Indian Classical Dance Forms (ICDs): Three Dimensions of Analysing Their Unity and Diversity

Mrs Ojasi Sukhatankar

Sri Aurobindo Sadhana Kendra, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India

Volume 6, Number 1, 2016Full Text PDF


This article studies eight Indian classical dance forms (ICDs) with the help of ancient Indian theory of performing art comprised of the Natyashastra and Abhinaya-Darpana. The analysis shows how all ICDs enjoy the feature of ‘unity in diversity’, how all are united in theory and yet are diversified in practice. Each of the two attributes, ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, are analysed in terms of three dimensions or aspects that stand as building-blocks for the art of dance (nritya). The three dimensions discussed are namely, technical (nritta), expressional (natya) and musical aspect (geetam and vadyam). The article gives illustrations and diagrammatic representations at appropriate places. It also reveals the interdependency of these three aspects and their inseparability from dance, throwing light on the huge scope for further analysis under this topic which is technically endless.

Keywords: Abhinaya-Darpana, Indian Classical Dance, Natya, Natyashastra, Nritta, ShastraIntroduction:

Sangeet Natak Akademi (also called as the National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama) set up by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, has recognised India has eight classical dance forms. They come under a single umbrella term: Indian Classical Dance (henceforth referred as ICD). The eight ICDs originate from different states and communities of the nation and are named as follows.

  1. Kathak from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan
  2. Manipuri from Manipur
  3. Odissi from Orissa
  4. Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh
  5. Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu
  6. Kathakali from Kerala
  7. Mohiniyattam from the borders of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and
  8. Sattriya from Assam (Ministry of Culture, 2016)

Each of these dances has a uniqueness of its own. Each is vividly distinguishable from the rest all in terms of its traditional repertoire of dance-movements, dancing-style, conventional structure of performance, traditionally choreographed repertoire of dance-items, musical accompaniment, and so on. And yet all the eight have strong commonalities among each other. That is, they all are thoroughly ‘Indian’ and ‘classical’ in their artistic spirit, their nature and culture, and their roots are founded in ancient Indian theory of performing arts (Massey, 1999; Garg 1996; Coomaraswamy, Duggirala, 1917). This theory is comprised of two treatises namely the Natyashastra and Abhinaya-Darpana [i].

In other words, all eight ICDs are like sister-dance-forms that originated from the lands of the same Mother India and yet are individual entities. They inherit from their motherland one of her prominent features; the feature of ‘unity in diversity’. This article analyses this wonderful co-existence of unity and diversity of ICDs. Analysis of each, ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, is done in regard with three dimensions or aspects which are the building blocks for the performing-art of dance (Nritya). They are;

  1. Technical Aspect (Nritta)
  2. Expressional Aspect (Natya), and
  3. Musical Aspect (Geetam and Vadyam) [ii] (Nagar, 2011).

 Why are ICDs called Shastriya Nritya?

The original Sanskrit name for ICD is Bharatiya shastriya nritya. Bharat is the original name of India. Bharatiya nritya means Indian dance. However the word shastriya does not mean classical.

A classical art literally means a traditional art of a great quality, or, art which is historically well-established and cherished within a given community or society at large (Merriam Webster, 2016; Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). The term shastriya on the other hand comes from Sanskrit word shastra which means science. Shastriya then refers to that which is scientific in its nature. Considering India’s centuries-old religious and cultural tradition of dance, ICDs are truly classical. However, when we look at them closely, one comes to know about their shastriyattwa or their scientific nature.

The shastra or science which is applied in all ICDs today comes from epics Natyashastra and Abhinaya-Darpana. The theory mentioned in these epics is truly scientific because it expounds all the three branches of performing art (dance, music and drama) in the manner of a logical, technical and methodical analysis. It studies all the three branches independently as well as interdependently. Although written thousands of years ago, this ancient theory of performing art is still found to be intrinsic to the practice of every ICD even today. This is because, it touches its subject-matter in the widest range and also analyses it in minutest detail. It coins numerous technical terms and ideas that are used by an individual artist or a group to express their art and communicate it to audience. It studies all the variety of elements that are required for successfully creating and performing an art-work in a theatrical environment. It studies dance from its technical aspect of mere bodily gestures (nritta), and at the same time it explains how drama (natya) and music (geetam and vadyam) are inseparably present in dance. What is pursued by dancers as their classical tradition is indeed this scientific nature of dance.

As already mentioned, all ICDs are rooted in this shastriyattwa or the scientific nature. This is now discussed in regard with all the three dimensions one by one.

 Technical Aspect (Nritta Theory) of ICDs:

Nritta is the technical aspect of dance that looks at dancer’s bodily gestures without looking at its dramatic aspect (Bhate, 2004). It also does not focus on the musical aspect of bodily gestures such as tempo, rhythm et cetera. It rather focuses on, mainly, two things:

  1. The actual gestures or movements that are danced, and
  2. The dancer’s body which executes those movements.

This study includes classification and nomenclature of various co-ordinated hands- and feet-gestures (karanas), walking manners (chaari and gati), pirouettes or spins (bhramari), and jumps (utplawan) that are used in dance (Bhagyalekshmy, 2005; Bhate, 2004). In connection to these movements, the nritta theory classifies human body into various major and minor body-parts (ang, pratyang, upang). This classification is done according to their overall usage in dance-movements. For example, in any dance-movement that is done by using arms, the use of arms themselves becomes primary, whereas shoulders, elbows and wrists move only in coordination with arms. Hence arms are classified as major body-parts (ang), whereas shoulders and wrists are categorised as secondary body-parts (pratyang). Lastly, fingers always contribute to the movement in a furthermore minute fashion and hence they are put under the category of minor body-parts (upang). (Bhate, 2004). In this way, this approach of analysis departs from the study of dance-movements and then gets linked with the study of human body.

Furthermore, the nritta theory elaborates in how many various ways each of such ang, pratyang and upang can be utilised in dance. Accordingly, each such manner of movement is given an appropriate nomenclature and description such as types of head-movement (shiro-bhed), eye-movement (drushti-bhed), usages of palms and fingers (hasta-bhed or mudra), and so on (Bhagyalekshmy, 2005; Bhate, 2004). This approach of study travels in opposite direction. It starts with the analysis of various body-parts and then joins the analysis with a variety of dance-movements.

This logical, methodical analysis of dance-movements and human body makes the nature of nritta truly scientific.

Expressional Aspect (Natya Theory) of ICDs:

Whereas nritta includes the study of human body and gestures, natya includes the study of human emotions and personalities. It classifies emotions (rasa) or moods (bhaav) of a human being into eight states each [iii]. It intricately classifies male and female personalities based on various factors (nayak-nayika-bhed). This classification shows how persons of different type, age, nature and life-experience relate with others, and respond differently in different situations of life. (Rangacharya, 2010; Massey, 2004). This theory thus reveals its deeper understanding of human psychology, society, culture and life in general. It forms the aesthetic and expressional underpinning of all the themes and stories that are expressed in a performance.

The natya theory further deepens with the analysis of various ways by which the themes or stories can be effectively communicated to audience (rasa-bhaav-vichar). Under this study of effective communication, it classifies abhinaya (the art of expressing) into four parts namely bodily expressions (angik), spoken expressions (vachik), expressions through clothing and attire (aharya) and fourth, the inner state of moods and emotions which are held by the dancer during a performance (sattwik abhinaya) (Rangacharya, 2010).

In this way the natya theory of ICDs meticulously analyses both:

  1. Critical study of man’s individual and social psychology, and
  2. Effective performance of themes or stories (abhinaya), and their successful communication to audience, through dance.

Finally, this scientific analysis of natya does not remain separate from the anatomical aspect of bodily movements (nritta). For example, the Natyashastra explains which type of bodily movement can be used to express what type of emotion. Some illustrations are: eyeballs moved up and down rapidly (anuvrutta drushti) can be used to express anger towards another person, head bent downward (adhomukha shira) can be used to show sorrow, and so on (Dadhich, 2010; Bhate, 2004).

 Musical Aspect (Geetam and Vadyam Theory) of ICDs:

The Natyashastra gives a broad theory about both vocal / lyrical music (geetam) and instrumental music (vadyam). Under each, it provides numerous technical terms and explains their usage. All ICDs intricately adhere to a musical accompaniment that is rooted in these theoretical terms, such as taal, laya, jaati, raga, swara, shruti, naad, dhwani and so on. This study is so huge and intricate that most of these elements comprise a complete shastra or a theory in itself. Such theories are referred to as taal-shastra (science of taal), swara-shastra (science of musical notes) and so on (Ranjangaokar, 2005).

In case of dance, this musical aspect is inseparable from both other aspects: nritta and natya. That is, in any ICD performance, a dancer’s gestures are always intricately synchronised with accompanying music. These gestures are choreographed on particular syllables. These syllables (bols) are pronounced vocally by an accompanying vocalist and are in a melodious harmony with the chief accompanying musical instrument. In cases where natya is to be expressed more predominantly than nritta, syllables are often replaced by lyrics which are often sung by an accompanying singer. In this way every traditional ICD-gesture remains inseparable from its music.

 Practice of Shastra as Found in ICDs:

As seen above, the science of ICDs is comprehensive. It studies all its aspects independently as well as interdependently, in its theoretical as well as practical detail of a dance-performance. Question arises at this junction; how could a variety of distinct dance-forms emerge whereas this theory is one and the same? In other words, how could diversity emerge from unity? Or, how is it that unity and diversity co-exist in all ICDs? The answer lies largely in the history of ICDs and, in the way they have been practised since their individual origins.

The birth and development of ICDs took place in different communities which were spread across the nation. The socio-cultural, religious, geographical, political, economic and linguistic settings of all these states or communities have been largely diversified. This in turn affected the way in which various ICDs developed in various states. Moreover, this development involved creative contributions from innumerable artists. This continued for many centuries. (Sardana, 2016; Anon, 2015; Venkataraman, Pasricha, 2002). Finally today, each ICD holds a unique identity of its own. That is, if all eight ICDs are performed on stage one after the other, the audience finds each ICD to be distinctly unique than all others in terms of dance-movements, dancing-style, structure of performance, choreography of dance-items, musical accompaniment, and so on. In view of this history and practice of ICDs, it sounds logical that a common theory practiced differently by different communities over a span of thousands of years could culminate into dance-forms that are totally unique in themselves and vividly distinguishable from one another.

These distinctions are found in all three aspects of ICDs: technical (nritta), expressional (natya) and musical (geetam and vadyam). It is not possible to list all distinctions as they are innumerable. Hence few samples are given below…Full Text PDF

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