Walk Through the Glorious History of Dance in India

Posted on 20 October, 2016 by Team Wishberry



According to Hindu Mythology, dance is believed to be a creation of Brahma. It is said that Lord Brahma inspired the sage Bharat Muni to write the Natyashastra – a Sanskrit treatise on performing arts. Its first complete compilation was written between 200 BCE (Before Common Era) and 200 CE (Common Era). The text covers topics such as stage design, body movement, postures and emotions, makeup, musical scales, merging music with art performance and so on. The text also explains the various kinds of emotions that go in performance art and their classifications. The Natyashastra, therefore, acts as one of the foundation stones of all forms of Indian classical dances.

Dance is a popular motif in Hindu mythology as well, as seen through Shiva’s cosmic dance – Tandava, Kali’s dance of creation and destruction, Krishna’s dance with the Gopikas and the Raas-Leela.

Dance in Ancient India

Over the course of time, dance in India went through various phases. The earliest recorded evidence of dance in Indian civilization goes as far back as the Harappan period.

2nd Century B.C. to 9th Century A.D

The dancing girl of Mohenjodaro and the broken torso of the Harappan period suggest a familiarity with dance and dance postures. The Dancing Girl is the most widely known proof of dance in the ancient civilization.

The Dancing girl of Mohenjodaro. 


We see evidence of dance as an art form in ancient India also through the rock paintings of Bhimbetka Caves in Madhya Pradesh (considered to be about 30,000 years old), as well as the gateways of Sanchi portray Apsaras (celestial maiden dancers) whose existence dates back to the 3rd Century BCE. 

Rock Carving at Sanchi. Image Courtesy: pinterest.com

10th Century A.D. onwards: Temple Dance

Dance was traditionally performed in the temples as reverence and worship to the deities. 

Bharatnatyam – the classical dance form from Tamil Nadu – originated as a temple dance. It’s the oldest dance form, and uses a lot of mudras and hand gestures to retell mythological tales. Popular in this regard is the Devdasi System, still prevalent in the Southern parts of India. Devdasis were young women who resided in the temples and were trained in performance based arts, in praise and worship for the Goddess Yellamma who is known for her abundant strength. 

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Devdasis. Image courtesy: Wikipedia    

Owing to the Bhakti Movement and the sudden surge in expressing boundless joy and emotion for the almighty, temple dance took shape in other parts of India as well. Common among these are the following dance forms, which also came to be the classical Indian dance forms we know today:

Odissi (Orissa) – One of the oldest surviving dance forms in the country, this form is known for its style and independent movement of head, chest and pelvis. Although originally started a court dance, Odissi temple performances were first seen in the Jagannath Temple in Puri and later in Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Sakta as well as Jain temples in Orissa.

Odissi Dance. Image courtesy: www.orissatourism.org 


Gaudiya Nritya (West Bengal) – It’s known for its richness in drama, history, poetry, colour and music.  

Gaudiya Nritya. Image Courtesy: www.gaudiyanritya.org


Sattriya (Assam) – Sattriya started in the medieval era, 500 years ago, and it owes its origins to Srimanta Sankardev. This dance is performed in Sattras (monasteries) belonging to the Ekasarana Dharma. 

Sattriya. Image Courtesy: www.wikipedia.org


Manipuri (Manipur) – Manipuri dance is usually based on the Raas Leela. Manipuri is a strictly religious and spiritual experience. Typical to the Manipuri dance are the light footfalls, subtle, lyrical and graceful bodily and facial movements. 

  Manipuri Dance. Image Courtesy: www.wikipedia.org

Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh) – Kuchipudi is a dance-drama originating from the village of Kuchelapuram (now known as Kuchipudi). The dance form is known for its graceful movements and dramatic characters. 

Kuchipudi. Image Courtesy: www.tumblr.com

Kathakali (Kerala) – Kathakali is most known for its unique and dramatic makeup and grand costumes, paired together with detailed gestures and well-defined movements. It typically conveys the themes of Mahabharata, Ramayana and the ancient scriptures. 

Kathakali. Image Courtesy: www.keralatourism.org


Kathak (Uttar Pradesh) – Kathak started off as temple performance art but eventually, like most other classical forms, moved to the royal courts and later on, the public. Kathak derives its name from Katha meaning story. The standard progression of a Kathak performance is from slow tempo to fast tempo, and finally ending with a dramatic climax. 

Kathak. Image courtesy: www.wikipedia.org

Folk Dance 

Around the same, as the Bhakti movement was seeping into the grassroots level, regional art forms grew, and even tribal dances gained reinforcement. Nature, rains, harvest, festivals as well as occasions in the family came to be celebrated by dancing. 

Folk dances also worked as a way to bring the community together and educate them on social and religious subjects. Some of the popular folk dances across India are – Bihu (Assam), Bhangra (Punjab), Ramkhelia and Senkala Chhau (Bihar), Bhand Pathar (Jammu and Kashmir), Garba (Gujarat), Raas Leela, Ghoomar, Chhathi (Haryana), Yakshagana (Karnataka), Mudiyettu (Kerala), Lavani and Tamasha (Maharashtra), Cheraw (Mizoram), Chang Lo (Nagaland), Bhavai (Rajasthan) and so on. 

Cheraw dance from Mizoram. Image Courtesy: www.nelive.in

Mudiyettu from Kerala. Image Courtesy: www.wikipedia.org

Contemporary Indian Dance

Over the course of years, Indian dance underwent a certain transformation owing to the country’s sudden exposure to Western art forms. Proponents of dance started fusing these outside influences into classical and traditional forms, giving rise to a whole new and contemporary style of Indian dance. 

A name to reckon with and remember when thinking of contemporary dance is Uday Shankar, also called the Father of Modern Dance in India. Born in the early years of 20th century, not only did he blend European techniques with classical dance moves, but also added touches of tribal dances and other classical dance forms. He inspired many other notable dancers to infuse various styles and techniques from India as well as around the world into their original dance styles. 

A still from the film Kalpana, starring Uday Shankar and wife Amala Shankar

Bollywood Dance
By the 1950s, dance began to be incorporated into films as well. Although initially, most of the dancing was limited to classical and/or folk forms, it was only a matter of time before a whole different style of dance came into being, thanks to Hindi cinema. 

The rise of colour films and increased exposure to western dances and artists led to a dance form that was vibrant, energetic and extremely upbeat. 

By the 1970s, the Cabaret style of dance made its ways into films. Stellar performances by the likes of Helen and Bindu popularized and made this dance form mainstream. 

Until, of course, the 80s rolled in and Cabaret was replaced by Disco, which had even the audiences grooving to the peppy tunes and trippy videos. Chartbusters by Bappi Lahiri, Usha Uthup and Nazia Hasan, and easy to pick dance moves by then-heartthrobs Mithun, Reena Roy and Rishi Kapoor, shot Disco to its peak glory. 

Then came the 90s, which ushered in a style of dancing that’s pretty much impossible to name. So let’s just call it the Govinda Style of Dance. Full of exaggerated movements, over the top facial expressions and loud costumes, this style of dancing came with its signature moves that were memorable then, and downright absurd now! 

By the late 90s and 2000s, Channel V and MTv became household names, as did international chartbusters. This led to an even higher exposure to Western dance forms. Thus we saw, a unique fusion of Western aesthetics, Bollywood freestyle and Indian sensibilities. 

Dance has today become a kind of visual poetry, constantly evolving and being taken to unimaginable heights. The dance space in India is in a unique position to delve into its traditional forms, while constantly learning from its global counterparts. And we can only wait and watch what wonders this creates! 


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