Distinct styles of dance have evolved in the different regions of India, each with their own specific nuances. However, all these dance forms are governed by the basic rules and guidelines laid down in the Natya Shastra, the principal rule being that true transfer of knowledge can only come through a guru. The guru passes on the knowledge of the different traditions – sampradayas – onto the disciple. This ‘guru-shisya parampara’ forms the core of Indian classical art form.

Presently, as per Sangeet Natak Akademi, there exists eight classical dance forms in India, which have been described as follows:


Oldest among all classical dance forms, Bharatnatyam derives its name from Bharata Muni and ‘natyam’ which means dance in Tamil. However, other scholars have ascribed the name ‘Bharata’ to ‘Bhava’, ‘Raga’ and ‘Taal.

The origins of this dance form can be traced back to ‘Sadir – the solo dance performance of the temple dancers or ‘devadasis’ in Tamil Nadu, hence it was also referred to as Dashiattam’.


With the decline of the Devadasi system, the art too became nearly extinct. However, the efforts of E. Krishna Iyer, a prominent freedom fighter, revived this dance form. Previously, this dance form was performed by solo female dancers; it has since become increasingly popular among male and group artists as well. Rukmini Devi Arundale, another famous proponent of Bharatnatyam, is remembered for giving global recognition to the dance.

Some of the important features of Bharatnatyam are: 

In the early nineteenth century, four dance teachers of Thanjavur defined the elements of a Bharatnatyam recital. They are: 

 Alarippu – It is an invocatory piece of performance which includes basic dance postures and is accompanied with rhythmic syllables. It is meant to seek the blessings of God. 

Jatiswaram – It is the Nritta component and is devoid of expressions, it includes the different poses and movements.

Shabdam – It is the dramatic element with expressed words, which includes the abhinaya in the song. It is generally in praise of the glory of God.

Varnam – It is the Nritya component. It is a combination of dance and emotions, and is the most important part of the whole performance. It is synchronised with tala and raag, to express the story.

Padam – It refers to a mastery over the abhinaya (expression) of the spiritual message, by the artist. Music becomes light, dance becomes emotional.

Jawali – These are short love-lyrics performed at a faster tempo.

Thillana – It is the concluding stage of the performance, and comprises pure dance (Nritta) with exuberant movement and intricate rhythmic variations.

The four Thanjavur teachers, known as the ‘Tanjor quartet, are Chiniah, Ponniah, Vadivelu and Shivanandam. Under them, Bharatnatyam also came to be known as Tanjore natyam.

Bharatnatyam is often referred to as the ‘fire dance’, as it is the manifestation of fire in the human body. Most of the movements in Bharatnatyam resemble to that of a dancing

In this dance form, equal emphasis is given on both the Tandava and Lasya aspects of dance, with major emphasis on ‘mudras’.

One of the principal mudras is ‘Kataka Mukha Hasta’ in which the three fingers are joined to symbolise ‘Om’.

In a Bharatnatyam recital, the knees are mostly hent and the weight is equally distributed across both the feet.

It is also characterised by the ‘Ekcharya lasyam’ style in which one dancer plays

many different roles. Famous proponents: Yamini Krishnamurthy, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Padma Subramaniam, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika Sarabhai, etc.


Originally performed by group of actors going from village to village, known as Kusselavas, Kuchipudi derives its name from the Andhra village of Kusselavapuri or Kuchelapuram. In 17th century, Siddhendra Yogi formalized and systematized the tradition. He authored ‘Bhama Kalapam’ and many other plays.


With the advent of Vaishnavism, the dance form became a monopoly of the male Brahmins and began to be performed at temples. Stories of Bhagavat purana became a central theme of the recitals, and the dancers came to be known as Bhagavathalus. The dance form gained prominence under the patronage of the Vijayanagar and Golconda rulers.

However, it remained confined to villages and remained obscure till the advent of twentieth century, when Balasaraswati and Ragini Devi revived this dance form. Lakshminarayan Shastry, in early 20th century, brought in new practices such as solo recitals and female participation.

Some of the features of Kuchipudi dance are:

  1. It involves difficult foot movements, and is generally a team performance.
  2. Most of the Kuchipudi recitals are based on stories of Bhagwata purana but have a secular theme. There is a predominance of Shringaara ras.
  3. Each principal character introduces itself on the stage with a “daaru”, which is a small composition of dance and song, specifically choreographed for the revelation of each character.
  4. The dance involves all three components of classical dances: Nritta, Nritya and Natya. It is similar to Bharatnatyam but has its own features.
  5. The performance has :
  • Sollakath or Patakshara : the Nritta part, where movement of the body is made.
  • Kavutvams : The Nritya part which involves extensive acrobatics. It may also be performed as Nritta(pure dance)
  1. The Kuchipudi dance style is a manifestation of the earthly elements in the human body.
  2. In a Kuchipudi recital, the dancer may combine the role of a singer into himself/ herself as well. Hence, it becomes a drance-drama performance.
  3. Both Lasya and Tandava elements are important in the Kuchipudi dance form.
  4. Apart from group performances, there are some popular solo elements in Kuchipudi as well. Some of them are:
  5. Manduk shabdam – Tells the story of a frog.
  6. Tarangam – The dancer performs with his/her feet on the edges of a brass plate and balancing a pot of water on the head or a set of diyas.
  7. Jala Chitra Nrityam – In this item, the dancer draws pictures on the floor with his or her toes while dancing. 

A Kuchipudi recital is generally accompanied with Carnatic music; Violin and Mridgangam being the principal instruments. The recital is in Telugu language.

Famous proponents: Radha Reddy and Raja Reddy, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Indrani Rehman etc.


In the temples of Kerala, two forms of dance-drama, Ramanattam and Krishnattam, evolved under the patronage of feudal lords, narrating episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. These folk drama traditions latter became the source of Kathakali, which derived its name from the words ‘Katha’ meaning story and ‘Kali’ meaning drama. It is closely related to Koodiyattam (Sanskrit drama tradition) and other ancient martial-arts performance also. It is a wonderful combination of music, dance and drama.


However, with the breakdown of the feudal set up, Kathakali strated to decline as an art form. It was revived in the 1930s by the famous Malayali poet V. N. Menon under the patronage of Mukunda Raja.

Some of the features of Kathakali dance are:

  1. Kathakali is essentially an all-male troupe performance.
  2. There is minimal use of props in the Kathakali recital. However,very elaborate facial make up along with a head gear is used for different characters. Different colours have their own significance:
  • Green indicates nobility, divinity and virtue.
  • Red patches beside the nose indicate royalty.
  • Black colour is used to indicate evil and wickedness.
  • Yellow colour is for saints and women.
  • Completely Red painted face indicates evil
  • White beard indicates beings with higher consciousness and divinity.
  1. It involves both dance and drama and the two cannot be clearly separated.
  2. Most Kathakali recitals are a grand representation of the eternal conflict between good and evil. It draws its themes from the stories narrated in the epics and the puranas. It is also called as the ballad of the east’.
  3. The language used for Kathakali songs is Manipravalam, i.e., a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit.
  4. Music is important to rightfully convey the entire drama to the viewers. Different compositions of music are used during performance to give depth to the drama.
  5. Gestures are perhaps the crown jewel of the entire dance-drama. Kathakali is remarkable in the representation of the rasas through movements of eye and eye brows, through which the story is conveyed. Nine important facial expressions called ‘Navarasas’ are taught to convey the different emotions. Extensive hand gestures are also used. Therefore, this dance form calls for strenuous training.
  6. Kathakali is generally performed in open air theatres covered with coarse mats or temple premises with lush green trees of Kerala providing a backdrop. A brass lamp is used for lighting.
  7. The arrival of dawn, accompanied with a continuous sound of drums, chhenda and maddala marks the beginning and end of a Kathakali recital.
  8. Kathakali symbolises the element of sky or ether.

Famous proponents: Guru Kunchu Kurup, Gopi Nath, Kottakal Sivaraman, Rita Ganguly etc.


Mohiniattam or the Dance of an Enchantress (“Mohini’ meaning beautiful woman and ‘attam’ means dance), is essentially a solo dance performance by women that was further developed by Vadivelu in 19th century and gained prominence under the rulers of  Travancore in the present state of Kerala. The patronage of Swathi Thirunal the Travancore ruler in 19th century, is notable. After it had fallen to obscurity, the famous Malayali poet V. N. Menon revied it along with Kalyani Amma.


Some of the features of Mohiniattam are: 

  •  Mohiniattam combines the grace and elegance of Bharatnatyam with the vigour of Kathakali. There is a marked absence of thumping of footsteps and the footwork is gentle. 
  • Mohiniattam generally narrates the story of the feminine dance of Vishnu.
  • It has its own Nritta and Nritya aspects like that of other classical dances.
  • The Lasva aspect (beauty, grace) of dance is dominant in a Mohiniattam recital. Hence, it is mainly performed by female dancers. 
  • The dance is accompanied by music and songs. 
  • Costume is of special importance in Mohiniattam, with white and off-white being the principal colours and presence of gold coloured brocade designs. There is on elaborate facial make-up. The dancer wears a leather strap with bells (Ghungroo) on her ankles.
  • The element of air is symbolised through a Mohiniattam performance.
  •  ‘Atavakul or Atavus’ is the collection of fourty basic dance movements.
  • Musical instruments used are: cymbals, veena, drums, flute, etc. 

Famous proponents: Sunanda Nair, Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, Madhuri Amma. Jayaprabha Menon etc.


The caves of Udayagiri-Khandagiri provide some of the earliest examples of Odissi dance. The dance form derives its name from the ‘Odra nritya’ mentioned in Natya Shastra. It was primarily practised by the ‘maharis’ and patronised by the Jain king Kheravela.


With the advent of Vaishnavism in the region, the Mahari system became defunct. Instead, young boys were recruited and dressed as females to continue the art form. They came to be known as ‘Gotipuas’. Another variant of this art, ‘Nartala’ continued to be practised at the royal courts.

In the mid-twentieth century, Odissi gained international acclaim due to the efforts of Charles Fabri and Indrani Rehman. Some of the features of Odissi are: 

  • It is similar to Bharatnatyam in the use of Mudras and postures to express emotions.
  • The tribhanga posture, i.e. the three-bended form of the body is innate to Odissi dance form. Also the ‘Chowk’ posture with hands spread out depicts masculinity. 
  • During the dance, the lower body remains largely static and there is movement of the torso. Hand gestures play an important role to convey expressions during Nritya part. 
  • Odissi dance form is unique in its representation of gracefulness, sensuality and beauty. The dancers create intricate geometrical shapes and patterns with her body. Hence, it is known as ‘mobile sculpture’. 

The elements of Odissi dance form include: 

  1. Mangalacharan or the beginning where a flower is offered to mother earth.
  2. Batu nritya comprising of the dance. It has the Tribhanga and the Chowk postures. 
  3. Pallavi which includes the facial expressions and the representation of the song. 
  4. Tharijham consisting of pure dance before the  conclusion.
  5. The concluding item is of two types. Moksha includes joyous movements signifying liberation. Trikhanda majura is another way of concluding, in which the performer takes leave from the gods, the audience and the stage.
  • Odissi dance is accompanied by Hindustani classical music and instruments generally used are Manjira (Cymbals), Pakhawaj (Drums), Sitar, Flute, etc.
  • The dance form symbolises the element of water.
  • The lyrics of Gita Govinda,written by Jayadeva, is used along with compositions of some local poets.
  • The woman dancer wears an elaborate hair-style, silver jewellery, long necklace, etc.

Famous proponents: Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Kelu Charan Mohapatra, Sonal Mansingh, Sharon Lowen (USA), Myrla Barvie (Argentina).


Manipuri dance form finds its mythological origin to the celestial dance of Shiva and Parvati in the valleys of Manipur along with the local ‘Gandharvas’. The dance form traces its origin to the festival of Lai Haraoba where many dances were performed. However, the dance gained prominence with the advent of Vaishnavism in 15th century. Then, Krishna became the central theme of this dance form. It is performed generally by females.


In the modern times, Raja Bhag Chandra of Manipur in 18th century tried to revive Manipuri dance. Rabindranth Tagore brought back the dance form into limelight when he introduced it in Shantiniketan.

Some of the features of Manipuri dance are as follows: 

  • Manipuri dance is unique in its emphasis on devotion and not sensuality.
  • The faces are covered with a thin veil and facial expression is of lesser importance, Hand gestures and gentle movement of feet are important.
  • While the dance incorporates both Tandava and Lasya, emphasis is laid on the latter.
  • The females wear unique long skirts. The focus is mainly on slow and gracious movements of hand and knee positions.
  • Naga Bandha mudra, in which the body is connected through curves in the shape of ‘8’ is an important posture in Manipuri dance form.
  • Ras Leela (Radha Krishna love story) is a recurring theme of the Manipuri dance recital.
  • The drum – pung – is an intricate element of the recital. Flute, Khartals (wood clapper), dhols ,etc also accompany music. Compositions of Jayadeva and Chandidas are used extensively.
  • Thang-Ta and Sankirtana are also influenced by Manipuri dance.

Famous proponents: Jhaveri sisters- Nayana, Suverna, Ranjana and Darshana, Guru Bipin Singha etc.


Tracing its origins from the Ras Leela of Brajbhoomi, Kathak is the traditional dance form of Uttar Pradesh. Kathak derived its name from the ‘Kathika’ or the story-tellers who recited verses from the epics, with gestures and music.


During the Mughal era, the dance form degenerated into lascivious style and branched off into court dance. It was also influenced by Persian costumes and styles of dancing. The classical style of Kathak was revived by Lady Leela Sokhey in the twentieth century. Some of the features of Kathak are:

An important feature of Kathak is the development of different gharanas as it is based on Hindustani style of music:

  • Lucknow: Reached its peak under the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Khan. It puts more importance on expression and grace.
  • Jaipur: Initiated by Bhanuji, it emphasised fluency, speed and long rhythmic patterns.
  • Raigarh: It developed under the patronage of Raja Chakradhar Singh. It is unique in its emphasis on percussion music.
  • Banaras: It developed under Janakiprasad. It sees a greater use of floor and lays special emphasis on symmetry.

Kathak dance form is characterised by the use of intricate footworks and pirouettes.

The elements of a Kathak recital are:

  • Ananda or the introductory item through which the dancer enters the stage.
  • Thaat comprising soft and varied movements.
  • Todas and Tukdas are small pieces of fast rhythm. 
  • Jugalbandi is the main attraction of kathak recital which shows a competitive play between the dancer and the table player.
  • Padhant is a special feature in which the dancer recites complicated bols and demonstrates them.
  • Tarana is similar to thillana, which comprises of pure rhythmic movements before the end. 
  • Kramalaya is the concluding piece comprising of intricate and fast footwork.
  • Gat bhaav is dance without any music or chanting. This is used to outline different mythological episodes.

Kathak is generally accompanied with dhrupad music. Taranas, thumris and ghazals were also introduced during the Mughal period.

 Famous proponents: Birju Maharaj, Lacchu Maharaj, Sitara Devi, Damayanti Joshi etc.


Sattriya dance in modern-form was introduced by the Vaishnava saint Shankaradeva in the 15th century A.D in Assam. The art form derives its name from the Vaishnava  monasteries known as ‘Sattras’, where it was primarily practised. It finds mention in the ancient text Natya Shastra’ of sage Bharat Muni. It is inspired from Bhakti Movement.


Some of the features of Sattriya dance include:

  • The dance form was an amalgamation of various dance forms prevalent in Assam, mainly Ojapali and Devdasi.
  • The focus of the Sattriya recitals is own the devotional aspect of dance and narrates mythological stories of Vishnu.
  • Sattriya dance also includes Nritta, Nritya and Natya.
  • The dance is generally performed in group by male monks known as ‘Bhokots’ as part of their daily rituals or even on festivals.
  • Khol (drum), Cymbals (Manjira) and flute form the major accompanying instruments of this dance form. The songs are composition of Shankaradeva known as ‘Borgeets’.
  • There is great emphasis on rhythmic syllables and dance postures along with footwork. It combines both Lasya and Tandava elements.
  • The Sattriya dance tradition has strictly laid down rules in respect of hand gestures and footwork, and it plays a very important role.
  • Costumes worn by male dancers are Dhoti, and ‘Paguri’ (turban). While, females wear traditional Assamese jewellery, ‘Ghuri’ and ‘Chador’ made in Pat silk. Waist cloth is worn by both men and women…
  • In the modern times, Sattriya dance has evolved into two separate streams – the Gayan-Bhayanar Nach and the Kharmanar Nach.
  • Ankia Naat: a type of Sattriya, it involves play or musical-drama. It was originally written in Assamese-Maithili mix language called Brajavali. It is also called ‘Bhaona’, and involves stories of Lord Krishna.
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