India Dance Festival
India Dance Festival

Indian dance for dummies

The online edition of the India Dance Festival presents a choice selection of Indian dance styles: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, and Odissi. Wonderful names, but what does that really mean, Ba-ra-ta-ná-tee-jam?


History in short

The Indian classical dances have a history stretching back thousands of years. For a long time it wasn’t seen as a performing art form; originally, these dances were performed in temples by servant girls or devadasis. They were connected to the gods and were skilled in art forms such as singing and dancing.

Before and during British rule, the Indian classical dance fell in disrepute because of sociological and political reasons. The practice of dance was seen as inappropriate in this period. This came to an end a century ago. During the nineteen twenties, a number of important pioneers ensured that Indian dance was restored and displayed as an enriching part of Indian culture. This took the dance out of the hands of the devadasis and made it available for everyone. Though it lost its ritualistic function, the spiritual undertone remains.


What sorts of dances are there?

Each region in India has its own dance style, often influenced by the local styles of music. A few basic elements are common to all dance styles: Hinduism, and Indian mythology, bhakti (devotion), and the use of hand gestures (hastas) to depict a story (abhinaya / nritya). The official number varies between 8 and 11.

Bharatanatyam (Tamilnadu, Southern India) is the best-known dance form. It’s a style characterized by stamping footwork, deep knee bending, and straight lines. The name is a contraction of the Sanskrit words for emotion, melody, rhythm, and theatre. The performances often consist of a combination of technically abstract dances (nritta) to complex rhythms and the telling of stories. This dance form is usually, though not always, danced by women.

Kathak (Northern India) means telling stories and is characterized by circular movements, stretched legs, and very fast footwork. It has the same spirit as flamenco. There is often a ‘call and response’ between the musicians and the dancer. As a dance form, Kathak was strongly influenced by the Moghul reign in India before British colonisation. Kathak is also often danced by men.

Mohiniyattam (Kerala, Southern India) is an elegant dance form, and is also called ‘the dance of the enchantress’. The twisting dance of the enchantress is slow, graceful and flowing, strongly dynamic and with a dramatic expression (abhinaya). In other dance styles, various gods play an important part; in Mohiniyattam the god Vishnu or Krishna are central. This style of dance is performed exclusively by women.

Odissi (Orissa, East India) can be recognized by an S-movement in the posture of the dancers, which is derived from ancient temple sculptures. The body is divided into three parts: head, torso, and hips. These are isolated and moved independently in flowing movements and with static poses of aesthetic beauty. Odissi often tells of love stories between the god Krishna and his companion Radha.

Kuchipudi (Andra Pradesh) is a dance-drama performance, with its roots in the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of Natya Shastra. It developed as a religious art linked to traveling bards, temples and spiritual beliefs. It still has a deep link to storytelling. Kuchipudi was traditionally performed by all males troupe.

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