Sangeet Natya Academy, the national academy for performing arts in India, recognizes eight traditional dances as Indian classical dances. These have roots in the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra. The Indian Classical Dances of India has developed a type of dance-drama that is a form of a total theater. The dancer acts out a story almost exclusively through gestures, through the enactment of stories from Hindu mythology.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi currently confers classical status on eight Indian classical dance styles:
Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu),
Kathak (North, West and Central India),
Mohiniyattam (Kerala), and
Considered to be the oldest dance and an inspiration to all other styles, Bharat Natyam, a temple dance of Tamil Nadu, is an enchanting performance that relates scenes from religious texts and myths. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam has been a solo dance that was performed exclusively by women, and expressed Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, but also of Vaishnavism and Shaktism. In a series of quick and complicated neat motions, dancers dressed in vibrant attires and ornamented heavily from head to toe, execute moves that are a sight to behold.
Bharatanatyam and other classical dances in India were ridiculed and suppressed during the colonial British Raj era. In the post-colonial period, it has grown to become the most popular classical Indian dance style in India and abroad.
Sattriya is a classical dance-drama performance art with origins in the Krishna-centered Vaishnavism monasteries of Assam, and attributed to the 15th century Bhakti movement scholar and saint named Srimanta Sankardev. A regale of religious sagas, it is generally performed in monasteries, where the dancers dressed in stunning pat silks and adorned with traditional Assamese jewellery weave magic to the beats of cymbals, drums, flutes and even harmonium and violin.
Manipuri dance, originating from the state of Manipur, is a spiritual experience that transcends art and seems more like a divine dance. Mostly revolving around Goddess Radha and Lord Krishna, this soft, mild and modest dance form sees dancers execute graceful and delicate movements to lyrical undertones. While the women are clad in a wrap-around skirt called sarong, the men wear a dhoti and a turban. The Manipuri Raas Leela dance is a team performance, with its own unique costumes notably the Kumil (a barrel shaped, elegantly decorated skirt), aesthetics, conventions and repertoire.
Kathak is traditionally attributed to the traveling bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakas or storytellers. The term Kathak is derived from the Vedic Sanskrit word Katha meaning “story”, and kathaka in Sanskrit means “he who tells a story”, or “to do with stories”. Kathak evolved during the Bhakti movement, particularly by incorporating childhood and amorous stories of Hindu god Krishna, as well as independently in the courts of north Indian kingdoms. It transitioned, adapted and integrated the tastes and Persian arts influence in the Mughal courts of the 16th and 17th century. Kathak is found in three distinct forms, named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved –Jaipur, Benares and Lucknow.
Odissi originated in the Hindu temples of Odisha – an eastern coastal state of India. Odissi, in its history, was performed predominantly by women,and expressed religious stories and spiritual ideas, particularly of Vaishnavism (Vishnu as Jagannath), but also of other traditions such as those related to Hindu gods Shiva and Surya, as well as Hindu goddesses (Shaktism). Odissi is traditionally a dance-drama genre of performance art, where the artist(s) and musicians play out a mythical story, a spiritual message or devotional poem from the Hindu texts, using symbolic costumes,body movement, abhinaya (expressions) and mudras (gestures and sign language) set out in ancient Sanskrit literature.
Largely featuring scenes and stories from the life of Lord Krishna, Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is essentially a temple dance. While a female dancer wears a pleated sari that opens like a hand fan, a male dancer is clad in a dhoti. The dancers are adorned with traditional jewellery and dance to the rhythmic beats of cymbals, flute, veena, tambura etc.
Kathakali (katha, “story”; kali, “performance”) is a highly stylized classical dance-drama form which originated from Kerala in the 17th century. This classical dance form is another “story play” genre of art, but one distinguished by its elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks wearing actor-dancers, who have traditionally been all males. Kathakali primarily developed as a Hindu performance art, performing plays and mythical legends related to Hinduism. While its origin are more recent, its roots are in temple and folk arts such as Kutiyattam and religious drama traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE. A Kathakali performance incorporates movements from the ancient martial arts and athletic traditions of south India.
Mohiniyattam is a gentle, graceful and feminine form of dance that originated in the state of Kerala. The dance derives its name from the word ‘Mohini’, which means the female avatar of Lord Vishnu. Usually performed by a solo female dancer, the performance emotes a play through music and elegant movements. The song is generally a mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam languages.