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Indian dances


Kathakali is the most well known dance drama from the south Indian state of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means "Story-Play". It is known for its large, elaborate makeup and costumes. The elaborate costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognised icon for Kerala.
The themes of the Kathakali are religious in nature. They typically deal with the Mahabarat, the Ramayana and the ancient scriptures known as the Puranas. This is performed in a text which is generally Sanskritised Malayalam.
A Kathakali performance is a major social event. They generally start at dusk and go through out the night. Kathakali is usually performed only by men. Female characters are portrayed by men dressed in women's costume. However, in recent years, women have started to become Kathakali dancers.
Kathakali has a long tradition. It dates back to the 17th century. It was given its present form by Mahakavi Vallathol Narayan Menon, who was the founder of the Kerala Kala Mandalam. The actors rely very heavily on hand gesture to convey the story. These hand gestures, known as mudra, are common through out much of classical Indian dance.
The costume is the most distinctive characteristic of Kathakali. The makeup is very elaborate and the costumes are very large and heavy.
There are several kinds of costume. There are: Sathwika (the hero), Kathi (the villain), Minukku (females), and Thatti. These basic divisions are further subdivided in a way which is very well known to Malayali (Keralite) audiences. Each character is instantly recognisable by their characteristic makeup and costume. The makeup is very elaborate. It is so elaborate that it is more like a mask than makeup in the usual sense. The materials that comprise the makeup is all locally available. The white is made from rice flour, the red is made from Vermilion (a red earth such as cinnabar). The black is made from soot. The colours are not merely decoration, but are also a means of portraying characters. For instance, red on the feet is used to simbolise evil character and evil intent.
The music of Kathakali has some similarity to the larger body of South Indian classical music (Carnatic sangeet); however the instrumentation is decidedly different. Its local colour is strongly achieved by the use of instruments such as chenda, idakka, and shuddha madalam. Is Kathakali classical? If we look at our benchmarks to see if it is classical, it only scores modestly. It is definitely old, but this is one of the least important of the criteria. It is not necessarily something that upper classes use to define their identity, indeed the opposite is probably true. Its most glaring deficiency is seen in its inability to transcend its attachments to the Keralite community. The average Indian (non- Malayali) has only a vague knowledge that it exists, and will live their entire life without ever even seeing a Kathakali performance. Therefore from a sociological standpoint it is probably more correct to call Kathakali "traditional" instead of classical.

Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest dance forms of India. It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since ancient times. Later it was codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet whose musical compositions for dance form the bulk of the Bharata Natyam repertoire even today. The art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians forming part of the elaborate rituals. These highly talented artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repository of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to discover its beauty. By this time the Devadasis had fallen upon evil days due to lack of state patronage and changed social mores. The revival of Bharata Natyam by pioneers such as E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale brought the dance out of the temple precincts and onto the proscenium stage though it retained its essentially devotional character.
Today Bharata Natyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over India. Due to its wide range of movements and postures and the balanced melange of the rhythmic and mimetic aspects lends itself well to experimental and fusion choreography. Degree and Post Graduate courses covering the practice and theory of Bharata Natyam as well as the languages associated with its development are available at major universities of India.


Manipuri is one of the six major classical dances of India. Manipuri dance is indigenous to Manipur, the North eastern state of India. The Manipuri dance style is inextricably woven into the life pattern of Manipuri people. The most striking part of Manipur dance is its colorful decoration, lightness of dancing foot, delicacy of abhinaya (drama), lilting music and poetic charm. The Manipuri dance form is mostly ritualistic and draws heavily from the rich culture of the state of Manipur. Costumes used in the Manipur dance are colorful and the music carries a quaint charm.
Manipuri dance is entirely religious and aims at gaining spiritual experience. The Manipuri dance is not only a medium of worship and delight but also essential for all socio-cultural ceremonies of Manipuri people. Looking from a religious and artistic point of view the Manipuri Classical dance is said to be one on the purest, modest, softest and mildest and meaningful dances.
Manipuri Dance is a common name and envelopes all the dance-forms of Manipur. Thus, Manipuri dance can be called a basket of various dances. According to legends the original creator of Manipuri dance was Radha and Krishna. This Rasa Leela dance is said to be repeated by Shiva and his consort, Goddess Uma in Lasya style (in Manipur). It is interesting to note that the same dance (Rasa-dance) was performed for the third time by two mortal human beings, princess Toibi and Khamba of Manipur. The dance performed by these two lovers is known as Lai Haraoba.
The most important facet of Manipuri culture is that it has preserved the ancient ritual based dances and folk dances along with the later developed classical Manipuri dance style. Of all the classical categories, the 'Ras Leela' (a greatly evolved dance drama, choreographed on 'Vaishnavite Padavalis') is the utmost expression of artistic genius, devotion and excellence of the Manipuri people.

Mohini attam

Mohini attam is a classical dance form of Kerala. Mohini attam is derived from the words "Mohini" (meaning beautiful women) and "attam"(meaning dance). Thus, Mohini attam dance form is a beautiful feminine style with surging flow of body movements. Mohini attam dance in Kerala developed in the tradition of Devadasi system, which later grew and developed a classical status.
Mohini attam is a solo female dance (in a single costume), where musical melody and the rhythmical swaying of the dancer from side to side and the smooth and unbroken flow of the body movement is the striking feature. The Mohini attam dance focuses mainly on feminine moods and emotions. Usually, the theme of Mohini attam dance is "sringara" or love. Subtle subjects of love are executed with suggestive abhinaya, subtle gestures, rhythmic footwork and lilting music. The legend of Vishnu as "Mohini", (the enchantress) forms the core of Mohini attam dance.
The credit for reviving the Mohini attam dance in the nineteenth century goes to Swati Tirunal. Swati Tirunal was an enlightened ruler of Travancore (Southern Kerala) and promoted the study of Mohini attam. Swati Tirunal composed many of the musical arrangements and vocal accompaniments that provide musical background for the Mohini attam dancers. The noted Malayalam poet Vallathol, who established the Kerala Kalamandalam dance school in 1930, also played an important role in reviving the Mohini attam dance form.
The performers of Mohini attam dance usually wear an off-white colored sari with gold brocade borders. Hairs of the dancer are gathered in a bun and decorated with jasmine flowers. The Mohini attam dancer is adorned with Gold Jewellery including necklaces, bangles, waistbands and anklets. The tinkling of the Jewellery produces music as the dancer performs the dance. Mohini attam dance is accompanied by musical instruments like violin, Veena and Mridangam and the dancer narrates episodes from the epics and legends through elegant steps, rhythmic movements of her arms and amazing facial expressions. The Hastha Lakshandeepika is a classical text and forms the basis of hands and arms movement in Mohini attam.


The Odissi (Orissi) dance is the Indian classical dance from the Eastern state of Odissa. It has a long, yet broken tradition. Although dance in Odissa may be traced back more than 2000 years, it was brought to near extinction during the colonial period. Therefore, modern Odissi dance is a reconstruction. Like other forms of Indian classical dance, the Odissi style traces its origins back to antiquity. Dancers are found depicted in bas-relief in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneshwar) dating back to the 1st century BC. The Natya Shastra speaks of the dance from this region and refers to it as Odra-Magadhi.
Over the centuries three schools of Odissi dance developed: Mahari, Nartaki, and Gotipau. The Mahari tradition is the devadasi tradition; this is the use of women who are attached to deities in the temple. The Nartaki tradition is the school of Odissi dance which developed in the royal courts. Gotipau is a style characteristed by the use of young boys dressed up in female clothing to perform female roles.
Odissi dance was held in high esteem before the 17th century. Nobility were known for their patronage of the arts, and it was not unheard of for royalty of both sexes to be accomplished dancers. However, after the 17th century, the social position of dancers began to decline. Dancing girls were considered to be little more than prostitutes, and the "Anti-Nautch" movement of the British brought Odissi dance to near extinction. Before Independence, the position of Orissi dance was very bad. The tradition of dancing girls at the temple at Puri was abolished. The royal patronage of nartaki had been severely eroded by the absorption of India under the crown. The only viable Odissi tradition was the Gotipau. This had weathered the British Anti-Nautch movement simply because it was danced by males. Yet even the Gotipau tradition was in a very bad state.
Independence brought a major change in official attitudes toward Indian Dance. Like the other classical arts, dance was seen as a way to define India's national identity. Governmental and non-governmental patronage increased. The few remaining Odissi dancers were given employment, and a massive job of reconstructing the Odissi dance began. This reconstruction involved combing through ancient texts, and more importantly, the close examination of dance posses represented in bas-relief in the various temples. There were a number of people who were responsible for the reconstruction and popularisation of Odissi dance. Most notable are Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta, and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra.
Today Odissi dance is once again deemed a viable and "classical" dance. There are a number of characteristics of the Odissi dance. The style may be seen as a conglomeration of aesthetic and technical details.
One of the most characteristic features of Odissi dance is the Tribhangi. The concept of Tribhang divides the body into three parts, head, bust, and torso. Any posture which deals with these three elements is called tribhangi. This concept has created the very characteristic poses which are more contorted than found in other classical Indian dances. The mudras are also important. The term mudra means "stamp" and is a hand position which signifies things.
The use of mudras help tell a story in a manner similar to the hula of Hawaii. The themes of Odissi are almost exclusively religious in nature. They most commonly revolve around Krishna. Although the worship of Krishna is found throughout India, there are local themes which are emphasised. The Ashtapadi's of Jayadev are a very common theme.
The musical accompaniment of Odissi dance is essentially the same as the music of Odissa itself. There are various views on how the music of the Odissi relates to the music of greater North India. It is usually considered just another flavour of Hindustani sangeet, however there are some who feel that Odissi should be considered a separate classical system.
There are a number of musical instruments used to accompany the Odissi dance. One of the most important is the pakhawaj, also known as the madal. This is the same pakhawaj that is used elsewhere in the north except for a few small changes. One difference is that the right head is a bit smaller than the usual north Indian pakhawaj. This necessitates a technique which in many ways is more like that of the table, or mridangam. Other instruments which are commonly used are the bansuri (bamboo flute), the manjira (metal cymbals), the sitar and the tanpura. There was a move to classify Odissi as a separate classical system. This movement is generally considered to have failed for a number of reasons. The general view is that traditional Orissi singers and musicians have been so influenced by Hindustani concepts that they are unable to present the music in its "original" form. There is a peculiar irony to this movement. Had they succeeded in having Odissi music declared to be a separate system, then it would be hard to justify calling it classical. It would fail to achieve any level, of ethnic transcendence and would essentially be reduced to the level of a "traditional" art form.


Kuchipudi was introduced as a dance drama, but its present day dispensation tells a different story altogether. It has now been reduced only to dance form, with the drama missing completely. With proficient training and knowledge, the Kuchipudi dancers have started presenting the dance form in their individualistic ways, today. In the present timesd, majority of the Kuchipudi dancers are women. Kuchipudi dramas are enacted during nights, in open air, on improvised stages. The audience generally sits on the ground.
Kuchipudi originated from a hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, in the 3rd century B.C. This dance style, like many other classical dance forms, was initially presented at temples and was performed by the Brahmin men (known as Bhagavathalu). These dances were meant to prove as offerings to the deities and women were never allowed to participate in the dance group.
The very first group of Brahmin performers (Bhagavathalu) was formed in 1502 A.D. Siddhendra Yogi championed the cause of redefining the Kuchipudi dance form, with the aim of eliminating exploitation of women. Owing to his efforts, Kuchipudi came to be enriched by the advent of the female dancers, with time. Renowned gurus, like Vedantam Lakshminarayana, Chinta Krishnamurthy and Tadepalli Perayya, broadened the horizons of the dance form further. The reforms brought in, at that time, have today led to the women even playing the male parts in this dance form.
Before the dance drama of Kuchipudi, there are certain rituals that are performed in front of the audience. After the rituals, the Soothradhara or the conductor, with the supporting musicians, comes on stage, gives a play of rhythm on the drums and cymbals and announces the title of the dance drama. After this, two people enter, holding a curtain, behind which is a dancer in the mask of Ganpati (the elephant headed god). The dancer dances for some time, to worship Ganpati, so that the dance drama goes on without hitches. In a Kuchipudi performance, each principal character introduces himself or herself on the stage with a daru. A daru is a small composition of dance and song specially designed for each character, to help him/her reveal his/her identity and also to show his/her skill in the art. There can be as many as 80 darus or dance sequences in a Kuchipudi performance. All of them help set the mood of the drama as well as the characters in it. Thereafter, the performance finally begins.
After the initial rituals as well the introduction of the characters is complete, it is the time to finally begin the performance of Kuchipudi. Through the show, the dance is accompanied by song, typically Carnatic music. Accompanying the singer, in the performace, is by mridangam (a classical South Indian percussion instrument), violin, flute and the tambura (a drone instrument with strings which are plucked). Make-up and costumes are the unique characteristics of Kuchipudi dance form. Apart from the make-up, the female characters also wear ornaments and jewelry, such as Rakudi (head ornament), Chandra Vanki (arm ornament), Adda Bhasa and Kasina Sara (neck ornament), and a long plait decorated with flowers and jewelry. Most of the ornaments worn by the artists are made of a light weight wood, called Boorugu. The most popular Kuchipudi dance forms is the pot dance, in which a dancer keeps a pot filled with water on his/her head, while the feet are balanced on a brass plate. He/she moves on the stage, manipulating the brass plate with the feet kept on its rim and doing some hand movements, without spilling a drop of water on the ground. Bhama Kalapam, Gollakalapam, Prahlada Charitam, Sashirekha and Parinaya are some of the other famous dance dramas in Kuchipudi.