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Classical and Folk Dances of India

Indian Classical dance includes both abstract or pure dance (nritta), consisting of stylised movements and poses and footwork of complex rhythms, and representational dance (nritya) which is suggestive, interpretative and expressive, with every movement and gesture invested with meaning.

The representation (abhinaya) is an integrated achievement managed through appropriate costume and ornament; all the resources of the body (angika abhinaya) for expressive stance, movement and gesture; the uttered word, speech or song (vachika abhinaya); and above all through the capacity of the face for expressing a great range of emotions (satvika abhinaya). All these means converge to the expression of feeling (bhava) and this representation of the inward sensitivity in a sensuously palpable way enables those who witness the dance to experience pure aesthetic relish (rasa).

It is useful to remember two more details. In terms of tempo, and thereby of its associated mood, the dance can be fast, dynamic, even turbulent (tandava) or delicate, graceful, exquisite (lasya). Broadly, these correspond to the allegro and adagio of the European tradition. Secondly, over the centuries, the gesture has been developed into a complex language, in some cases deviating far from the natural gesture to become a symbolic code.

Bharata Natya

Bharata Natya is essentially solo for a danseuse. Her costume and make-up consist of a brief blouse and a sari of shimmering satin or brocade, sheathing the legs from the hips to the ankles and having an array of pleats in front which unfold like a fan when the knees are lowered in the basic stance. The recital opens with an invocatory sequence of pure dance (alarippu) and is followed by a more intricate and faster sequence atiswaram) which is also pure dance. Here the dancer’s limbs create numerous patterns through movement and rhythm. It is only in the next section that the transition is made to representational, interpretative and expressive dance.

The poems used as text can be homages to a god touching on his attributes and legendary exploits (Sabdam, Kirtanam, Slokam) or a love lyric (Padam, Javali). Gesture and facial expression, above all the expressive glance and movement of the eye, are fully used here. Then comes the most complex and difficult sequence, the Varnam, which combines both pure and interpretative dance. Usually the last item is the Tillana, a pure dance in different rhythms and fast tempo.


In the seventeenth century, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, Sidhyendra Yogi wrote a play, dealing with the story of Krishna bringing the Parijata flower plant from Indra’s heaven at the behest of one of his consorts, Satyabhama. Yogi presented it in the small village of Kuchelapuram or Kuchipudi in the Krishna delta and the tradition thus initiated has been called Kuchipudi. Originally only men took part in Kuchipudi which thus involved female impersonation by males. But these days solo sequences are detached from the play for stage presentation by danseuses, like Bharata Natya.

Yaksha Gana

Yaksha Gana is the traditional dance-drama of Karnataka. It is also called Bayalatta, literally dance in the field, because it is a night-long performance in the open air, and Dasavatara Atta because the themes are drawn from the rich legends about the ten incarnations of Vishnu. The themes have been recast in poems and there are over a hundred libretti in existence. The musician sings the poem in Ragas, basically of the Carnatic system, but in a freer style than the classical, and to the accompaniment of drums.

The narration is interpreted in dance and acting by the characters who are allowed improvised prose dialogues relevant to the context. Headgear, costume and make-up are elaborate, have taken detailed cues from Hoysala sculpture and are very clearly differentiated for the various roles. Very interesting in its affinity with Wagner’s use of the musical leitmotiv for characteristation is the clear distinction of the rhythm-pattern on the drums when each character makes his first entry. The themes being mostly heroic exploits, the temper of the plays is turbulent and the dance is mostly of the Tandava type, although there are also exquisitely relaxed scenes like those of young girls sporting in water.


Kathakali, as it was stabilised in the seventeenth century after a long evolution through transitional forms like Krishna Attam and Ramanattam, is high classical art in the sense that thought has been given to every detail. The libretto in verse is in the tradition of narrative poetry that goes back to Sanskrit literary canons. The actors confine themselves to balletic and mimetic interpretation and dramatic action, their dialogue or monologue songs being sung by attendant singers supported by drummers and cymbalists. Many of these songs are fine lyrics with exquisite imagery.

Costume and make-up are elaborate in Kathakali. Many dramatic traditions in the world have used masks which can be clear and immediate differential signals of various character types. The Kathakali make-up retains this advantage because the whole face is painted over with typological differentiation. But the mask does not permit the face its expressive mobility. In the case of the Kathakali character, however, with the contour of the face clearly demarcated by a white or coloured fringe which frames it effectively, the face becomes a stage for the inner spirit. The tumult or the tranquillity within finds immediate expression in the mobile features with no mask to conceal them, but with very striking mask-like painting to accent the expression. The masterly painting of the face brings it nearer to sensory assimilation, psychologically, by focussing attention, with the same effectiveness as the close-up in a film can bring it visually, through optical means. Years of training make the eyes unbelievably expressive here and some librettists have thought up piquant contexts challenging the actor to express one feeling with the left eye and a wholly different feeling with the right.


Leaving the south and turning to the east, we have, in the Odissi of Odisha a dance tradition that has evolved out of the practice of attaching girls (Maharis) to the temple for ritual dance. An early thirteenth century inscription in the temple of Ananta Basudeva in Bhubaneshvar states that one hundred girls were engaged in this service. The tradition is thus similar to the Bharata Natya in Tamil Nadu, but Odissi today has almost completely opted for the gentler style (lasya). The thrice-bent (tribhanga) posture, very familiar in Indian sculpture, is characteristic of Odissi. The legs are flexed at the knees, the hip deflected and the head inclined.

An Odissi recital begins with an invocatory section where salutations are made to mother earth, Ganesha and to the audience, passes on to sequences of pure dance and then of interpretative dances and concludes with a pure dance in fast tempo. We see the influence of sculpture in the interpretative sequences. Musicians are represented in sculpture in the great terrace of the Konarak temple and the Odissi dancer too adopts sculpturesque poses of damsels playing the lute, flute, cymbals or drums. The extended interpretative sequences mostly pertain to the Radha-Krishna theme. In the Indian tradition, Odissi complements the dynamic style of Bharata Natya with an exceptionally lyrical and graceful one.

Chau Dance

In the region where the borders of Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal meet, the Chau dance emerged as a generic tradition with slightly variant evolutions in Mayurbhanj in Orissa, Saraikella in Bihar and Purulia in West Bengal, masks being used in the two latter places. Only men participate. The Chau seems to have some genetic links with hunting and fighting, for the steps, movements and gymnastics have assimilated cues from the traditional training exercise of soldiers, known as the Parikhanda system.

Purulia Chau draws its themes almost extensively from mythology, concentrating on episodes of combats like Kathakali, without the latter’s evocation of the sense of numinous dread but with more complex and spectacularly effective choreography for duels and battles. In Saraikella and Mayurbhanj, the themes have a greater range. One Saraikella dance presents a man and woman setting out on a boat, running into a storm and coming through safely. There is a faint allegorical reference to the journey of life here. Another dance represents a deer shot by a hunter and a third is a very highly stylised peacock dance.


Contiguous to Burma, Manipur is far away from the metropolis of India, today as well as in the days of the Mahabharata. But there have been links with the national tradition throughout. Arjuna, in his wanderings far from Indraprastha, won an exceptionally beautiful bride, Chitrangada, from this land. Much later came the Vaishnavite devotional movement which exerted a profound influence on the gentle and sensitive people of this land. Krishna worship through singing and dancing, initiated by Chaitanya of Bengal, spread here and gave rise to the Sankirtan in which drummers and cymbalists give displays of spectacular dancing including leaps and spins in the air without missing a single beat.

But the finest dance of Manipur is the Rasa Lila which, according to legend, was taught to the eighteenth century ruler, Bhagya Chandra, by Krishna himself in a vision. This ruler started the practice of building special annexes in every temple for the Ras Lila dances which all relate to episodes from Krishna’s life culminating in his dance with all the maidens of Vraja. They are danced by girls though Krishna may sometimes be impersonated by a boy. The costumes are colourful; the singing is moving and heart-felt. The face is kept rather expressionless, in a rapt musing. But perhaps far more than in any other tradition, dance has become truly a body language here and it is a very lyrical adagio.


As the name itself suggests, the Kathak of north India originated in the simple, devotional mimetic recitation of stories (kathas) by rhapsodists attached to the temples- of Vraja, the Mathura region associated with Krishna. But the vicissitudes of evolution made it a chamber form for patrician audience and the two main schools of Kathak grew up under the patronage of the princely house of Jaipur and the Nawabs of Oudh who had their court in Lucknow. Sarangi, the bowed string instrument and the tabla and pakhawaj, percussions, are the traditional accompnaiments. Even more striking are the anklets of the dancer with their two hundred odd tiny bells which translate the brilliant visual rhythm of the footwork into an exciting aural rhythm too. Though Kathak has expressive narrative sequences, the accent is mainly on pure dance. Under the secular, and to some degree sensual, patronage of the princes, the opening sequence (amad) has been transformed from a devout invocation to an elaborately courtly salutation.

The dance unfolds further in a series of intricate and complex steps (torhas). The sequence includes provocatively expressive movements of the head, beautiful arabesques of body patterns, lightning footwork, tantalizing arrested pauses. Using a technique somewhat like the European rubato (robbing one note fractionally of time and paying it back later), the dancer makes brilliant variations in the rhythm schemes but manages to conclude precisely on the accented opening beat (Sam) of the cycle, along with the percussionists in bouts of sportive rivalry. The Gat Bhavas are the narrative and representational sequences interspersed between the sequences of pure dance and they relate the amorous episodes of the Krishna story or illustrate lyrical songs (Thumris) which are equally sensuous.

Folk Dances

The simplicity of the folk dances of India can sometimes be deceptive. While it remains true that tribal dance is dramatically effective because the dancer wholly identifies himself with his role, this identification is not always unconscious. The dancer has to stand apart from himself and evaluate his interpretation of the role. This comes out very clearly in some Naga dances where the same dancer has to change roles swiftly and many times, as the hunter and also as the hunted quarry. Other remarkable features of the folk dance tradition can be brought out by referring to the Bhangra dance of the Punjab. It is truly an expression of the psyche of the community as a whole and therefore it can obliterate the separation of audience and performers which has become an extreme polarisation in the case of classical forms.

In the Bhangra, young men come together in a clearing in the field after the harvest and begin to move in a circle which continues to swell by drawing more and more people. When the circle has stabilised its form, pairs move from it into the centre, dance in the central area and sink back into the circle, and this is repeated many times by many pairs. Everybody thus becomes a participant.

Apart from the fact that the Bhangra dance idiom is vigorous, with jerky movements of the shoulders and hop- steps, there is no rigidly prescribed measure or sequence. This allows considerable improvisation by individual participants, another characteristic of the folk dance tradition. All the regions of India have dances exclusively for women too. The Garba dance of Gujarat is one of the finest of this category. It is a graceful and lyrical dance by women around a lamp in an earthen pot with perforations in it to let the light shine through. The women clad in yellow and red garments move in rhythmical circular motion, singing melodious songs, clapping hands, bending forwards and sideways and weaving numerous patterns.


Q1. Which is the first Indian book on dancing?

The Natya Shastra is the first discourse for classical dances of India, accredited to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni. The manuscript describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance, the theory of rasa, bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, and standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues, and the essence of scriptures. Natya Shastra describes religious arts as a "spiritual traditional path" that liberates the soul, while folk entertainment is called desi, or a "regional popular practice". There are numerous other ancient and medieval Sanskrit dance-drama-related books, such as the Abhinaya Darpana, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa, etc.

Q2. What is an important feature of Indian classical dance?

The Indian classical dances have two basic aspects - Tandava (movement & rhythm) and Lasya (grace, bhava & rasa). The three main components are

Natya (the dramatic element of the dance i.e. the imitation of characters)


Nritta (the dance movements in their basic form)


Nritya (expressional component i.e. mudras or gestures)

The nine rasas are - Love, Heroism, Pathos, Humour, Anger, Fear, Disgust, Wonder, and Peace. Gestures, body positions, and head movements are emphasized in Indian dance. The use of the hands, fingers, and eyes is of primary importance. There are almost a thousand specific hand movements and signs (“mudras”). Also important are space, time, and energy.

Q3. Which Indian classical dance is oldest?

Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance tradition in India. A description of Bharatanatyam from the 2nd century CE can be found in the ancient Tamil epic Silappadikaram, while temple sculptures of the 6th to 9th century CE suggest it was a highly refined performance art by the mid-1st millennium CE. Originating in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, this classical dance form is the mother of all other Indian classical dances. Bharatanatyam is the combination of four words, including 'Bhava' means expression, 'Raga' means music, 'Tala' means rhythm and 'Natya' means dance. It traces its origins back to the Natyasastra, an ancient treatise on theater written by the mythic priest Bharata Muni.

Q4. Who is the god of Indian classical dance?

According to Hindu mythology lord, Shankar is the inventor and the god of this dance form. It has been said that Lord Shankar operates the movement of the earth and the constellation of stars through his footsteps and hand movements. When Lord Shankar dances and make different hasta mudras (hand gestures) nandikeshwar (tandu muni) collects them and practices with rhythm and beats. This dance form taught by tandumuni to Bharat muni is called tandava (danced by Lord Shankar). Seeing Lord Shankar dancing, Devi Parvati composed a dance in a feminine way and was called lasya. Nataraja shows the dance pose of lord shiva. Today, it is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles practiced by male and female dancers.

Q5. What are the classical dance forms of India?

Sangeet Natya Academy, the national academy for performing arts in India, recognizes eight traditional dances as Indian classical dances, while other sources and scholars recognize more. The Cultural Ministry of India has also recognized Chhau as a classical dance, thus making a total of 9 classical dance forms. These have roots in the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, and the religious performance arts of Hinduism. Folk dances are numerous in number and style and vary according to the local tradition of the respective state, ethnic or geographic region. Contemporary dances include refined and experimental fusions of classical, folk, and Western forms.

Q6. What are the 8 classical dances in India?

Sangeet Natak Academy recognizes eight – Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (Northern India), Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Manipuri, Mohiniyattam (Kerala), Odissi (Odisha), and Sattriya (Assam). Scholars add Chhau, Yakshagana, and Bhagavata Mela to the list.


The dance form has grown out of the art of dancers dedicated to temples. Bharatnatyam was earlier known as Sadir or Dasi Attam. In kathakali, the whole story is narrated by using a vocabulary of facial expressions and hand gestures. Mohiniattam developed from the story of Vishnu taking the form of Mohini to kill Bhasmasura.

Q7. Which classical dance is best?

Bharatanatyam : It can be performed by both male and female dancers- lasya for feminine gestures and Pandava for masculine movements.

Kathakali : Kathakali is traditionally performed by men, even for female roles with huge headdresses and faces made to look like painted masks.

Kathak : Performed by both men and women. Emotional facial gestures with elements of mime incorporated into the movements.

Manipuri : It often portrays scenes from the life of the god Krishna.

Kuchipudi : The dances are based on Hindu religion, mythology, and spirituality.

Odissi : It is mainly a dance for women, with postures over fifty symbolic hand gestures or mudras commonly used.

Q8. Which is the best book for classical dance form in India?

The book "Indian Classical Dance: The Renaissance and Beyond" comes from the dance critic and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient Leela Venkataraman. It traces the growth of Indian classical dance since the years of Independence. Covering the eight classical dance forms of India – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Odissi, and Sattriya – the author weaves together a historical perspective with the contemporary scenario. Each new generation of dancers and musicians adds to an already rich tapestry of tradition. The book is beautifully illustrated and multi-faceted, dealing with various aspects of dance, including sponsorship and patronage, the teacher/disciple relationship, and the contemporary classical dialectic.

Q9. What is India's folk dance?

Folk dance, generally, a type of dance that is a vernacular, usually recreational, expression of a past or present culture. Classical dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and Kathak, and folk dances such as Bhangra, each have their unique styles, but they often share signs and meanings that are combined to create modern Bollywood dances.

Q10. What are the 10 popular folk dances?


10 popular folk dances of India:


1.) Bhangra – Punjab- the Baisakhi festival or the harvest season.


2.) Jhumar – Haryana.


3.) Garba – Gujarat- going around in a circle, singing, clapping musically by the drummer. A tribute to Goddess Amba.


4.) Bihu – Assam- denotes the start of the spring season.


5.) Hikat – Jammu, and Kashmir- by young girls and boys in the spring season


6.) Lavani – Maharashtra - a melodious blend of tune, song, dance, and tradition.


7.) Kathakali – Kerala- fascinating colors, graceful body movements, beautiful expressions to the tune of music and song.


8.) Chhau Dance – Odisha- worship of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva


9.) Raas Leela – Uttar Pradesh- the romance of Radha and Krishna and the divine love of Gopikas for Krishna.


10.) Pung Cholom Dance – Manipur- acrobatic skills and stamina.