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8 important styles of Indian classical dance

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‘Natya’ is dance as used in drama. Each of these three has the soft and the vigorous aspects, the ‘Lasya’ or ‘Tandava’.

The former (lasya) is very graceful, sensuous, tender and distinctly feminine in movements while the latter is powerful, majestic and very masculine.

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1. Bharatanatyam :

Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular Indian dances of Tamil Nadu. The name is derived from the word ‘Bharatha’, and is associated with the Natyashastra. It skillfully embodies the three primary ingredients of dancing.

They are bhava or mood, raga or music and melody and tala or timing. The technique of Bharatanatyam consists of 64 principles of coordinated hand, foot, face and body movements, which are performed to the accompaniment of dance syllables.

Bharatanatyam comprises three elements of life : philosophy, religion and science. It is a dynamic and earthy dance style and its antiquity is well established. It has been aptly called a symbol of beauty and aesthetic perfection.

It is, in effect, a tradition that demands total dedication, detachment from worldly ties and a sublimation of self to the art from the performer.

Bharatanatyam is a relatively new name. It was earlier known as Sadir, Dasi Attam, and Thanjavur Natyam. In the past, it was practised and performed in the temples by a class of dancers known as the

‘devadasis’. Bharatanatyam dancers are usually women. It is an extremely precise dance style where a huge repertoire of hand movements is used to convey moods and expressions. Bharatanatyam is vibrant and very demanding of the dancer.

Special features of this dance form are Padams or poems on the hero-heroine theme. The tempo of these love songs is slow and each phase of the performance is crystallized into a specific mood of love.

2. Kathak :

The word Kathak, derived from ‘Katha1, literally means storyteller. In ancient times, storytellers used song and dance to embellish their narration.

Kathak originated in the North, but Persian and Muslim influences later altered the dance from a temple ritual to a courtly entertainment.

Around the 15th century, the dance form underwent a drastic transition due to the influence of Mughal dance and music. The emphasis of the dance moved from the religious to the aesthetic.

The Kathak dance form is characterized by rhythmic footwork danced under the weight of more than 100 ankle bells, spectacular spins, and the dramatic representation of themes from Persian and Urdu poetry alongside those of Hindu mythology.

There are two main schools, or gharanas, of Kathak dance, both of which are named after cities in northern India and both of which expanded under the patronage of regional princes – Lucknow gharana and Jaipur gharana.

3. Kathakali :

It is a dance-drama of Kerala. Kathakali means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story, here actors depict characters from the epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ and from the Puranas (ancient scriptures).

It is extremely colourful. The dancers adorn themselves with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments and crowns.

They use a specific type of symbolic makeup to portray various roles which are character-types rather than individual characters.

Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented through fantastic make-up and costumes.

The most striking part of this dance form is that its characters never speak, it’s just the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gestures, language and facial expression which unfolds the text of the drama. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.

Present day Kathakali is a dance-drama tradition, which evolved from centuries of highly stylised theatrical’ traditions of Kerala, especially Kudiyattam.

Ritual traditions like Theyyams, Mudiyattam and the martial arts of Kerala played a major role in shaping the dance into its present form.

4. Kuchipudi:

Kuchipudi, the indigenous style of dance of Andhra Pradesh took its birth and effloresced in the village of the same name, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, a hamlet in Krishna district.

From its origin in the 3rd century BCE, it has remained a continuous and living dance tradition of this region.

The genesis of Kuchipudi art as of most Indian classical dances is associated with religions. For a long time, the art was presented only at temples and that too only for annual festivals of certain temples in Andhra.

According to tradition, Kuchipudi dance was originally performed only by men and they all belonged to the Brahmin community.

These Brahmin families were known popularly as Bhagavathulu of Kuchipudi. The very first group of Brahmin Bhagavathulu of Kuchipudi was formed in 1502 CE.

Their programmes were offerings to the deities and they never allowed women in their groups.

In an era of the degeneration of dance due to exploitation of female dancers, an ascetic, Siddhendra Yogi redefined the dance form.

Fifteen Brahmin families belonging to Kuchipudi have carried on the tradition for more than five centuries.

The transition has been great from a time when men played female parts to the present when women play even the male parts.

Kuchipudi plays are enacted in the open air and on improvised stages. The presentation begins with some stage rites which are performed in full view of the audience.

Then the Soothradhara or the Conductor and the supporting musicians come on the stage and give a play of rhythm on the drums and cymbals. In a Kuchipudi performance, each principal character introduces himself or herself on the stage with a dharu.

A dharu is a small composition of dance and song specially designed for each character to help him or her reveal, his or her identity and also to show the performer’s skill in the art.

There are nearly 80 dharus or dance sequences in the dance drama. Behind a beautiful curtain held by two persons, Satyabhama enters the stage with her back to the audience. In Bhama Kalapam, Satyabhama is Vipralamba Neyaki, i.e., the heroine who is deceived by her lover and dejected by his absence.

The most popular Kuchipudi dance is the pot dance in which a dancer keeps a pot filled with water on her head and feet kept on a brass plate.

She moves on the stage manipulating the brass plate, with the feet kept on its rim and doing some hand movements without spilling a drop of water on the ground thus astounding the audience.

The music in Kuchipudi is classical Karnatic. The mridangam, violin and a clarinet are the common instruments employed as accompaniment.

Today Kuchipudi like Bharatanatyam has undergone many changes. The present day dancers having advanced training in Kuchipudi style, present this art in their own various individual ways.

There are presently only two melams, or professional troupes of male performers. The bulk of the dancers are woman.

In its present day dispensation, Kuchipudi has come to be reduced from a dance drama to a dance, from an uplifting theatre experience to a routine stage affair.

5. Kutiyattam :

Kutiyattam, the classical theatre form of Kerala claims to date back to 2,000 years. It is the enactment of Sanskrit plays and is India’s oldest theatre to have been continuously performed.

King Kulashekhara Varman reformed the Kutiyattam in the 10th century CE, and this form continues the tradition of performing in Sanskrit.

The Prakrit language and Malayalam in its ancient form have also been kept alive through this medium. The repertory includes plays written by Bhasa, Harsha and Mahendra Vikrama Pallava.

Performances usually last several days. Complicated gesture, language, chanting, exaggerated expressions of the face and eyes, together with elaborate headdresses and makeup constitute a Kutiyattam play.

6. Manipuri :

Manipuri is the classical dance from the Manipur. It is different in many ways from the other dance forms in India.

The body moves with slow, sinuous grace and the undulating arm movements flow into the fingers.

The dance form evolved in the 18th century with the advent of the Vaishnava faith, from earlier ritual and magical dance forms.

Themes from the ‘Vishnu Purana’, ‘Bhagvata Purana’ and compositions from the ‘Gitagovinda’ predominate the repertoire.

According to the legends of the Meitei tribes of Manipur, when God created Earth, it was lumpy.

The seven Lainoorahs danced on this newly formed sphere, pressing gently with their feet to make it firm and smooth.

This is the origin of Meitei Jagoi. To this day, when Manipuri people dance, they do not stamp vigorously but press their feet gently and delicately on the ground.

The original myths and stories are still practiced by the cultist Maibis, or Meitei priestesses in the form (Maibi) that is the root of Manipuri.

The female ‘Rasa’ dances, based on the Radha-Krishna theme, feature group ballets and solos. The male ‘Sankirtana’ dances, performed to the pulsating rhythm of the Manipuri dholak are full of vitality.

The musical forms of Manipuri dance reflect the culture of the state of Manipur. The art form primarily depicts episodes from the life of Vishnu and is paradoxically a most tender and vigorous form of expression. Balance and a restraint of power are the predominant features of this dance style.

7. Mohiniattam :

Mohiniattam is the female semi-classical dance form of Kerala. Literally, the dance of the enchantress, Mohiniattam was mainly performed in the temple precincts of Kerala. It is also the heir to Devadasi dance heritage like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi.

The word ‘Mohini’ means a maiden who exerts desire or steals the heart of the onlooker. There is a well-known story of Lord Vishnu taking on the guise of a ‘Mohini’ to enthrall people, both in connection with the churning of the milk ocean and with the episode of slaying of Bhasmasura.

Thus it is thought that Vaishnava devotees gave the name of Mohiniattam to this dance form. The theme of Mohiniattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often the hero.

It was Poet Vallathol who again revived it and gave it a status in modern times through Kerala Kalamandalam, which he founded in 1930. Kalamandalam Kalyaniamma, the first dance teacher of Kalamandalam was instrumental in resuscitating this ancient art form.

Along with her, Krishna Panicker, Madhavi Amma and Chinnammu Amma, the last links of a disappearing tradition, nurtured aspirants in the discipline at Kalamandalam.

In format, this is similar to Bharatanatyam. The movements are graceful like Odissi and the costumes sober and attractive.

It is essentially a solo dance, but in present times it is performed in groups also. The repertoire of Mohiniattam follows closely that of Bharatanatyam.

Mohiniattam maintains a realistic makeup and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in the beautiful white and gold bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala.

8. Odissi :

The traditional dance form of Orissa, Odissi is considered to be one of the oldest surviving dance forms based on archaeological evidence. It owes its origin to the temple dances of the devadasis (temple dancers).

Odissi has been mentioned in inscriptions, depicted on sculptures, in temples like the Brahmeswara and the dancing hall of the Sun Temple at Konark. In the 1950s, the entire dance form was revitalised by Abhinaya Chandrika.

Odissi has two major facets: Nritta or Non-representational dance, where ornamental patterns are created using body movements in space and time.

Another form is Abhinaya, or stylised mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to interpret a storyline or theme.

While the form is curvaceous, concentrating on the Tribhang or the division of the body into three parts; head, bust and torso; the mudras and the expressions are similar to those of Bharatanatyam.

Odissi performances are replete with lores of the 8th incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Krishna. It is a soft, lyrical classical dance which depicts the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath.

Odissi is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play ‘Geet Govinda’ are used to depict the love and devotion to God.

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