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Monday , January 30 2023

Dance … poet of the soul

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Reshma U. Raj

‘Through synergy of intellect, artistry and grace came into existence the blessing of a dancer’ – Shah Azad Rizi, Sufi poet.

Dance is poetry in motion. It is a form of vibration in our body and mind. It is Yoga. Indian classical dance is the pathway to divine bliss for anyone who indulges in it. A dancer can only reach this stage through continuous practice or ‘Sadhana’. A child who enters the world of classical dance must undergo rigorous training from which they learn discipline and patience which are the most important factors in one’s life. In a world dominated by technology where we rely on it for each and everything, physical activity has almost come to a standstill for children and they have various issues on their physical and mental well-being. Classical dance conditions the total body of a dancer so that a child gets complete physical fitness and a balance between the body and mind. One may wonder how it is possible to bring such harmony between the mind and body. The synchronized movements of the hands and legs, the coordinated movements of the eyes and limbs result in increased concentration levels. It is observed that as the children progress in their learning of Indian classical dance, they benefit from lesser stress levels and inculcate a feeling of positivity and confidence which they carry throughout their life. Dance is a mode of expression of our feelings and thoughts. Indian classical dance is a proof of the rich cultural heritage of India, hence when one learns Indian classical dance, they discover the myriad facets of Indian culture. It is therefore obvious that education in aesthetics is as essential as intellectual or physical education. Man can never be complete or balanced unless his emotions are trained, developed and sublimated, and herein comes the need for introducing art in our educational curriculum as a compulsory subject.

India is a country rich in its diverse culture and heritage. This diversity can be seen in Indian classical dance also. There are 8 different forms of dance namely Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri and Sattriya. These dance forms originate from different states of India and they have their own unique style of presentation. It is beautiful to observe how one can connect to the inner self through these art forms as it requires mindfulness and alertness to imbibe the different moves. While each different dance form has a distinctive geometry that the dancer has to follow while dancing, the dancer develops synchronicity between the mind and body, which can also be explained as oneness between the movements and the emotions. 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. All eight classical dance forms 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’.

Most children enter the world of classical dance by the age of 6 so that they can understand various factors like rhythm and various hand gestures used. Each hand gesture has a distinctive meaning attached to it. Hence, using the hand gestures, anything can be conveyed to the audience. There is a structure of training that the student must go through to master at least half of the important aspects of classical dance. There is no quick solution or action plan to learn Indian classical dance. One must have the perseverance to learn this art form unceasingly as it is a vast ocean that does not have an end.

Classical Dance is the highest form of art. It traces it’s origin from the ancient text Natya Shasthra which contains the precise definitions of every concept used in Indian classical dance. Three main components form the basis of classical dances. They are natya, the dramatic element of the dance, nritta, pure dance, in which the rhythms and phrases of the music are reflected in the decorative movements of the hands and body and in the stamping of the feet; and nritya, the portrayal of mood through facial expression, hand gesture, and position of the legs and feet. ‘Abhinaya’ is the expressional characteristic of dance or ‘nritya’. There are four types of ‘Abhinaya’ and these are – Angika Abhinaya: Use of body and limbs, Vachika Abhinaya: Use of song and speech, Aharya Abhinaya: Use of costumes and adornment, Satvika Abhinaya – use of moods and emotions. Abhinaya involves the critical study of man’s individual and social psychology, and effective performance of themes or stories, and their successful communication to audience, through dance.

‘Navarasas’ or the nine emotions of dance completes the essence of abhinaya. The ‘Navarasas’ are very significant in a dance act, since it permits the dancer and the ‘rasikas’ or the audiences to experience the full splendor and meaning of the lyrics. One can relate to the Navarasas as the emotional aspect of the human mind that we feel throughout our lifetime. The 9 emotions in classical dance are Shringara (love), Hasya (laughter), Karuna (sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bheebhatsya (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), and Shantha (peace or tranquility). Different compositions have different moods and themes that mostly use any one of the navarasas as the dominant emotion. While performing any dance number, the dancer must have a clear understanding of the underlying feeling or emotion of the poet and must convey the intended meaning to the audience. Abhinaya is further divided into two methods of expression – Natyadharmi and Lokadharmi. Natyadharmi pertains to a very conventional method of expression which is very stylized. Lokadharmi refers to that mode of representation that deals with the worldly activity of people. While Lokadharmi does not insist on a prescribed code of gestures, it can have its own mode of exaggeration. Each form of classical dance uses its own stylized and customized technique of abhinaya.


Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular classical Indian dances. It is more popular in South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and is almost 2,000 years old. It is believed that Bharatanatyam was revealed by Brahma to Bharata, a famous sage who then codified this sacred dance in a Sanskrit text called the Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra and Abhinayadarpana are the fundamental treatises on Indian performing arts and aesthetics. Due credit must be given to Rukmini Devi Arundale (Founder of Kalakshetra) and Balasarawati for reviving this art form. A traditional repertoire or a margam consists of the following items – Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, Javali and Thillana. Like all major classical Indian dance forms, Bharatanatyam follows the three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra namely Nritta, Nritya and Natya.

The Nritta performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The viewer is presented with pure movement in Bharatanatyam, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern. This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses of the audience.

The Nritya is slower and the expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings through a storyline particularly with spiritual themes. In Nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The actor articulates a legend or a spiritual message. This part of a Bharatanatyam repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment as it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.

The Natyam is a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. Natya incorporates the elements of Nritya.


Kathak is one of the most important classical dances of India. Kathak is said to be derived from the word katha, meaning “the art of storytelling”. The Kathak dance form originated in north India. Kathak is found in three distinct forms, called “gharanas”, named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved – Jaipur, Banaras and Lucknow. While the Jaipur gharana focuses more on the foot movements, the Banaras and Lucknow gharanas focus more on facial expressions and graceful hand movements. Stylistically, the Kathak dance form emphasizes rhythmic foot movements, adorned with small bells (Ghungroo), and the movement harmonized to the music. The legs and torso are generally straight, and the story is told through a developed vocabulary based on the gestures of arms and upper body movement, facial expressions, stage movements, bends and turns. The focus of the dance becomes the eyes and the foot movements. The eyes work as a medium of communication of the story the dancer is trying to communicate.


Kathakali is the classical dance form of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means “Story-Play”. Kathakali is known for its heavy, elaborate makeup and costumes. In fact, the colorful and fascinating costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognized icon of Kerala. Kathakali is considered as one of the most magnificent theatres of imagination and creativity. Kathakali dance presents themes derived from the mythological texts such as Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Indian epics. Kathakali’s roots are unclear. The fully developed style of Kathakali originated around the 17th century, but its roots are in the temple and folk arts (such as Kutiyattam). A Kathakali performance, like all classical dance arts of India, synthesizes music, vocal performers, choreography and hand and facial gestures together to express ideas. However, Kathakali differs in that as it also incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions of South India. Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is long, starting at dusk and continuing through dawn, with interludes and breaks for the performers and audience. Some plays continued over several nights, starting at dusk everyday. Modern performances are shorter. The stage is mostly bare, or with a few drama-related items. One item, called a Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp), can be traced back to Kuttiyattam. In both traditions, the performance happens in the front of a huge Kalivilakku with its thick wick sunk in coconut oil, burning with a yellow light. Traditionally, before the advent of electricity, this special large lamp provided light during the night. As the play progressed, the actor-dancers would gather around this lamp so that audience could see what they are expressing.

The performance involves actor-dancers in the front, supported by musicians in the background stage on right (audience’s left) and with vocalists in the front of the stage (historically so they could be heard by the audience before the age of microphone and speakers). Typically, all roles are played by male actor-dancers, though in modern performances, women have been welcomed into the Kathakali tradition. Kathakali follows the text called Hastha Lakshanadeepika most closely, unlike other classical dances of India.


Kuchipudi is one of the classical dance forms of the South India. Kuchipudi derives its name from the Kuchipudi village of Andhra Pradesh. It exhibits scenes from the Indian mythological stories through a combination of music, dance and acting. Like other classical dances, Kuchipudi also comprises of pure dance, mime and histrionics but it is the use of speech that distinguishes Kuchipudi’s presentation as dance drama. A Kuchipudi performance traditionally is a night performance, when rural families return from their farms and are free of their daily work. It has been performed in or next to a temple, and the stage lit by the yellow lights of castor oil burning torches. The dance-drama begins with an invocation which may be an on-stage prayer to the deity of good beginnings.

The conductor of the performance enters the stage and introduces all the actors and the characters they play, who are revealed behind a curtain, and when each actor arrives, colored resin is thrown into the flame of one or more torches for dramatic color effects and audience’s attention. Each actor performs a short dance called the Pravesa Daru accompanied by a short musical piece, as the vocalist describes his or her role. The conductor is typically present throughout the performance, on the stage, explains the play, talks and humors the audience. After the actors have been introduced, the Nritta part of the Kuchipudi performance starts. The actors present a pure dance (Jatis or Jatiswarams), performed rhythmically to a musical raga, and these are called Sollakath or Patakshara. A basic unit of dance in Kuchipudi is called an Adugu (or adugulu), and these correspond to the karanas in Natya Shastra. Each basic unit combines hand and foot movement into a harmonious Sthana (posture) and Chari (gait), that visually appeals to the audience wherever he or may be sitting. Each dance unit, according to the ancient text, is best performed to certain recitation of mnemonic syllables and musical beat. A series of karana form a jati, formalized originally as an oral tradition through Sanskrit mnemonics, later written, and these form the foundation of what is performed in Nritta sequence of Kuchipudi.

Thereafter comes the Nritya, the expressive part called Abhinaya, and this is the heart of the play. The actor-dancer uses hand mudras and facial expressions inspired by the sign language in ancient Sanskrit texts, with an exacting footwork, to communicate the underlying story to the audience. A solo play or solo part of the performance is called a Shabdam, and this may be set to a poem, a verse or a prose. A Varnam combines dance with mime in order to draw out and express the Rasa (emotional state), and this can be solo or group. Parts set to poetry that are love lyrics or express deeper sentiments are called a Padam, and this part constitutes expressing the emotional, the allegorical and the spiritual aspects of the play.


Manipuri dance is indigenous to Manipur, the North eastern state of India. The Manipuri dance style is inextricably woven into the life pattern of Manipuri people. The most striking part of Manipur dance is its colorful decoration, lightness of footwork, delicacy of Abhinaya or facial expressions. The Manipuri dance form is mostly ritualistic and draws heavily from the rich culture of the state of Manipur. The roots of Manipuri dance, as with all classical Indian dances, is the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, with influences and the culture fusion between various local folk dance forms. The traditional Manipuri dance style embodies delicate, lyrical and graceful movements. The dance features rounded soft and delicate movements of women, and occasional fast movements by male characters. Unlike other classical Indian dances, the Manipuri dance artists do not wear anklet bells and the footwork is subdued and gentle in the Manipuri style. The stage movements is part of a composite movement of the whole body.

Chali or Chari is the basic dance movement in Manipuri Ras dances. The repertoire and underlying play depend on the season. The dances are celebrated on full moon nights, three times in autumn (August through November) and once again in spring (March or April) The Vasant Ras is timed with the festival of colors called Holi, while others are timed with post-harvest festivals of Diwali and others. The plays and songs recited during the dance performance center around the love and frolics between Radha and Krishna, in the presence of Gopis named Lalita, Vishakha, Chitra, Champaklata, Tungavidya, Indurekha, Rangadevi and Sudevi. There is a composition and dance sequence for each Gopi, and the words have two layers of meanings, one literal and other spiritual. The longest piece of the play focuses on Radha and Krishna. The dancer playing Krishna expresses emotions, while the body language and hand gestures of the Gopi display their feelings such as longing, dejection or cheer. In other plays, the Manipuri dancers are more forceful, acrobatic and their costumes adjust to the need of the dance. Dozens of boys synchronously dance the Gopa Ras, where they enact the chores of daily life. The traditional Manipuri Ras Lila is performed in three styles – Tal Rasak, Danda Rasak and Mandal Rasak. A Tal Rasak is accompanied with clapping, while Danda Rasak is performed by synchronous beat of two sticks but the dancers position it differently to create geometric patterns. The Mandal Rasak places the Gopis in a circle and the Krishna character in the center.


Mohiniattam is a classical dance form of Kerala. Although most references claim Mohiniyattam as the dance of the enchantress, Dr Kanake Rele beautifully describes this dance form as follows – “In the myth associated with the dance form, Vishnu performed an enchanting dance. In this case, Vishnu does not become Mohini; rather he transforms himself into the form of an enchantingly beautiful woman. Due to this transformation, there is an element of enchantment that deludes the ‘Asura’ or demon into viewing Mohini, as an enchantress, which is once again just Maya or illusion. From this point of view, Mohini only enchants and does not lure. In fact, Mohini is just a name by which the divine power should be called in the context of the episodes where she is an incarnation of Vishnu who is performing his designated function of assuming sentient form to destroy evil. Then how can Mohini perform ‘dance of enchantress’? She performs a dance, which has an enchanting quality, which is lyrical in its form and has ‘lyricism’ in its content. Mohiniyattam is the ‘lyrical dance’. Mohiniyattam is a lasya subgenre of dance, performed in the Kaisiki Vritti (graceful style), as discussed in ancient Indian performance arts texts such as the Natya Shastra. Mohiniyattam is characterized by graceful, swaying body movements with no abrupt jerks or sudden leaps.The movements are emphasized by the glides and the up and down movement on toes, like the waves of the sea and the swaying of the coconut, palm trees and the paddy fields. More specifically, it is a dance that excels in Ekaharya Abhinaya form, that is a solo expressive dance performance aided by singing and music. The repertoire sequence of Mohiniyattam is similar to that of Bharatanatyam. It contains seven items that are performed to a structure described in classical dance texts: Cholkettu an invocation, Jatiswaram or more precisely Swarajati, Varnam, Padam and Thillana.

A strong revival of this dance form was done by Maharaja Swati Tirunal, who ascended the throne when he was barely 16 years old in 1829. He promoted all fine arts, particularly music and dancing. During his reign there was a flow of artists and scholars from all parts of India to Travancore, the region of the Kerala Maharajas. It was during that time, Swati Tirunal, along with his court musicians (Kilimanoor Vidwan Koyil Tampuran and Irayimman Tampi) was engaged in developing Mohiniyattam. Vadivelu of the Tanjore Quartet structured Mohiniyattam with a proper repertoire that included Chollukettu (the first invocatory item in Mohiniyattam), Jatiswaram, Padavarnam, Padam and Tillana. The dance was then performed by the Devadasi Sugandhavalli. Maharaja Swati Tirunal himself composed several Padams or poems in Malayalam, Telugu and Sanskrit which dancers eagerly embraced. The Hasthalakshana Deepika is the prime reference source of Mohiniyattam.


Odissi is one of the famous classical Indian dances from Odisha. The history of Odissi dance is almost two thousand years old. Odissi is a highly inspired, passionate, ecstatic and sensuous form of dance. Like most of the South Indian classical dances of India, Odissi too had its origin in the Devadasi tradition. Traditional Odissi repertoire sequence starts with an invocation called Mangalacharana. A Shloka (hymn) in praise of a deity is sung, the meaning of which is expressed through dance. Mangalacharana is followed by Pushpanjali (offering of flowers) and Bhumi Pranam (salutation to mother earth). The invocation also includes Trikhandi Pranam or the three-fold salutation – to the divine power, the Gurus (teachers) and to the Lokas and Rasikas (fellow dancers and audience). The next sequential step in an Odissi performance is Batu, also known as Battu Nrutya or Sthayee Nrutya or Batuka Bhairava. It is fast pace or pure dance (Nritta). There is no song or recitation accompanying this part of the dance, just rhythmic music. This pure dance sequence in Odissi builds up to a Pallavi which is often slow, graceful & lyrical movements of the eyes, neck, torso & feet & slowly builds in a crescendo to climax in a fast tempo at the end. Kelucharan Mohapatra, Gangadhar Pradhan, Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das and Raghunath Dutta were the four major gurus who revived Odissi in the late forties and early fifties. Sanjukta Panigrahi was a leading disciple of Kelucharan Mohapatra who popularized Odissi by performing in India and abroad. In the mid-sixties, three other disciples of Kelucharan Mohapatra, Kumkum Mohanty and Sonal Mansingh, were known for their performances in India and abroad.

The three primary dance positions in Odissi are:

Samabhanga – the square position, with weight equally placed on the two legs, spine straight, arms raised up with elbows bent.

Abhanga – the body weight shifts from side to side, due to deep leg bends, while the feet and knees are turned outwards, and one hip extending sideways.

Tribhanga – is an S-shaped three-fold bending of body, with torso deflecting in one direction while the head and hips deflecting in the opposite direction of torso. Further, the hands and legs frame the body into a composite of two squares (rectangle), providing an aesthetic frame of reference. This is described in the ancient Sanskrit texts, and forms of it are found in other Indian dance arts. Mudras or Hastas are hand gestures which are used to express the meaning of a given act. Like all classical dances of India, the aim of Odissi is in part to convey emotions, mood and inner feelings in the story by appropriate hand and facial gestures.


Sattriya is a classical dance of the northern Indian state Assam and traces its roots to ancient drama and music texts of India, particularly the Natya Shasthra. The modern form of Sattriya started evolving from the 15th century, where along with drama, expressive dancing was also included. Traditionally, Sattriya was performed only by male monks in monasteries as a part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, Sattriya is also performed on stage by men and women on themes not merely mythological. The Sattriya dance form was introduced in the 15th century AD by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Mahapurusha Sankaradeva as a powerful medium for propagation of the Vaishnava faith. The dance form evolved and expanded as a distinctive style of dance later. Sankaradeva introduced this dance form by incorporating different elements from various treatises, local folk dances with his own rare outlook. There were two dance forms prevalent in Assam before the neo-Vaishnava movement such as Ojapali and Devadasi with many classical elements. Two varieties of Ojapali dances are still prevalent in Assam i.e. Sukananni or Maroi Goa Ojah and Vyah Goa Ojah. Sukananni Oja Paali is of Sakti cult and Vyah Goa Oja paali is of Vaishnava cult. The dancers in Oja paali chorus not only sing and dance but also explain the narration by gestures and stylized movements. As far as Devadasi dance is concerned, resemblance of a good number of rhythmic syllables and dance postures along with footwork with Sattriya dance is a clear indication of the influence of the former on the latter. Other visible influences on Sattriya dance are those from Assamese folk dances namely Bihu, Bodos etc. Many hand gestures and rhythmic syllables are strikingly similar in these dance forms. Over the years, Sattriya Nritya has received greater acceptance and patronage both outside the state of Assam, and outside India.

Why must one learn Indian Classical dance?

Happiness is the key to a positive life and learning and performing classical dance can create wonders in ones emotional mindset.

A balance between the body and mind can be achieved by learning the virtue of calmness and composure.

One can imbibe strong cultural values by knowing about the ancient texts and scriptures.

It can act as a relief and can also heal mental and physical trauma as per scientific studies. The emotions that are let out through dance cause a sense of connection to the divine power enabling us to feel serene.

It offers many therapies and benefits to handicapped children e.g. improves body balance and mind-limb coordination. Can be taught to visually and hearing-impaired individuals as well.

Indian classical dance has been described as the top of the pyramid of all other art forms. A student or performer is exposed to the Indian languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi etc. and the music compositions adorned in poetic beauty. The literature and ethos of the dance compositions are based on mythology, customs and traditions still alive in the country. The dancer brings about the grand synthesis of all the arts in them thus making the student of dance is an all-rounder of arts.

“Dance is the narration of a magical story; that recites on lips, illuminates imaginations and embraces the most sacred depths of souls”. Two creative and immensely talented artists who have created a wave in and outside India are Reshma U. Raj (Kuchipudi exponent) and Dimple Saikia (Saattriya exponent) who have a taken a step beyond the norms and raised the platform of Indian classical dance to a higher level. Kuwait is eagerly awaiting their performance this month.

Reshma U. Raj – Kuchipudi exponent

A prodigy who broke all barriers of complexity in Kuchipudi is Reshma U. Raj, a disciple of Smt V. Mythili and Smt Girija Chandran since the age of 3. She is currently undergoing training under Gurus Shri Vempati Ravi Shankar and Vempati Priyanka. Reshma is the only keralaite who has acquired the skill of mastering the jewel of Kuchipudi – Simhanandini. Simhanandini is a unique art where the dancer sketches a lion, the Simhavahanam or the mount of Durga, while dancing on a white cloth spread over red coloured powder. The audience of Kuwait will be blessed to witness this beautiful item which is going to be performed for the first time in the gulf.

Awards and felicitation

Received the Indian Presidents national Balashree award for creative performance in 2000.

Conferred the young talent award in 2017, instituted by South zone cultural centre, Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

Winner of Kalathilakam for Kerala youth festival at the district level in 2002.

Graded artist of Doordarshan.

Dimple Saikia — Saattriya exponent

Dimple Saikia is one of the most accomplished dancers of Saattriya who started training under her father – Guru Govind Saikia who is an exponent of this dance form. She has passed “Gunin” (B.muse) of sattriya dance from ‘Sangit Satra Pariksha Parishad’ with Distinction under the guidance of Guru Gobinda Saikia. She has received several scholarships from Sangeeth Natak Akademi, CCRT and so on for her exceptional dedication and commitment. Few of her accolades are

“Perona Bota — 2017” award from “Uttar Purvanchal Perona Samonnoy Unnayan Charitable Trust”in 2017.

Awarded “Padmabati Rastriya Yuva Prativa Puraskar, at Jayadev Rastriya Samaroh, Bhubaneswar for Sattriya Dance in 2017.

Selected to the panel of artists for participation in the Festival of India Abroad cell in P- Promising category by Ministry of Culture, Govt of India.

Empaneled artist at Spicmacay in the field of Sattriya for Workshop Demonstration.

 It is a great sense of achievement to see the young and talented artists doing their best to promote Indian Art away from their motherland. It is a positive sign to see people from diverse cultures entering the world of Indian Classical Dance. There is no doubt that this has given them scientific and emotional benefits for their well-being allowing the divine power to flow through each soul who takes a dip into this vast ocean of knowledge.

This article was compiled by Mrs Vinitha Pratish, a Computer Engineer by profession, a Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer by passion and the Artistic Director of Srishti School of Classical Dance, Kuwait and Srishti Productions. Email — vinitha.pratish@gmail.com;  vinithasrishti; srishtiproductions.

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