Reflecting the Rich Heritage and Vibrant Cultural Diversity | Sunday Observer
Classical Dances of India:

Reflecting the Rich Heritage and Vibrant Cultural Diversity

28 November, 2021

The Indian classical dance forms are closely linked to Hindu tradition and influenced by Hindu religion, and based on Natya Sastra. Most of the Indian classical dances had their origin in the temples and the temple environs. Later all these dance forms enjoyed the royal patronage, in one way or another. Bharatha Natyam evolved out of Sathir. Sathir dancers were given full support and encouragement by various kings, at different periods.

The kings themselves engaged the dancers to serve in temples, and provided all the facilities to continue their service. Later, these temple dancers became court dancers.

During the Chola period especially, there is evidence, which provides a wealth of information about temple dancers, and court dancers. In the royal courts, the poets, who composed songs, were called Asthana Vithakars, and those who composed the music for the poems, were called Asthana Kavinjars, and those who danced for poems were called Asthana Narthakis.


Similarly, another Indian classical dance form is Kathakali. Kathakali originated in royal courts, and later moved to the temples. Before the birth of Kathakali, Chakkayr Koothu was more popular in the present Kerala state. It was performed by the male members of a particular caste called Chakayr who had the hereditary right to perform. The basic theme of the dance was gathered from epics, and Puranas.

During the reign of King Maanadevan of Calicut in 17th century Kathakali had its origin from Krishnaattam. The Krishnaattam was based on Lord Krishna’s stories. The literature for Krishnaattam was in the Sanskirit language. The Kottakari King of South Kerala, requested Maanadevan to stage the Krishnaattam at his court. Due to the refusal of Maanadevan, the brokenhearted King Kottakari Raja introduced Ramaraattam, which was similar to Krishnaattam, but the story was based on Lord Rama, the poetic verses were in the regional language Malayalam.

In the Ramaraattam, exquisite facial expressions and beautiful hand gestures were used, sidemen call accompaniments were employed. In later years, this dance form adopted various themes including other Puranas and Ithikas stories. Royal patronage was given by the rulers, especially by the Travancore rulers, namely Balaarama Varma and Swaathithirunal Maha Raja. There is evidence that in the Travancore Palace, Kathakali troupes were available to perform regularly.

The North Indian classical dance form Kathak derived its name from the word, Katha. Katha means story. Kathakar (story tellers) belonged to a particular caste, actually responsible for the development of this dance form, and were attached to the temples. The firm development of Kathak dance form, originated during 15th Century.

The main theme or stories in this dance form were on Radha, Krishna themes, with Bakthi cult. Mostly, this Radha, Krishna Bakthi cult was based on the dramatic play call Rasalila. This dance form included melodious music, beautiful rhythmic dances, and dramatic narrations in between the dance.

During the period of Muslim reign this dance form moved from temples to courts. Initially, it developed in two different regional and religious courts. One was in the Muslim courts, and other was in the Hindu courts. Anyhow, in both courts this dance form was cherished and preserved with same the spirit as a stylised entertainment.

In Rajasthan, Hindu royal courts gave more prominence to Nirtha aspect (pure dance movements). Meanwhile in the Muslim courts in Delhi, Agra, and Lucknow, the dance form developed with normal life moods, and life passions. Hence naturally it gave more importance to expression, Bhavas, and Rasas. The execution of this art form gave birth to two different styles. One is the Jaipur style, and other is the Lucknow style. During the period of Mughal emperors, the devotional music Kirthans, the Khayal, Drupad, Thumpri and Ghazal were the musical concepts, introduced as the musical base for this art form.

In 19th Century, during the reign of King Wajid Ali, the Lucknow style gained recognition and the King gave full support and encouragement for the development of this art in his Royal Court. One of the main founders of this style was Thakur Prasad and his three sons served in the court of King Waji Ali. The style differences as in any art form are the master work of different gurus of different areas done without changing the basic concepts of the art form.

The King of Raigarh of Madya Pradesh, Chakradhar Singh, gave the royal patronage to both styles of Kathak. Both these styles have beautiful aesthetic essence and attractive stances.


Manipuri dance like all other Indian classical dance forms has its roots, in deep devotion, and spiritualism. King Bhagaya Chandra was a famous king who ruled Manipur during the period of 1759 to 1798 A.D. and he was deeply involved in culture and religion. He excelled in prose, poetry, philosophy, dance, drama, and music. The kings and the queens were very much involved with the traditional art forms, mainly dance and music. Even the queen herself danced with the public, in the same public places, and the common masses were not restrained from seeing the performances.

Generally, the dance was common to all; there was no barrier for caste or creed. The dance was not practised just for mere entertainment, but with deep dedication and devotion. After the era of King Bhagaya Chandra, the kings in his lineage gave full support, and patronage for dance and other art forms.

Even the development of Thalas in Manipuri is still identified with the rule and period of individual kings.


Odissi another classical dance form received full royal patronage by different emperors of different era. According, to one of the inscriptions, King Kharavela of second century B.C. encouraged dance and music forms, by carving the figures of dancers and musicians in the caves. The Jaganath Temple of Puri was built during the reign of King Chodaganga Deva, who belonged to Ganga Dynasty and his dynasty lasted more than four decades. (The Ganga Dynasty lasted for more than four centuries). He introduced the Maharis (Devadasis) to serve in the Lord Jaganath temple, at Puri. Still his contribution to the art is recognized and celebrated in Orissa (earlier Orissa was called Orda Desh).

Interpreting the meaning of the songs through dance was generally done through hand gestures and facial expressions. This type of interpretation of songs through dance was introduced in Odissi, during the Suriya Dynasty. During this period, the Maharis were trained to perform dance inside the temples. Abinaya Chandrika which is still considered as a complete work on Odissi dance was written by Minister Mahakeswar Mohapatra of King Narayana Deva’s court.

Later the Odissi dancers were divided into three different categories, one was temple dancers, Maharis, and other was the royal court dancers, Nachunis, and the other was the Gotipuas, the male dancers who performed before the general public. With the passage of time due to the political changes, mainly during the Muslim and alien rule the dance lost the religious values, and the art was persevered for entertainment.

Generally most of the Indian classical dance forms enjoyed the royal patronage to some extent. Due to the royal patronage and encouragement all the Indian classical dance forms have developed and acquired worldwide recognition today.