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Indian Classical Dance

Indian classical dance, or Shastriya Nritya, is an umbrella term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical theatre styles, whose theory and practice can be traced to the Sanskrit text Natya Shastra.

The number of recognized classical dances range from eight to more, depending on the source and scholar. The Sangeet Natak Akademi recognizes eight – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam  Scholars such as Drid Williams add Chhau, Yakshagana and Bhagavata Mela to the list The Culture Ministry of the Government of India includes Chhau in its classical list. These dances are traditionally regional, all of them include music and recitation in local language or Sanskrit, and they represent a unity of core ideas in a diversity of styles, costumes and expression. Indian classical dance is made from India and classical dance is played by various actors.

Dance forms

The Natya Shastra mentions four Pravrittis (traditions, genres) of ancient dance-drama in vogue when it was composed – Avanti (Ujjain, central), Dakshinatya (south), Panchali(north, west) and Odra-Magadhi (Odisha-Bihar-Bengal, east).

Sources differ in their list of Indian classical dance forms. Encyclopædia Britannica mentions six dances The Sangeet Natak Akademi has given recognition to nine Indian dances. The Indian government’s Ministry of Culture includes eleven dance forms  Scholars such as Drid Williams and others include Chhau, Yaksagana and Bhagavata Melato the eight classical Indian dances in the Sangeet Natak Akademi list.

The classical dance forms recognised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture are:

  • Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu
  • Kathak, from Northern and Western India
  • Kathakali, from Kerala
  • Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradeshand Telangana
  • Odissi, from Odisha
  • Sattriya, from Assam
  • Manipuri, from Manipur
  • Mohiniyattam, from Kerala
  • Chhau, from Jharkhand, West Bengaland Odisha
  • Oyilattam, from Tamil Nadu


All major classical Indian dance forms include in repertoire, three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra. These are NrittaNritya and Natya.

  • The Nrittaperformance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the danceThe viewer is presented with pure movement, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern.[  This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses (prakriti) of the audience.
  • The Nrityais slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions In a nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The actor articulates a legend or a spiritual message. This part of the repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment, it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.
  • The Natyamis a play, typically a team performance but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya.=

All classical dances of India used similar symbolism and rules of gestures in abhinaya (acting). The roots of abhinaya are found in the Natyashastra text which defines drama in verse 6.10 as that which aesthetically arouses joy in the spectator, through the medium of actor’s art of communication, that helps connect and transport the individual into a super sensual inner state of being. A performance art, asserts Natyashastra, connects the artists and the audience through abhinaya (literally, “carrying to the spectators”), that is applying body-speech-mind and scene, wherein the actors communicate to the audience, through song and music. Drama in this ancient Sanskrit text, thus is an art to engage every aspect of life, in order to glorify and gift a state of joyful consciousness.

The communication through symbols is in the form of expressive gestures (mudras or hastas) and pantomime set to music. The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras(sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story. In Hindu classical dances, the artist successfully expresses the spiritual ideas by paying attention to four aspects of a performance:

  • Angika(gestures and body language),
  • Vachika(song, recitation, music and rhythm),
  • Aharya(stage setting, costume, make up, jewelry),
  • Sattvika(artist’s mental disposition and emotional connection with the story and audience, wherein the artist’s inner and outer state resonates).
  • Abhinayadraws out the bhava (mood, psychological states).



  1. Mohan Khokar (1984). Traditions of Indian classical dance. Clarion Books. pp. 57–58.







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