World on Stage, Namaskaar Foundation, Music, Dance, Theatre

Indian Dance


Bharatnatyam   Chhau    Kathak   Kathakali    Kuchipudi   Manipuri    Mohiniattam    Odissi   Sattriya


Tribal and Regional Dances

By this time the Devadasis had fallen upon evil days due to lack of state patronage and changed social mores. The revival of Bharat Natyam by pioneers such as E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale brought the dance out of the temple precincts and onto the proscenium stage though it retained its essentially devotional character.

Today Bharata Natyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over India. Due to its wide range of movements and postures and the balanced melange of the rhythmic and mimetic aspects lends itself well to experimental and fusion choreography. Degree and Post Graduate courses covering the practice and theory of Bharata Natyam as well as the languages associated with its development are available at major universities of India. "

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"The Chhau dance is indigenous to the eastern part of India. It originated as a martial art and contains vigourous movements and leaps. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of the princely rulers of the Orissa region took a keen interest in the development of this art. They maintained troupes that performed on special occasions and festivals.

Some Chhau dances use large stylized masks. The depiction of birds and animals is a distinctive feature. There are also heroic dances with sword, bow or shield, with which dancers demonstrate their dexterity. In keeping with the martial origins of Chhau, some of the themes include the depiction of mythological heroes, such as Parashurama, Mahadev, Indrajit and others, from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. Over the course of time, female characters and more diverse themes were added.

There are three recognized schools or styles of Chhau. These are the Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj varieties. Mayurbhanj Chhau dancers do not wear masks. In recent times, Mayurbhanj Chhau has become popular as a medium of choreography, with its wide range of postures and movements that adapt well to modern as well as traditional treatment."

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This dance form traces its origins to the the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks, or story tellers. These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialized in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures, and embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was quintessential theatre, using instrumental and vocal music along with stylized gestures, to enliven the stories. With the advent of Mughal culture, Kathak became a sophisticated chamber art. Patronized by art loving rulers, the practitioners of Kathak worked at refining its dramatic and rhythmic aspects, delighting elite audiences with their mastery over rhythm and the stylized mime.

The technique of Kathak today is characterized by fast rhythmic footwork set to complex time cycles. The footwork is matched by the accompanying percussion instruments such as tabla and pakhawaj, and the dancer and percussionists often indulge in a virtuoso display of rhythmic wizardry.The dance movements include numerous pirouettes executed at lightning speed and ending in statuesque poses. The interpretative portion, based on tales of Radha and Krishna and other mythological lore, contains subtle gestures and facial expressions. Lucknow, Banaras and Jaipur are recognized as the three schools, or gharanas, where this art was nurtured and where the interpretative and rhythmic aspects were refined to a high standard.

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Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. It originated in the area of southwestern India now known as the state of Kerala. Kathakali is a group presentation, in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Characters are categorized according to their nature. This determines the colours used in the make-up. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth who have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces.

The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigourous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.

The dancers wear large head dresses, and the contours of the face are extended with moulded lime. The extraordinary costumes and make-up serve to raise the participants above the level of mere mortals, so that they may transport the audience to a world of wonders.

The orchestra of a Kathakali performance includes two drums known as the chenda and the maddalam, along with cymbals and another percussion instrument, the ela taalam. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopaanam. The orchestra of a Kathakali troupe is unique and provides not only the background to the dancing, but also serves as a highly expressive special effects team. In the traditional village ambiance, the percussionists also provide publicity for the event by playing outside the venue for some hours before the start of the show.

A traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when Good finally conquers Evil. Today, however, it has been modified for the proscenium stage, and urban audiences can participate in this ritualistic theatre experience in the comfort of a plush auditorium, within the span of a couple of hours.

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"Sculptural evidence from all parts of India and the surrounding region points to a rich tradition of dance and music that flourished over a thousand years ago. All over ancient India, it would seem, dance and music were seen not merely as ways to celebrate but also as offerings of worship and thanksgiving to the Divine. Over the course of time, the dance forms practiced in the different parts of the country were codified and developed distinct identities according to the geographic, socio-economic, and political conditions of each region.

The dance form Kuchipudi developed in what is now known as the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Kuchipudi derives its name from the village Kuchelapuram, where it was nurtured by great scholars and artists who built up the repertoire and refined the dance technique.

The technique of Kuchipudi makes use of fast rhythmic footwork and sculpturesque body movements. Stylized mime, using hand gestures and subtle facial expression, is combined with more realistic acting, occasionally including dialogues spoken by the dancers. In this blend of performance techniques, Kuchipudi is unique among the Indian classical dance styles. Kuchipudi today is performed either as a solo or a group presentation, but historically it was performed as a dance drama, with several dancers taking different roles. The themes are mostly derived form the scriptures and mythology, and the portrayal of certain characters is a central motif of this dance form. One example is Satyabhama, the colourful second consort of Lord Krishna. Another unique feature of Kuchipudi is the Tarangam, in which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated rhythmic patterns with dexterity, while sometimes also balancing a pot of water on the head.

Kuchipudi is accompanied by Carnatic music. A typical orchestra for a Kuchipudi recital includes the mridangam, flute and violin. A vocalist sings the lyrics, and the nattuvanar conducts the orchestra and recites the rhythmic patterns."

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"Manipuri is one of the most beautiful dance styles of India. Nurtured in the mountainous region of the northeast, it takes its name from the name of the area, Manipur, which is now a state. Manipur literally means a jewel of a land, and the state is set like a gem in the verdant hills. The legend goes that the gods drained a lake in the beautiful countryside in order to find a place to dance. No wonder then, that dance is an inherent part of the rituals of daily life, such as weddings and homage to ancestors.

The Lai Haroba, a ritualistic dance depicting the Creation, is considered the precursor of Manipuri as seen today. The Lai Haroba is still an important living tradition, while Manipuri has expanded and gained popularity as a performing art in group and solo presentations.

Among the important constituents of the Manipuri repertoire are the Sankirtana and the Raas Leela, based on the devotional theme of Krishna and Radha. The Raas Leela depicts the cosmic dance of Krishna and the cowherd maidens. The beautiful embroidered skirts of the dancers, long and flared from the waist, and the transluscent veils, along with Krishna's costume with the tall peacock feather crown, add to the radiant appearance of this dance, as the performers sway and twirl to an ascending tempo. Another vibrant feature of Manipuri is the Pung Cholam or Drum dance, in which dancers play on the drum known as Pung while dancing with thrilling leaps and turns to a fast rhythm."

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"The dance form of Mohiniattam was nurtured in the region of Kerala in southwestern India. The name Mohiniattam literally means 'Dance of the Enchantress,' and it does have a mesmerizing quality. The white and gold costume, arresting hairstyle and the highly graceful movements in medium tempo, contribute to this aesthetic effect.

Mohiniattam is characterized by swaying movements of the upper body with legs placed in a stance similar to the plie position. The eyes play an important role in accenting the direction of the movement.

Mention of Mohiniattam is found in some eighteenth century texts, but the practical aspect of the style was revived in the reign of Maharaja Swati Tirunal, a 19th century ruler who was a great patron of the arts. Under Swati Tirunal, Mohiniattam crystallized as a solo dance tradition with musical compositions set to the Carnatic style of music and a distinct repertoire. Later, in the twentieth century, the great poet Vallathol established the Kerala Kalamandalam to promote the arts of Mohiniattam and Kathakali. Here, further research was done and Mohiniattam was codified and revived.

Over the past few decades, the repertoire of Mohiniattam has been developed and expanded by dedicated performers who have ensured that this beautiful dance style retains a distinct identity among the classical dance styles of India. Apart from mythology, Mohiniattam contains a range of themes from nature."

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"Odissi traces its origins to the ritual dances performed in the temples of ancient northern India. Today the name Odissi refers to the dance style of the state of Orissa in eastern India. Like other classical arts of India, this ancient dance style had suffered a decline as temples and artists lost the patronage of feudal rulers and princely states, and by the 1930s and 40s, there were very few surviving practitioners of the art.

The current form of Odissi is the product of a 20th century revival. Dedicated scholars and dance enthusiasts carefully researched manuscripts and studied the sculpture, painting and poetry of the region. They also met and observed the performances of the few existing performers, in order to revive and restructure Odissi as a unique classical dance style adapted to the requirements of formal stage presentation. Over the years Odissi has become one of the most popular classical dance styles.

Like other Indian classical dance forms, Odissi has two major facets: Nritta or non-representational dance, in which ornamental patterns are created using body movements in space and time; and Abhinaya, or stylized mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to interpret a story or theme.

The divine love tales of Radha and the cowherd God Krishna are favourite themes for interpretation, and a typical recital of Odissi will contain at least one or two ashtapadis (poem of eight couplets) from Jayadeva's Gita Govindam, which describes in exquisite Sanskrit poetry the complex relationship between Radha and her Lord Krishna.

The technique of Odissi includes repeated use of the tribhangi, or thrice deflected posture, in which the body is bent in three places, approximating the shape of a helix. This posture and the characteristic shifting of the torso from side to side, make Odissi a difficult style to execute. When mastered, it is the epitome of fluid grace and has a distinctively lyrical quality that is very appealing.

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"Sattras are the Vaishnava monasteries in Assam. The saint poet Shankar Deva of the 15th century AD started this institution to bring harmony to the region of Assam through religion, creating forms of dance-dramas, music, painting and collective prayer. The dance forms which have come to stay are called Sattriya dances, sharing all the characteristics of a classical dance form.

As a living tradition these dances are performed in the namghar, the prayer hall of the sattra by the celibate monks. Dressed in white costumes and turbans, head gears, they include kho lplaying, performing dance, creating soundscapes, floor patterns and choreographic designs. The numbers like "Sutradhari," "Chali," "Jhumura" partake of nritta, pure dance, nritya, expressional dance and dance-drama elements. The music is provided by khol-drum, patital, boratal-cymbals along with songs. The repertoire of Sattriya is vast. Now young female dancers also study these dances and they have come out of the sattra. They are presented on the metropolitan stages, with typical music of Assam, costumes and literary compositions viz borgeet. Both solo and group numbers enrich its presentation.

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"Indian folk and tribal dances range from simple, joyous celebrations of the seasons, of the harvest, or the birth of a child to ritualistic dances to propitiate demons and invoke spirits. There are dances involving balancing tricks with pitchers full of water, or jugglery with knives. Quite a few highlight activities like fishing, ploughing and threshing. In certain cases, the dances are extremely simple with a minimum of steps or movement. Most, however, burst with verve and vitality. The costumes are invariably flamboyant with extensive use of jewellery by both sexes. Some of these dances are performed by men and women exclusively but most have them dancing together. Nearly all involve singing by the dancers. Many folk instruments provide musical accompaniment to these dances. The drum, of which numerous varieties exist in India, is the most common instrument.

There are literally hundreds of Indian folk and tribal dances as each ethnolinguistic group – and there are several in every region of India – has its own stock of dances. The dances by masked lamas, in Ladakh, Sikkim and Darjeeling are slow in tempo and simulate combat between good and evil spirits. From the picturesque valley of Kashmir hails Rauf, a seasonal dance in which dancers link their arms and glide forward and backward. The Kud dance of Jammu exhibits swaying, sinuous movements. Similar lateral glides and flowing movements characterize the folk dances of the western Himalayan regions. Noteworthy is the Mahasu of the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh.

A wide range of leaps and jumps, and dancing while balancing other dancers on one’s shoulders are part of the vigorous Bhangra of Punjab. Mock actions of harvesting an abundant crop are common to Bhangra, and the Dhamal of Haryana, which is notable for the sounds of pounding feet and beating daffs. Other folk dances from Haryana are Phag, Guga, Loor and Khoria. The last, performed by women at weddings, is marked by happy cajoling and joyful teasing. It resembles the Ghoomar dance of Rajastan in its steps. Gair, Terahtali, Chari, Walar, Jhamar, Ghoomra, Gavri – the list of Rajastani folk dances is endless. Various folk instruments and articles like pots topped with lighted lamps, sticks, shards of glass and swords are used in these dances.

The chief feature of folk dances from neighbouring Gujarat is the use of sticks. Each performer of Garba, Garbi, Garbo and Dandiya Raas holds two sticks which are struck alternately to the right and left while the group progresses diagonally, clockwise or anti-clockwise with dancers looping around one another in complicated formations at a fast tempo. The Lavni dance emphasizes erotic, acrobatic movements and gestures, and belongs to Maharashtra.

Central India has several pockets peopled by tribes like Bhils and Gonds. Their major representative dances can be seen on the occasion of the Bhagoria Dance Festival. Dances from Bihar can be divided into tribal (Munda, Santhal, Oraon, Kharia, Ho) and non-tribal (Bhojpuri, Mahji, Maithili). These generally centre around agricultural or hunting occupations, are unsophisticated and express feline grace. Oriya folk perform Danda-nata (a repertory of ritual dances), Chaitighoda (using a dummy horse), Dalkhai, Medha (mask dance), Paika Nritya (battle dance) and Karma dances, some on special occasions and others throughout the year.

Exotic head dresses of feathers and animal relics, ornaments of beads and cowrie shells are worn by tribal dancers of north-east India. About 60 tribes inhabit this region and nearly all lay claim to a dozen different dances. There are the exciting dances of the Nagas and the Bihu dances of Assam which celebrate spring and harvesting. On the same occasion the Kabuis of Manipur perform a thanks giving dance with gay, rapid movements. In Meghalaya, the Garos dance Wangala, the Jaintias Laho and the Khasis Shed Nongkrem. Bamboo which grows in abundance in the north-east is used to advantage by Mizos in the Chiraw and Nagas in the Kuki dance, the locally-woven colourful dresses, eye-catching headgear, gleaming spears and ornaments distinguish the dancers of one tribe from another.

The south is home to more than one folk dance. Karnataka is famous for its dummy horse dance, and the Pattida Kunita, performed by men carrying gaily-ribboned poles topped by silver/brass umbrellas. A unique dance from Tamil Nadu is Koklikatai in which dancers move about on stilts tied with bells.

Folk, tribal or classical, each Indian dance form is the product of centuries of development. And the dancer’s skill, the fruit of rigorous abhasya (practice)."

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