Classical and Folk Dances

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Classical Dances

Indian classical dancing emerged in India around 200 BCE, characterized by its joyful and celebratory nature. It often serves as a form of devotion to Hindu deities, with performances intricately choreographed to depict historical events and mythological tales. The various forms of Indian classical dance are known for their energetic movements, expressive gestures, and spiritual significance. These dance performances are commonly showcased at festivals, colleges, cultural events, and other venues, serving as a vibrant expression of India's rich cultural heritage.

In India, there are eight officially recognized classical dance forms as identified by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the primary organization for the preservation of Indian arts. These include Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri, and Mohiniyattam. 

  • Additionally, the Indian Ministry of Culture recognizes Chhau as a classical dance form, bringing the total to nine recognized styles.

The three primary parts are: 

  • Natya, which is the dramatic aspect of the dance (character impersonation), 
  • Nritta, which is the fundamental form of the dance movements.
  • Nritya (part of expressiveness; gestures or mudras).

Different Forms of Classical Dances in India

Bharatnatyam (Tamil Nadu)
Bharatnatyam (Tamil Nadu)

  • Bharatanatyam has been practised for more than 2000 years.
  • The state of Tamil Nadu is where the dance genre first emerged.
  • Bharatanatyam was originally the domain of female temple dancers. 
  • 'Bharatanatyam' is a type of dance that combines Bhav, Rag, Ras, and Taal. 
  • Revival of Bharatnatyam: A Renaissance was brought about by Rukmini Devi Arundale.
  • This art had almost completely died before her. She elevated the puritanical standards of this art form.
  • Yamini Krishnamurthy, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Saroja Vaidyanathan, Janaki Rangarajan, and others are well-known Bharatanatyam dancers.

Kathak (North India particularly Uttar Pradesh) 

  • The word Katha, which signifies a story, is the origin of the name Kathak. The dancers typically performed in religious or rural settings, narrating stories from historic texts.
  • The Ramayana, Mahabharat, and Krishna stories are central to Kathak's themes. Kathak also includes talks on a variety of topics.  Braj's Raslila is quite similar to Kathak.
        Kathak (North India particularly Uttar Pradesh)
  • Features:
  • Nritya and Nritta divisions: Key aspects of Kathak dance. 
  • Group dance: Increasing popularity as a solo and group performance. 
  • Kathak revival: Golden age under Nawab Wajidali Shah's reign who himself was superb artist. 
  • Active support: Nawab Wajidali Shah's patronage and artistic talent. 
  • Raigarh Gharana: Finest contribution, created by Raja Chakradhar Singh. 
  • Notable dancers: Sitara Devi, Rohini Bhate, Maya Rao, Mandvi Singh, Shama Bhate, Shovana Narayan, Achhan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Gopi Krishna, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Rajendra Gangani.

Kathakali (Kerela)

Kathakali dramatises stories, many of which are taken directly from Indian epics. It combines dance, music, and acting.
Kathakali (Kerela)

  • Makeup: The employment of heavy makeup and beautiful costumes is common.
  • Features: With specific makeup and costumes, the dancers play the parts of the storieskings, gods, demons, etc.—while the vocalists tell the legend and the percussionists play the instruments.
  • Facial colours: Different facial colours denote various mental states and character traits, such as green for nobility, black for wickedness, and red patches for a combination of royal nobility and evil.
  • Kerala Kalamandalam: The primary hub for Kathakali artists is Kerala Kalamandalam. 
  • Dance style similarities: Kathakali shares similarities with other dance forms like the Japanese "Noh" and "Kabuki." 
  • Famous artists: Notable Kathakali artists include Ramankutty Nair and Kalamandalam Gopi.

Mohiniattam (Kerela)

The traditional solo dancing style of Kerala is called Mohiniyattam, or the dance of Mohini (a form of Lord Vishnu).
Mohiniattam (Kerela)

  • References: Vyavaharamala (1709) by Mazhamagalam Narayanan Namputiri and Ghoshayatra by poet Kunjan Nambiar mention Mohiniyattam. 
  • Characteristics: Delicate, lyrical, and graceful dance style.
  • Comparison: Shares grace and beauty with Bharatanatyam.
  • Revival: Kerala's prohibition on temple dancing was lifted in 1930 with the support of nationalist Malayalam poet Vallathol Narayan Menon, who also founded the Kerala Kalmandalam dance academy and encouraged its instruction and practise.

Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh)

The Kuchipudi is a well-known dance-drama style that has its roots in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, where it was first performed in the third century BCE
Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh)

  • Presentation: Includes solo and group performances. 
  • Significance: Jewellery, accessories, and costumes play a role.
  • Different Forms: Manduka Shabdam (frog maiden narrative), Balgopala Taranga (dancing on the edges of a brass plate while holding a pitcher of water on top of his head), and Tala Chitra Nritya (dancing toes making pictures) are the solo performances.
  • Famous Artists: Yamini Krishnamurthy and Raja Reddy

Manipuri (Manipur)

The Manipuri dance form is named after its region of origin, 'Manipur'. This dance form is also known as ‘Jogai’.

  • Manipuri typically portrays the love between Radha and Krishna through Raaslila in the form of a dance-drama on devotional tunes
  • Manipuri is a synthesis of South-East Asian and Indian cultures. 
  • Tandav or Lasya are two categories for the Manipuri dance style.
  • Costumes: The female dancers dress in elaborate barrel-shaped drum-like long stiff skirts that are embellished from top to bottom. A traditional veil is worn over hair that drapes beautifully over the face, which is covered by a dark-colored velvet top.
  • Famous Artists: Guru Bipin Sinha and Nirmala Mehta
  • Revival or recent development: Manipuri dance instruction is offered by a number of commercial institutions as well as a select number of government-sponsored facilities.
  • The most notable of these is the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy in Imphal, which is a part of the Delhi-based Sangeet Natak Academy.

Odissi (Odisha)

Sensuous and lyrical, Odissi is a dance of love and passion touching on the divine and the human, the sublime and the mundane.
Odissi (Odisha)

  • The Natya Shastra mentions many regional varieties, such as the south-eastern style known as the Odhra Magadha which can be identified as the earliest precursor of present day Odissi
  • This Bhakti-inspired dancing style was once performed at Jagannath temples as a means of worship to God. Thus, inside the temple, one discovers numerous sculptures in various dance poses.
  • Feature: A gentle dance with calming lyrics that shares mudras and facial gestures with Bharatanatyam.
  • Famous Artists: Sonal Mansingh and Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Sattriya (Assam)

This dance was created by Assamese Vaishnava saint and reformer Sankaradeva for Vaishnava religion in 15th century A.D. 
Sattriya (Assam)

  • Name and Affiliation: Name Sattriya due to its religious nature and affiliation with the Sattras.
  • Themes: Performances center around Radha-Krishna and mythology. 
  • Revival: Transitioned to contemporary stage in 20th century. It gained support inside and outside India. 
  • Sattriya Kendra Guwahati, an affiliate of Sangeet Natak Akademi: Founded to support and preserve Sattriya.

Chhau (Odisha)

The Chhau is a synthesis of martial, tribal, and folk arts. The name "Chhau" comes from the Sanskrit word "Chaaya," which means "shadow," "image," or "mask." Additionally, Sitakanta Mahapatra claims that the word "Chhau" is derived from the Odia word "Chhauni" (Military Camp). 
Chhau (Odisha)

  • Performed traditionally by male-only troupes.
  • Themes: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, shaktism
  • Revival: Chhau was included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity maintained by UNESCO in 2010.
  • Government Chhau Centre was established in Seraikella in 1960, and Myurbhanj Chhau Nritya Pratishthan was founded in Baripada in 1962.
  • In Baripada, Odisha, the Sangeet Natak Academy founded the National Centre for Chhau Dance.

Folk Dances

Indian folk dances are traditional, celebratory, and expressive. They are performed globally for social events like weddings, festivals, and seasons. Both genders participate, often with musicians playing as dancers sing. Elaborate clothing is common. There are numerous structured, old-fashioned folk and tribal dances, but many more are developing right now.

Indian folk dances, with their elaborate costumes and jewellery, form an integral part of the country's cultural heritage. Among them is Dumhal, a traditional dance from Kashmir, and Ras lila, performed during Janmashtami festivals.

The different types of folk dances are:


Folk dances

Andhra Pradesh

Bhamakalpam and Kolattam

Arunachal Pradesh



Bihu, Naga dance




Gaur Maria, Kapalik


Garba, Dandiya Raas and Bhavai


Tarangamel, Koli


Jhumar, Phag

Himachal Pradesh

Jhora, Dhaman

Jammu & Kashmir

Kud Dandi Nach


Agni, Jhumar


Yakshagana, Karga


Ottam Thullal


Lavani, Koli

Madhya Pradesh

Jawara, Matki


Thang Ta, Lai Haraoba, Pung Cholom




Zangtalam, Chailam


Bamboo Dance, Rangma


Savari, Ghumara


Bhangra, Giddha


Ghumar, Kalbelia

Tamil Nadu

Kumi, Kolattam, Kavadi

Uttar Pradesh

Nautanki, Raslila


Garhwali, Kumayuni