Dance is considered to be of divine origin in India. According to the Hindu mythology, the gods and goddesses take great pleasure in dance, drama and mime and some are great dancers themselves. Shiva’s cosmic dance (‘Tandava), Parvati’s feminine response, Krishna’s romantic dances, as well as the dances of Kali, the fierce Goddess of destruction, have great significance in the Hindu thought and philosophy. The celestial courtesans or ‘Apsaras’ of Indra’s court, especially ‘Urvashi’, ‘Meneka’, ‘Rambha’ and ‘Tilottama’ are well versed in the art of music and dancing.
In India, dance finds an expression through sculpture, architecture, poetry, literature, music and theatre. There are several evidences pointing towards the popularity of dance in the Indian society since the Mesolithic period. The earliest evidence of dance in India was the discovery of a bronze figurine of a dancing girl from the Indus Valley Civilization excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, which goes back to at least 6000 B.C. Depiction of dance is also commonly found in many ancient cave paintings and sculptures at stupas and temples.
The first formal mention of dance is found in the renowned ancient text Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra’ (2 B.C.-2 A.D.), which is considered as the most comprehensive and vivid treatise on dramaturgy. It describes in detail the techniques of the Indian drama, dance and music, besides deliberating on different kinds of postures (‘mudras’) and emotions and their significance, the kinds of attires, ornaments, stage and even the audience.
According to the ‘Natya Shastra’, when Lord Brahma was requested by the gods to create a pastime, he had created drama. He then took words (‘pathya’) from the Rigveda, gesture (‘abhinaya’) from the Yajurveda, music and chant (‘geet’) from Samaveda and sentiment and emotional element (‘rasa’) from Atharvaveda to form the ‘Natya Veda’ or the ‘Fifth Veda’.
Although, the Indian dance is considered as extremely sensuous, the bliss (‘ananda’) it evokes is very spiritual. All the dances revolve around the nine ‘rasas’ or emotions: ‘krodha’ (anger), ‘hasya’ (happiness), ‘bhaya’ (fear), ‘bhibasta’ (disgust), ‘shoka’ (sorrow), ‘viram’ (courage), ‘adbhuta’ (wonder), ‘karuna’ (compassion) and ‘shanta’ (serenity). Though the dances differ from one another, the hand movements or ‘hasta mudras’ of the dancers remain essentially the same.
Nandikeshwara’s ‘Abhinaya Darpana’, which is an exhaustive manual on gesture and posture used in dance and drama, deals elaborately with the ‘angika-abhinaya’, which deals with gestures, postures and movements of the feet. The treatise mentions nine gestures of the head, eight gestures of the eyes, four gestures of the neck, twenty eight gestures of one hand and twenty three of both hands, besides gestures representing gods, deities and castes.
Indian dance is divided into three distinct elements: ‘nritta’ (rhythmic elements), ‘nritya’ (combination of rhythm with expression) and ‘natya’ (drama). The dance could express a powerful, strong, firm or the masculine aspect (‘tandava’) or the soft, flowing, subtle or the feminine aspect (‘lasya’). The themes for most of the Indian dances are taken from the ancient texts, the Epics and India’s rich mythology and folk legends.
Since Indian dance has traditionally been associated with religious or devotional aspect of life, every dance begins with a prayer. It is mentioned in ‘Abhinaya Darpana’ that “those who are versed in the ‘Science of Dance’ consider dancing as vulgar if the actress does not begin with a prayer”. After thriving for centuries in temples, the Indian classical dance reached the royal courts and received patronage under many dynasties. Dance concerts or public performances are a comparatively recent phenomenon. All forms of Indian dance, whether classical, modern or folk are immensely popular all over the world.
There are a number of classical and semi-classical dance forms in India, each of which is reflective of the culture and ethos of a region or a group of people. There are seven main classical dance styles in India, which include ‘Bharatanatyam’ of Tamil Nadu, ‘Kathakali’ and ‘Mohiniattam’ of Kerala, ‘Odissi’ of Orissa, ‘Kathak’ of Uttar Pradesh and other parts of North India, ‘Kuchipudi’ of Andhra Pradesh and ‘Manipuri Ras’ of Manipur.