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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 Sangeet Natak Akademi recognizes eight Classical dances –

  1. Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu
  2. Kathak, from Northern and Western India
  3. Kathakali, from Kerala
  4. Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh
  5. Odissi, from Odisha
  6. Sattriya, from Assam
  7. Manipuri, from Manipur
  8. Mohiniyattam, from Kerala

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 expressions.

The Natya Shastra is the foundational treatise for classical dances of India and this text is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni. Its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures. The text Natya Shastra describes religious arts as a form as margi, or a “spiritual traditional path” that liberates the soul, while the folk entertainment is called desi or a “regional popular practice”.

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

The Nritta performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The 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 Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions. In 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 as it also aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.

The Natyam is 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 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 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), and Sattvika (artist’s mental disposition and emotional connection with the story and audience, wherein the artist’s inner and outer state resonates). Abhinaya draws out the bhava (mood, psychological states).

Bharatnatyam is one of the oldest dance forms and its roots have been traced back to almost 2000 years. It can be compared with Odissi in terms of form and technique.

Sculptural evidence shows that the ardhamandali is very close to the chauka position of Odissi involving the out-turned knees and a bent position wherein the inter-foot cubit space in Bharatnatyam is lesser than that of Odissi.

Both these forms derive their complicated movements and charis and from the Karanas from the Natyashastra.

Textual evidence also shows many manuscripts describing the tandava aspect of Shiva and the manner in which it is should be executed. Again, it is evident that there is an interchange between Orissa and South India because many of the descriptions of the Tandavas (pertaining to Odissi) are reminiscent of the descriptions found in the South Indian agamas (pertaining to bharatnatyam).

With regard to creative literatureGeet Govind in Sanskrit, which is used as a popular rendition in Odissi is performed extensively in Bhartanatyam as well. Poetry of Kavi Surya Baldev Rath was very like the poet musicians of South India of the 18th and 19th Century. His champu songs with a touch of wit and humour transformed the love between Radha and Krishna can be compared to the padams and javalis of South India where more than one meaning is inherent.

In terms of performance and technique, the two dance forms occasionally share the dvibhanga. Although the tribhanga is seen in the South Indian temple on a Nataraj figure, the Natavara bhangi in Odissi is the familiar tribhanga of the Indian sculptural tradition, which emerges from the Kati Sutra.

Foot contacts of Odissi are similar to those of Bharatnatyam, employing both the flat and the toe-heel contacts. The toe and heel touches, ie, kunchita and anchita foot positions of the Natya Shastra are used repeatedly. The sama padam or the first equi – balanced position is the same. The chauka is also very similar to the mandala sthana of the Natya Shastra terminology. The placement of the feet is also similar where dancers in both styles place the entire sole of the foot in contact with the ground, unlike kathakali, where the weight is on the sides of the foot.

Both the styles use a variety of Hastas or hand gestures both in its technique (pure dance) and also in abhinaya. The gestures might have different names but the mudras are the same, ie, patakam, ardhapataka, mayura, arallam etc.

The smallest unit of movement is called a khandi in Odissi. Beginning with this, combinations are made within the metric cycle and complicated arasas can be made just like the teermanams in Bharatnatyam. The longer sections of belis and palis are the finale sequences used as triplets just like in Bharatnatyam. In both styles, the dancer masters the nritta technique, and manipulates the metric cycle with static positions, sculpturesque poses using the neck, limbs, eyes and covering space in different directions along straight lines, diagonals, figures of eight, weight shift and play with levels.

The repertoire of both can be classified into Tandava and Lasya, and nritta and abhinaya. In both, the dancers dance to the beat of the drums and “bols” or “sollukattu”. The tillana is synonymous with the tarajan in Odissi. The Gitabhinaya or sa- abhinaya nritta is very similar to the abhinaya of padams in Bhartanatyam. The shtapadis of Geet Govind are also extensively performed in both styles. Both the styles have incorporated the poems of hindi poets such as Surdas, tulsidas etc. The dhoti costume of Bharatnatyam is very similar to that of the Odissi costume, with a blouse, davani, pajama, hip piece and a fan attacjed between the legs and knees which accentuate the ardhamandali or the chauka position.

Hence, despite being distinct styles of their own, Bharatnatyam and Odissi have a lot in common primarily due to the common genesis.

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