The various classical dances of India reflect India’s extremely rich cultural diversity and heritage. Indian classical dances, often called the Shastriya Devesh, are traced back to pre-historic times, and the journey began with the Natya Shastra. It was a Sanskrit text that defined rules, impacts, and everything else about Indian classical dances. This book is also considered the root of the Indian art form, mainly Indian musical theatre.
In India, the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognizes eight different dance forms, Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Satriya and folk dances, as the classical dances of India. Each one of these dance forms is unique and features individuality. India has mixed cultures, a kaleidoscope of traditions and a rich heritage. Art forms and artists have forever remained the central pillar of Indian culture and continue to be so, Ancient Indian history deeply resonates with dance. The dance forms are peculiar to the geographical regions of India and speak of the regional heritage. Let us explore the cultural importance of the classical dances of India:
Bharatnatyam is a dance form typical of Tamil Nadu. It originated in 1000 B.C. in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Beautiful hand mudras, royal get up, and vigorous yet elegant movements to the authentic tunes of Carnatic music, a combination so beautiful that it could please Gods. The idea of the dance form was to offer prayers and sadhana to the lord by portraying various mythological themes and spiritual concepts. The hand gestures and limb movements were dedicated to portraying various themes of Shaivism, Saktisim, and Vaishnavism. It is one of the most renowned classical dance forms speaking of the beautiful mythological tales of South India.
The word kathak means the person who speaks. In Hindi, Katha means story. So, kathak roughly translates to a person who tells a story. Kathak has a very interesting origin. It originated in Uttar Pradesh, the northern province of India. In this art form, the storytellers used gestures and expressions to convey various stories – mostly folklore and moral tales. It was one of the best forms of entertainment in ancient India. Kathak emphasized beats, especially the ones in sync with the ghungroo. The exciting part about Kathak is that the dance form got modified with the Mughal influence in India. That is the same reason why there are two Gharanas in Kathak – one of the Varanasi has a slightly different get-up with a bindi on the forehead of the dancer. The other school is the Mughal-influenced Delhi Gharana with more of an Islamic tinge.
It is the most vivid dance form in India. The dance originated in Kerala. This dance form features elaborate make-up and dress and emphasizes the dancer’s facial expression. It is a combination of the athletics tradition and dance of Kerala. The body movements are very strong. It speaks of the wildness of traditional Kerala and the music consists of only the vocals, often referred to as Soppanam. The dancer’s body is painted, and traditional costumes are used, all portraying great details. The dance, the vesham, is painstaking, yet the dancers devote their life to it because it is one of the finest south Indian heritage that is still alive and thriving.
The importance of Radha Krishna’s love story is immense in the Manipuri culture. The Manipuri dance shows devotion to lord Krishna by enacting the Ras Leela, or acts of love between Radha and Krishna. This is a mythological dance performance revolving around the theme of Krishna. The entire Manipuri clan are ardent disciples of Lord Krishna. And this dance form beautifully portrays the same. It is one of the softest, most decent, and most free-flowing dance forms. The costumes and make-up are lovely to behold. Manipuri is one of the most aesthetically pleasing dance forms in India. It speaks a lot about the lifestyle and religious beliefs of the people of this region.
Odissi is the traditional classical dance of India. It is a typical dance drama genre originating in the region of Orissa in India. Everything about this dance form focuses on bringing out the coastal life. The temple of Kalinga, Buddha’s influence and the coastal lifestyle, Orissa is a confluence of culture and art, and Odissi expresses these in the best possible way. It is highly associated with the mudras, gestures, body forms, abhinaya of Hinduism, and traditional beliefs. It is a performance art and is mainly associated with the Geeta Govindam. The makeup and dress involve the use of shells to signify the closeness to the sea.
Apart from these significant ones, others like the Chau dance (folk dance of Bengal) are diversified forms of Martial art that throw light on the challenges that tribal communities face while leading their lives in the jungle. The body torso is vital for most of the dance forms in India. Indian classical dances convey a genuinely inspiring insight into the Indian lifestyle.
Dance in India is much more than just some steps and beats. It is a method of showing the livelihood of people in India, various lifestyles prevailing across the diversity, the profound impact of art on Indian lives and, most importantly, the beauty of culturally co-existing differences. India is truly a cosmopolitan where culture speaks volumes of a rich and unique heritage that leaves a trail from the past to modern times. Classical dances of India in retrospect are never-ending and continue to bring glory to the Indian subcontinent.