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Indian Classical dance or ShastriyaNritya 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 NatyaShastra. These dances are traditionally regional, all of them include music or recitation in local language or Sanskrit and they represent a unity of core ideas in a diversity of styles, costumes and expressions.

There are mainly eight Classical Dances in India:

1. Kathak:
Traditionally emerging from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the term kathak has three main attributes- “katha” or story, “abhinaya” or mime and “upadesh” or sermon.

In ancient times, it was attached to Vaishnava temples and flourished in a religious environment.Having been deeply influenced by the Islamic rule around the 13th Century, it became a form of entertainment in the courts of Rajas and Nawabs. During the bhakti movement and the upsurge of Vaishnavism, it developed into mimetic dance drama revolving around Radha – Krishna and group dances like Rasleela. The gestures, whirling movements, pauses and rhythmic syllables, ie, “kavitt” were folk elements developed into an elaborate classical form in Kathak.

The dance tradition that flourished in the Muslim Courts under the patronage of NawabWajid Ali Shah of Awadh, was called the LucknowGharana, whereas the Kathak dance prevalent in the Hindu Courts was called the Jaipur Gharana.
Lucknow gharana is known for its delicacy and soft graceful angbhav. The contribution of gat and palta alongwith expressional interpretation of thumri, dadraand ghazals is attributed to Wajid Ali shah. BindadinMaharaj, AchhanMaharaj, ShambhuMaharaj, LachhuMaharaj and Pt. BirjuMaharaj are proponents of the Lucknowgharana.

The Jaipur Gharana is distinguished by its sparkling rhythm, virility and vibrance. Pt. Jailal, Devi Prasad, Durga Lal, Narayan Prasad, Hanuman Prasad bring about the flavour of vigour and vitality particular to this style of Kathak.

Kathak is well known for its intense footwork and pirouette styles set to bols and parans. Dancers wear ghagra,choli and chunnis. The movements are lyrical with stylized stances, rhythmic footwork with ankle bells, spiraling hands and wrist movements. They are performed to the beats of the tabla and pakhawaj.
The leading performers of Kathak in the recent years have been Pt. BirjuMaharaj, Shovana Narayan, Uma Sharma, ShaswatiSen, KumudiniLakhia et al.

2. Odissi:
Tracing its roots from the Natyashastra, Odissi was first referred to as Odra- Magadhi, and later In the AbhinayaChandrika, by MaheswarMahapatra, as Odra – Nritya. Sculptural evidence shows this dance was first performed by nartakis in royal courts. Later, it came to the temples and was performed by the devadasis(called maharis). The gotipua or young boys later performed it as a curtain raiser for a Jatra performance. Regionally originating from Orissa, it was considered a dignified form of art pursued by many a prince and princesses.

The most famous and last Guru of the maharis, Mohan Mahapatra of Puri, was responsible for the revival of Odissi in the 30’s and 40’s, which had suffered a great political upheaval in the 17th Century. KalicharanPattanayaka, SanjuktaPanigrahi, PriyambadaMahanti, DhirendranathPattanayaka, IndraniRehman, KelucharanMahapatra, MayadharRaut played an important role in restoring the inherent classicism of Odissi.

Many of them joined the group called Jayantika for the expansion of the Odissi repertoire, after Rukmini Devi called it a cheap imitation of Bharatnatyam. Without the Jayantika initiative, Odissi would not have been what it is today.

Odissi follows a distinctive raga system but also remained the only one to have followed the ancient tradition of Prabandh – gayana. It also incorporates the Chanda style of singing. Its repertoire reveals the various facets of the rich Oriyan culture. It is one of the classical dance forms which incorporate three bends simultaneously in the body, commonly known as the Tribhanga. Dancers wear a dhoti or saree costume along with silver jewelry where the female dancers have an elaborate head gear.

The notable exponents of Odissi today are MadhaviMudgal, BijayiniSatpathy, MadhumitaRaut, SonalMansingh etc.

3. Manipuri:
Manipur has won recognition through the matchless grace of its dance technique known as Manipuri dancing. It is the expression of the religious fervour of the people and is deeply rooted in the purpose of sublimation. History, mythology, innumerable episodes from legends, Puranas and epics are intermingled in its performance. The earliest record of this dance form is found from inscriptions on copper plates in the year 154 AD. Oscillating between the beliefs of Vaishnavism in the 15th century by the Kings of Manipur to Ramanandi religion by King Pamaiba and then to Vaishnavism again by his grandson , King Bhagyachandra, Manipuri dance was established on a scientific basis. He was responsible for the presentation of Rasleelas and sankirtan, which were further developed during the reign of kings Gambhir Singh, Narsingh and ChandrakirtiMaharaj in the 19th century.

Manipur adopted the GaudiyaVaishnavism and followed the Radha – Krishna bhakti cult, depicting the life and legend of the divine love of Radha and Krishna. It has 7 rasleelas, five of them namely Maharas, Vasantras, Kunjaras, Nrityaras, and Divaras depict stories of the love between Radha and Krishna while Ulukhalras and Goparas depict the childhood pranks and valorous deeds of young Krishna. All forms of dance- nritta, nritya and natya are incorporated in composing the rasleelas. The pung drum, conch, flute, esraj(string) and tiny cymbals accompany this dance as the musical ensemble. The songs written in Sanskrit, Maithili, Brajubuli , Braj and Meiteiare written by great devotional poets like Jaydev, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Govindadas and others.

Manipuri has many Bhangiparengs or body flexions, three of the lasya variety and two of the Tandav variety. The dancers dance without instruments and also with playing the cymbals and the drums alongside.
The male dancers wear a turban and dhoti and female dancers wear resplendent costumes with a cylindrical skirt and chunni on the head.
The leading Manipuri exponents are RanjanaDarshanaJhaveri, KalavatiLatasana Devi, Bipin Singh, RajkumarSinghajit Singh and Charu Singh etc.

4. Sattriya:
Sattriya, recognized as a classical dance in 2000, originates from the eastern state of Assam.The modern form of sattriya is attributed to the 15th Century Sankaradeva, who systematized the dance and introduced nritta and nritya as a form of community religious art for emotional devotion to Krishna. In the 15th century, it grew as a part of the Bhakti movement, in Hindu monasteries known as sattra. Developed and practiced by monks, one distinctive part of this dance is that it is performed not before an idol but before a copy of the BhagvataPurana placed in the Eastern (sun rise) corner called Manikut of the dance hall (namghar). Dance dramas were composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva in the 16th Century. Once the domain of monks and male dancers, it is now performed by females as well. In the second half of the 20th Century, it moved from the sanctum of monasteries to the metropolitan stage.
Sattriyanritya is a genre of dance drama that tells mythical and religious stories through hand and face expressions. It is quite similar to Odissi, Kathakali, Bharatnatyamand Manipuri.

The costumes are dhoti, chadar and paguri for males and ghuri, chadar and kanchi(waist band) for females. Traditional Assamese jewellery is used in Sattriya dance. The instruments used are khol (two faced Drum), cymbals and flute. Recently, harmonium and violin have also been added.The exponents of this dance are MeenakshiMedhi, Drg. DevikaBorthakur etc.

5. Bharatnatyam:
Bharatnatyam, originally from Tamil Nadu, is regarded as paramount among the ancient arts of our subcontinent. Performed in the palaces, it was known as Sadir. Performed in the temples it was known as dasiattam, performed by the devdasis under the reign of Cholas and Pandyas. During the colonial timesdevadasis came to be attached to the pervasive ideology of prostitution anda bill was brought up to prohibit their performance. During this time, E Krishna Iyer took it upon himself to restore the dignity of this dance. Once he became the director of the Music Academy, the Journal of the Music academy, 1930, called this dance Bharatnatyam. In order to reform the devadasis they were to be given an alternate profession. Training and public performances developed proper appreciation for this art along with more respectability. Soon, the dance also broke away from its rigid caste system and many dancers from all strata of society started performing it. The Tanjore Quartet converted the repertoire of Bharatnatyam into a more systematic format. The entry of Rukmini Devi Arundale and the opening of Kalakshetra saw a new era of the emergence of Bharatnatyam. Gurus like K N Dandayudapanipillai, Guru Govindarajan, Balasaraswati, Padma Subramaniametc have given significant contributions to this art form.

It is performed to Carnatic Music, primarily, in various compositions by famous Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Malayali poets. It encompasses all the aspects of the dance as found in the NatyaShastra using all forms of abhinaya, rasas, talas and ragas.

The dancers wears silk costumes, either dhoti costumes or sarees, with temple jewellery set in red green and white stones.

The instruments accompanying the dancers are cymbals, flute, mridanga, veena and violin.
The examples of famous bharatnatyam dancers and gurus include Yamini Krishnamurthy, Leela Samson, MalavikaSarukkai, AlarmelValli, SonalMansingh, Kalanidhi Narayan, Kanaka Srinivasan, Jamuna Krishnan etc.

6. Kathakali:
Hailing from Kerala, the traditional Kathakali emerged as a dance form in the early 16th and 17th centuries and was given its present name which literally means “story play”. Kathakali plays were traditionally based on India’s epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.

On a bare stage, using only three groups of performers- actors- dancers, percussionists and vocalists, a collective Kathakali performance is executed. Traditionally, an all-male ensemble, the performers use a highly physicalized performance style embodied through years of training to play a variety of roles, including kings, heroines, demons, demonesses, gods, animals, priests and a few characters from everyday life. Each role is identifiable to a Malayali audience with each character having its own characteristics by codified make up and elaborate colorful costumes. These dancers are well known for their intricate hand gestures along with a pliable use of face and eyes to express the bhava of the character. The very elaborate make- up and head -gear of this particular dance alongwith its costumes, makes it visually unique and differentiates it from all other classical styles of Indian dance.

The instruments used are three types of drums- edakka, maddalam, cena and brass cymbals. The onstage vocalists sing the entire text, including both third person and first person dialogue in a vocal style. Performances begin at dusk and take all night to perform what would be equivalent to a thirty page text in English.

The famous Kathakali performers are SadaanamBalakrishnan, KanakRele, KalamandalamGopiPadmanabhan Nair, Ramankutty Nair, KottakalSivaraman, KalamandalamKeshavan Namboodiri etc.

7. Mohiniattam:
Mohiniattam is the feminine dance of Kerala which is lyrical in quality, gentle and enchanting in demeanour and delicate in pace. It has taken its cue from the feminine dances of Kerala- Kaikottikali and Nangiarkoothu.

During the British rule when all Indian art forms were looked down upon as “pagan” or “obscene”. The advisors to the monarchs who did not belong to the region shaped the cultural policies of Kerala, and as a result the art forms were recast in borrowed models. Mohiniattam was treated as an extension of Dasiattam cum Bharatnatyam. This is despite the fact that Kerala never had a custom of a dedicatory ceremony where mortals or dancers were made the consort of deities.

About the nomenclature of Mohiniattam itself, there prevails confusion in that Mohini signifies the enticer whose only function is to seduce men. The fact is that this art has essential references to the Mohini myth of the epic.
The general characteristic of the dance refers to the quality of torso movement, gait, curve, tilts and body punctuations. The circular and semi- circular movements holding the base at the torso is the special feature of Mohiniattam.

The dancers always wear a white costume saree with gold border, a side hair bun adorned with white flowers and wear gold jewellery.

Mohiniattam has attracted many gifted artists like KalmandalamKshemavatiSugandhi, Saraswathi Nirmala Panikkar, Satyabhama, KanakRele, KalyaniKuttiAmma,DeeptiOmcherryBhalla,BhartiShivaji etc.

8. Kuchipudi:
Kuchipudi is the Classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh. Essentially, kuchipudi was a dance- drama tradition. The dance-drama form “Yakshagana” flourished in Andhra, from which BhagavateMela dance dramas also originated. Treatises like Sharadatanaya’sBhavaprakasha, Bhoja’sSringaraprakasha, Sagaranandina’sNatakaLakshanaratnakosha and Gita Govind (12th Century AD) exercised considerable influence on the development of Kuchipudi.

In recent times, Kuchipudi has emerged as a solo dance form as well. The great exponent and Guru VedantamLakshminarayanaShastri, introduced solo numbers like jatiswaram, javalis and padams into the kuchipudi repertoire. He trained many female dancers besides a host of leading gurus like VempatiChinna Satyam, C R Acharyalu, Balasaraswati(who learnt abhinaya from him) etc. Vempati designed a series of dance units on the lines of adavus of Bharatnatyam. Where Bharatnatyam movements are geometric with straight lines, circles and triangles, kuchipudi movements are rounded with an undulating nature, have a bobbing up and down quality and have scintillating quicksilver movements.

At one time, it was theprerogative of male dancers who portrayed both male and female roles, today the female dancers have taken to it seamlessly. It has some uniformity with Bharatnatyam, but not a set order observed in Bharatnatyam from Alaripu to Tillana.

The musical ensemble has a vocalist, mridangist, flutist, cymbal player and violinist. The costume is similar to a bharatnatyam one, barring the fact that the dhoti has a “laang” and the headgear is slightly different as well. The use of temple jewellery remains the same.

The famous exponents of Kuchipudi are Raja Reddy,RadhaReddy,Kaushalya Reddy, M.V.N. Murthy, Jaya Rama Rao and VanashreeRao, Mallika Sarabhai, SwapnaSundari, Guru V. PrahladaSarma etc.

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