Specialty - A handbook of Indian tradition, heritage, culture, cuisine, art & music.



India  has a great heritage of classical dance and music as well as the folk.The classical traditions of all regions derive their basic inspiration from the sage Bharat's analysis and his treatise on the aesthetics of dance and dramaturgy, the Natya Shastra. Literally meaning the text of drama, it is the oldest surviving text on stagecraft in the world; a text, which spins together dance and drama in musical  narration. Love, Humour, Pathos, Anger, Heroism, Terror, Disgust, Wonder and Serenity are the Nava Rasas or nine basic emotions, which are fundamental to all dance and music forms.

The basis for Indian music is found in the Sanskrit word Sangeet, which means music. It is a combination of three art forms: geet (song), vadya (instrumental music) and nritya (dance).

Nritya (dance) is closely linked to the Natya (theatre). The dancer must  express himself with his entire body: every movement is practiced for  hours on end and must be under perfect control - whether it is the lifting of an eyebrow or a finger. The pantomime expressed by the hands (mudras) together with the expression of the face (abhinaya), allow the full development of the nine emotions.

India also has a wealth of folk dances and songs, closely interwoven with the lives of the people.

The Guru (teacher) has a special place in the performing world in India. He is next to parents in the hierarchy where God finds the last place. The pupils do not call the Gurus by their name and accidental call invite a   spontaneous gesture of touching the ears.

Classical Dance forms:

The Indian classical dance forms are a beautiful compilation of the Mudras and Abhinaya. The present classical dance forms, however, are not as old as the Natya Shastra. These dance forms evolved around  early 15th to 18th century AD when some people worked to revive the  ying art. For many centuries the dancers were attached to the temples. This maintained a strong religious flavour to dance. Even today many of the traditional themes are mythological in nature. Over the centuries different areas have given their own colour to the ancient classical  tradition. Each of these styles have a strong regional connection.

All the major dance forms have some features in common. Before every performance there are certain stage rites. As all the dances are more or less devotional, the very first rite is to offer prayers to the deity.

Today the acknowledged classical dance styles are:

Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu
Kathak of North  India
Kathakali of Kerala
Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh
Manipuri of  Northeast India
Mohiniyattam of  Kerala
Odissi of Orissa


The most celebrated art form of the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, Bharatnatyam is a dynamic and earthy dance style. The contemporary form of Bharatnatyam evolved during the late 18th or early 19th century.
Bharatnatyam dancers are usually women and, like the sculptures they take their positions from, always dance bent-kneed. It is an extremely precise dance style where a huge repertoire of hand movements is used to convey moods and expressions. Bharatnatyam is vibrant and very demanding of the dancer. The body is visualized as made of triangles, one above and one  below the torso. It is based upon a balanced distribution of body weight  and firm positions of the lower limbs, allowing the hands to cut into a line, to flow around the body, or to take positions that enhance the basic form. A special feature of this dance form is
Padams or poems on the hero-heroine theme. The tempo of these love songs is slow and each phase of the performance is crystallized into a specific mood of love.


The Kathak dance form traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathaks or storytellers. These bards, performing in village squares and temple courtyards, mostly specialized in recounting mythological and moral tales from the scriptures and embellished their recitals with hand gestures and facial expressions. With the advent of Mughal culture, Kathak became a sophisticated chamber art. Patronized by art loving rulers, the practitioners of Kathak worked at refining its dramatic and rhythmic aspects, delighting elite audiences with their mastery over rhythm and the stylized mime. This dance form has a distinct Hindu-Muslim texture.

The dance is performed straight-legged and more stress is laid on footwork. A bell string is tied around the ankles of both the legs and then starts  a synchronized movement of hands and feet with complimentary jingling of the ankle bells. Kathak has an exciting and entertaining quality with         intricate footwork and rapid pirouettes set to complex time cycles. The costumes and themes of these dances are often similar to those in Mughal miniature paintings. Though not similar to the
Natya Shastra, the principles in Kathak are essentially the same. The footwork is matched by the accompanying percussion instruments such as Tabla and Pakhawaj and the dancer and percussionists often indulge in a virtuoso display of rhythmic wizardry.


Kathakali is a rich and flourishing tradition of dance drama of the State of  Kerala. It is a well-developed dance drama performance where the actors depict characters from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and from the Puranas (the ancient scriptures). The great poet Vallathol    rediscovered Kathakali, establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1932, which lent a new dimension to the art form.
The dancers, usually men, adorn themselves in huge skirts, elaborate masks, costumes and headdress, wearing a most intricate style of make-up. The most characteristic feature of the dance form is the painted face of the dancers. Choice of colours is made according to the quality of the character portrayed; different colours depict properties like wickedness and soberness. Kathakali recitals are generally long and while other dance forms are more emotive than narrative, Kathakali is both. It  combines dance with dialogue to bring myth and legend to life in the temple courtyards of Kerala. The dancers use their stunning costumes and make-up, with the accompaniment of drums and vocalists, to create various moods and emotions.


Kuchipudi, the indigenous style of dance of Andhra Pradesh took its birth and effloresced in the village of the same name, originally called Kuchelapuri or Kuchelapuram, a hamlet in Krishna district. From its origin, as far back as the 3rd century BC, it has remained a continuous and living dance tradition of this region.
The transition has been great from a time when men played female parts to the present when women play even the male parts. The most popular Kuchipudi dance is the pot dance in which a dancer keeps a pot filled with water on her head and feet kept on a brass plate. She moves on the stage manipulating the brass plate, with the feet kept on its rim and doing some hand movements without spilling a drop of water on the ground thus astounding the audience. The make up and costumes are    characteristic of the art. There is nothing elaborate in the costumes and the makeup is not so heavy. The important characters have different make up and the female characters wear ornaments and jewellery and a long plait decorated with flowers.


The remote northeast corner of India has one of the most graceful dances of the subcontinent. It takes its name from the State of Manipur, which is situated in a secluded and picturesque valley enclosed by mountain ranges. The legend goes that the gods drained a lake in the beautiful  countryside in order to find a place to dance. No wonder then, that dance is inextricably woven into the lives of the people and is an inherent part of the rituals of daily life such as weddings and homage  to ancestors. The Lai Haroba, a ritualistic dance depicting the  Creation, is considered the precursor of present Manipuri. The LaiHaroba is still an important living tradition, while Manipuri has expanded and gained popularity as a performing art in a group and solo  presentations. Performed still in temples and religious occasions, of Manipur, this dance form is a very much living tradition.
This style is multifaceted, ranging from the softest feminine to the obviously vigorous masculine. The women perform the dance with slow  graceful movements and undulating arm gestures. In its gentle, ritualistic and restrained performance there is evidence of affinity with the dance of South East Asia. The beautiful embroidered skirts of the dancers, long and flared from the waist, and the translucent veils, along with Krishna's costume with the tall peacock feather crown, add to the radiant  appearance of this dance, as the performers sway and twirl to an ascending tempo. Another vibrant feature of Manipuri is the PungCholam or Drum dance, in which dancers play on the drum known as Pung while dancing with thrilling leaps and turns to a fast rhythm. Dignified grace is to be found in every aspect and the range it offers in technique, rhythm and tempo makes a Manipuri recital an absorbing and exhilarating experience.


Mohiniyattam is the female semi-classical dance form of Kerala. Literally, the dance of the enchantress, Mohiniyattam was mainly performed in the temple precincts of Kerala.
The theme of Mohiniyattam is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna is more often the hero. The spectators could feel his invisible presence when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through the circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions. It is essentially a solo dance, but in present times it is performed in a group as well. Mohiniyattam maintains a realistic makeup and simple dressing. The dancer is attired in a beautiful white and gold-bordered sari. The style of vocal music for Mohiniyattam, is classical Carnatic.


Odissi is considered to be one of the oldest surviving dance forms based on archaeological evidence. The traditional dance form of Orissa.
While the form is curvaceous, concentrating on the
tribhang or the division of the body into three parts, head, bust and torso; the Mudras and the expressions are similar to those of Bharatnatyam. Odissi is    based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govind are used to depict the love and devotion to God in soft flowing movements to express specific moods and   emotions. It is a soft, lyrical classical dance, which depicts the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath.

Some of the popular folk and tribal dances are:

Bhangra - is a folk dance from the Northwest Indian State of Punjab. It is a lively, powerful dance performed by men in celebration of the harvest season.

Bihu - is a folk dance from Assam. It is a very brisk and aggressive dance performed by both boys and girls on occasions like harvest and wedding  ceremonies

Changu - the folk dance found in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh derives its name from the changu, which is a simple tambourine that is used to accompany  this dance

Garba - is a folk dance from Gujarat. It is traditionally danced at marriages and during the festival of Navaratri (October/November).

Ghoomar - is a folk dance of Rajasthan performed by women. It derives its name from its characteristic pirouettes and swirling skirts.

GhantaPatua - is a folk dance of Orissa. Its name is derived from the large brass gongs known as ghanta. It is performed in the Hindu month of Chaitra. This dance is most notable because it is performed on stilts

Kavadi - is a folk dance of Tamil Nadu. It is played with a wooden pole upon  which are tied two pots. The stick is then balanced upon the shoulder


Classical Music:

The music of India is one of the oldest unbroken musical traditions in  the world. Indian music is not written and cannot be learnt from books. Traditions of music have been handed down by teachers in a special guru-shishya (master-disciple) relationship. It has developed within a very complex  interaction between different peoples of different races and cultures. Aspects of musical from such as tonal intervals, harmonies and rhythmical patterns are the unique products of a wealth of musical   traditions and influences; they are also very different from that familiar in the west. Much of the music recalls Indian fables and legends, as well as celebrating the seasonal rhythms of nature.

Music, according to Hindu mythology, originated with the first sound ever to be heard in the universe, the Naadbrahma or Om, which is the purest sound to be heard. It is this purity that the musician attempts to achieve in his sadhana (dedicated pursuit) of the music he is involved in.

Today there are two major traditions of Indian classical music: Hindustani in the north and Carnatic in the south. Both systems are fundamentally similar but differ in nomenclature and performance   practice.


The present system of Indian Classical Music is based upon two important  pillars: Raga and Taal. Raga is the melodic form  while Taal is the rhythmic. Raga may be roughly equated  with the Western term mode or scale. There is a system of seven notes,  which are arranged in a means not unlike Western scales. However when we look closely we see that it is quite different what we are familiar  with. The Taal forms are also very complex. Many common rhythmic patterns exist and they revolve around repeating patterns of beats. The interpretation of the Raga and the Taal is not the same   all over India.The Indian classical music has two forms, gayaki (vocal) and vadya (instrumental). In both Hindustani and Carnatic music, songs are usually (although not always) preceded by an improvised unmeasured prelude (alaap) which is sometimes extensive. This is followed by the composition   section in which a specific Taal is used. Although it is usually based upon a pre-existing composition, there are specific   improvisational features to this section as well. This complicated system of Taals and Ragas lead to the melody that forms the basis of any type of music in India.

Vadya Sangeet (instrumental music) occupies an important position in  Indian music. There is a general tendency for the instrumental styles to follow quite closely the vocal styles. Yet, the degree to which an  instrument follows is primarily linked to the dynamics of the instrument. Dynamics is the nature of the loudness of an instrument. This is not intended to mean loudness in the usual interpretation, but   rather the amplitudinal characteristics of the instrument.

Many musical instruments are peculiar to India. There is a traditional system for the classification of instruments but there are three main types: string instruments, wind blown and beat (percussion) instruments. Sitar, Tanpura, Violin, Veena, Sarangi are the various string instruments. Bansuri (flute), Shehnai, Harmonium are the wind blown instruments. Tabla, Dholak, Mridangam, Pakhawaj are the popular percussion instruments. These instruments have evolved to their present form after a long period of transitional instruments. Indian music has absorbed a lot form other countries also. The well-known instrument Sarod is a modified version of Rabab, which is essentially a Persian instrument. The   contemporary Indian music is now experimenting with western instruments like guitar and piano.



























































































































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