8 Dancers Who Shaped Indian Classical Dance As We Know It Today

Posted on 6 October, 2016 by Team Wishberry

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While Indian classical dance has an ancient history, there was a time when they were all but dying a slow death. However, as all art forms undergo a revival and return with a glorious bang, so did Indian classical dance. And these are the stalwarts who were at the helm of not only taking these dance forms to their peak glory, but also making it accessible to all.

Uday Shankar

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Uday Shankar is known as the Father of Modern Dance in India. And rightly so. He initiated a revival movement of classical Indian dances in 1930. Although he had no formal training in dance, it was his creativity and innovative techniques that brought him widespread fame. He travelled widely across the globe and integrated his global learnings into Indian classical dance. He started his own dance school in 1938, where he invited notable dancers and performers from various parts of the country to teach their respective dance forms.

Birju Maharaj

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Pandit Birju Maharaj is the direct descendant of Ishwari Prasad, who is said to be the first known Kathak teacher. Considered to be a child prodigy, he was invited to teach Kathak at Sangeet Bharati in Delhi at the young age of thirteen. He’s known for his experiments with dance-drama and Kathak, infusing the two in unique and previously unseen ways. His innovative efforts with Kathak have not only made Kathak a widely known dance form, but also taken it to new heights in India today.

Mrinalini Sarabhai

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Mrinalini Sarabhai is remembered as India’s cultural icon, most celebrated danseuse and a loyal patron of the arts. Mrinalini Sarabhai is credited with bringing Bharatnatyam out of its Devdaasi shadows. She’s the pioneer of making Bharatnatyam not only an acceptable dance form outside temples, but also a very respectable one. Along with her husband, the legendary Vikram Sarabhai, she started the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, and has contributed immensely to Gujarat’s classical dance scene.

Mallika Sarabhai

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No piece about pioneers of Indian classical dance is complete without a worthy mention of Mallika Sarabhai. Mallika Sarabhai is a celebrated Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam dancer. Daughter of dance stalwart Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika showed signs of immense talent early on. She started performing in her teenage years itself, and has created a unique style of contemporary dance forms. She took over the reins of Darpana, and later also launched ‘Darpana for Development’ – an initiative focusing on performance art as a language for change.

Rukmini Arundale

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Rukmini Arundale is one of the pioneers of the renaissance of Indian classical music. She’s also a trained ballerina, after having met the legendary Anna Pavlova on a ship. It was on Anna’s behest that Rukmini Devi turned her attention to classical Indian dances, which were then being marred by infamy. Although coming from an upper-caste family, Rukmini Devi advocated Bharatnatyam, and had a huge role to play in the upliftment of the dance form. She is also featured on India Today’s list of ‘100 People Who Shaped India’.

Sonal Mansingh

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Sonal Mansingh is one of the most celebrated exponents of Odissi and Bharatnatyam. She founded the Centre for Indian Classical Dances (CICD) in New Delhi in 1977, and since then has influenced many dancers who have further gone on to win critical acclaim and accolades. She’s also trained in Chhau and Indian music, and uses her talent to shed light on contemporary issues concerning the welfare of women and the environment.

Singhajit Singh

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Singhajit Singh is one of the most illustrious Manipuri dancers. He has played a crucial role in popularizing the Manipuri dance among the youth, several of whom have gone on to garner international acclaim. He founded his own dance institution called the Manipuri Nrityashram in 1998, in order to make traditional dance forms more accessible. He’s known for incorporating innovative techniques as well as other Manipuri dance forms such as Thang-ta, Nata-sankirtana, Lai-haraoba and Rasleela into the traditional Manipuri framework.


Image Courtesy: CenterForWorldMusic.org

Balasaraswati started training in Bharatnatyam at the age of four. She was the first ever performer to perform Bharatnatyam outside of South India. She has travelled and showcased Bharatnatyam across the globe, therefore putting Indian classical dance on the global map. Her performances have won the appreciation of dance maestros from around the world including Shambhu Maharaj, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Martha Graham, among others. She is also the only non-Western dancer to have made it into the Dance Heritage Coalition’s list of “America’s Irreplaceable Treasures: The First 100”. India Today has also featured her in its list of “100 Prominent Indians Who Have Shaped the Destiny of India”.

Classical dance in India wouldn’t have been in its present day glory if it wasn’t for these brilliant stalwarts. Feeling inspired and proud? Share this and let everyone know!

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