categorized into 3 different forms known as ‘danda rasak,’ ‘tal rasak,’ and ‘mandal rasak,’ all of which are a part of the concept of ‘Rasleela.’
This dance form belongs to the state of Odisha and its early precursors are known as ‘Maharis,’ who are basically temple dancers. The primary focus of the dance form is the expression of the religious stories and concepts of Vaishnavism accompanied by compositions dedicated to the Hindu gods and goddesses based on raga and talas.
Named after the word ‘Mohini,’ the feminine and enchantress avatar of the Lord Vishnu, this dance form has its roots in the Indian state of Kerala. This particular dance form is usually performed solo by the female dancers and they follow the lasya style. The lasya style is a very delicate and sensual expression by the Natya Shastra.
The origin of this dance form can be traced back to the 15th century in the monasteries of Assam. The predominant theme of this dance form is Vaishnavism, which gained popularity during the 15th-century Bhakti movement. The Bhakti scholar and saint Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva is known to have pioneered this dance form in the 15th century.