The dance like, music and singing is one of the expressive forms which in the Indian culture are not considered only as artistic forms but also as refined spiritual languages. The word “dance” badly presents itself to reflect the complex Indian reality of the art of dancing, where in fact the western dichotomy between theatre and dance grows terribly thinner.

In the field of the performatory arts the Indian dance occupies a very special position. In the dance there is the combination of the movements of the body, of the hands, of the expression of the face and the eyes together with a music accompaniment exalting the theme that the dance wants to describe; a theme which can have a religious, mythological, legendary character or one from the classic literature. The Sanskrit terms used to refer to the dance confirm such assertion. It is divided, in fact, in three categories : natyanrtta and nrtya.
In the drama and hence in the Indian classic dance the concern is not really directed towards the perfect imitation of the reality; but we can rather observe the desire of stirring up emotions able to stimulate the imagination of the audience. This is the idea of abhinaya.
This term which is often translated with “dramatic art” is explained by a verse of the Natyashastra saying: “when the representation of the deva (gods), the daitya (demons), the kings, the heads of the family and their daily activities is expressed through the gestures of the body and everything which is correlated to them, then it is the natya” (Natyashastra, I,121). Both, the artist and the audience have an active role in achieving the aim of the work of art: the aesthetics pleasure, the rasa. The deep relation between actor-dancer and the audience imposes that both have specific qualities; furthermore it is in such a bond that the heart of the aesthetic theory is hidden: the idea of bhava e rasa. Bhava is generally translated with “emotion” while rasa with “feeling” or “taste”. The Indian dance is an art based on the oral transmission of knowledge and therefore on the close relationship between master and disciple. In the traditional Indian culture a certain disinterest towards the identity of the artists or towards the attempt of historically locate the events can be notice. It is therefore not always very easy in this light to outline the exact history of the dance.

danza indiana
danza indiana
danza indiana


In India all form of art have got sacred origins. In fact the scriptures say that the dance is born directly from Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of dancers. With his dance He creates the whole universe. References to the dance can be found starting from very early times in both, the literature and the figurative art. The dance had a main role in most of the classic Vedic and Sanskrit literature, as well as in the purana epic. When a dancer dances a different literary and religious tradition comes to life: she expresses through the movements of her body what a writer wants to describe through his words. Many are the poets who draw their inspiration from the dance to communicate images of beauty and harmony. The Natyashastra is the oldest book of dramaturgy. In this treatise its author , the wise Bharata, informs that the science of Natya was revealed to him by Brahma, the creator. He, in a status of deep meditation, collected together the wisdom of all four Veda and created the Natya Veda, also known as the fifth Veda. The dance, as close activity of man, has accompanied his life since the dawning of civilization. However with the passage to a more organised and mature society the bond between dance and religion became stronger. On one side the dance gained very important divine meanings and on the other side a very specific social role. It was very soon included among the religious practices and considered one of the highest form of adoration of the divinity. In the Indian religions, hence in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, either the music or the dance had a fundamental role in the manifestation of devotion. The Indian mythology testifies that the dance is a divine activity that divinities love admiring and participate to it with enthusiasm. With regard to that a passage of the Vishnudharmottarapurana says:

“When someone dances this is considered a ritual act of adoration of the divinity; gods are pleased of such act more than the offers of flowers and the oblations. The one who worships god with nrtya obtains the realisation of all his desires and the path to moksa.”

The Indian classic dance (margi) grew and developed itself in a strict discipline both, physical and intellectual and has got many forms and styles scattered in the whole continent. Besides the classic forms of dance there are the folk one (deshi). These folk dances are very old and represent a practice which is still very popular today in the rural environments and in the agricultural society during the festive celebrations. In the past these two forms of dance were probably only one reality. Over the centuries some dances become part of the religion and acquired a strict codification, throwing this way the seeds of the following styles of the classical Indian dance: bharatanatyamkathakaliodissikuchipudikathakmanipuri.
That process which will transform the temple in the heart of the Indian religious, social, artistic end financial life is supposed to start from the Gupta age (IV-VI century a.C). During such process the dance had a fundamental role in the figure of the devadasi, or slaves of the divinity. The divine character of the dance and the music is also testified by the figurative arts. Among the earliest examples there are some mural paintings, the dancer of Mohenjodaro and the headless torso found in Harappa. The highest blossoming of sculptures represented in dancing position will appear, anyway, between the seventh and twelfth century when images of dancing divinities, human beings, and semi-divine who are dancing are represented either on the inside walls of the Hindu temples as well as on the outside walls. An equally abundant religious literature, promoter of stories and myths relative to different divinities, corresponded to this prolificacy of depictions. The creation of three-dimensional pictures, of which Shiva Nataraja is the highest example, had similar spread. This representation of dancing God Shiva can be defined one of the sublime symbols of the refinement and depth of the Hindu thought. The style traceable in the posture of the dancing divinities could correspond to the one used by the female and male dancers inside the temple. The relieves on the walls, if interpreted in this light, become like a carved sculptured book acting as a model for the dancer and a loyal mirror of the life taking place in the temple. This would be a further demonstration of the fact that the dance was an integral part of the ritualistic practice even though it was not limited to this field. Dancers were in fact also invited at court in order to entertain the king and the noblemen. This role of the dance spread especially in the late medieval period when with the arrival of the Muslims dancing in the temples in the North became very difficult. The situation in the South of India was anyway different from the one in the North. The Muslim penetration in the South was in fact less significant at least until a certain period; a factor that helped the blossom of the temple cities and of the royal patronage especially under the Chola sovereigns. The work of the Muslims in the north and the arrival of the English people accelerated the transformation process that involved also the dance.


…over the centuries some dances became part of the religion and gained a strict codification, throwing this way the seeds of the following styles of the Indian classical dance:

  • Bharathanatyam
  • Kathakali
  • Odissi
  • Kuchipudi
  • Kathak
  • Manipuri

The first one refers to the dramas in which dance plays always a very important role; the second one is usually translated as “pure dance”; in this aspect of dance the harmony of the movements end forms are celebrated while the body does not tell any theme; the third dance refers instead to the danced interpretation of a poem or a work of literature expressed as songs. An harmonious mix of dance, music and recitation is what resulted. The Indian dance uses the body as the main instrument of expression. The dancer-actor is called to respect very precise codified rules, relevant not only to the movement in the space but also to the ability of reaching a sculptural quality of steadiness, which is seldom requested in the western dances. In the pure dance in fact movements alternate accompanied by static posture rhythm. An attention, almost obsessive, is given to the accuracy of the lines which must be drawn by the body. It becomes like a brush with which the dancer paints very precise drawings, rich in spiritual meanings. In the portion of dramatic dance the body of the actress-dancer transforms itself instead into an elaborated alphabet of symbols, that is able to tell stories, to interpret lyrics, to communicate emotions, images and thoughts.


The Bharathanatyam is most probably one of the most ancient style of Indian classical dance. Its antiquity is documented by the literature, the sculpture, the painting and by the history of the different dynasties that follow one another in India. Traditionally the Bharathanatyam is associated to one of the fundamental books of the Indian dance and theatre: the Natya-Shastra recorded to the wise Bharata muni. The Bharatanatyam is believed to be “born” in South India and have spread , during the years, mainly in the Tamil Nadu. It is difficult, in spite of the numerous existing information, to draw a probable story of the 2000 years covered by this dance. The peculiarity of Bharatanatyam is the one of conceiving the movement in the space mainly along straight or triangular lines; chief importance is given to the precision of the lines and to the clearness of the forms. It could be affirmed that in the Bharatanatyam the angular and symmetrical movements are dominant, the perfect geometry born from the poetry and composed by bhava, raga and tala is pursued. Music which is a fundamental ingredient, is the one from the South, the Karnatic one.



Kathakali represents one of the most interesting and complex style in which the pure dance, the theatre and the music work in unison. The modern kathakali is the synthesis of the majority of the theatrical forms of South India. What stands out in this style is in fact the theatrical quality reached through the careful use of all parts of the body, the movement of the facial muscles is the main aspect of the discipline. It can be affirmed that the basic geometrical figures of Kathakali are the square and the rectangular one; inside these figures the dancer can anyway draw diagonals or some 8 by using the hands.

It is a common belief that during a performance of Kathakali, gods and heroes, demons and spirits reach the stage directly from other dimensions. Each of them has a make up, a costume and a hat similar to his nature. The characters or maybe it is better to talk about types, in Kathakali are divided in three big classes that reflect their main quality which can be: sattvic (virtuous, spiritual), rajasic (inclined to possession, violent) and tamasic (dark, low type).
The characters belong merely to the world of myth and legend.
Kathakali has absorbed the great traditions of dances that existed since remote times in its native country, the Kerala.


On the basis of the archaeological testimony, the Odissi or Orissi as it is also called, would come out to be the oldest form of the Indian classical dance. The archaeological finds supporting this theory are to be found in the Rani Gumpha cave dated back around the II century b.C.

The bending of the hip and the typical tribhanga posture is common to the majority of these figures.
The Odissi technique follows the principles explained in both, the Orissi Natyashastra and Shilpashastra.
In the Odissi the human body is studied in terms of three possible inclinations. The weight of the body is not equally distributed compared to the median axis, but it keeps shifting from one foot to the other.
Like in the other styles, the head, the chest, the pelvis and the knees represent important movement units. An exclusive peculiarity of this style and the Kuchipudi one is the movement of the pelvis.


Kuchipudi is born as a form of theatre-dance in a country of the same name, Andra Pradesh. The tradition wants that about five hundred years ago a group of  Brahmins of the Kuchipudi village gathered to give life to this artistic tradition. At that time there were many types of folk dances, but when the vaishnava current became more popular, the dance teachers composed some choreography inspired to the episodes of the Bhagavata-purana creating a form of theatre-dance that would have taken the name of Kuchipudi.

The Kuchipudi spreads mainly as a type of dance for the people and as a mean of support of the artists. At the beginning there were groups of artist, strictly men, in fact this dance was barred to women, who used to go round the Kings courts and the nearby villages to present their art. These artist were moved by a deep religious feeling they had the task to transmit through the dance.
In this style of dance the co-presence of the tandava and lasya aspects of the dance is particularly emphasized.


It is a Northern Indian dance.
The work of the feet is central. Movements are directly influenced by the metrical cycles, tala,  on which base the rhythmical variations must be performed. The body of the dancer in Kathak stays on the central axis, median; jumps and pirouettes are one of the characteristics of this dance but the space is mainly conceived as front and back and also when these  pirouettes are performed, the dancer maintains a certain linearity, without bending or making excessive movements.
The music is hindustani. Kirtan and  Dhrupad are the two styles of music mainly sung in Kathak. Pada, bhajan, hori and dhamar are also present. Of Muslim origin the thumri, dadra and ghazal styles are also present in Kathak.




The Manipur is a small north-western state located in the mountains; the highest peak is the Kobru Mount that is part of the Himalayan Chain. Here a population called Meithei live.
The fact that the Manipur is a boarder country explains why people is made by different ethnic groups and the religion, the art and the culture are a mix of distinct elements..
Dance and music are part of the daily routine of the people who consider it as an offer to God.
The tandava and lasya dances are very different, the first one is practised by men and includes jumps and rotations in the air accompanied by the sound of the percussion instrument played by the dancer himself; the lasya part, which is danced by women includes sinuous and spiral movements, also indistinct and wavy. Many are the dances inspired by the sung kirtan in the style of the hindustani music from the north.


The word “natya” that, as we have seen, is mainly used with reference to the dramatic art derives from the Sanskrit root nrt which means “to dance”. From natya comes also the term nata meaning usually the actor even though its primary meaning is “dancer”. This could suggest that the ancient Indian dramas were mainly danced and that in them the rhythm and the poetry played a fundamental role respect to the action. That was also confirmed by Rabindranath Tagore who referring to them wrote: “our very word for dramas or play, nataka show that dance was its essential feature”.
Beside the term “natya” synonyms can be met that evoke the real nature of the Indian drama; they are rupaka, drsyakavya or preksakavya. The word rupa that refers to something with a shape is taken from the world of literature where it is used to designate a rhetorical figure, the metaphor. That happens because also in the drama a status of non difference is established between the character and the actor called to represent it. Drsyakavya expresses on the contrary the idea of a poem which is admired instead of read. The reference to the action seems to be missing among these titles, in the accepted meaning of the word typical of the western theatrical environment.
The behaviours and the actions of the educated people in the most different situations are the subject of natya. The duty, the peace, the laugh, the war, the love and the hatred are all pictured in it. All this has the scope to encourage and donate wise advises. But the Natya has got also a very important task which consists in helping human beings to achieve the four scopes of life: the observance of laws, the achievement of the right means, the pleasure, the liberation from the ties of ignorance. The zeal in the art of communicating present in the treatises correspond in first instance to an elaborated aesthetic theory where most of the arts in India find their origin. Such a theory is based on the assumption that art is especially a co-operative experience, where more than one interlocutors participate. The analysis of the word abhinaya shows it; in fact it is composed from the prefix abhi (towards) and the root ni (to conduct); their union gives the meaning of “leading the performance to the understanding of the audience” (Natyashastra, III, 6).
Both, the artist and the audience have an active role in the achievement of the aim of the drama: the aesthetic enjoyment, the rasa. The idea of rasa eventually has been object of two different studies: on one side it has become the centre of the philosophical speculation of many schools of religious thought and on the other side it has been studied as a technique of artistic performance.


The Indian dance follows the rules of the movement of the human body.
It has got sculptural qualities, that can hardly be found in the western dances. The movement and the stasis are two complementary aspects in the Indian dance. It is particularly evident in the pure dance, nrtta, where it is asked to the body to perform complex virtuosity, at very high rhythmical speed before passing with extreme fluency to a static pose, where a perfect balance is required. The classical Indian dance is, in fact, a compendium of stylized and symbolic poses to be realized inside a specific rhythmical cycle.


Nrtya  is that branch of the dance where the gestural expressiveness of hands, feet and body,  expressions and ideas meet together tuned with a particular emotion, bhava, in a certain melody, with a certain feeling, rasa, with the right rhythm, tala and beating, laya.
The nrtya aspect of the dance can be considered the blending of nrtta and abhinaya, typical of the natya, in which abhinaya is the central part.


Nrtya  is that branch of the dance where the gestural expressiveness of hands, feet and body,  expressions and ideas meet together tuned with a particular emotion, bhava, in a certain melody, with a certain feeling, rasa, with the right rhythm, tala and beating, laya.
The nrtya aspect of the dance can be considered the blending of nrtta and abhinaya, typical of the natya, in which abhinaya is the central part.


The scope of art in India does not consist in the beauty itself but in the ability to evoke the highest status of the being. Art uses the matter, in the widest meaning of the word, to then transcend it; peculiarity of dance, as well as the sculpture is the use of the body; however their common scope is the one to create the feeling that the dance or the beauty are beyond it. In the Indian sculpture for example the anatomy depiction of the body and hence its musculature does not have the same importance as in the Greek art, but major emphasis is given to the harmony of the posture, in such a way that the attention of the audience does not stop at the simple physical aspect but catch the message of a subtle truth hidden behind the same image.
The deep relation between actor-dancer and the audience asks for both to have specific qualities; moreover it is in such a bond that the heart of the aesthetic theory is hidden: the idea of bhava and rasa.
The story of the different types of dance in India represents, in fact, a precious document of the attempt to give expression to one or more bhava in many ways.
Rasa and bhava can be considered as Siamese twins: one without the other would not have a sensitive life. Rasa cannot be generated without bhava and vice-versa if bhava does not promote the relative rasa then is basically null.

In short: the topic to be represented offers to the artist an inspiration which expresses itself mainly as an emotion (bhava). The irrepressible desire to communicate it on the outside drives the actor to direct all those factors that amplify and support such emotion. Those factors are known as vibhava and anubhava. Vibhava is what nourishes the different emotions, therefore it supplies, to give an example, the ideal context to the emotion to be transmitted. Anubhava  on the contrary gathers all means used by the actor to express the emotion. These may consist of gesture, words, costume and make up etc.

The actor-dancer has to make the strings of the chosen sentiment echo inside the mind and the heart of the audience, like love for example. A deep joy and a correspondent sentiment known as rasa will originate in the audience caressed by this ideal passion. The attempt to give rise to the rasa will be successful only if the artist will be able to live in a intimate way what he has to express and if the audience will be highly receptive, sensitive and able to merge with the represented character.


The Natyashastra ascribed to the mythical Bharata is one of the major sources about the theatrical performance and the dance. It is written in Sanskrit language. It is proposed in the traditional learning form where the student seated at the feet of his master receives the teaching from him. The information contained in it are many and cover many knowledge fields. An honourable position has been given to this treatise beside the Veda. It is also known as the fifth Veda Natyaveda and for this reason venerated and respected as it helps man to develop the noblest qualities.
The word natya is not here used only to mean the theatrical performance and the dance, but also all the activities included in the theatre, therefore the prescription of scene, dance, music, aesthetic, dialectology, costume, make up etc.
Its importance does not come from being the first treatise about this subject (references to these arts can also be found in previous texts) but from the fact that it is the first one to give to these arts a codification and to establish their form.
Without going deeply into the matter of the controversies relative to the birth of dance and therefore if that originated from the theatre or vice versa, it is enough to observe that these two artistic styles developed themselves in the same way, integrating one in each other.
In the text Bharata himself tells a story which narrates the birth of the dance and the dram, their practice, the effects and the use. The story tells that long time ago the great wise men Atri and others, blessed with self control and wisdom, visited the hermitage of Bharatamuni, expert in dramaturgy.
The wise Bharata having completed his daily austerities and meditations, was seated under a tree surrounded by his disciples, his own progeny. He welcomed his guests with respect, he offered them as per the custom, some water to refresh their hands and their feet, some mixture of milk, fruit and honey as refreshment; therefore the wise men asked to the supreme Bharata to reveal them the essence of the Natyaveda as he had received such knowledge directly from Brahma, the Creator.
The first chapter of this book continues by telling that with the arrival of the treta age, men started to be victims of lasciviousness and avidity, to engage themselves in degrading rituals, to be dominated by passions and jealousy, subject to joy and grief. Therefore the Gods led by Indra went to Brahma requesting to create a fifth Veda able to cure the above mentioned diseases and to bring pleasure to both eyes and ears of all men, without distinction of caste; hence a Veda that on the contrary of the other four was accessible also to the shudra.
After accepting the request of the Gods Brahma meditated deeply on the essence of the four veda and elaborated the Natyaveda from their synthesis.

Brahma the supreme Being considered this way: “I must compose a fifth veda, entitled the Natyaveda, in harmony with the legends (itihasa) that will lead to the respect of the laws (dharma), to the achievement of the wealth (artha) and the pleasure (kama); it will be a collection of principles and wise advises; it will be useful as a guide for all the actions of the future generations; it will be enriched with the teachings of all the important treatises (shastra) and it will propose every type of art and job.
() He took the drama (pathyam) from the Rigveda, the singing (gitam)from the Sama; the gestural expressiveness of the theatre (abhinaya) from the Yajurveda and the sentiment (rasa) from the Atharvaveda. The Natyaveda was then created, linked with the veda and the Upaveda, from God Brahma who is omniscient”  (Natyashastra, I, 14-18).

When the “fifth  veda” was completed Brahma asked Devendra to spread this knowledge to the other divinities and to the men. But its formulation came out to be of difficult comprehension and therefore Devendra called the wise Bharata and charged him to transmit this knowledge in a simpler way to all humanity.

The tradition says that Bharata Muni, contained the monumental wisdom in 3600 shloka or verses in a voluminous treatise, the Natyashastra and transmitted it to the future generations.
This theory about the origin cannot of course claim historical authenticity, however it let believe that could find formulation only in a society where the dance and the drama enjoyed a great prestige. The name Bharata can already be found in the books of the vedic time, however as he is not mentioned in any other book and there are not clear references to the author of the Natyaveda, it is not possible to establish an historical identity. The identity of Bharata is in fact surrounded by the mystery and it is subject of study for many Indian historians. Bharata is the name of the eponymous hero of India and of the author of the Natyashastra; the word bharata meaning the actor could derive from his name. In this reading key, the Natyashastra would come out to be a guide to the activities of a bharata, of an actor and hence called Bharatashastra. But afterwards this work took the meaning of shastra transmitted by Bharata. However the first one to refer to Bharata Muni as the author of the Natyashastra seems to be the dramatist Bhavabhuti.
The dating remains anyway object of discussion and many are the dates proposed.
The most credible is however the one saying that the treatise would be the result of different authors and would have been composed a during a long length of time reaching the present drawing up around the Bhamaha (IV-V century a.C) and Dandin (end of VII – beginning of VIII century) age or maybe even earlier; the oldest parts could go back, in fact, to the I century a.C.
Other scholars like for example M.Gosh propose even earlier dates till 500 b.C, H.P. Shastri sets it in the II century a.C. In other words as it is impossible to establish a correct date a range of time that goes from the I century a.C to the VII-VIII century is accepted.
From the VIII century on many comments to this book arose. Among these the following are worth to be  mentioned: Udbhata (VII-VII century); Lollata (middle of VIII century); Shankuka (813 a.C); Kirtidhara (IX or X century), Abhinavaguptta (XI century) and many other.
By recognizing to the drama divine origins, Bharatamuni gave to it not only a religious background, but also a literary one for both, the technique and the theory showing at the same time the aesthetic and secular scopes of it. This deep link established by the dance with literature, religion and mythology constitutes also a precious help in the attempt of drawing up an historic profile of this art. The Indian classical dance would only be  a cold technique without that rich literature on which the Indian dance is based. Literature is what makes it rich of noble meanings and that, together with the gestural expressiveness of the body and the music, represent the heart of it.
“When a dancer dances a specific literary and religious tradition liven up; she expresses through the movement of her body what a writer wants to describe through the words and the poetry”.