Indian classical dances are highly developed and stylised and have changed little in their technique, and yet they are innovative. By and large, they strictly adhere to the principles and rules laid down by Bharat Muni in his Natyashastra many ages ago. They, along with no less fascinating and variegated folk-forms, present a panoramic and spectacular view of splendid and continuous dance tradition of the country. Their history, spanning from the prehistoric times to the present, makes a fascinating study and reading. Indian dances, particularly the classical dances, are famous all over the world. There are said to be 180 styles of Indian dancing, and 101 of these are described in the Natyashastra. Most of these dance-styles can be seen depicted on the walls and pillars of some of the famous Indian temples. Music, dance and drama have been integral parts of Indian religion and life.
Of the classical dances, the five very famous ones are:
(i) Bharat Natyam
Bharat Natyam is popular in south India. Feeling, raga and rhythm play a most crucial role in this dance form. It is the oldest dance-form and is associated with Lord Shiva. It is a solo dance, and most complicated and subtle to be understood and appreciated by a layman. Preserved in its pristine glory and unalloyed purity in Tamil Nadu, it enjoys very wide currency and popularity in India. For centuries in medieval India, it was performed by Devadasis or handmaids of gods in the exquisite temples of south India. The Devadasis were then held in high esteem as repositories of culture and performing arts.
Bharat Nat yam’s three components—movement, mime and music—contribute equally in performance and recital. It is also a tender and erotic dance, generally performed by a female dancer and sometimes by a male dancer as well. No doubt it is based on the theme of love, romance and heroism but it is invariably devotional in essence and never sensual. It is equally and evenly divided into nritta (abstract dance) and nritya (expressive dance). It is presented in such a way that it upholds itself in a sequence of stages like a bud bursting into a blossom of unmatched beauty, colour, fascination and splendour. The artist performing Bharat Natyam wears a costume which is both traditional as well as functional. A wide variety of beautiful ornaments are also used.
Kathakali, the traditional story-play of kaleidoscopic Kerala, was evolved and nurtured in temples, just like Bharat Natyam. It is also known as Attakatha (dance-play) and is fundamentally of epic dimensions. Its journey from temples to courts and then to streets, courtyards and public places in Kerala tells it’s ever- increasing universal appeal and popularity. Kathakali is performed in open air, on a square stage with a tall and massive brass lamp, fed with coconut oil, set in front of the dancers at the centre of the stage. This is the only lighting used. The continuous thundering of the drum called chenda heralds the performance of the Kathakali dance-drama. The theme to be enacted and danced may either be from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, or the Vedas. It continues all through the night, to the accompaniment of singing, drumming and playing on the large.bronze cymbals. Traditionally, young boys perform female roles, but now girls and women also perform female roles. The prospective
Kathakali dancers are caught young and initiated ritually in the art at the tender age of 10-12 and made to undergo a rigorous and intensive training and discipline under a skilled guru or master. The costumes are traditional, gorgeous, spectacular, varied, ostentatious, ornamental and yet functional. Eyes play an exceptional role in this style of dance.
Manipuri dances are based on the romance of divine Krishna and Radha. It was Maharaja Jai Singh, also known as Bhagy Chandra, who helped to develop and patronise this dance form. His daughter Princess Bimba-manjari was a dancer par excellence of this style. It was subsequently formalised, codified and stylised on classical lines by great gurus of the art. The Rasa-dances are always related to Krishna legends and the movements of the neck, the breasts and hips are not allowed in this dance as they are considered vulgar and below the dignity and grandeur of these devotional forms of dance. The text of the accompanying songs is always from great saint-poets like Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas or from the Bhaguat Purana.
The costume is always rich, ornamental and captivating. Rich in emotional content and sentiment of love, Manipuri dances require arduous training and discipline of the artist from a very tender age under the guidance of expert gurus. Truly classical, devotional and religious in spirit, these are perfumed to the singing of songs and kirtans and to the accompaniment of khol, mridanga, manjira and bamboo flutes. Their liquid beauty, lyrical quality, restrained and rhythmic swaying, swinging and spinning, with hands close to the body, coupled with soft music; lend the performance a uniqueness and divinity which defy description.
Kathak, a major classical dance form of north India, is performed both by men and women. It is well-known for its spontaneity, freedom from uniformity, and has a lot of room for innovation and improvisation. It enjoys a fair amount of individuality and autonomy. A kathak dancer can change his or her sequence of stages to suit individual style and aptitude. Kathak makes a great use of a number of Hindustani musical compositions like Dhrupad, Hori, Dhamal, Pad, Bhajan,
Thumr, Ghazal, and Dadra, etc. It may also begin with an invocation of gods. There is a rich variety in repertoire as far as expression of feelings and passions are concerned. In an expressional dance, the artist combines mime with music and dance and interprets the song to the accompaniment of soft music of the sarangi or a sitar. The songs, either in Hindi, Braj or Hindustani, may be sacred, secular, devotional or erotic.
Odissi, the classical dance form of Orissa is highly inspired, impassioned, ecstatic and sensuous. In medieval days, this dance was performed by the Devadasis, called Maharis, in the temples. Rooted deeply in traditions and rituals, the dance is very old though its name is new. It commences with an invocation of gods to the accompaniment of rhythmic vocal syllables blended into drum-beats. The chant of the musician, the beat of the drum and the lilting and measured foot movements of the danseuse are so harmonised as to produce a delicate balance between the danseuse and the dance. The audience is ushered into a fascinating world of mime, music and motifs, reflecting sculpture stances. It represents a fine synthesis of Lasya and Tandaua styles of Indian classical dances. It has an idiom that transcends all the limits of communication, leading to a rich, aesthetic and spiritual experience.
Indian folk dances have relatively far greater free play, expression of feelings, emotions and sentiments than classical forms. The folk people are born dancers. Their gait, movements and various activities, especially those of women, betray their rhythmic tempo and sculptures poses and postures. Folk dance-forms are intimately connected with the performer’s life, daily activities, environment and other physical surroundings and nature in its various moods and season. Indian folk dances are ever fresh, fragrant and imbued with a wonderful capacity to renew and to imbibe new influences and yet to maintain tradition and continuity. Indian folk dances are part and parcel of the country’s rich cultural heritage and immense artistic wealth. Their staggering variety and richness inspires wonder and admiration. They are at once thoroughly religious, social, ceremonial, seasonal, material, ritual, romantic and erotic and always inspired by mythology, legends, scriptures, folk tales and, above all, by the most primitive instinct to express pain and pleasure through linear and statuesque stances and rhythmic movements.