The classical dances of India are an integral part of the rich culture of the country and have their origins and structure described in the ancient treatise called “Natyasastra”. Although there are different types of dance styles in the Indian subcontinent, 8 of them are considered the classical dances of India.
It is a dance that comes from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. It originates from Bha (for Bhavam) which means expression, Ra (for Ragam) which means music, Ta (for Talam) which means rhythm and Natyam which means dance.
It is considered a reconstruction of the sacred dance that was performed in early times in the temples of India. As in most classical dances, the important thing is the expression with each part of the body, emphasizing the expression of the face and hands forming different types of mudras to tell stories to worship the gods. This type of classical Indian dance is associated with fire and is one of the 5 dances that represent the 5 different elements.
It is a dance that is usually performed alone and has two aspects, the first is “Lasya” which corresponds to graceful female movements and “Ananda Thandavam” or Shiva’s dance which is a more masculine aspect. Bharatanatyam is famous for its postures and the traditional squatting position in which it is performed termed “Araimandi”. The dance is divided into the technical part “nritta” which includes body movements and footwork and “abhinaya” which is the art of telling a story with the help of hand movements (mudras) and facial expressions (bhava).
Kathak comes from the north of India and its main characteristic is its ability to tell stories through movement (“Katha” = story). There are two general styles within kathak, the pure dance or Nritta and the expressive dance or Nritya.
This classical dance from India begins with a soft melody accompanied by slow movements that gradually increase in speed, telling stories related to divinity. This dance has spectacular footwork and beautiful nice turns and spins that make it a treat to watch.
Originally from the state of Odisha in eastern India, it is considered one of the oldest dances from India and is distinguished from other dances by the importance attributed to Tribhangi: the posture that involves the division of the body into three parts: head, chest and pelvis. In this dance, the “Bhangas” are used, which consist of footwork that requires great strength and depicting postures that are seen in Indian sculptures.
This dance evokes the “Bhakthi ras” in which spirituality is channeled as part of the prayer to “Jagannath” (god Krishna) in the temples in this region in India.
This classical Indian dance originates from the southern region of Kerala and dates back to the 16th century. This type of dance consists of swaying the hips gently and involves smooth movements that go from side to side. It is the interpretation of the elegant and feminine “Lasya” and refers to “Mohini” the charismatic avatar of “Vishnu” in the form of a woman. The “Mohiniyattam” dancers always dress in a white “saree” with a golden border and with their hair tied on one side in a bun called “Kuduma”.
Originating from the state of Andhra Pradesh, this type of Indian dance is very similar to Bharatanatyam. Like most Indian classical dances, sacred stories are told as part of the Kuchipudi performance. Since a lot of importance is given to facial expressions, the theatrical part occupies an significant part of Kuchipudi. Conceived by “Siddhendra Yogi” a talented poet, in the 17th century “Yakshagana” was introduced as part of the Kuchipudi repertoire where stories from the scriptures such as “Ramayana” and “Manabharata” were part of their dance-drama numbers. To show the dancers’ skill in footwork and their control and balance over their bodies, techniques such as dancing on the edge of a brass plate and with a pitcher full of water on their heads were introduced, defining Kuchipudi with a signature classical solo dance style.
As its name indicates, this Indian dance comes from the north eastern region of Manipur. This dance has a strong religious content and worship of Lord Vishnu. Unlike other types of Indian dances, in Manipuri anklets with bells are not worn on the feet to mark the rhythm, but on the contrary, they use something called a “pung” (a form of hand beaten drum) while they dance at the same time.
The theme of Manipuri often represents “Ras leela”: the story that unfolds between God Krishna and his female companions “the gopis” and his true love, “Radha”. Ras’s costume consists of a richly embroidered stiff skirt that extends to the feet. A short skirt of fine white muslin is worn over it. A dark colored velvet blouse covers the upper part of the body and a traditional white veil is worn over a special hairstyle that falls gracefully over the face. Krishna wears a yellow dhoti, a dark velvet jacket, and a crown of peacock feathers. The jewelry is very delicate and the designs are unique to the region.
With its origins in the state of Assam, this dance was created by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva, as a powerful means to help spread the Vaishnava faith (followers of God “Vishnu”) with the main objective being representing mythological stories. Formerly, this type of Indian dance was only performed by monks on the occasion of special celebrations. This treasure of Assamese dance and theater has been, for centuries, nourished and preserved with great commitment by the “Sattras”, that is, the “maths” or Vaishnava monasteries. Due to its religious character and its association with the Sattras, this style of dance has been aptly named Sattriya.
Kathakali was born in Kerala (south Indian state), an art that has evolved from many social and religious dramatical art forms in the region. Kathakali is a mix of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from Indian scriptures. Its main feature is that it incorporates theater into its performances and makes use of complex costumes and makeup.
Kathakali is a visual art in which the “aharya”, costumes and makeup are adapted to the characters in the theatrical part of the dance. The artist’s face is painted to look like he is wearing a mask. Lips, eyelashes and eyebrows are made to look prominent. A mixture of rice paste and lime is applied to make the “chutti” on the face that enhances the facial makeup. In no other style of dance is the whole body used as completely as in Kathakali. The technical details cover every part of the body from the facial muscles to the fingers, eyes, hands and wrists. The facial muscles play an important role. The movement of the eyebrows, eyeballs and lower eyelids, as described in the “Natya Shastra”, are not used as much in any other style of dance. Another very striking feature of Kathakali is the “Kalasam”: The Kalasams are pure dance sequences where the actor has great freedom to express himself and show his skills. Jumps, quick turns, jumps and rhythmic coordination make it a joy to watch.