Dancing to many rhythms:India’s classical dances

Many of you may have seen Indian classical dance performances. Some of you may even be learning a particular dance form. For hundreds of years, India has been home to unique dance styles and the very oldest of these trace their origins (beginnings) to ancient texts such as the vedas. They are an important part of India’s culture and history. Let’s understand more about the varied rhythms of  Indian classical dances.

Classical vs Folk

In this edition of the Special Report, we will be discussing Indian classical dance forms such as Bharathanatyam and Kathak. Do note the use of the word ‘classical’ here for it is a very important difference that sets apart these dance styles. We have a lot of popular dance styles in India such as ‘Bhangra’ from Punjab and ‘Dandiya’ from Gujarat. Classical dance forms are different from these as they follow a strict set of rules in the way they are performed. Classical dancers also train for years under highly trained teachers before they start performing. In contrast, folk dance can be learnt quickly by watching and imitating folk dancers. It is generally easier and more relaxed than classical dance.

Dances like the Assamese Bihu are folk dances of India. They are generally easier and more relaxed than classical dances

Stepping back in time

Did you know that rules of Indian classicial dance were written almost 2000 years ago? A very learned sage named Bharata wrote a marvellously detailed text called the ‘Natya Shastra’ which laid down the rules for Indian performing arts including music, dance and drama. It was written in Sanskrit and is considered one of the most important of Indian classical texts.

Dance has been prevalent in India since ancient times. Old cave paintings, books, sculpture all point to the important role of dance in Indian culture. One of the oldest references to dance is a bronze sculpture from the Indus Valley civilization that is at least three to four thousand years old.

An Indus Valley bronze shows an image of a dancing girl – evidence that dance in India goes back thousands of years

What’s happening today?

Indian classical dance continues to be very popular and a large number of young people in India learn them in special dance schools found all over the country.  One of the most famous of these is ‘Kalakshetra’ in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Some of India’s most famous Bharathanatyam dancers belong to this school.

Dance Festivals

Given how popular dance is, its not surprising that India is home to several famous classical dance festivals set against the backdrop of some of our most famous temples. In the south, the Mamallapuram Dance festival is performed in the ancient sea port of Mamallapuram that was home to the Pallava kings more than ___ years ago. In the east, the state of Orissa plays host to the Konark Dance Festival which is staged in front of the magnificent Sun Temple of Konark.

Dancers perform at the Konark Dance Festival

Indian Classical Dance forms

There are eight main styles of Indian classical dance and they all come from different states of India. As you will see, many of them are religious in nature and were originally (at first) performed in temples.

Bharathanatyam (Tamil Nadu)

One of the most well-known forms of Indian classical dance, Bharatanayam traces its origin to dances performed in temples. This dance form has been handed down through the centuries by dance teachers (or gurus) called nattuwanars and the temple dancers, called devadasis. It is accompanied by Carnatic music, a form of Indian classical music. It is widely learnt in Southern India and also attracts students from many parts of the world.

Kathak (Uttar Pradesh)

This dance form is closely linked to Hindustani classical music. Although early forms of Kathak were performances based on the life of the Hindu god Krishna, once Muslim invaders (such as the Mughals) captured a large part of North India, this dance style changed, and became less religious in nature.


Kathakali (Kerala)

One of the most recognizable forms of dance due to the elaborate make-up used by the dancers, the Kathakali dance form is also known for its dramatic (something that stands out) costumes. It originated in Kerala around 400 years ago the performance takes the form of a dance drama based on stories from sources such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat.


Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh)

The dance form takes its name from a village in the state where it was originally practised. It shares similarities with Bharathanatyam. Performances are based on a stories from Indian myth and there is a strong element of dance-drama within the form.


Manipuri (Manipur)

Hailing from the NE hill state of Manipur, this is a purely religious dance with a very striking costume style, especially for the female dancers. Stories are based on the myths surrounding the Hindu god Krishna and his partner Radha.


Mohiniyattam (Kerala)

This dance form is again religious in nature as it is mostly about devotion to one’s god. Stories of Krishna and Vishnu feature frequently as themes. It is believed to have developed as a dance form around 500 years ago. It is performed by solo (single) female dancers.


Odissi (Orissa)

Based on archaeological remains (old sculptures, texts etc), one can say that Odissi is the oldest living dance form in India. It has some similarities with Bharatanatyam. Again, like several other dance forms, common themes in Odissi relate to the lives of the Hindu gods – Vishnu and Krishna.


Sattriya (Assam)

The Sattriya was the last to be recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms of India. It was created by one of Assam’s great saints (a saint is a holy man) nearly 600 years ago. Although it was originally performed only in monasteries by male performers, it is now staged even outside these and frequently includes both male and female performers.