Poetry in Motion

Of the many dance forms in our country’s glorious heritage, only eight have been recognised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam and Sattriya. The criteria for classical consideration is the style’s adherence to guidelines laid down in the ‘Natya Shastra’ of Bharata Muni, an ancient Indian treatise on performing arts written between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

Most dance forms have three types of portrayal: nritta, nritya and natya. Nritta refers to rhythmic, abstract movement of the feet and body which does not convey mood or meaning. Nritya is interpretive dance, in which lyrics are conveyed using hasta mudra (hand gestures) and abhinaya (expressions); the dancer’s bhaava (emotions) create the rasa (sentiment) of the piece. Natya is the dramatic element of classical Indian dance, where character roles are used to perform a dramatic story with music and dance.
This week, we bring you some background on how India’s eight classical dance forms came to be, as well as the history behind some well-known dancers from the city of Hyderabad.     – Anahita & Niharika

Probably the most popular and best-known Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam dates back more than a millennium to Tamil Nadu, where it was performed in temples by a class of dancers known as devadasi, whose art was known as sadir. Inspired by the sculptures of the ancient temple in Chidambaram, it was part of religious rituals and known for its grace, purity, tenderness and sculpted poses. The dance was codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers: Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court (during the Maratha king Saraboji’s reign from 1798 to 1824).
Bharatanatyam’s salient features are movements conceived in space. In nritta, the dancer performs to a raga (melodic mode); a series of dance units is called jathi or teermanam. In nritya, the dancer performs to a poem, creating parallel kinetic poetry in movement, with the entire body reacting to the rasa. The numbers are called varnam, which has expressions as well as pure dance: padam, javali and shloka.
Instruments used: mridangam, violin, veena, flute and talam (nattuvangam/cymbals).

Originating from the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, Kathak is one of today’s major dance forms. Back then, Brahmin priests used to narrate the stories of gods and goddesses at temples. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word katha, which means ‘story’. Today’s incarnation of Kathak has traces of temple and ritual dances, with some influence from the Bhakti movement. Kathak also absorbed some features of Persian dance in the 16th century, and elements from the central Asian dances imported by the courts of the Mughal era. When patronage shifted from temples to royal courts, the overall emphasis shifted from religious storytelling to entertainment.
Today, the storytelling aspect has been downgraded, and the dance is primarily an abstract exploration of rhythm and movement. Performers draw their lineage from the three different gharana (major schools) of Kathak, each born the court of a king: Jaipur (the Kachwaha Rajput kings), Lucknow (the Nawab of Oudh), and Varanasi. Later, a fourth, less prominent gharana – the Raigarh – came to be. It is an amalgamation of techniques from the three founding gharana, but became famous for its own distinctive compositions.
Instruments used: pakwaj, tabla, harmonium, sarengi and talam (cymbals).

From the eastern state of Odisha, Odissi is said to be the oldest surviving dance form (based on archaeological evidence). Dancers were found depicted in bas reliefs dating back to the 1st century BC, in the hills of Udaygiri near Bhubaneshwar. ‘Natya Shastra’ refers to it as Odra-Magadhi, and it was initially performed in temples as a religious offering by maharis who dedicated their lives to the service of a deity. It has the closest resemblance to sculptures from Indian temples.
Over the centuries, three schools of Odissi have developed – Mahari, Nartaki, and Gotipua. The first is the devadasi tradition, which uses women attached to temple deities. The Nartaki tradition was developed in the royal courts, and the Gotipua style uses young boys dressed in female clothing and performing female roles.
Odissi was held in high esteem prior to the 17th century. After that, the social position of dancers began to decline; dancing girls were considered to be worth little more than prostitutes, and the ‘Anti-Nautch’ movement of the British Raj nearly drove Odissi to extinction. It was after Independence that Odissi was revived when the few remaining dancers were given employment reconstructing the art form.
Instruments used: pakwaj, tabla, harmonium, flute and cymbals.


Legend concerning the origins of Mohiniyattam says that it originated in 16th-century Kerala, but it was first performed by women in temples over a thousand years ago, as an offering to their beloved deity. The     movements may appear simple, but effort is required to capture the grace suggestive of ocean waves, as seen in Mohini, the enchantress.

The word attam means ‘graceful and sensuous body movements’, and that’s how the dance form derived its name. Mohiniyattam is a fusion of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, combining the former’s graceful elegance with the dynamism and vigour of the latter. Performances are done only by women; the Lasya element is predominant, and the mood created is sringaram (erotic). Mohiniyattam literally means ‘the dance of the temptress’ and was popularised in the 19th century by Swathi Thirunal.

Even the noted Malayalam poet Vallathol, who established the Kerala Kalamandalam dance school in 1930, played an important role in popularising Mohiniyattam in the 20th century. Another pillar of the dance form is Guru Kallyanikutty Amma, who cleared the mythical mystery behind the name of this dance form and gave it the most convincing explanation based on truth, social and historical evolution. She interpreted Mohiniyattam as the dance of a beautiful lady, rather than that of a mythical enchantress from heaven.

Instruments used: chenda, maddalam,cymbals and ela talam.

With origins in the seventh century, Kuchipudi is the name of a village in the Divi taluka of Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh, where resident Brahmins have practiced this traditional dance form for ages. Known for its graceful movements and strong narrative characters, Kuchipudi was expounded on by Bharata Muni. It was in the 13th century that the impetus to Kuchipudi was given by Sidhendra Yogi, who redefined the dance. It its early days, Kuchipudi was in the form of dance-dramas, with a main purpose of forging divine ecstasy and bringing people closer to salvation by invoking immortal bliss.
This is the only dance form in which all four abhinaya (angika, body movement; vachika, speech or music; aaharya, looks; and satvica, facial expressions) are given equal importance. The two parallel schools of dance, Nattuva Mela and the Natya Mela, developed into Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, respectively. The repertoire of Nattuva Mela consists of both sringara (erotic) and bhakti (devotional), and was performed by temple dancers and courtesans; Natya Mela was usually based on themes, and was designed to only entertain the audience.
Instruments used: mridangam, violin, veena, flute and talam (nattuvangam/cymbals).

One of the oldest theatre forms in the world, Kathakali originated in southwestern India (present-day Kerala) in the 17th century, developing over the years with improved looks, themes and gestures. True to its name – katha is Sanskrit for ‘story’ and kali means ‘performance’ – it is a stylised, classical dance-drama made extra attractive via makeup.
According to popular belief, Kathakali emerged from Krishnanattam, the dance-drama about the life and activities of Krishna created by Sri Manavedan Raja, the Zamorin of Calicut (1585-1658). It was then adapted into a dance form called Ramanattam, which was later transformed into Aattakatha before being presented to the world under the Kathakali banner by the end of the 17th century.
Today, it shares similarities with Krishnanattam, Koodiyattam (a classical Sanskrit drama from Kerala) and Ashtapadiyattam (an adaptation of the 12th-century musical called Gitagovindam). The martial art of Kalarippayattu has influenced the body language of Kathakali since its inception. And though the lyrics would qualify as another independent element called Sahithyam, it is considered a component of geetha (music), as it plays only a supplementary role to nritta, nritya and natya. Their themes are mostly taken from the Hindu mythology, especially the two epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharat.
Instruments used: chenda, maddalam, cymbals and ela talam.

Manipuri is one of the most beautiful dance styles in India. Nurtured in the mountainous region of the northeast, it takes its name from the state of Manipur (‘jewel of land’), set like a gem in the verdant hills. Legend has it that the gods drained a lake in the beautiful countryside in order to find a place to dance. It’s no wonder, then, that dance is part of daily Manipuri life, such as weddings and homage to ancestors.
The Lai Haroba, a ritualistic dance depicting creation, is considered the precursor of the Manipuri we see today. Among the important features of its repertoire are the Sankirtana, and the Rasa Leela based on the devotional theme of Krishna and Radha. Another vibrant feature of Manipuri is the Pung Cholam (drum dance), in which dancers play the pung while performing thrilling leaps that gain a fast rhythm. Manipuri dance’s sole aim is a spiritual experience.
One distinguishing factor is that Manipuri dancers do not wear ankle bells to accentuate the beats tapped out by the feet. In addition, their feet never strike the ground with force. Movement of the body and feet are subtle, as are expressions; they aim for devotion and grace. This classical form of dance is claimed to be one of the most modest and softest in the world, but one of the most meaningful, too.
Instruments used: pung and cymbals.

Sattriya, a dance form from Assam, received recognition as one of the eight classical dance forms in 2000. The dance originated when the saint-poet Shankar Deva started an institution to bring harmony to the region of Assam, using religion to create dance-dramas, music, painting and collective prayer. Those which stayed around are known as Sattriya, and share all the characteristics of a classical dance form. As a living tradition, these dances are performed by celibate monks in the namghar (prayer hall) of the sattra (Vaishnavite monasteries in Assam). Today, Sattriya Nritya has emerged from the confines of the sattras to much wider recognition; however these monasteries continue to use the dance form in the ritualistic purposes for which it was originally created some 500 years ago.
The core of Sattriya Nritya is usually mythological stories; an artistic way of presenting mythological teachings to the people in an accessible, immediate and enjoyable manner. Traditionally, it was performed only by bhokots (male monks) as part of their daily rituals, or to mark special festivals. Sattriya Nritya is divided into many aspects: Apsara Nritya, Behar Nritya, Chali Nritya, Dasavatara Nritya, Manchok Nritya, Natua Nritya, Rasa Nritya, Rajaghariya Chali Nritya, Gosai Prabesh, Bar Prabesh, Gopi Prabesh, Jhumura, Nadu Bhangi, and Sutradhara.
Instruments used: violin, cymbals and khol (drum).