Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Indian Classical Dances

In literature, the first references come from the Vedas where dance and music have their roots. A more consistent history of dance can be reconstructed from the epics, the several Puranas and the rich body of dramatic and poetic literature known as the nataka and the kavya in Sanskrit. From the 12th century to the 19th century there were many regional forms called the musical play or sangeet-nataka. Contemporary classical dance forms are known to have evolved out of these musical plays. Classical dances recognized by the Government of India are (as evidenced from their listing on the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training website- CCRT is an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, GoI):
  1. Bharatnatyam-  
  2. Kathakali, 
  3. Kuchipudi, 
  4. Kathak, 
  5. Manipuri, 
  6. Odissi and 
  7. Sattriya.

Bharatnatyam Dance is considered to be over 2000 years old. Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra (200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) and Abhinaya Darpana by Nandikesvara are the main sources of textual material on this dance. 
  • The style was kept alive by Devadasis.
  • Bharatnatyam dance is known to be ekaharya, where one dancer takes on many roles in a single performance. 
  • As a solo dance, Bharatnatyam leans heavily on the abhinaya or mime aspect of dance - the nritya, where the dancer expresses the sahitya through movement and mime.
  • In the early 19th century, the famous Tanjore Quartette, under the patronage of Raja Serfoji are said to have been responsible for the repertoire of Bharatnatyam dance as we see it today.
  • The Bharatanatyam performance follows a regular pattern comprising the following dance items: Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam, and Varnam.

Kathakali, as a dance form popular today, is considered to be of comparatively recent origin.  
Kathakali is a blend of dance, music and acting and dramatizes stories, which are mostly adapted from the Indian epics. 
  • Kathakali costumes and make-up are elaborate and designed so as to give a super human effect. Different group of characters have a defining get-up, which helps identify the characters. for eg: the heroes have a green base of make-up; the anti-heroes sport a moustache and a small knob on their nose and forehead etc.
  • A simple stage is used. A large oil-fed lamp is placed in front of the stage and two people hold a curtain called Tirasseela on the stage, the main dancers stand behind it before the performance.
  • For body movements and choreographical patterns, Kathakali is also indebted to the early martial arts of Kerala.
  • The facial muscles play an important part. The movement of the eyebrows, the eye-balls and the lower eye-lids as described in the Natya Shastra are not used to such an extent in any other dance style. 
  • Kathakali derives its textual sanction from Balarama Bharatam and Hastalakshana Deepika.

The word Kathak has been derived from the word Katha which means a story.It probably started as an oral tradition.
  • The Vaishnavite cult in the 15th century and the resultant bhakti movement contributed a new range of lyrics and musical forms. The Radha-Krishna theme proved immensely popular alongwith the works of Mirabai, Surdas etc.
  • With the coming of the Mughals, the transition from the temple courtyard to the palace durbar took place which necessitated changes in presentation. In both Hindu and Muslim courts, Kathak became highly stylised and came to be regarded as a sophisticated form of entertainment. Under the Muslims there was a greater stress on nritya and bhava giving the dance graceful, expressive and sensuous dimensions.
  • The nineteenth century saw the golden age of Kathak under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh. He established the Lucknow gharana with its strong accent on bhava, the expression of moods and emotions. The Jaipur gharana known for its layakari or rhythmic virtuosity and the Benaras gharana are other prominent schools of Kathak dance.  
  • The pirouettes are the most characteristic feature of the dance. 
  • Recitation of the rhythmic syllables is common with the dancer often pauses to recite these to a specified metrical cycle followed by execution through movement. 
  • The nritta portion of Kathak is performed to the nagma. Both the drummer (here the drum is either a pakhawaj, a type of mridangam, or a pair of tabla) and the dancer weave endless combinations on a repetitive melodic line.
  • It is the only classical dance of India having links with Muslim culture, it represents a unique synthesis of Hindu and Muslim genius in art. Further, Kathak is the only form of classical dance wedded to Hindustani or the North Indian music. Both of them have had a parallel growth, each feeding and sustaining the other.
The dance in Manipur is associated with rituals and traditional festivals.
  • Vaishnavism (15th century A.D.) brought new compositions based on episodes from the life of Radha and Krishna.  The popular Rasleela dances of Manipur originated in the reign of King Bhagyachandra.
  • The most popular forms of Manipuri dance are the Ras, the Sankirtana and the Thang-Ta. There are five principal Ras dances of which four are linked with specific seasons, while the fifth can be presented at any time of the year. In Manipuri Ras, the main characters are Radha, Krishna and the gopis.
  • The Ras costume consists of a richly embroidered stiff skirt which extends to the feet.Krishna wears a yellow dhoti.
  • The Kirtan form of congregational singing accompanies the dance which is known as Sankirtana in Manipur. The male dancers play the Pung (drum) and Kartal (cymbals) while dancing. The masculine aspect of dance - the Choloms are a part of the Sankirtana tradition. The Pung and Kartal choloms are performed at all social and religious festivals.
  • Thang-ta is the martial dance.
  • In keeping with the subtleness of the style, Manipuri abhinaya does not play up the mukhabhinaya very much - the facial expressions are natural and not exaggerated  and sarvangabhinaya, or the use of the whole body to convey a certain rasa, is its forte.
  • The Manipuri classical style of singing is called Nat - very different from both north and south Indian music, this style is immediately recognizable with its high pitched open throated rendering with particular type of trills and modulations. The main musical instrument is the Pung or the Manipuri classical drum. 
  • The Ashtapadis of Jayadeva's Geeta Govinda are very popular and are sung and danced in Manipur with great religious fervour.
Thang-ta                                        Pung-Cholam                          Kartal-Cholam


The Natya Shastra mentions a south-eastern style known as the Odhra Magadha which can be identified as the earliest precursor of present day Odissi. Archaeological evidence of this dance form dating back to the 2nd century B.C. is found in the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri near Bhubaneshwar. 
  • For centuries maharis or temple-dancers were the chief repositories of this dance. However when the maharis were employed in royal courts the dance form degenerated. Then a class of boys called gotipuas were trained in the art, they danced in the temples and also for general entertainment. Many of today's gurus of this style belong to the gotipua tradition.
  • Gita Govinda of Jayadeva provided great inspiration to Odissi dancers.
  • The techniques of movement are built around the two basic postures of the Chowkand the Tribhanga.
  • The torso movement is very important and is an unique feature of the Odissi style. With the lower half of the body remaining static, the torso moves from one side to the other along the axis passing through the centre of the upper half of the body.
  • Almost all leg movements are spiral or circular, whether in space or on the ground.
  • The formal repertoire of Odissi has a certain order of presentation, where each successive item is systematically put together to produce the desired rasa. The opening item is Mangalacharan, followed by Batu danced in praise of Batukeshwar Bhairava or Shiva. Next is an abhinaya number. And the performance concludes with another abhinaya number called moksha. 
  • An Odissi orchestra essentially consists of a pakhawaj player (usually the Guru himself), a singer, a flutist, a sitar or violin player and a manjira player.
  • The dancer is adorned in elaborate Oriya silver jewellery and a special hair-do. The sari is also unique to this dance.
Chowk position                     Tribhangi position.

Around the third and fourth decade of the 20th century Kuchipudi emerged out of a long rich tradition of dance-drama of the same name. In 17th century Kuchipudi style of Yakshagaana was conceived by Siddhendra Yogi a talented Vaishnava poet and visionary
  • Kuchipudi is the name of a village in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Siddhendra Yogi initiated young Brahmin boys of Kuchipudi village to practice and perform his compositions particularly BhaamaakalaapamAt that time all the actors were male.
  • Lakshminarayan Shastry (1886-1956) who introduced many new elements including solo dancing and training of female dancers in this dance style. 
  • To show the dexterity of the dancers in footwork and their control and balance over their bodies, techniques like dancing on the rim of a brass plate and with a pitcher full of water on the head was introduced. Acrobatic dancing became part of the repertoire.
  • By the middle of the 20th century, Kuchipudi fully crystallized as a separate classical solo dance style. Thus there are now two forms of Kuchipudi: the traditional musical dance-drama and the solo dance.
  • A recital of Kuchipudi begins with an invocatory number- Ganesh Vandana; followed by a nritta number- Jatiswaram. Next is a narrative number called Shabdam. The Shabdam is followed by a natyanumber called Kalaapam (Satyabhama-kalaapam  being very popular). Next in the sequence comes a pure nrityaabhinaya number based on literary-cum musical forms like padamjaavlishlokam, etc. In such a number each of the sung words is delineated in space through dance. A Kuchipudi recital is usually concluded with tarangam. In this the dancer usually stands on a brass plate and moves the plate rhythmically with great dexterity.
  • The costume differs slightly from Bharatanatyam.
The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century A.D by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva as a powerful medium for propagation of the Vaishnava faith. Sattras were the Vaishnava  maths or monastries. Because of its religious character and association with the Sattras, this dance style has been aptly named Sattriya.
Sankaradeva introduced this dance form by incorporating different elements from various treatises, local folk dances with his own rare outlook. 
Sattriya dance tradition is governed by strictly laid down principles in respect of hastamudrasfootworksaharyas, music etc. This tradition, has two distinctly separate streams - the Bhaona-related repertoire starting from the Gayan-Bhayanar Nach to the Kharmanar Nach, secondly the dance numbers which are independent, such as Chali, Rajagharia Chali, Jhumura, Nadu Bhangi etc. Among them the Chali is characterized by gracefulness and elegance, while the Jhumura is marked by vigor and majestic beauty.
Sattriya dances

The earliest treatise on dance available to us is Bharat Muni's Natyashastra, the source book of the art of drama, dance and music. It is generally accepted that the date of the work is between the 2nd century B.C.E- 2nd century C.E.
As per the ancient treatises, dance is considered as having three aspects: natya, nritya and nritta. 
  • Natya highlights the dramatic element and most dance forms do not give emphasis to this aspect today with the exception of dance-drama forms like Kathakali. 
  • Nritya is essentially expressional, performed specifically to convey the meaning of a theme or idea. 
  • Nritta on the other hand, is pure dance where body movements do not express any mood (bhava), nor do they convey any meaning. eg: Tillana in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi which is a purely instrumental item meant to showcase different mudras and movements.
To present nritya and natya effectively, a dancer should be trained to communicate the navarasas. These are: love (shringaara), mirth (haasya), compassion (karuna), valour(veera), anger (roudra), fear (bhayanak), disgust (bibhatsa), wonder (adbhuta) and peace (shaanta).

An ancient classification followed in all styles is of Tandava and LasyaTandava the masculine, is heroic bold and vigorous. Lasya the feminine is soft, lyrical and graceful. 

Abhinaya, broadly means expression. This is achieved through 
  1. angika, the body and limbs, 
  2. vachika song and speech,
  3. aharya, costume and adornment, and 
  4. satvika, moods and emotions.


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