Indian classical dances are essentially gesture dance. The Natya Shastra by Rishi Bharata has prescribed the movements and usage of all major and minor limbs depicting various meanings and denoting the when and how to use these gestures to tell a story. In many cultures, including ours, the human body became an instrument of gesture and symbolism, speaking for the spirit in worship of a god. This can apply to the classical temple dance since it originates with the purpose of pleasing a god, whether in pure worship or for other benefits. The number of hand gestures and mudras used in Indian Classical dance is way more extensive than western dances. The use of costume, jewellery, ghungroos and make up used in classical dances is also more specific and complicated than their use in comparison with western dance. While, in contrast, the ancient Greeks idealized man and made the human body a crucible of energy. Thus, the dance in the West became an expression of action, whereas Indian Classical dance focuses mainly on contemplation, story-telling, praising the gods, exploiting and depicting all kinds of emotions through mythology and true stories of many poets and important people in our history and culture.
Western dance has become synonymous with entertainment, either in the social or theatrical arena and is designed to show the causes of man’s inner conflicts in relation to the world, but mainly as they reflect his being, therefore these dances are descriptive because they are dramatic. Indian classical dances are descriptive because they are reflective therefore they deal rationally with earthly conflicts and offer a stylized depiction of eternal and universal actions, specifically of good versus evil. Classical dance has never unbound its ties with sacred or religious rites and many include ceremonious rituals within or surrounding theatrical performances. For example, lighting the lamp before a show, placing the deity on the stage, offering flowers, commencing the recital with a prayer and sometimes ending it with a shloka too are many such examples. Whereas dance in the West, underwent a forced separation of drama and dance during the Middle Ages when the church split body from soul. It does not revere. It merely comes as an act of pure entertainment for the audience. It does not aim towards spiritual goals are spiritual attainment or oneness with god.
The dances of Western man have been designed and shaped by individuals and so they include a particular stamp of personality. In a steady stream of innovations they have changed and have become representative of each new age, and often of a particular individual. Martha Graham, for example has created her own style of dancing now known only by her name. The Indian classical dances, on the other hand, have been shaped collectively and sequentially by dance masters who avoided the stamp of their personality upon their art, and also avoided making current social statements. But rather they endeavoured to preserve and perfect the conventions of an existing style. However, by perfecting their art, by preventing it from deteriorating or becoming sterile, they may well have contributed unrecognizable, subtle variations into the art. They have delighted in mastering their art which alone has been their professional reward, free from personal aggrandizement.
Differences in approach and technique are witnessed as predictable products of the two different worlds of East and West. While the West rewards individuals for their personal innovations and creativity, the East maintains traditional form with an innate controlling force. The love-sex aspect in Eastern dance for example, is always associated with a higher, sacred love, with God. Human love, abstracted into stylized gesture and facial expression, symbolizes love for the divine. While in dance of the West this female-male relationship is shown fairly openly in a purely human and earthly sense.
Western ballet history has developed with the idea of conquering space, at grand use of floor design, where dancers interact and the ground is not only a point of departure but also an active participant, most noticeably with the modern dancer’s dominant use of the floor as a new dimension. In contrast to the Western active and aggressive approach, the Indian classical dancer is not space-conscious; she does not conquer the ground but integrates it into his dance pattern. The floor and body never become one in a classical dance, the point of contact is only emphasized by the rhythmic footwork created with the sound of the drum. This concept seems contradictory or almost ironic to the Western observer of a dance as Indian classical dance is closely linked with spiritual purpose and elevation. With the tremendous emphasis on gesture and facial expression, the slightest change in movement language indicates a whole new world of emotions. To duplicate such a range of expression, the dancer in the West would require an extended array of movements.
Technically speaking, the Indian classical dance generally appoints the role of interpretation to the upper part of the body. A central line, like a rod, runs through it, giving the trunk a rigid appearance and providing a base for character and style.
Furthermore, western dance always involves footwear. It has more flexible movements, leaps and lifts and a lot of contact choreography. The dance is less gravitational and the landings are soft footed. Indian classical involves no wearing of footwear, is more gravitational and rooted to the ground, involves far less flexibility, and the landings and foot movements are very strong and hard , also to emphasize the sound with the ankle bells or ghungroos.
Footwork is not much seen in western ballet. Emphasis is more on the pirouettes and jumps and a lot of changing axis of the body. In Indian classical dances, complicated footwork set to a metric prescribed cycle of beats danced to verbal syllables and creating extremely complicated cross patterns between these metric cycles is very predominant. Many of these sequences end in difficult triplets or execution of footwork three times in a row. The axis of the body also rarely changes in the Indian Classical dances.
Indian classical dances have always found audiences in the west but lately owing to the ever expanding diaspora it is becoming very popular. At the same time, innovations in the field of modern dance which are based on ethnic inspiration are genuine assets to the world of creative dance, thereby enriching Western arts with Classical influence, rather than forcing Westernization on the noble traditions of the Classical dances.