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Indian Classical Dance - Our rich heritage

"In thy dance, Divine Dancer, freedom finds its image and dreams their forms. Its cadence weaves the threads of things and unwinds them for ages; Charms the atom's rebellion into beauty, gives rhythm to the symphony of the stars; thrills life with pain, and churns up existence into surging joys and sorrows"
- Rabindranath Tagore

India, the land of diversity and culture, has to its credit a combination of civilization and a wealth of heritage, a youth that is going towards westernization and an older generation that reminds them of their cultural inheritance. India is the place where there is a wide variety of people, religions, states, dialects and cuisine. Despite the diversity in thoughts, lifestyles and upbringing in the country, one common thread that binds the nation together is it's Fine Arts such as painting, music and one of the most popular forms that are known the world over - Indian Classical Dance. The mention of the word dance conjures up images of Nataraja (Lord of dance) through which the Indian God Shiva is portrayed. All the Indian classical dance styles are derived from the Natyasastra. Indian Classical Dances have their roots in Hinduism - the oldest and the most widely practiced religion in the country even today. There has always been something mystical about Indian dance, adding to its allure and beauty, and captivating the hearts of audiences all over the world. Today, Indian dance has become so popular that there are several dance schools in all cities across world, catering to the artistic needs of steadily growing Indian communities in the areas. Besides dancers of Indian origin teaching and propagating the art, many non-Indians have dedicated years of their life studying various styles of Indian classical dance and have made a name for themselves in the field. All this only goes to show that Indian dance is not for Indians alone; that it has universal appeal, and that it need not always be esoteric. More than ever before, Indian dance is enjoying great popularity at this time.

Shiva, the Lord of dance is said to have created the Universe with his Ananda Tandavam, or the dance of joy. It is He, we see dancing in the rise and the fall of the waves in the oceans, in the volcanoes and the earthquakes, in the rotation of the planets and the stars, in the lighting and the thunder. All movements within this cosmos is said to be His dance.

Apart from these divine beginnings of dance, we have evidence to show that classical dance in India is at least 2000 years old. Various cave paintings, engravings, sculptures from the Mohenjo-Daro civilization and other literary works show the beginnings of a very ancient dance form. The numerous sculptures in the different temples of India (from Kashmir to Kanyakumari) show that dance was a rich and vibrant dance form even in the early AD'S.

The different classical dance styles were practiced and perfected in the different parts of the country even through social and political upheavals. Family traditions grew within styles. In most places dance was performed in the temples as the highest form of worship to God. They were danced by young girls called Devadasis (servants of God) who were dedicated to a particular temple and a particular God. It was a sacred art form. Unfortunately, the British rulers did not see the arts as a form of education or moral tradition and started to alienate it from the people. They put a ban on temple dance and slowly the art started to die. Apparently by the 20th century we were left with only a shadow of what had been and existed.

Dance is a sacred movement of the various limbs with deep divine feeling. The songs are purely devotional love songs with the dancer being the devotee and God being her beloved. The heroine longing for her lover is not a male chauvinistic theme as considered today but is the Jeevatma (Individual Self) longing for the union with the Paramatma (Divine Self). When the dancer believes in this, she not only transports herself to a higher plane of consciousness but also takes her audience with her. Her audience walks out of the performance feeling exactly like what Sage Bharata said!!!

The most famous classical forms are Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Odissi, Manipuri and Kathak. Let us discuss about these dance forums.


Bharatanatyam is a dance form originating from Tamilnadu. Bharatanatyam is the manifestation of the ancient idea of the celebration of the eternal universe through the celebration of the beauty of the material body. Some Bharatanatyam techniques can be traced back to the Kaisiki style. Natyasastra (I.44) reads, "... I have seen the Kaisiki style during the dance of the blue-throated lord (Shiva). It consists of elaborate gestures (Mridu Angaharas, movements of limbs), sentiments (Rasas), and emotional states (Bhavas). Actions (Kriyas) are its soul. The costume should be charmingly beautiful and love (Sringara) is its foundation. It cannot be adequately portrayed by men. Except for women, none can practice it properly".

E.Krishna Iyer was one of those who raised the social status of Bharatanatyam and greatly popularized it. Rukmini Devi Arundale was also instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the attention of the West. She introduced group performances and staged various Bharatanatyam-based ballets.


Ancient literary works like the 'Natyasastra', 'Gathasaptasati', and 'Nritta Ratnavali' trace the history of dance styles prevalent in the Andhra region. In the 15th century, a saint called Siddhendra Yogi, codified the movements and enriched the repertoire of the Kuchipudi dance form, which was named after Kuchelapuram - the village of its origin. Entire families in this village dedicated themselves to learning and performing this dance, although it is interesting to note that it was practiced solely by men. They formed troupes and traveled to neighboring villages, performing plays that had underlying moral and religious themes.

The technique of Kuchipudi closely follows the tenets laid down in the 'Natyasastra'. There is some mingling of the folk idiom, which makes it highly appealing to a wide spectrum of viewers. The training takes about four to seven years, and includes two sets of 'adugulu' or basic steps, the 'jatis' or combination of movements, and a detailed study of the 'Natyasastra' (theoretical aspects of dance). The charm of Kuchipudi lies in its fast and intricate footwork, sinuous grace, and the use of the eyes to express moods and feelings. While fast becoming a solo presentation, Kuchipudi still has strong ties to the dance-drama tradition.


Kathakali originated from the state of Kerala. One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Characters are categorized according to their nature. This determines the colors used in the make-up. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth that have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces.

The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigorous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.


Mohiniyattam - comes from one of the southern states of India, Kerala. A Mohiniyattam dancer immediately reminds you of this scenic beauty in her dance. The movements are beautiful and lyrical and they are always in an unbroken chain, from one movement very gently and gracefully merging into another. Though the movements are swaying and gentle the presentation comes out with a tremendous and strong impact leaving the spectator in an atmosphere of grace, charm, vitality and a forceful vivacity. The graceful and long limbs of a Mohiniyattam dancer brings before your eyes the vision of the palm fronds swaying and dancing in the breeze and the movements are like those of a boat bobbing up and down in the back waters. There is a tremendous amount of force that a Mohiniyattam dancer brings out in her performance without which the performance would be lacking in its luster but this tremendous energy is released in a very controlled and graceful manner which can be achieved only with discipline, hard work and (Bhakti) or devotion to the art form.


Odissi is the classical dance form from Orissa. The themes of Odissi are almost exclusively religious in nature. They most commonly revolve around Krishna. Although the worship of Krishna is found throughout India, there are local themes which are emphasized. The Ashtapadi's of Jayadev are a very common theme. Like other Indian classical dance forms, Odissi has two major facets: Nritta or non-representational dance, in which ornamental patterns are created using body movements in space and time; and Abhinaya, or stylized mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to interpret a story or theme.


Manipuri dance is purely religious and its aim is a spiritual experience. Development of music and dance has through religious festivals and daily activities of the Manipuri people. Not only is dance a medium of worship and enjoyment, a door to the divine, but indispensable for all socio-cultural ceremonies. From the religious point of view and from the artistic angle of vision, Manipuri Classical Form of dance is claimed to be one on the most chestiest, modest, softest and mildest but the most meaningful dances of the world.

The most obliging aspect of Manipuri culture is that, it has retained the ancient ritual based dances and folk dances along with the later developed classical Manipuri dance style. Among the classical categories, 'Ras Leela' - a highly evolved dance drama, choreographed on 'Vaishnavite Padavalis' composed by mainly eminent Bengali poets and some Manipuri Gurus, is the highest expression of artistic genius, devotion and excellence of the Manipuris.


From its early form as a devotional expression dedicated to the Hindu gods, Kathak gradually moved out of the temples and into the courts of the rulers; the Hindu maharajas and the Muslim nawabs (kings). With these rulers' cultural wealth and preoccupation with lavish entertainment, a class of dancing girls and courtesans emerged to entertain the palaces. Much later, during the mid-1800's, Kathak enjoyed a renaissance and gained prominence among the kings and zamindars (feudal overlords) not only as a form of entertainment, but as a classical art form. In the Hindu courts of the vast semi-desert of the principality of Rajasthan, Kathak developed in the Jaipur gharana (school), a regional style emphasizing the technical mastery of pure dance. To the east in the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh and himself a student of Kathak, the dance emphasized dramatic and sensuous expression and developed into the style characteristic of the Lucknow gharana. This gharana is said to have originated with Wajid Ali Shah's court dancer Thakur Prasadji.

Indian Classical Dance benefits:

Indian Classical Dance is an excellent form of exercise as it includes yoga based stretching, aerobic and high-endurance movement levels. Besides the basic grammar of movement, in pure dance or nritta, the focus is on developing speed, strength and stamina. So one will burn more calories in half and hour than free-style dancing or most recommended exercise/gym plans.

It offers great benefits in developing the body of a growing child ex. improves posture, strengthens the arch of the foot and fingers and eye & neck muscles. All the external benefits of exercise such a toned body, glowing skin and healthy hair (not to mention a pretty way of smiling more often) can also be gained from it. It offers many therapy benefits to handicapped children Ex. improve body balance and mind-limb coordination. Can be taught to visually and hearing impaired individuals as well. Indian Classical dance has been described as being at the top of the pyramid of all other art forms, i.e. a student/performer has to learn the Language (Sanskrit or classic regional), song/literature (sahitya) and the music composition (sangeeta) and imbibe the visual (as evidenced in traditional painting and temple sculpture), spatial (expanding or truncating movements according to stage space) & time (rhythm) elements. The literature and ethos of the dance compositions are based on mythology, customs and traditions still alive in the country. The dancer brings about the grand synthesis of all the arts in his/her self and thus the performance. This means that a student of dance is a well rounded student of the arts.

Indian Classical Dance requires intense and perfect body and mind coordination. Ex. the variations in footwork -are based on rhythm/beat (Taala) cycles which run into mathematical multiplication & combinations. This develops higher mental abilities and students have been seen to perform well academically (in non-arts subjects) as well, despite having less time on hands than others. The traditional compositions are to songs written by the Bhakti poets (Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Jayadeva, Annamacharya) and later. These poets especially Tyagaraja were Saints for whom music was a spiritual calling and their work reflects their spiritual progress towards Mukti (the final release/salvation). Hence if performed with a sense of awareness about the depth of meaning of the literature (sahitya) and with devotion (bhakti), Indian classical dance is form of worship and a spiritual path in itself (validated in The Vedas themselves). As with other extra curricular activities, learning and doing well in this field gives the student a sense of individual identity and confidence. Besides owing to the cultural and traditional origin of dance, it also provides a feel of cultural identity (and hence has become so popular among NRIs) and rootedness. Dance is a form of expression. There is a more or less fixed grammar and vocabulary of expressions in classical dance, but the expressions themselves (abhinaya) can be as vast as the human heart can feel and express. So one can choreograph to any kind of music and any of content. That is why while many dancers after learning the forms break the mould to explore different forms (of movement and expression (e.g. Astad Deboo, Chandralekha, Mallika Sarabhai) , equally many choose to stay more or less within the mould and explore the boundaries (e.g. Birju Maharaj, Yamini Krishnamurthi, Malavika Sarrukai) . The latter find that there is enough to explore in this life and many more to come. If you dance for yourself, as well as you can (whatever your given constraints), and for no other reason than to make yourself happy Indian Classical Dance is a way of life and perhaps the best.

Classical Dance Schools in Colorado:

Colorado also has a number of dance schools, increasing for the past few years. The notable dance teachers/schools are Abhinaya (Usha Muralidharan), Laya (Prathyusha Apparasu), Shivanjali (Puja Allepalli), Sai Meghna (Lavanya Yammanur), Mudra in Denver and Bon Mayuri, Vidula Girish in Colorado Springs. These schools greatly compliment tens of students per year and often make performances in the local events.

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