The Dance Sutra

Trujetter Team

, Culture

Like a drop of perfume culled from million roses, classical dance forms of South India present just the idea, a whiff of the rich treasure.

Indian classical dance has a distinct character that reflects the great cultural and traditional endeavour. There are numerous classical dance forms in India and each dance form can be traced to different parts of the country. Each form represents the culture and ethos of a particular region or a group of people. The Indian Classical Dance is often regarded as a form of worship and meditation.


The term ‘Bharatnatyam’ has two connotations – first, Bharata is considered to be the name of a sage-scholar to whom is attributed the first comprehensive treatise on theatre, music and dance, called the Natya Shastra; the second connotation breaks up the word Bharata into three syllables: bha for bhava (emotion), ra for raga (music) and ta for tala (rhythm). The term natyam implies theatre, though today the term signifies a classical dance system that has made the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka its home. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this dance was also known as Sadir, Nautch or Dasiattam. The origins, as with other classical styles, are in the time-honoured traditions systematized and codified by Bharata. The form consists of nritta and Nritya, meaning ‘pure dance’ and ‘narrational dance’.

Once the student masters the coordination of movements, she moves forward to complicated patterns as the hands fold and unfold in flower like movements to make different hasta (hand gestures used in pure dance.) Bharatanatyam revels in neatness of line which gives the pure dance a geometrical majesty comparable to the architectural grandeur of south Indian temples.

Great dancers have been known to perform abhinaya for a considerable length of time purely with their eyes – summoning, rejecting, yearning, mocking or beseeching. The ancient verse translated below sums up the concept of aesthetics of movement and expression very aptly: “Where the hand goes the glance follows; where the eyes go, the mind follows; where the mind is involved, emotions arise; and where emotions ripple, rasa (flavour) permeates the work of art.”

The classical repertory called MARGAM consists of Invocation Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, Shlokasm and Tillana.

Solo dancing in temples and in the royal courts was known as Sadir, until early 20th century, when it was christened Bharatanatyam.


Kathakali Classical Dance

The martial training in Kerala includes exercises to add grace and elegance to deportment. Steps and stances used for attacking, parrying, side-stepping and defending in Kalaripayattu are used later in dance.

The earlier use of masks gave way to elaborate make-up and headgear clearly defined into different types. The legend has it that the Raja of Kottayam saw Lord Vishnu emerging from the Milky Ocean in a dream. Just as his vision took in the details of the Lord’s beauty and magnificence, attributes of the dream ended leaving behind memory of billowing waves after which he fashioned the voluminous skirts of his dancers. Such a legend must be given credence to account for the unexpected sight of many yards of cloth whirling around.

Highly stylised vocabulary of hand gestures and eye movements characterise this dance-theatre. Also, specialised make-up in vivid colours and designs on the face distinguish each character-type.

To savour multi-layered subtleties of Kathakali, indeed of any of the classical dance forms of India, the audience is expected to be equally receptive and knowledgeable. The term often used for such an informed viewer is Rasika- a lover of beauty.


Kuchelapuram is a small village in Andhra Pradesh. The descendants of 300 Brahmin families lived here to continue a tradition that dictates that only men may dance. The village and the land are gifts from the Nawab of Golconda, in 1675, after witnessing a performance of a Kuchipudi dance-drama by migrant Brahmins. The tradition of natya using poetry, drama, dance and music has a long history in the regions now known as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnatka, the thematic content always being based on a glorified devotion to god, i.e. Bhakti, therefore the participants came to be known as bhaktas, while the form is called the Bhagvat Mela Natakam.

A great devotee of Vishnu Siddhendra yogi had a dream in which he witnessed the enchanting vision of Lord Krishna with his two favourite consorts, Rukmini and Satyabhama. Overcome with joy and devotion, Siddhendra yogi began a search for dancers and actors who could enact this play of his dream. He found suitable young men among the Brahmin families of Kuchelapuram.

The technique of Kuchipudi is natya that includes the twin arts of dance and music besides acting. The acting is of two kinds – one where the sutradhar (narrator) dialogues with the characters, using speech as an instrument of narration. Naturally, therefore, the accompanying gestures and expressions are direct and simple. The other kind of acting involves the dancer-actors performing on music, using the prescribed hand gestures, facial expressions and footwork.

Some of the well-loved and oft-repeated dance-dramas in Kuchipudi are Bhama Kalapam taken from the famous work Parijataapaharana (stealing of heavenly tree Parijata) by Siddhendra Yogi, Golla Kalapam by Ramayya Shastri, Krishna Lila Tarangini by Tritha Narayana Yati, Gita Govinda of Jaidev, Telugu songs of Kshetrayya and Kritis by Thyagaraja. Dance-dramas are performed regularly in Kuchipudi and the surrounding villages, especially on festival days.

Kuchipudi Dance


This dance style from Kerala in South India derives its name from two words – Mohini means ‘enchantress’ and attam means ‘dance’. The grand dance-theatre of Kerala called Kathakali made strenuous and strong demands on the body which could be answered only by male dancers. So, a graceful form of dance, more suited to the female body, gradually took shape based on existing dances performed during marriages, festivals and other social occasions.

Mohini means ‘Enchantress, seductress’. In ancient puranas and legends, Vishnu had to take the form of Mohini twice to save cosmic situations. The dances display full array of body undulations, glances and techniques to create seduction.

The costume is invariably in white, bordered with gold. The hairstyle sports a big bun to the left side of the head, encircled by flowers and jewels.

Mohiniattam does not have a temple background but rather a social and secular one with inclination towards sentiments and emotions of love in all its glorious manifestations. A judicious use of beckoning eyes and fluttering eyebrows summon the viewer’s attention at will, justifying the form as a dance of the enchantress. For this is a dance form for and by women only.

Written by Padma Vibhushan Dr. Sonal Mansingh

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