According to the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva, in his incarnation as Nataraja or the lord of dance, dances the world into existence and then he dances again at its destruction. Nataraja tramples the demon of ignorance as he paces out his cosmic steps. King of dance, he is also the patron of actors and dancers throughout India, and a temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu is dedicated to his honor.

The oldest text (in Sanskrit) on a dance and drama is the Bharata Natya Shastra. Its exact age is uncertain; scholars estimate it was written some time between the second century BCE and the third century C.E. The knowledge contained within this work has been passed down through the centuries, undergoing adaptations as times and fashions similarly changed. The traditional mode of transmission, from guru to disciple survives, although these days, students of dance may also learn their art at modern dance schools.

This text divides dance into margi (that performed for the gods) and desi (that performed for the pleasure of the people). Dance is further divided into tandav and lasya. Tandav is characterized by strength and vigor (generally deemed masculine qualities) and lasya is graceful and delicate, qualities associated with femininity.

Classical dance is made up of three components: natya, the dramatic element of the performance; nritya, often referred to as pure dance (the rhythmic movement of the pure dance (the rhythmic movement of the body in dance); and nritya, the element that suggests ras (sentiments) and bhava (mood) conveyed through gestures and facial expressions.


Classical Dances

Bharat Natyam

Known as Dasi attam or dance of the devadasis, (the traditional southern temple dancers), this is lasya in character and its exponents are generally women. This dance form’s popularity had waned after the 16th century C.E because of the fact that the devdasis had begun to be associated with prostitution. It was resurrected in the 19th century C.E by a family from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu who returned to the dance’s roots and helped restore its reputation.


This form of dance combines Hindu and Muslim in.uences and is both lasya and tandav, therefore, have both male and female dancers. Kathak was particularly popular with the Moghuls or the Muslim rulers and the dancers still wear costumes that relate back to the 17th century. Kathak also suffered a period of notoriety when it moved from the courts into houses where nautch (dancing) girls tantalized audiences with their dances but it was restored as a serious art form in the early 20th century.


Kathakali, in its present dance form, is a relative newcomer, having been commissioned during the 17th century by the royal families of Kerala in Southern India. This form of dance is tandav and therefore the dancers are traditionally males (although females occasionally take part), and stories are usually based on epics (recited in Manipravalam, a Sanskritised form of Malayalam). Kathakali seems like pantomime wherein the characters don’t sing or talk, but at times shriek and groan. The dancers’ unique makeup, costumes and their towering headpieces leave lasting impressions on the audience.


Originating in the Assam Hills this dance came to the attention of the wider audience in the 1920s when Rabindranath Tagore, the prominent Indian poet, invited one of the dancers to teach at Shantiniketan, near Calcutta. It’s slow, swaying rhythm makes Manipuri a distinctly lasya dance form, counter into the accompanying drummers energetic performance.


A dance-drama created in the 17th century C.E by a dance guru, this became the prerogative of Brahmin boys from the Andhra Pradesh village it is named after. The story centers on the jealous wife of Krishna and performances take place in the open air at night.


It is claimed to be India’s oldest dance form and is a direct descendant of the Natya Shastra. Originally a temple art, Odissi was also performed at royal courts and although, today it’s performed mainly on the stage, it is still an act of devotion. India has a wealth of folk dances ranging from the mysterious masked dances performed at festivals in the great Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh to the virile Bhangra dance of Punjab, the theatrical dummy horse dance of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the graceful .shermen’s dance of Orissa.

Folk Dancing

India has as many folk dances as it has ethno-linguistic groups. From the simple to the outlandish, India’s folk dances are invariably colorful, vital displays. Some of the best known folk dances are the energetic folk dance of Punjab called bhangra, the stick dances of Gujarat called daandiya raas, and the Koklikatai stilt dance of Tamil Nadu. Navratra or the nine nights before Dashera, the Hindu religious holiday which falls sometime in September/October, is celebrated as a festival of dance in Gujarat. It is an eagerly awaited occasion as the celebrations are a symbolic way of praying to Goddess Amba (Durga) for strength to overcome evil. During these nine nights, men and women gather in the temples, open courtyards or the village squares to dance around a garbadeep, a lamp inside an earthen pot with tiny holes. This dance is called garba. Men and women dance the garba by going in circles and clapping their hands. Sometimes they follow similar steps and use foot-long sticks called daandiyas. This dance is called the daandiya-raas. Garba and daandiya-raas have gained popularity all over India, in both rural and urban areas. Over the years, the traditional garba and daandiya-raas have changed and a new form has emerged for the younger generation. It is called the disco daandiya and is very popular in the urban areas.

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