Classical Dances of India

India is known for its rich cultural heritage, and classical dances are an integral part of this heritage. These dances are not just artistic expressions, but they also carry historical, religious, and social significance. There are eight prominent classical dance forms in India, each originating from a different region and having its own unique style, techniques, costumes, and stories.

Dance Forms in India:

India’s dance landscape is characterized by two primary categories: classical and folk dance. These two forms diverge significantly in terms of their origins.

The classical dance draws deeply from the Natya Shastra, a comprehensive treatise that outlines the distinctive attributes of each classical dance style.

In contrast, folk dance emerges organically from the local traditions of specific states, ethnicities, or geographical regions.

Classical Dance in India:

Classical dance is distinguished by its technical intricacies and adherence to precise guidelines. The foundation of traditional dance forms is intricately laid out in texts such as Acharya Nandikeshawara’s “Abhinaya Darpan,” Sharangdev’s “Sangeeth Ratnakar,” and the Natya Shastra, encompassing aspects like body movements, rasa (emotional essence), and bhava (expression).

India’s Ministry of Culture officially recognizes nine distinct classical dance forms. The earliest references to dance can be found in Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra.

Among the numerous dance forms in India, classical dance stems from the principles established in the Natya Shastra. According to prevailing sources and scholars, there are eight classical dance forms in India.

These dance forms are characterized by three fundamental components:

  1. Natya: Depicting characters and drama
  2. Nritta: Fundamental dance movements
  3. Nritya: Expressive element featuring gestures known as mudras

The classical dance forms encompass eight core emotional nuances, known as Rasas:

  1. Shringar: Love
  2. Hasya: Humor
  3. Karuna: Sorrow
  4. Raudra: Anger
  5. Veer: Heroism
  6. Bhayanak: Fear
  7. Bibhats: Disgust
  8. Adbhoot: Wonder

All classical dances of India

Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu):

  • Bharatanatyam dance, originating in Tamil Nadu, is renowned for its expressive movements conveyed through a grammar of body motion, as elucidated by the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikesvara.
  • An inherent characteristic of Bharatanatyam is its ekaharya aspect, where a single dancer assumes multiple roles within a single performance.
  • The dance involves intricate transitions of the legs, hips, and arms, while emotions are conveyed through expressive eye movements and intricate hand gestures known as mudras.
  • The accompanying orchestra comprises a vocalist, a mridangam player, a violinist or veena player, a flautist, and a cymbal player. The conductor of the dance recitation is called the Nattuvanar.
  • This dance form typically consists of seven primary segments: Alarippu, Jatiswaran, Shabda, Varna, Pada, Thillana, and Sloka.
  • The intricate poses of Bharatanatyam are often depicted on the gopurams (temple towers) of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu.
  • E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale played instrumental roles in the revival and resurgence of Bharatanatyam’s popularity and prestige.

Kathak (North India):

  • Kathak derives its name from “Katha,” signifying storytelling. Originating in North India, it initially took shape as a performance form in temples and villages, narrating ancient stories.
  • The evolution of Kathak as a distinct dance began during the 15th and 16th centuries, influenced by the bhakti movement.
  • The legends of Radha-Krishna were brought to life through folk plays called “rasa lila,” which merged folk dance with the foundational gestures of Kathak storytelling.
  • In the Mughal courts, Kathak flourished, acquiring its unique style and becoming a dance form characterized by elaborate features.
  • Wajid Ali Shah, the final Nawab of Awadh, played a pivotal role in elevating Kathak to a prominent art form.
  • Often performed solo, Kathak incorporates pauses for reciting verses, followed by their interpretation through movement.
  • Footwork is emphasized, and dancers, adorned with ankle bells, execute controlled and precise movements with straight legs.
  • Kathak is intrinsically tied to Hindustani or North Indian music.
  • The classical style was rejuvenated by Lady Leela Sokhey (Menaka), and acclaimed artists include Birju Maharaj and Sitara Devi.

Kathakali (Kerala):

  • Kathakali draws from ritual arts like Chakiarkoothu, Koodiyattam, Krishnattam, and Ramanattam in Kerala, influencing its form and technique.
  • This blend of dance, music, and acting dramatizes narratives, often adapted from Indian epics.
  • Kathakali features striking make-up and intricate costumes, including elaborate masks, voluminous skirts, and elaborate headgear.
  • Dancers embody roles such as kings, gods, and demons, with distinctive make-up and attire, while vocalists narrate the legends, and percussionists provide the music.
  • Various facial colors signify different emotions and characters—green for nobility, black for malevolence, and red patches to blend royalty and wickedness.
  • Significant elements include hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements.
  • Dancers distribute their weight to the outer edges of slightly curved feet.
  • Prominent artists include Ramankutty Nair and Kalamandalam Gopi.

Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh):

  • Kuchipudi, named after a village in Andhra Pradesh, boasts a long tradition of dance-drama, previously known as Yakshagaana.
  • In the 17th century, Siddhendra Yogi conceptualized the Kuchipudi style of Yakshagaana. Guided by Teerthanaaraayana Yogi, Siddhendra Yogi was deeply rooted in the literary Yakshagaana tradition, creating works like Krishna-Leelatarangini.
  • Kuchipudi is performed both as group dance drama and solo acts.
  • Costumes, jewelry, and ornaments hold significant importance in this dance form.
  • Solo pieces include Manduka Shabdam (the story of a frog maiden), Balgopala Taranga (dance on a brass plate’s edge with a pitcher of water on the head), and Tala Chitra Nritya (depicting drawings through toe-dancing).
  • Distinguished artists include Yamini Krishnamurthy and Raja Reddy.

Mohiniyattam (Kerala):

  • Mohiniyattam, the classical solo dance of Kerala, draws its name from Mohini, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
  • References to Mohiniyattam can be found in texts like Vyavaharamala by Mazhamagalam Narayanan Namputiri and Ghoshayatra by poet Kunjan Nambiar.
  • The dance form’s contemporary structure was developed by the Travancore Kings, Maharaja Kartika Tirunal and Maharaja Swati Tirunal, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Mostly performed solo by female dancers, Mohiniyattam features circular movements, delicate steps, and nuanced expressions.
  • Incorporating elements from Nangiar Koothu and folk dances like Kaikottikali and Tiruvatirakali, it amalgamates the grace of Bharatanatyam and the vigor of Kathakali.
  • The attire is characterized by realistic make-up and the traditional Kasavu saree of Kerala.
  • Lyrics are presented in Manipravala, a blend of Tamil, Malayalam, and Sanskrit.
  • Noteworthy performers include Sunanda Nair and Pallavi Krishnan.

Odissi (Odisha):

  • Odissi, originating in Odisha, predominantly depicts stories of Lord Vishnu’s incarnations and verses from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.
  • Characterized by its soft and elegant movements, Odissi is accompanied by melodious lyrics and shares similarities with Bharatanatyam in terms of mudras and expressions.
  • Termed as the ‘mobile sculpture,’ Odissi incorporates two primary postures—Tribhanga (body deflection at the neck, torso, and knees) and Chowk (a square-like pose).
  • Renowned performers in this style include Sonal Mansingh and Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Sattriya (Assam):

  • Introduced in the 15th century by Assamese saint Sankaradeva for propagating Vaishnavism, Sattriya dance evolved into a distinctive form.
  • Due to its religious significance and connection with Vaishnava monasteries known as Sattras, the dance form is named Sattriya.
  • Strict principles govern the Sattriya tradition, encompassing hastamudras (hand gestures), footwork, attire, music, and more.
  • The tradition encompasses two distinct streams—the Bhaona-related repertoire, spanning from Gayan-Bhayanar Nach to Kharmanar Nach, and independent dance numbers like Chali, Rajagharia Chali, Jhumura, and Nadu Bhangi.
  • Chali is characterized by grace and elegance, while Jhumura exudes vigor and majestic beauty.

Manipuri (Manipur):

  • With origins beyond recorded history, Manipuri dance is deeply intertwined with rituals, traditional festivals, and mythical tales of gods and goddesses, such as Shiva and Parvati.
  • Lai Haraoba, the oldest form of Manipuri dance, lays the foundation for all stylized dances. It signifies the gods’ merrymaking and is a ceremonial offering of song and dance.
  • The principal performers are maibas and maibis (priests and priestesses) who reenact the creation of the world through their performances.
  • The famous Rasleela dances of Manipur trace their roots to the reign of King Bhagyachandra in the 18th century.
  • While Manipuri dance boasts a vast repertoire, Ras, Sankirtana, and Thang-Ta are the most prominent forms.
  • Accompanied by the congregational singing style known as Sankirtana, male dancers play the Pung and Kartal instruments.
  • Unlike other forms, Manipuri dancers abstain from wearing ankle bells to preserve the delicacy of their body movements during the theatrical presentation.


  1. Which is the oldest dance form in India?

Bharatnatyam dance is the oldest dance form in India.

  1. In how many categories Indian Dance Forms are classified?

Ans. In India, dance forms can be broadly classified into 2 categories- classical and folk dance forms. These dance forms have originated from different parts of India as per the local tradition.

Leave a Reply