Indian Dance Essay


Historically, dance played an important role in the life of Indian people. It should be said that the earliest dance forms originate to the antiquity. At the same time, dance has never lost its significance to Indian people who were always interested in dance and who made this a real form of art. In fact, Indian culture is characterized by the richness and variety of forms of expression but, at the same time, despite certain variations the traditional Indian culture remains a solid and powerful tool that unites the whole nation.

It should be pointed out that there exist various styles of dance which may vary depending on the region or the origin. Basically, Indian dance is performed on different occasion but, nevertheless, it does not make Indian dance less expressive or significant. In actuality, it is possible to speak about dance in India as a part of cultural identity of Indian people and as a form of communication between Indians which has gradually evolved and transformed in the great art.

It is important to underline that Indian dance is so important to Indians that they never abandon their historical traditions of dance. No wonder that even in the modern world, when Indians are dispersed throughout the world and when Indian communities may be found in absolutely different parts of the world living in different socio-cultural environment, Indian dance still distinguishes Indian people from other communities of the world.

History of Indian dance styles

Speaking about the history of Indian dance, it is necessary to point out that as any other form of art in India, dance was closely related to the religious beliefs of Indian people and actually is considered to be a kind of divine gift. It should be said that the origin of Indian dance styles may be traced back to the Natya Shastra of Bharat Muni about 400 BC. However, this was rather a theoretical representation of Indian dance which had being existed for a long time before their theoretical adaptation.

In actuality, it is possible to refer the origin of Indian dance styles to the epochs as old as 2000-1500 BC. The first development of dance styles is associated with the invasion of India by Aryans who founded a prosperous civilization in India and developed practically all forms of art, including dance. At the same time, any form of art in India was traditionally believed to be of a divine origin and dance was not an exception. the first elaborate and eloquent references to art of dancing are abound in the Rig Veda, containing sacred texts, which was compiled about 1500 BC (Samson 1987). In such a way, it is obvious that dance was one of the ancient forms of art in India.

In Indian tradition, it is believed that dance was created by Lord Brahma (the Creator) as the treatises on dance such as Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana read. In fact, the Natya Shastra is the earliest Indian text in the history of performing arts which is believed to be created by Gods as a form of entertainment. It is worthy of note, the four traditional Veda, containing sacred texts, were not accessible to all castes and, thus certain categories of Indian population were deprived of opportunity to get acquainted with them, while the Natya Shastra was perceived as the fifth Veda accessible to absolutely all people. According to Indian legends, it was the gift of Gods and initially, the Natya Shastra and, thus dance, was supposed to be destined to Gods only, but later were presented to people.

Naturally, in the course of time, views on dance in India evolved as well as dance styles themselves .This is why nowadays it is possible to single out several classical dance forms, including Bharatnatyam, Kuchi[pudi, Mohini Attam, Kathak, Odissi and Manipuri. It is worthy of mention that dance styles in India may vary depending on the region so that different regions have their own unique dance styles, which, nonetheless, basically meet Indian tradition of dance and Indian philosophy of dance.

Purpose of Indian dance

Taking into consideration the significance of dance to Indian people, it seems to be quite natural that the dance serves to different purposes in Indian culture. Obviously, the dance is an ancient form of art and this is why, in the modern context, it is possible to view the dance as a means of preservation of the national culture and traditions. In other words, classical dance forms of India may be viewed as a cultural heritage of Indian people which underlines the uniqueness of Indian people and Indian culture contributing to the development of national and cultural identity of Indian people. To a significant extent, it is due to the dance Indian people living in different parts of the world feel that they belong to the same culture and they are representatives of one and the same nation.

At the same time, the dance in India also serves to more practical purposes. For instance, it is not a secret that Indian dances are very informative and actually the dance for Indians is more than dance or art, it is rather a form of communication since with the help of gestures, movements, dressing, etc. dancers can express their feelings, emotions, intentions, etc. This is why the communicative purpose of Indian dance is obvious.

Furthermore, it is necessary to remember about the traditional purpose of dance that can be traced throughout the history of its development, this is the performance. Unquestionably, traditionally picturesque, emotional and highly informative Indian dances always represented a great performance and served as a means of entertainment of large audience that may be compared to the modern concerts and, in this respect, Indian dances may be viewed as similar to performance art in any other country.

However, often the dance as a performance served to religious purposes which emphasized the divine origin of dance. In this respect, it is worthy of mention that the Shiva temple of Chidambaram was sculpted with 108 Karanas (units of dance in which gesture, step and attitude are coordinated in a harmonious rhythmic movement) on the inner walls of the four gateways leading to the temple (Bowers 1967). In suhc a way, it is obvious that Indian dance was extremely important to the local religion.

Naturally, despite its divine origin, Indian dance also served to human purposes and often it was a perfect way to get socialized or accepted by the community. In this respect, it should be said that the participation in dance was traditionally a symbol of the acceptance of an individual by the community since it was a symbolic unification of the individual with his social environment. Thus, the variety of purposes of Indian dance made it extremely important part of social life of Indian people and its significance is still relevant even nowadays.

Classification of Indian dance, decorations and participants

As Indian dance played an important social role, the fulfillment of its basic purposes implied the existence of a variety of dance forms and styles. Moreover, the huge territory inhabited by Indian people contributed dramatically to the regional diversification of dance forms and styles. This is why among the variety of Indian dance forms it is possible to single out eight classical dance form, which has already been mentioned above. But the more general classification helps structure Indian dance into three major groups.

First of all, these are religious dances which are performed inside the sanctum of the temple. According to the rituals these dance forms were classified as Agama Nartanam. This was a spiritual dance form. Secondly, it is possible to single out dances that fulfilled socio-political function and were performed in royal courts to the accompaniment of classical music and were traditionally called Carnatakam. Finally, it is possible to speak about dances which fulfilled a kind of universal or uniting the community function since the form of dance known as Darbari Aatam appealed more to the commoners and it educated them about their religion, their culture and social life. These dances were performed outside the temple precincts in the courtyard (Auntrose 2002).

However, in order to fully understand the diversity of Indian dance forms, its essence and ambiance, it is necessary to dwell upon the classical Indian dance forms. Primarily, it should be said that practically all Indian classical dances are spiritual. For instance, Kathakali, which literally means story-play, is an elaborate dance depicting the victory of truth over the falsehood. The particular feature of this form of dance is the use of elaborate make-up and colorful costumes which are used to emphasize that the characters are super-beings from another world, and their make-up is easily recognizable as godlike, heroic, or demonic. Another dance form is Mohimi Attam. The theme of this dance is love and devotion to God, who is usuall Vishnu or Krishna. The Mohini Attam dancer maintains realistic make-up and a simple costume. Usually, the dancer is attired in a beautiful white with gold borderKasavu saree of Kerala, with the distinctive white jasmine flowers around a French bun at the side of her head.

Bharata Natyam dance has been handed down through the centuries by dance teachers and the temple dancers. In the sacred environment of the temple these families developed and propagated their heritage. In such a way, this dance was basically performed by this limited group of people while the others were unable to perform this dance.

Kuchipudi, another classical dance, is actually the dance drama that still exists today and can be closely associated with the Sanskrit theatrical tradition. During this dance, the actors sing and dance, and the style is the blend of folk and classical. Probably this is why the technique has greater freedom and fluidity than other dance styles. Kuchipudi was always performed as an offering to the temples.

Odissi dance form is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krrishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govinda are used to depict love and devotion to God. The Odissi dancers use their heads, bust and torso in soft flowing movements to express specific mood and emotions. The form is curvaceous, concentrating on the division of the body into three parts: head, bust and torso. This is a soft, lyrical, classical dance which depicts the ambiance of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity. This dance may be considered regional and typical for the state of Orissa.

Kathak is a North Indian dance form which is inextricably bound with classical Hindustani music and the rhythmic nimbleness of the feet is accompanied by the table. Traditionally, the dance was taken to Muslim courts and, consequently, it became more entertaining and less religious in content. The emphasis is traditionally made on the pure dance aspects and less on expression and emotions. Finally, there is Manipuri, a dance style based on circular movements. Specialists (Nayagam 1970) estimate that in ancient texts it has been compared to the movement of planets around the sun.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Indian dance is an ancient form of art that has developed throughout the history of Indian culture and still represents a constituent part of Indian cultural heritage. In actuality, there exist a variety of dance forms and style but basically they preserved their religious origin and, as a rule, Indian dance forms are characterized as highly spiritual. At the same time, the purposes and functions of Indian dance forms also vary substantially, though such a diversity of purposes only underlines the uniqueness of Indian dance which may characterized as highly informative form of performance and art which may be used equally successful to communication, entertainment, socialization of individuals, etc. In such a way, Indian dance is the national symbol, the art that shapes national identity of Indian people.

Auntrose, K., (2002) Classical Dances and costumes of India. New York: Routledge.
Banerjee, Projesh (1983). Indian Ballet Dancing. New Jersey: Abhinav Publications
Bowers, Faubion (1967). The Dance in India. New York: AMS Press, Inc.
Kilger, George (1993). Bharata Natyam in Cultural Perspective. New Delhi: Manohar American Institute of Indian Studies.
Thacker, Chaula (1989). Introduction to Bharat Natyam. Michigan: Nadanta, Inc.
Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.
Samson, Leela (1987). Rhythm in Joy: Classical Indian Dance Traditions. New Delhi: Lustre Press Pvt. Ltd.

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