Classical Dances of India

Classical dances of India are various styles of dance forms which are performed in sacred way which is generally story based on good and evil. These dances are in practice in different regions of India from ancient times. In general there are 8 classical dances of India. The main classical dances with their origin states, dance form sequence, costumes associated with classical dances, musical instruments used in these classical dances and other relevant details are explained in this article. The Indian classical dance forms and its techniques draws its traces from the book “Natyashastra” written by sage Bharat Muni in ancient times.

The dances of India can be classified in two categories –

i) Classical Dances

ii) Folk and Tribal Dances

Difference between Classical and Folk Dances of India.

Classical Dances of India : Bharatnatyam Classical Dances of India

It is one of the most popular classical dances of India. It originated from South India mostly from the region of present Tamil Nadu. Bharatnatyam is a solo dance performed generally by women. The dance theme is based on instances pertaining to Hindu religion deities specially Shiva.  Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance form of India. It was originally performed by devdasis in the temples. This dance was patronized by Cholas, Pandyas, Nayaks, Vijayanagar rulers.

History of Bharatnatyam Classical Dance

During the British period, the practise and proliferation of Bharatanatyam reduced and virtually halted. The christian missionaries in south had wrong image about this dance and they use to relate it as erotic amusement form by harlots, courtesans etc.  In 1910, British totally banned the temple dancing of all form in Madras province. Huge protest began as it was considered as attack on culture, religion and traditions by priests class on the name of social reform.

Dance Sequence

The techniques of this dance consists of 64 principles of co-ordinated hand, foot, face and body movements. The dance is characterised by bent knees in association with magnificent gestures of hands twirling with sign language. Facial expressions aided by eyes and facial muscles beautifies and adds degree of divinity to this dance. There is background music and a singer (called guru) also present during the performance of artist. The dance starts with a slow tempo but gathers momentum and eventually there is very swift motion of hands, feet, body twists and facial expression.

Musical Instruments and Costumes

The traditional form of Bharatanatyam generally consists of solo female dancer accompanied with band of musicians and one or more singers. The attire in Bharatanatyam is brightly coloured sari. The sari is adorned with heavy jewelleries on nose, ears, head, wrists and a wait band.

Popular Exponents/ Artists of Bharatnatyam

Some popular dancers of Bharatanatyam are Bala Saraswati, Shanta Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Kamala, Vyjayanthimala, Sonal man Singh, Samyukta Panigrahi and Rukhmini Devi.

Classical Dances of India : Kathak

Classical Dances of India

Kathak Dance by Pandit Birju Maharaj

The word Kathak relates to katha “कथा”(or story). This dance form originated from North India mostly present Uttar Pradesh. Kathak dance traditionally was performed by group of wandering people/priests called kathakars. The katha which is the background plot on which dance sequence proceeds is based on short instances of Indian hindu mythology. It is one of the famous classical dances of north India. Its origin dates to ancient times when groups of priests went about reciting stories of Ramayan and Mahabharat using music and dance. Childhood narations of Sri Krisnha (Krishna Bal Leela) also used to be most popular concept of Kathak dance. It soon turned to dance-drama in which actors took part. Kathak gained momentum during Bhakti movement specially in 17th century.

There are three major schools or gharanas from which practitioners draw their lineage – Benares, Lucknow and Jaipur.

Popular Exponents/ Artists of Kathak

The popular exponents or maestros of Kathak dance are – Sitara Devi, Birju Maharaj, Gopi Krishna, Binda din Maharaj, Kalkadin, Uma Sharma.

Classical Dances of India : Kathakali

Classical Dances of India

Kathakali Dance

This dance form originated from Kerala in 17th century. The difference from other Indian dance forms can evidently be noticed by heavy costumes, big head gears, crowns and facemasks, fluffy skirts and silver nails. The male artist generally gets the face colored. Classical Kathakali was mainly performed by male artists but modern dance form has also included women artists along with male counterpart. It is performed generally at temples during festivals. This is a dance drama which combines with music, poetry, mime and drama. The themes are derived from ancient hindu mythologies, epic texts like puranas and also from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

One other fact by which Kathakali differs from remaining Indian classical dances is that it also incorporates movements as depicted from ancient martial arts. One other difference of Kathakali from other classical dances is that it was evolved and developed in courts and theaters and not only limited to the temples.

Costumes and Makeup style 

Kathakali dance form has the most vivid and very elaborated costumes among different classical of India. The most remarkable are the big crown (mukut), facemask, bright color painted face. There is a commonly accepted code for facial makeup. There are seven different makeup styles used in Kathakali, for example green face with crimson red lips portrays gods like Krishna, Ram or Shiva while red makeup is used to depict evil characters like Ravan etc. Yellow color make up is used for sages or women etc.

Musical Instruments in Kathakali

Music is the invariable part of Kathakali dance. It effectively highlights and complements the actual dance. The musical note changes as per the situation of the act. To depict angry situation higher musical notes are played while to depict emotions like love etc soft notes come to effect. Notable musical instruments are three types of drum Maddalam which is barrel shaped drum, Itaykka (hourglass shaped drum) and centa (cylindrical drum).

Popular Exponents/ Artists of Kathakali

The maestros of this dance are – Guru krishna Kutty, Kanak Rele and Raghvan.

Classical Dances of India : Mohiniattam

Classical Dances of India

Mohiniattam Classical Dance

It is classical dance which also originates from Kerala. The word Mohini means a maiden who attracts or fill desire on the onlooker. This format is similar to bharatnatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes are attractive. It is a solo dance.

Some popular artists of Mohiniattam dance are – Sunanda Nair, Jayaprabha Menon, Pallavi Krishnan, Gopika Verma, Vijayalakshmi and Radha Dutta.


Classical Dances of India

Manipuri Classical Dance

This dance belongs to the northeast state of Manipur. It is purely a religious dance which is used to invoke divine blessings. The theme of this classical dance is based on Raslila, the eternal divine love of Radha-Krishna. This dance involves graceful and elegant movement of head, hands and feet in complete harmony. The dance is accompanied by divotional religious music. Man (portraying Krishna) and woman (portraying Radha)dance together in duet. Sometimes there is a group dance also in which one or more gopis are present. This dance form is observed in Manipur during festivals and marriages of Manipuri people most commonly in people of Meitei tribe .

Costumes and Musical Instruments used in Manipuri Dance

The costumed adorned by dancers are totally unique and can be easily differentiated from other Indian classical dances. Woman characters (Radha and Gopis) adorn kumil which is barrel shape long stiff skirt. Gold, silver and small mirrors are embroidered on this barrel skirt. On the waist there is a translucent (semi transparent) flower shaped wear. The top is mostly velvet blouse and head is covered with white semi transparent veil. The male character (Krishna) generally wears yellow (or other bright color) dhoti, and a mukut (crown) with peacock feather.

In contrast to other classical dances the dancers do not wear any anklets. Pung a barrel type percussion music instrument is accompanied in Manipuri dances. Kartal, sembong, flute, harmonium etc are also used. Pena (string type musical instrument) is unique to this dance form.

Some popular artists of this dance are – Guru Bipin Sinha, Jhaveri sisters and T Nadia Singh.


Classical Dances of India

Odissi Dance (Image Courtsey :

It is a classical dance of Odisha. It is considered to be oldest form of classical dance dating back to pre-christian era. The characteristics of this dance is bhang (breaking) of human body with deflection of the head, torso and the hips. Traditionally this dance form is practised by women. The dance form like other classical dances is based on mythological instances, or devotional poems/hymns from hindu sacred religious texts etc. The dance is blend of body movements, facial expressions, moves (mudras) and gestures.

Dance Sequence and Mudras

Classical Odissi starts with Mangal-archana (मंगल-अर्चना) which is basically praise of lord Jagannath. After that there is Pushpanjali (पुष्पांजली) and Bhumi Pranam (भूमि प्रणाम). The next step is battu nritya, a fast paced energetic dance devoted to lord Shiva.  After this the main dance starts which is elegant and graceful. This is based on expressions and gestures and accompanied with music and Oriya or Sanskrit slokas. Generally the themes are based on pure divine love of Radha-Krishna and poems from Geet Govinda written by Jaydev.

Costumes and Musical Instruments

Odissi dancers adorn colorful sarees with jewellery and makeup. The sarees are local silk which is mostly either Sambalpuri or Bomkai. The sarees carry lots of pleats. Silver based traditional jewelleries are mostly used. The dancers adorn their hairs mostly with moon crest or white flowers. Some times red crown with peacock feathers are used. Odissi music is accompanied in Odissi dance. The musical instruments used are – Mardala (barrel drum), flute, sitar, violin etc.

Some famous Odissi dancers are – Aadya Kaktikar, Aditi Bandyopadhyay, Anita Babu, Arpita Venkatesh and Aruna Mohanty.


Classical Dances of India

Kuchipudi Dance (Image courtesy : Wikiquote)

It is dance drama of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi derives its name from a village Kuchelapuram. It closely resembles Bharatnatyam. However its movements are much faster and style is free.

Famous Kuchipudi dancers – Bhavana Reddy, Kaushalya Reddy, Raja and Radha Reddy and Yamini Reddy.