Most Indian dances originated as temple dance where the dancers performed before the deity. In India there are six main forms of classical dance; the Bharat Natyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Odissi excluding the folk and tribal dances. The origin of these dances can be traced to Natyashastra and the Vedas. These dances follow the tradition of nritta and nrittya. The pure dance (nritta) is graceful, abstract rhythmic movements of foot, arms, hands, neck, eyes etc.Nrittya refers to enactments of stories and concepts, through verse (sahitya), hand movements (mudras), and facial expressions (abhinaya). The third element in the dance is the natya which enhances the visual impact of the dance on the spectator.
The mode of the dance is in two temperaments: tandava or the vigorous masculine movements and lasya or the slow feminine movement.
Bharat Natyam is said to have originated in Tamil Nadu (South India) and is one of the oldest forms of classical dance in India. Bharat Natyam is compounded from 'bha' the emotional projection, 'ra' for raga or melody and 'ta' for tala or rhythm and natyam means the art of dance.Bharat Natyam initially was performed for the deity by temple dancers (devdasis). Bharat Natyam dance begins with an invocation and concludes with a sloka (sacred sanskrit verse). This form of dance is concerned with physical balance and effortless limb movements. The key postures of this dance form requires the upper part of the body to be erect, the legs bent halfway down with the knees spread out, and the feet positioned like a half-open fan. The popular themes related to the dance are those of Nayak and Nayika (lover and beloved, hero and heroine) and special poems called padams. Padams normally are slow-paced with more enactment of emotion.
The word kathak derives from katha, a story. Kathak arose from the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures that took place during the Mughal period (1526-1761). With the arrival of Mughals in North India the emphasis of the dance moved from the religious to the aesthetic. Kathak was taken into the royal courts and developed into a sophisticated art form through the patronage of the Mughal rulers.
Kathak is characterized with gliding movements and the inherent grace. The kathak dancer stands with his/her back straight with one arm held vertically while the other is extended at shoulder height. With the body virtually still, many sequences entail the complex fast-paced execution of dance steps. Ghunghroo (anklets with 100 little bells) accentuate the footwork and the dancer. The costumes and themes of these dances are often similar to those in Mughal miniature paintings. Drums and the sarangi (a string instrument) accompany the dance.
Kathakali is a dance-drama that is characterized by vigor and boldness similar to the concept of tandava. It is said to have originated in Kerala, India. Kathakali dancers with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics. The Mahabharatha and the Ramayana. The three unique striking feature of this form of dance is the mudras: 24 mudras (hand and finger gestures ) form a sophisticated language; complete control of the eye balls and the different muscles in the face; flexibility and complete control of all part of the body. The exaggerated head-dress and movements marks this form of dance.In kathakali the ideas and the emotions are all communicated through physical movements which makes this dance form very strenuous.
Kathakali is performed with various instruments and singers. There are two singers who accompany the main actor. The ponnani (lead singer) holds a heavy gong that is struck with a banana-root stick and the second singer plays large cymbals. Harmonium, conch shell, drums all add to the special effect.
Kuchipudi derives its name from the village Kuchelapuram in Southern India. Kuchipudi performances are dance dramas, commonly referred as Ata Bhagavatham. Originally kuchipudi was enacted in the open air theatres and was exclusively prerformed by men. In recent years kuchipudi has evolved as a solo dance and is practised and performed by women too.
Kuchipudi performances include fast elegant footwork and body movements. In this dance form each principal character introduces himself or herself on the stage with a daru: a small composition of dance and song, specially designed to identify the character.
Kuchipudi is accompanied by Carnatic music. Some special Kuchipudi performances include those of dancing on brass plates and moving the plate with the feet to the tune of accompanying music or tracing out an outline of a lion or an elephant with the feet on the floor.