What are the 8 classical dance forms of India?

Before we begin, it is important to know that how many classical dance forms are there in India? As per the Sangeet Natak Academy, there are 8 classical dance forms but India’s Ministry of Culture recognises 9 dance forms in India with Chhau as being the 9th dance form.

The 8 classical dance forms of India are- Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Sattriya, Mohiniyattam and Manipuri.

Traditional Indian Dances Silhouettes

India is a land of diversity. Its residents live a life surrounded by music, dance, delicacies and festivals. And the country’s diversity is reflected in its rich and varied cuisine, history in classical and instrumental music and diverse dance forms.

Indian classical dance form is also addressed as ‘Shastriya Nritya’, an amalgam of the words ‘Shastriya’ meaning classical and ‘Nritya’ referring to the act of dancing. All the Indian classical dance form fall under it.

‘Shastriya Nritya’ has its roots embedded in ‘Natya Shastra’. As per the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi’ (a national level academy for performing arts set up by the Indian government), the classical status has been accorded to eight of the Indian dance forms.

Let’s take a detailed look at each of these 8 classical dance forms.

BHARATANATYAM

Known as the oldest dance form, Bharatnatyam has the special status of being the mother of all classical dance forms of India. It finds its root in the culturally rich state of Tamil Nadu. Like other classical Indian dance forms, Bharatnatyam also is essentially a devotional dance.

Bharatanatyam Dance
Bharatanatyam Dance (Source: Google Images)

Earlier known as Sadhir Attam, it is a retelling of stories from Hindu scriptures, as a performance. There are four styles of Bharatnatyam. They are Melathoor, Vazhavoor, Pandanalloor and Kalashetra. The costume of Bharatnatyam dancers resembles that of a Tamil-Hindu bride. Traditional jewellery accompanies it. The expression is an important feature of this dance form.

Other Bharatanatyam lessons at learn Bharatanatyam online

KATHAK

With its name explaining its form, Kathak as a dance form is essentially a mix of worshipping and story narration. Grace, eye movement, hand gesture and bodily poses combine to make Kathak a graceful sight. Kathak is a dance native to the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Kathak Dance
Kathak Dance (Source: Google Images)

It is believed that Kathak originated from the travelling bards or storytellers of North India, who were known as ‘Kathakars’. A Kathak performance begins with a dancer offering respect to the guru (teacher), followed by invocation of god’s blessing. Then the dancer moves on to ‘Nritta’ which is the dance itself. The music that accompanies a Kathak performance makes use of different classical instruments like Manjira, Sarangi, Harmonium, Tabla, etc.

To learn in detail, read the following lessons on 3 Kathak Styles and 7 Kathak levels.

Other Kathak lessons at learn Kathak online.

ODISSI

Originating from Odisha and deriving its name from the state itself, this is one of the oldest dance forms of India. Odissi is also more like a temple dance form. Lord Jagannath’s (God of the universe) worship is the central theme of this dance form. Odissi is popular worldwide for its lyricism. The ‘bhakti bhava’ or ‘devotion to god’ aspect, of an Odissi performance, is surreal.

Odissi Dance
Odissi Dance (Source: Google Images)

Earlier performed at temples, in Odisha, it later took to stage performances. This dance form gained popularity internationally after India’s independence. The costumes of this dance form are symbolic of a message or episode from the Hindu mythology, which the dance is depicting. ‘Abhinaya’ or acting/expressions are very crucial to Odissi. Odissi combines Carnatic and Hindustani classical arts.

The themes of Odissi are inspired by Vaishnavism, the sun god, Shakti and Lord Shiva. Sambalpuri and Bomkai sarees combined with jewellery, are worn by Odissi dancers.

In this lesson, you can learn 7 amazing facts about Odissi dance

MANIPURI

Hailing from the state of Manipur (in north-eastern India), this classical Indian dance form is based on the popular ‘Raasleela’ trope where Lord Krishna and Radha share a dance. It is also known as Jagoi and gets its name from the place it originates from.

Manipuri Dance
Manipuri Dance (Source: Google Images)

Since it seeks inspiration from Lord Krishna, Manipuri is a religious dance form, which combines singing and dancing. Manipuri was later expanded by adding the theme of ‘Shaivism’ to it. It is performed during religious festivals and celebrations like weddings. It depicts the spiritual values of Hinduism through the dance. The male dancer wears a dhora or dhoti. While the female dancer has a spectacularly beautiful costume that resembles that of a Manipuri bride. Both dancers wear headgears.

MOHINIYATTAM

Combining dance, drama with rigorous footwork, Mohiniyattam is a dance form native to the state of Kerala. The name of this dance form comes from two words ‘Mohini’ that is the name of a woman and ‘aattam’ meaning graceful body movements.

Mohiniyattam Dance
Mohiniyattam Dance (Source: Google Images)

Its literal translation would mean ‘dance of the enchantress’. Hence, Mohiniyattam is a highly graceful form of Indian classical dance. The central theme of this dance form is devotion to God and expressing it through gentle body formations and movements. ‘Mudras’ (formations of fingers and palms of the hands) are important in Mohiniyattam. A white saree with a golden brocade is one of the highlights of this beautiful dance form.

KUCHIPUDI

This Indian dance form gets its name from the Kuchipudi village near the Bay of Bengal but has its roots in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Music is an important part of this dance. Instruments like violin, flute, and tambura are used in a Kuchipudi performance.

Kuchipudi Dance
Kuchipudi Dance (Source: Google Images)

Like other classical dance forms, Kuchipudi also initiated as a temple dance. It is believed that 17th-century Sidhyendra Yogi created this dance form. A Kuchipudi performance begins much like a religious act, with water sprinkling, lighting incense and invoking god’s blessings. It is a magnificent dance form comprising 28 hand mudras.

KATHAKALI

A widely popular dance form, Kathakali, has its roots in Kerala. Originated in the 17th century, Kathakali is a story play dance. Hence it is also known as a dance-drama. Costumes and makeup are an important part of it. It is a blend of devotion, drama, music and dance. Most of the themes of Kathakali are inspired by Indian epics.

Kathakali Dancer performing on white mandala pattern background.
Kathakali Dancer

The makeup in Kathakali is very significant. The ‘Pacha’ or green facial makeup represents a noble character. While ‘Kathi’ and ‘Kari’ means a villain and demon respectively. There are also three types of beards that are a part of Kathakali makeup. The music that accompanies this dance form is a rendition of drums and metal gongs.

Visit this lesson to learn more about Kathakali Dance form.

SATTRIYA

This famous dance classical dance form finds its roots in Assam. Sattriya is now no more restricted to just India, research studies have and are being conducted on this dance form at international levels. There are several different forms under Sattriya as well, like Mati Akhara, Krishna Nritya, Jhumura, Nadubhangi, Chali, Gopi Prabesh, Gosain Prabesh, etc.

Sattriya Dance (Source: Google Images)

Sattriya male dancers wear dhoti and chadar, they also wear a turban. While the female dancers wear ghuri and chadar with a wait cloth called ‘kanchi’. Traditional pieces of jewellery, of Assam, are also worn by the dancers. Mahapursha Sankaradeva, a Vaishnava saint of Assam, is attributed as the propagator of Sattriya dance form.

Summary of 8 classical dance forms of India

NameOrigin StatePerformance TypeInstruments
BharatanatyamTamil NaduDevotional dance formCymbals, Violin, Veena, Flute, Tanpura and Mridangam etc
KathakUttar PradeshStorytelling and narrationManjira, Sarangi, Harmonium, Tabla, etc.
OdissiOdishaTemple danceSitar, Violin, Cymbals, Mardala, Flute, Harmonimum etc
ManipuriManipurReligious dancePung (Manipuri classical drum), Pena, Cymbals etc
MohiniyattamKeralaDance of the enchantressIdakka, Mridangam, Flute, Veena, Khuzitalam (Cymbals) etc
KuchipudiWest BengalTemple danceTambura, Mridangam, Flute, Veena, Cymbals
KathakaliKeralaDrama danceMaddalam, Chenda, Idakka
SattriyaAssamBallad, dance and dramaShakha (Conch), Harmonium, Tanpura, Violin, Khol, Bahi
State, performance type and instruments used in classical dance forms of India
Instruments used in 8 classical dance forms
Instruments used in 8 classical dance forms

You can go through the following lesson, to learn more about Indian Classical Music Instruments.

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