Classical Indian dance

Classical Indian dance, one of the most developed art forms in Indian culture, is ancient and complex with roots going back several millennia. It is religious in origin; being borne in the sacred temples, and performed by the Devadasis (the temple dancers). In Hindu mythology, dance is a sacred act older than the earth itself and is a form of communication with the gods. According to this, Shiva (the god of creation and destruction) destroyed the world and recreated it with his dance. Long time ago, the dance moved from the temples on to the secular stage. However, its religious character can hardly be denied. Even for the most prominent dancers the dance is a kind of divine service and each performance begins with the worship of the gods.

  1. 1. The Eight Indian dance styles
  2. 2. Devadasis – The history of Indian classical dance
  3. 3. Natyashastra – Principles of Classical Indian Dance
  4. 4. Literature

1. The Eight Indian dance styles

In India, eight classical Indian dance styles have emerged: Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Kathak (North), Odissi (Orissa), Manipuri (North-East), Sattriya (North-East), Kathakali (Kerala) and Mohiniyattam (Kerala). The huge geographical area of India is characterized by an enormous variety of landscapes, peoples, cultures and languages. This is reflected in various art and dance forms. Thus, Indian Classical dances have their origin in widely disseminated locally popular art forms that have been affected through social, political and religious influences and by the behaviour patterns of the people of the region, thus these Classical dance forms have developed clear and unique styles. Although the respective dance styles have their own unique technique and presentation, they always follow the basic rules and guidelines of the Natyashastra.
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2. Devadasis - The history of Indian classical dance

Almost all Classical Indian dance styles have their origin in temple dance and thus the tradition of the Devadasis. Local rulers were conduced as patrons and supporters for the local temple, which was the centre of community life. In the temples the Gods were praised and thanked by means of carefully elaborated rituals in the form of songs and dances. Selected dancers, known as Devadasis (Deva = God, Dasi = servant) were dedicated to the Gods and got were symbolically married to the God of their temple by the age of six years. Devadasis were not allowed to get married to a human being, so they could never be wido, as they were the wives of an immortal God. They were respected and had a high status in society, living in separate districts that belonged to the temple or the king, and later forming their own caste. As “servants of the gods” they had to perform many tasks such as arranging the flowers, dressing and undressing the idols of Gods, the recitation of prayers and so on. They danced daily by rituals and ceremonies and by occasion of major temple festivals. After this, their special training by the Brahmins in the temple began. The six-year training included 64 arts including singing, rhythm, theory and of course the dance.

With the arrival of exotic immigrants in the 16th century the power of the courts and the local patrons waned. The Temples lost the support of their local rulers. As a result of this, the art had no platform anymore nor possibility of development losing much of it’s relevance and value. With the arrival of the British colonial power and the introduction of British law and Victorian values, the traditional dance was neglected, even scorned, and the practice of Devadasis was banned by law. As a consequence, the Arts, which had developed over centuries, became almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th Century.Temples and their inhabitants became completely impoverished.

In the first half of the 20th Century, pioneers like Rabindranath Tagore and other Gurus, Dancers and Critics, began to revive, redefine and secure the rich heritage of dance. These pioneers contributed much to the reputation of dance and laid the foundation stone for the enormous growth of the art form after the Independence of India in 1947. Since then, the number of Indian dancers, dance teachers, students, ensembles and dance schools is constantly growing in India.

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3. Natyashastra - Principles of Classical Indian Dance

According to the Indian Mythology, the Gods needed entertainment. So they asked Brahma, the creator of the universe, to create something to alleviate their boredom. Brahma was able to obtain, with the help of Saraswati – the Goddess of Art and Learning, the support of the wise Baratha Muni. Baratha Muni wrote the fifth book of the holy Vedas or Natyashastra, a major book of drama, dance and music. The Gods were delighted and could be entertained from then on. Furthermore, it was an ideal way to represent and to illustrate the Gods on earth. Through the medium of dance and music the people could better understand the terms and definitions like God and devil, moral and immoral. Natyashastra is the basis of all the Eight Classical Indian dances. There are differing scolarly opinions regarding when the Natyashastras were written, varying from 300 BC to 400 AD.

The NatyaShastra constitutes the rules of drama like speech, mime, dance and music and defines the technical and aesthetic principles. This includes detailed instructions about the architecture and the design of an auditorium. In the section ‘Facial Expression’ the movements of the eyes, eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks and chin are depicted precisely. For example, the eyes are divided into 36 shapes which can be supported by seven different ways to move the eyebrows. Furthermore, there is a precise theoretical division into Nritta, Nritya and Natya. Nritta is the technical lips aspect of dance and Natya the expressive one. The link between both is Nritya. Nritya includes the famous hand gestures known as the “hasta mudras”. Using this “wordless language” can represent both concrete things (such as colors or animals) and abstract terms such as desire or the future.

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4. Literature

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