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8 Elegant Dance Forms Of India

By on November 22, 2012

Dance, as a form of expression, dates back to the birth of the first human in the history of earth. Love, laughter, compassion, anger, courage, terror, disgust, surprise, peace- the nine emotions as explained by Bharat Muni in Natyashashtra covers almost all emotions felt by humans. This has been accepted worldwide in various art forms but most importantly, Indian classical dance forms have adopted Natyashashtra as their bible and built on the principles provided by it. Sangeet Natak Academy has conferred the ‘classical dance’ status to eight dance forms namely Odissi, Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam and Sattriya.


Originating from the eastern state of India, Odisha, this is the oldest surviving Indian classical dance form. Referred to as Odra-Magadhi by the Natyashashtra, its origin has been dated back to the 1st BCE. Suppressed under the British rule, Odissi revived itself in independent India. This particular form of dance is distinguished by the importance of ‘Bhangas’ (Abhanga, atibhanga and tribhanga) and stamping of foot. The postures are derived from the ancient sculptures found in the temples of India. It started as a court dance and was later on attached to temples and religious offerings, not just in hindu temples but religious places of Jainism and Buddhist monasteries too. Later on, it was taken over by maharis performing at the temples in the service of God.

Odissi repertoire consists of:

  • Mangalacharan
  • Batu nritya
  • Pallavi
  • Abhinaya
  • Moksha


‘Bha’-bhavam(expression), ‘Ra’-ragam(music), ‘Ta’-talam(rhythm), Natyam-dance. Bharatnatyam originates from the south-Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This like other dance forms of India, was first performed as in the temples in service of God by ‘Devadasis’. Accompanied by Carnatic music, this dance form derives its inspiration from the sculptures of the ancient Nataraja temple of Chimdambaram. It has three elements namely, Nritta(rhythmic dance movements), Natya(dance with a dramatic aspect) and Nritya(combination of Nritta and Natya). It is primarily a solo dance with two aspects, lasya (gracefully feminine) and tandava (dance of lord Shiva). A typical performance would include:

  • Alarippu
  • Kautuvam
  • Ganapati vandana
  • Jatiswaram
  • Shabdam
  • Varnam
  • Padam
  • Stuti
  • Koothu
  • Javali
  • Thillana


This classical dance form is from Andhra Pradesh. It gets the name from the village named ‘Kuchipudi’ where it actually was practiced by the Brahmins as an offering to the God. The graceful and fluidic movements of this dance form are accompanied by Carnatic music and share a lot of movements and style with Bharatnatyam. The exclusive piece in Kuchipudi is ‘Tarangam’ –t plate with two diyas in the dancer’s hands while balancing a kundi on the head. Kuchipudi is known to be as old as Natyashashtra which means the origins might be traced back to 1st Century BC. Out of the two parallel schools that existed: Nattuva Mela and Natya Mela, the former developed into Bharatnatyam while the latter became Kuchipudi. Vachika abhinaya or presenting of dance by dialogues is a distinguishing feature of Kuchipudi.


Originating from the state of Uttar Pradesh, this classical dance form of India was derived from the ancient nomads of the region known as kathaks or storytellers. ‘Katha’ meaning story and ‘Kathakka’ meaning one who tells the story. The present day form of Kathak has its influences from temple dances, central asian and Persian dance forms performed during the Mughal era. Today’s performers draw their lineage from either of the three major gharanas- gharanas of Jaipur, Lucknow and Benaras. The exclusivity of Kathak is the ‘chakkarwala tukras’. ‘Tukras’ being the short compositions of dance and when showcasing the signature spins of this particular dance form are called as Chakkarwala tukras. Kathak, like any other dance form, has two distinct parts- Nritta(pure dance) and Nritya(expressive dance).


This unique classical dance form of India is known for its intricately heavy makeup, elaborate costumes and carefully designed steps. Kathakali, as the name suggests, is story telling by facial expressions, body movements and mudras(hand gestures). As compared to other classical dance forms, this is a fairly modern form which originated during the 17th century in the state of Kerala. The body movements of Kathakali are derived from Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art form from Kerala, and have heavy folk influences. It started as a dance drama which is usually enacted all night long but the modern form has been reduced to less than three hours. Special emphasis is given to eye movements for the expressions.


Originating from the north-eastern state of Manipur, this classical dance form is primarily religious and aims for a spiritual experience. A mild and a soft form of dance, the dance was started basing on ‘Rasleela’ and retains most of its folk influences. Subtle body movements and expressions convey extreme grace and devotion. Smooth appearance due to the fluidic movements of hands and the tip-toeing of the feet are distinct features of this dance form.


Meant to be performed solo by women, showcasing myriad of emotions of a female-carnal, devotional and maternal, this classical dance form also originates from the southern Indian state of Kerala. ‘Mohiniyattam’ means the dance of enchantress, ‘Mohini’ referring to a woman and ‘attam’ meaning graceful body movements. The main theme of dance is devotion around Lord Krishna/Lord Vishnu. Like most other dance forms of India, Mohiniyattam was also performed in the temples in front of the gods. The costume typically is a white saree adorned with golden border conveying purity and divinity at the same time.


Found during the 15th century in the state of Assam, this dance form is known to have retained all the traditions and rituals it started with. Performed originally by only male monks during festivals or to mark specific rituals, Sattriya is presently a lighter and enjoyable way of enacting mythological stories as well as other abstract themes for the common man.

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