Indian Dance

Dance can be simply defined as the moving of an individual rhythmically to music, typically following a set sequence of steps. The Rig Veda mentions dance (nrti) and danseuse (nrtu) and compares the brilliant dawn (usas) to a brightly attrived danseuse. In the Brahmanas, Jaiminiya and Kausitaki dance and music are mentioned together. The Epics are full of references to dances on earth and heaven. Natya Shastra composed by Bharat Muni in 1st century AD is considered by many as the Fifth Veda. This treatise talks about Dance in its complete detail.

In India, the art of dancing may be traced back to the Harappan culture. The discovery of the bronze statue of a dancing girl testifies to the fact that some women in Harappa performed dances.


Bronze statue of a dancing girl in the Tribhanga pose

Figure: Bronze statue of a dancing girl in the Tribhanga pose


In traditional Indian culture the function of dance was to give symbolic expression to religious ideas. The figure of Lord Shiva as Nataraja represents the creation and destruction of the cosmic cycle. The popular image of Shiva in the form of Nataraja clearly shows the popularity of dance form on the Indian people.

Shiva as Nataraja performing the cosmic dance of creation and destruction


Gradually dances came to be divided as folk and classical. The classical form of dance was performed in temples as well as in royal courts. The dance in temples had a religious objective whereas in courts it was used purely for entertainment

Folk dances evolved from the lives of common people and were performed in unison. In Assam people celebrate most of the harvesting season through Bihu. Similarly Garba of Gujarat, Bhangra and Gidda of Punjab, bamboo dance of Mizoram, Koli, the fisherman’s dance of Maharashtra, Dhumal of Kashmir, and Chhau of Bengal are unique examples of performing arts that gave expression to the joys and sorrows of the masses.

As far as the analytical study of this art form is concerned, the Natyashastra of Bharata is a primary source of information and it mentions the following salient aspects related to dance:

  • According to this theory, dance is divided into two types: Tandava and Lasya
  • Tandava is a dance performed with higher power and strength
  • Lasya is a much more gentler dance than Tandava
  • The theory classifies human emotions into nine types (Navarasa)- Bhava (emotions) – Shringara (love); Veer (vigour); Rudra (anger); Bhay (fear); Ghrana (disgust); Hasya (comic); Karun (pathetic); Vishmaya (wondrous); And Shaant (peace).
  • According to this book, dance is considered as having three aspectsNatya, Nritya and 
    • Natya highlights the dramatic element and most dance forms do not give emphasis to this aspect today with the exception of dance-drama forms like Kathakali.
    • Nritya is essentially expressional, performed specifically to convey the meaning of a theme or idea.
    • Nritta on the other hand, is pure dance where body movements do not express any mood (Bhava), nor do they convey any meaning.
  • The Sangeet Natak Academy in India recognizes nine classical dance forms – Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri, Chhau and Mohiniyattam