The Evolution of Indian Dance

Category – Dance

Author – Prof. Choodamani Nandagopal, Art Historian, UNESCO Fellow, Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Knowledge Campus, Jain University, Bangalore.


Beginning in India’s earliest civilizations, Indianness has been strongly expressed through music, dance, theatre, architecture, sculpture, painting, and the temple arts. These expressive art forms are the inner strength of that experience which marks the realization of spiritual knowledge. Thus, Indian art and Indian religion are inseparable aspects of the Indian lifestyle, reflected in the traditional past, and its relative application in the contemporary times. For two millennia, Indian dance evolved as classical art, based on the principal text Natyasastra. In later centuries, several critical writings followed, kept alive by the tradition of Natyasastra. These writings show us that the text was the result of an analytical process; how this text was applied to prayoga (application of mantras to religious rites) has not been the subject of analytical/critical study. We do sense the possibilities of experimentation, but we do not have analytical/critical written studies on the prayoga aspect of classical dance. Hence, there is a wide gap in the understanding of the theory of dance and its practical application.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries western indologists, art historians, aestheticians, and philosophers began to look at Indian arts with a different perspective. They viewed Indian arts with fresh minds because it was alien to them; their interpretation reflected the approach in which they were trained. These writings lacked the holistic approach of looking at art as an inseparable phenomenon of life; instead, the scholars compartmentalized different arts and the process of artistic creation.

It is only in the writings of art historians like Ananda Coomaraswamy and Kapila Vatsyan that the question of the interrelatedness of performing and visual arts, and their relevance to literature has taken an interesting and convincing path of enquiry.

Ananda Coomaraswamy laid greater emphasis on dhyana (meditative practive) and sadhana (a discipline in pursuit of a goal) in relation to artistic manifestation, and explained that the mind itself is attracted toward the form. This form is inwardly conceived and received as reflection in the mind. As the moon reflects in the water, the rupa (material objects) reflects in the chitta (subconscious mind). Whatever is objectively projected in art is nothing but the spontaneous activity of the mind. The creative excellence that is exhibited through Indian visual and performing arts is rooted in the process of the dhyana and sadhana of the artists which transforms into an integral vision of all the arts.

Dance is one of the important performing art forms in India, and has a specific and significant background associated with the very roots of our cultural past. Today, it is a powerful medium for recapitulating and preserving our cultural heritage. The richly layered symbolism of the dance recalls the over 5,000-year history of efficacy and creativity in the arts, philosophy, and literature. Despite India’s vastness, diverse natural resources, frequent invasions, and external influences, Indian dance has retained its identity in the cultural realm of Indian psyche. In their classical forms, dance, and other fine arts like music, drama, sculpture, and painting originated with a common ideology. All these art forms have a common objective, although they follow different means and techniques in their exposition; their thematic sources are supported by Hindu thought and mythology.


Read More.....

Evolution of Indian Classical Dance:

Dance as a way of life is as old as humanity itself. It evolved as one of the activities of man. Every culture and every civilization in the world has experienced a developmental stage where the human emotions have been expressed through bodily movements. It is not surprising to assume that facial expressions, hand gestures, and movements of various limbs were used as means of showing emotions—even before the formation of language. When they began to synchronize with sound, these movements symbolically represented the ideas, emotions, themes, and even abstract concepts. Of all arts, dance is especially visually delightful in bringing people together; this is so from the very beginning of human development when the realization of joy became part of human experience. The origin and early phase of evolution of dance can be attributed to the traditions existing tribal society. Men and women formed a circle or semi-circle, holding each other, and moving in the same form—weaving different patterns to a simple but steady rhythm.

At this point in time, through singing and dancing, man began collectively expressing his happiness and sorrow. Initially the songs and dance movements were spontaneous. Over time, music and dance developed as disciplines; this created a need for formative training, and for a teacher—the guru—to teach the techniques. The traditional format of the teacher and the taught—the guru shisya parampara—was the outcome of a long tradition, which has made dance one of the significant Indian performing arts.

Dance styles as practiced today in different regions of India differ in exposition, but they have a common origin. The origin of dance is traced to Vedic times. During Vedic times, to please the natural forces, various modes of worship were introduced. The worship of dikpalas, (guarding deities of the eight directions: south, north, east, west, southeast, southwest, northeast, and north west), the emergence of the Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesvara), and Indra, the king of gods, induced men to express their thoughts in an aesthetic manner. During the Vedic Age, dance became a part of rituals to win favors from, and propitiate the gods.

The earliest reference of dance is encountered in the RigVeda in a description of the dawn: beauty is revealed like dancer removing the garment of darkness. Here Ushas (dawn, a Vedic deity) is compared to a danseuse. Another reference, nrtyamano amrta, from the Rig-Veda refers to dancing gods. The terms natya and gita are used often in Vedic literature. The combination of vocal music and dance was known as silpaka. Thus, the origin of Indian dance is ascribed to the Vedas, and is known as Panchamaveda (the fifth Veda). Brahma, the creator, selected speech and lyrical compositions such as hymns, prayers, pathya (dialogues between the gods) from the Rig-Veda: abhinaya (the histrionic expressions and body gestures) from Yajurveda; sangita (the musical notes and connotations) from Samaved, and lastly rasa (the aesthetic flavor of emotions) from the Atharvaveda1. The compilation of the required elements from the four Vedas is recognized as the fifth Veda, and has the status of science. The Vedas, the holy scriptures, were transmitted from generation to generation in the form of oral tradition. The Natyaveda was also handed over by Brahma to the sage, Bharata, and was popular among artists in recitation form.

Early Texts on Classical Dance:

The earliest literary reference of classical dance occurs in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and Patanjali’s Mahabhashya. These texts indicate that drama and dance flourished during their periods. The artistes recited the Natyashastra like the other Vedas. The principles to be followed by the actors were discussed as natasutras by authors like Silali and Krishasva. Dattila, Kohala, Salikarna, and Badarayana were some of the early writers who made significant attempts to write comprehensively on the natya.

Bharata’s Natyasastra, an authentic treatise, is looked upon as a school of thought in the field of performing arts and dates to the fourth century C.E. All the classical schools that are prevalent today have owed their origin to the Natyasastra. This text has dealt elaborately with the chaturvidhabhinaya, or four-fold abhinayas:

(a)  Angikabhinaya — intricate movements of the limbs of the body; the gestures communicate the emotions to express the ideas.

(b)  Vacikabhinaya — the verbal aspect of expression in the form of lyrics and dialogue set to melody and rhythm, which is converted to body language.

(c)   Aharyabhinaya — the decorating of the body such as costumes, jewelry, headdress, make-up, and also the settings for the stage.

(d)  Satvikabhinaya — the feelings and emotion revealed through facial expression and the eyes, evoking rasa, wherein the dancer creates a dialogue with the spectator.

When these four components are harmoniously balanced, according to well-laid tradition, the classical dance is engendered.

Bharata’s Natyasastra was followed by specially written treatises on classical dance such as Nandikesvara’s Bhartarnava, and Abhinayadarpana. Natyasastra and Abhinayadarpana subsequently influenced much critical and creative writing. During the medieval period, due to the growth of regional languages, several texts were written and rewritten highlighting changes which were diverging from the original formation. A custom was adopted where the encyclopedias were compiled covering all aspects of life. Works like Vishnudharmottara Purana, compiled in the eighth century C.E., contain chapters on dancing. Dance was treated on par with other topics. Manasollasa of Somesvara, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia, is a great contribution from Karnataka, where regional dance style is highlighted. The thirteenth-century Sangita Ratnakara of Sarangadeva is a monumental treatise on music, with an elaborate chapter on dance.

Later centuries have seen several texts encompassing the existing styles in the respective regions. Thus, the classical dance schools such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakkali, Kathak, Manipuri, Odissi and Kuchipudi, originating from natyasastric format, evolved as independent styles supported by their own textual bases. Adi Bharatam, Nritta Adhyaya from Sangitamakaranda, Lasyaranjana, Nartana Nirnaya and Sangita Sarodhara make references to a school of dance attributed to natyasastra tradition. Manuals on dance served as background for the classical forms:

  • Balarama Bharatam and Hastalakshanadipika for Kathakkali,
  • Sangitopanishath Sarodhara for Kathak,
  • Nrttaratnavali for Kuchipudi,
  • Hastamuktavali and Abhinava Chandrika for Odissi, and
  • Govinda Sangita Sadvilasa for Manipuri school of dance,

The improvisation in the articulation of body movements, the thematic interpretation, and the mode of dressing distinguishes one style from another.

Sanskrit literature of the classical period—the kavya (poetic editions), and the nataka (drama) traditions—has invariably used contemporaneous classical dance forms to create interesting situations. The vitality of the Natyasastra tradition is felt in these works, and until the thriteenth century, furthered its influence all over the country. The great epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the works of Kalidasa, Bharavi, Bana, Magha, Bhavabhuti, Harsha, Rajashekhara, Kalhana, Pampa, Bilhana, and others have incorporated delightful situations of narrated dance sequences. The terminology and the gesture-language as specified by the texts of the times find expression in these works. The vernacular literature also has added greater dimension to the development of lyrical compositions for dance.

In the thirteenth century, the whole of north India came under Mughal rule. This led to the formation of the Kathak tradition of dance—a diversion from the prevailing Natyasastra tradition. With the assimilation of the dictum of the royal courts, dance evolved an altogether different aesthetic approach. The Islamic rule was not widespread in the southern part of India and Orissa. In this region, the temple tradition continued, and the temple dancers preserved the sastric approach until the devadasi (the maids of God, the temple dancers) system was abolished by law in the nineteenth century during British colonial rule.

Basic Techniques in Classical Dance:

Indian classical dance styles evolved through an ordered system of gesticulation. These gestures are associated with psychological states; drama and dance share these common techniques. Over the course of time, particularly by the time of Abhinaya Darpana, dance techniques were distinct and recognizeable. The innovation and improvisation of hand gestures formed the basic grammar of expression for classical dance.

Any book on dance will cover certain terms denoting various, inherent dance techniques which are found across styles. Nrtta, Nrtya, Natya (triad of drama, dance and music), Tandava (Shiva’s dance), Lasya (Parvati’s dance), Abhinaya, and Hastas (hand poses) are some of the fundamental components of Indian classical dance. The intricacies of the entire dance structure are encompassed in these fundamental concepts. From the time of Bharata’s Natyasastra to the present day, these terms are discussed and used to explain the technique of dance. Bharata did not clearly make any divisions in the dance, although the terms are used in illustrations. Later writers included many contemporary techniques in addition to the techniques specified by Bharata.

Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya :

Nrtta is pure dance, without interpreting any special meaning, lyrics or mood. This part of the dance is the exposition of pure technique, and the intricacies of complicated rhythms, posture, and footwork. It is an ornamental form of dance set to a specific rhythm in coordination with the avanaddha vadyas (percussion instruments) mrdanga, dhol, tabla, or a pakhavaj. The highly symbolized movement and poses are interwoven into a rhythmic pattern. The balance of the entire body is kept intact; stamina has to be maintained by making use of the lower limbs of the body and nrttahastas (decorative hand gestures) in a limited space and time. The very important aspects of dance movements depicted in the nrtta technique are the caris, karanas, mandalas and angaharas. The cari is the single unit of movement which are numbered as thirty-two and divided into sixteen bhumicaris, that is, movements on the earth, and sixteen akasacari, or the aerial movements where the feet are lifted from the ground. Next to cari, the karana, and mandala occupy the important position in depicting nrtta aspect of dance.

The study of dance techniques is incomplete without a discussion of the karanas. The karana is the source of all dance movements. The movements of major and minor limbs form karanas: the portion above the waist, moved with the hastas (hands), and the portion below the waist, moved with the padas (feet). All the major, minor and subsidiary limbs are associated with the movements of hastas and padas. A simultaneous movement of hands and feet form a posture which need not be static, but transitory and timed properly. The combined movement of hands and feet used in a particular mode is known as karana. Bharata has prescribed 108 karans by incorporating six types of sthanakas (static postures), thirty-two caris, and thirty nrttahastas. Thus, karana is a unit of movement—indeed a cadence of movement—culminating in a pose. It has not been clearly understood that when a unit of movement is broken up into the successive positions of which it is constituted, several poses can result at different points of time. Karana appears in sculpture as the final movement—the outcome of the limbs moved in different directions, and placed in a particular position. Karanas are derived from the characteristic movements of pada, hasta, kati (waist) or griva (neck). While shifting from one karana to another, one of the limbs is emphasized and takes the final form, or pose. The gap from one pose to another is filled by displacing limbs from a particular position known as recakas: lifting, rotating, or freely moving the particular limb.

Though Bharata feels that these karanas are to be used in pure dance, it is evident that they are also used in expressive dance. Some of the karanas, when combined with facial expression, make a great impact in conveying meaning. Karanas are used in dance, fight, personal combat, and walking, as well as movement in general. Bharata gives examples of 108 karanas, but an artiste can create many more. The experimentation in staging all 108 karanas, and the origination of innovative movements are attempted by dancers of every generation.

As mentioned by Lord Siva3 before teaching karanas to Bharata, the dance was made beautiful by angaharas (combination of karanas). They are the basic postures formed by varied movements, which enhance the grace and beauty of the dance. The angaharas consist of six, seven, eight to nine karanas; the combination of these angaharas creates the beautiful, exquisite art of Indian dance.

Apart from recikas (circular movements), bhramari (pirouettes and turns), utplavanas (leaps and jumps) and lastly, pindibandhas (choreographic formations), group compositions are associated with the technicalities of pure dance. All these bodily movements are in regular use in all classical dance forms; in the the classical dance styles like Bharatanatyam, Kathakkali, Odissi and Kuchupudi they are applied with precision following the terminology in Natya Sastra. In the schools of Kathak and Manipuri these movements are obvious; they do not attach much importance to the specifications of NS, or to the terminology as such. Alarippu, Jatisvara, Tillana in the Bharatanatyam; Pallavi in the Odissi; Taranga in the Kuchupudi; and Tatkar, Paran, Chakradhar, and Tarana in the Kathak style all belong to the nrtta type of dance.

NrtyaNrtya is the abhinaya aspect of classical dance. Though Bharata did not make a division known as nrtya techniques of dance, he has discussed even the minute aspect of these techniques and named it angikabhinaya (body expressions), which is common to both dance and drama. Nandikesvara, Sarangadeva and others brought the dance performed on the basis of lyrics, and expressed with the help of angikabhinaya under the classification known as nrtya. Nrtya involves poetry, or a lyric pertaining to events, and descriptions, along with a mime. Here the meaning is conveyed through the facial gestures and emotions. The gesticulation of head, neck, eyes, eyebrows, chin, cheek, nose, and lips when operated significantly express a particular movement. When such movement is combined with the emotions of static or transitory temperaments, rasa is evoked. The hastas, namely asamyuta (single-handed), and samyuta (double-handed) are the basic alphabets of the abhinaya expressed through facial expressions and bodily movements. In expressing the meaning of a particular lyric (via an aesthetic experience evoking rasa) the dancer has ample scope for imagination and creativity . All human emotions in the poetic form are interpreted by inner spiritual sentiments known as rasa. The emotion creates a mood, and a sense of enjoyment in bhava, which is expressed through the various emotions. Bhava is compared to an architctural edifice, and rasa resides in the bhava as the soul. The rasanubhava is the aesthetic experience of an artiste joined with that of the sahrdaya (one who relishes rasa). The navarasas (nine rasas), and the nayika bhavas (woman-in -love’s emotions) are imperative in nrtya. Sabdam, padam, slokam, javali and varna in Bharatanatyam; keertanam and kalapam in Kuchipudi; gatbhav and kavitabhavs in Kathak; goparas and kunjaras in Manipuri; and gitanrtya and mokshanatya in Odissi—are part of abhinaya, and hence are separate from nrtta.


Natya: The third category of dance is known as natya which is the combination of nrtta and natya. Natya is based on a story, and performed by various characters. Here dancing and acting are combined to narrate a specific story. The Kathakkali style is the best example of natya. The other drama forms of dance are Bhagavatamela, Yakshagan, and the dance-dramas based on various themes.

In later centuries the classical dance form retained certain natyasastric canons. At the same time, it departed from the early tradition, and the the interpolation of regional variations came to be known as desi. The Desi tradition is characterized by the local insertions into classical style. The early phase, and the deviated phase of classical form are well-represented on the walls of the temples—on sculptural panels, and in mural paintings. The gestures, postures, jewelry, and style of costumes of the dancers depicted in these paintings can be found in the existing styles of dance. There is a clear possibility of reconstructing a history of Indian classical dance relying upon the textual, literary, and epigraphic evidence, and by cross-checking sculptural references. This kind of study is particularly helpful in resurrecting the Bharatanatyam and Odissi forms of classical dances. During the early part of twentieth century, the stalwarts of these two styles revived the dance forms according to temple traditions, and corresponding to the sculptural sources of different periods. Their cardinal efforts have gone a long way in enriching these two classical styles of Indian dance.

Today for a busy girl, clad in casual wear, coping with daily challenges, learning dance is a pleasant diversion. Dressing up with all the typical jewels, wearing the special costumes, stepping on the stage, dancing to the music, and recalling the gods and goddesses in a thematic context, she is delighted to have this aesthetic experience. In such a situation, modernity has no effect. The girl’s experience relates only to the task at hand, after which she would not even consciously feel that she is a dancer who has learned a traditional form; she is not really conscious of her responsibility to pass her art to the future. Because such a situation as this is prevalent, it is important to recognize that dance originates in the activities associated with the gods.

What has sustained Indian dance for 5,000 years? The first instance of dance that we know of is that of the dancing girls of Indus Valley Civilization. This is followed by: dancers and musicians in the procession on Bharuth stupa relief; apsaras, gandharvas, and shivaganas on the panels of Badami Caves, in Aihole temples, and on Pattadakal, and Kanchipuram pillars and niches; the vibrant dancing Shiva sculptures of Badami, Pattadakal, and Ellora Kailasa temples; and the plethora of dancing gods, and sculptures of devadasis infinitely adorning the architectural space, transforming it into divergent styles of architecture. In medieval times, images of the dance are represented at the Mahadeva Temple (Ittagi); Koppesvara Temple (Khidrapura); Surya Temple (Konark); Lingaraja and Rajarani Temples (Bhuvanesvar); Khandariya Mahadeva (Khajuraho); Jaina temple (Dilwara); Hoysalesvara, and Shantaleshvara (Halebidu); Chennakeshava (Belur); Brihadesvara Temple (Tanjore); Gaingaikonda, Cholapuram, and Darasuram temples; Ramappa Temple (Palampet); the temples of Vijayanagar Empire at Hampi, Tadapatri and Lepakshi; and in the cosmic dance imagery of Nataraja in Chola bronzes where the line and rhythm merge in fluidity.

This brief review shows that Indian classical and folk dances have sustained intensity and continuity. Looking at the continuous representation of dance in architectural space, a question arises: is Indian dance creative? If so, why it has not changed, or made discontinuous leaps of innovation over the five millenia of its existence? Does the traditional format prescribed in the form of texts and the methods of training overshadow the creative process? If so, it would have been rejected by the artists, common people, patrons, and sahrdayas, since any art is the phenomenon of sustained creativity.

Now let us try to look at these questions objectively. Indian folk or classical dance has not changed during the course of time because folk dances are rooted in festivities, seasons, and rituals which even today hold significance to the people—largely the rural folk, and at times urban too. The classical format adhered to is the first text, Natyasastra. Though the regional styles developed, bringing variety into Indian classical dance tradition, their techniques and rendering have a common source. This common source is profound, and provides a scope for creativity. Due to these qualities, Indian dance as an art form makes an impact on each generation. Another essential factor is that Indian dance has not developed in isolation. It is true that dance has influenced other arts, and has in turn been influenced by other arts. This is essentially the true identity of Indian dance. No other culture in the world has taken to the dance so significantly—as an all-encompassing symbolization of the cultural ethos—as has India. This unifying spirit motivated Indian minds to create, and to survive the ravages of time. Dance, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, jewelry, literature, and worship constitute a single ensemble. Throughout all the arts, one experiences the shastra (rules), the prayoga, the rasanubhava, and the nikhara prmana—culminating and surging out with the ultimate truth of brhmananda sahodarah.