There are eight Indian classical dance forms as recognized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture, India. Each of these forms have evolved over the years drawing in many artists who have dedicated their lives to them, ensuring the art continues to live and blossom through generations.

They hail from different states and contribute to the rich the culture and heritage of India. We have listed four of them here with their origin, main characteristics and highlighted some of the most popular artists in each of these dance forms who have done India proud and carried the mantel forward with much aplomb. These forms are:

Bharatanatyam – This dance form originated in Tamil Nadu over thousands of year ago and is the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since the very beginning Bharatanatyam has traditionally been a form of an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu texts. Combined with high energy footwork and a sophisticated vocabulary of sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes and face muscles this dance form is more than delight to watch and a very immersive experience to learn.

Right from Rukmini Devi in the early 1900s to Padma Subramanyam in the mid 1900s to Rukmini Vijayakumar today, each artist has experimented with this dance form and has contributed to its legendary growth over the years.

Kathak – The origin of Kathak dates back to 4th century in Uttar Pradesh and was traditionally attributed to the travelling writers and poets known as Kathakars or storytellers. They would communicate stories from the great epics and ancient mythology through dance, songs and music in a manner similar to early Greek theatre. And therefore you see a mixture of hand and foot movements combined with facial expressions as Kathak dancers tell various stories. These stories are narrated in the form of dance movements, supported by music and, through a developed vocabulary based on the gestures of arms and upper body movement, facial expressions, stage movements, bends and turns.

Kathak drew both men and women from various Gharanas as they carried this dance tradition to different corners of the world. From Shambhu Maharaj to Birju Maharaj and from Sunayana Hazarilal to Shovana Narayan and Urmila Nagar, many Kathak dancers continue to teach Kathak through their academies and there is a large churn of students each year learning from them and growing to the next level.

Kathakali – This story play genre of art comes from Kerala, stands out for its elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. While like all classical dance arts of India, it combines music, vocal performers, choreography and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas it differs in some respects. This is one dance form that incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India making it very unique in that sense. Kathakalī also differs in that the structure and details of its art form developed in the courts and theatres of Hindu principalities, unlike other classical Indian dances which primarily developed in Hindu temples and monastic schools.

While this is a male dominated dance form, classical dancer Kanak Rele broke stereotypes as one of the first women to learn and perform Kathakali.

Kuchipudi – This dance form originated in a village named Kuchipudi in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It has its roots in the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of Natya Shastra and was developed as a religious art linked to traveling bards, temples and spiritual beliefs, like all major classical dances of India.
The dance performance begins with an invocation of the goddesses of learning, wealth, and energy. It also involves the sprinkling of holy water and the burning of incense. Each character is then introduced, together with songs concerning their function in the performance. Vocal and instrumental Carnatic music in the Telugu language accompanies the performance with an ensemble of instruments like mridangam, cymbals, veena, flute and the tanpura.

Some of the most famous Kuchipudi artists are Sobha Naidu (recipient of the Padma Shri civilian award) Raja & Radha Reddy, Swapnasundari (an exceptional dancer and author), Arunima Kumar, Yamini Reddy and Kaushalya Reddy.

The other four forms of Indian Classical Dance are

Odissi, from Odisha
Sattriya, from Assam
Manipuri, from Manipur
Mohiniyattam, from Kerala

You can read about them in our next blog.