Bharata Natyam, which originates from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India, is one of the most popular dance styles in India. A popular interpretation of the name of the style is:

BHAva (expression) + RAga (musical mode) + TAla (rhythm) NATYAM (dance) = BHARATA NATYAM

The highly cultivated art of Bharata Natyam has been handed down over the centuries by teachers called nattuvanars and ritualistic dancers called devadasis, in the temples of south India. This style is a direct descendant of devotional dances performed in the temples of South India from the tenth century to the middle of this century.

Besides the school of Bharata Natyam associated with the state of Tamil Nadu, there is a Mysore school of Bharata Natyam which retains the traditions of temples and courts of the ancient Mysore state of Karnataka state. (For more information on this school please refer to Dr. Sathyanarayana’s book ” Bharata Natya – a critical study” – a wonderful scholarly read for anyone interested in Bharata Natyam).

Southern India has a very long history of stylised dance and this has been well recorded both in visual and textual documents. In the Tamil epic “Silappadikaram” or “the story of the anklet” describes many dances styles prevalent in ancient times. Similarly the karana sculptures in the Cidambaram – Nataraja temple, and others Kumbakonam – Sarangapani temple show a rich history of stylised dance in the southern region (for the meaning of karana see the section on karanas in the website). Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, is a present practitioner of style which is derived from a study of these sculptures. These dance traditions were the heritage of performers who were part of the courts of kings or performers who were part of religious traditions. One must remember that society was more homogenous (though not completely devoid of external influence)during ancient periods. So the performers were either travelling bards and dancers, or performers belonging to different courts. What is perhaps unique to India is the long tradition of women dedicated to temples. These ‘handmaids of god’ or devadasis were dedicated to the temples (both Shiva and Vishnu temples), and they were part of the daily ritual of worshipping the deity where they performed dances in praise of the god. This was almost a pan Indian phenomena. Unfortunately over a period of time due economic and social pressures these devadasis fell into disrepute. This led to dance itself receiving a bad reputation because of the practitioners who were in a untenable situation.

Besides the devadasis the court traditions also carried on the traditions of dance. The Tanjore Quartette being the most well known. They were court artists under a Maratha Ruler of Tanjore. (The Marathas ruled between the period 1674-1885 AD). They are responsible for the present day repertoire of Bharata Natyam. They composed and directed many dance items and to this day their contributions are held in high esteem and are performed in present day dance recitals. The format remains the same with a few changes here and there.

It was in the 1930’s that pioneers like Rukmini Devi and E. Krishna Iyer revived dancing traditions and set the tone for the Bharata Natyam dance traditions of today. E. Krishna Iyer learnt dance and performed them, which led to awareness of the richness of these traditions among the cognoscenti. It is during this time that the style culled by E. Krishna Iyer and Smt.Rukmimi Devi came to be called Bharata Natyam. Rukmini Devi who loved classical Carnatic music and dance took one step further. She acquired land outside Madras at Adyar and established ‘Kalakshetra’ and institution for dance, music and allied arts (http://www.surfindia.com/kalakshetra/homepage.htm). The institution has become synonymous with the high standards expected of Bharata Natyam dancers and practitioners today. Classes conducted under trees with rigorous and strict discipline prepare excellent dancers and dance teachers. Many dance schools who have kept to the rigorous discipline demanded by the style are present today not only all over India but are spread by its practitioners all over the world. Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai also established Darpana in Ahmedabad, where the great traditions of classical dance are still continued by her equally famous daughter Mallika Sarabhai (www.darpana.com).

One of the greatest performers in the last century have been – Balasaraswati, and she has been almost as influentially in popularizing Bharata Natyam, as much as Rukmini Devi and others. Balasaraswati was known for her soulful renderings of abhinaya or mimetic pieces in which she not only danced but also sang. Since Balasarawati there have been other greats like Kamala , Vyjayanthimala Bali , Padmini ( and her sister Ragini), Indrani Rehman and Ritha Devi.

The greats that followed them are Yamini Krishnamurthy, Sonal Mansingh,
Chitra Visweswaran, Sudha Rani Raghupathy, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, US
KrishnaRao and Chandrabhaga Devi. More recently we have Malavika Sarukkai, Alarmel Valli, Leela Samson, and Srinidhi Cidambaram.

Other great stalwarts are the Dhananjayans, who have launched a training institution called ‘Bhaskara’, Guru Adyar Lakshman and Smt Kalanidhi Narayanan from Chennai. From Mumbai/Bombay we have Gurus Mahalingam
Pillai and Guru Kalyanasundaram (of the Rajarajeshwari School of Dance), Guru Parvati Kumar a great scholar and teacher, Guru Mani (Kalasadan), Guru Rajee Narayan, Guru Kadirvelu and Guru Soundararajan. The Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya founded by Padmashree Dr. Smt Kanak Rele in Bombay has a graduate and postgraduate program in Bharata Natyam.

The audience is equally important in the Indian art experience. The person in
the audience is expected to be a rasika i.e. a person well versed in appreciating the arts, and also a ‘sahridaya’ or a person who has come with
an intention of appreciating, learning and savouring the richness of the art.

History of Kathak


This style from northern India has gained immense popularity today. It is known for its sparkling footwork, fast whirling movements and subtle abhinaya or mimetic dance. It almost never fails to capture the audience and this ability is probably because of its long history in the courts of emperor’s and kings.

The word Kathak is derived from the name given to its practitioners ‘Kathakars’. Katha meaning story and it’s practitioners being those who told these stories. They told stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other puranas. These practitioners were taught by temple priests who were well versed in dance and music.

This was prior to the advent of the Mughal dynasty in North India. With Mughal rule these performing bards were banned from performing in temples and were made to serve in courts for entertainment. The Kathakars had to change with history and it is in the Mughal courts that they developed a style for pure entertainment of the emperors. It said that under the patronage of Emperor Akbar the performers grew and flourished. kangra paintingEven today the performers wear costumes that resemble the paintings made during the Mughal era. For example this Kangra painting c.1775 AD, shows a heroine or nayika and the grace and beauty of this painting is still reflected in the Kathak dance style today.

After the power of Mughal empire declined these performers were patronized by kings such as those in Rajasthan and other minor princely states such as the nawab of Oudh etc. The style developed two major lineages – the Jaipur gharana and the Lucknow gharana.

The most well known guru and performer of the Kathak style today is Guru Birju Maharaj. His mastery of the style and efforts with which he spread its popularity all over the world make him unique in his field. He comes from a long lineage of dance guru’s of Kathak and today his students are themselves good performers and teachers. The other famous gurus are the late Guru Durga Lal, (late)Guru Gopi Krishna, Sitara Devi, Guru Kumudini Lakhia and Uma Sharma.

Contemporary stage has quite a few stalwarts like Saswati Sen, Shovana Narayan, and Uma Dogra. In Bombay the established teachers and gurus are Sarang Sisters and Damayanti Joshi.

History of Kathakali

imagez4Besides the Nataraja figure , the face of the Kathakali artist has perhaps been one of the most exploited ones in modern media and propaganda campaigns. The green mask painted on a face which is almost shadowed by the huge crown on top of the head, which is used to represent Indian art is well known all over the world. However the grandeur of this art form can be felt only if one sees a live performance in an open air theatre with huge oil lamps lighting the artists and sounds of the drums surging through one’s blood.

I am often confronted with people who mistake Kathak and Kathakali. Just to clarify here that – Kathak is from the north and Kathakali is from the state of Kerala and no styles could be more different than each other.

Kathakali is preceded by a style called the Krishna attam. The ruler of Calicut in the 17th century was immensely impressed by the Geeta Govinda. The Geeta Govinda is work in Sanskrit (c. 12th AD)about the love of Radha and Krishna by the poet Jayadeva. He ruled that everyday the Geet Govinda should be recited in the Guruvayur temple. This practice is still maintained as of this day. Besides this he wrote a poem on the life of Lord Krishna called the Krishnageeti and asked this to be performed at the temple. This style was the precursor of Kathakali called the Krishnattam. This was a masked dance drama. Another ruler of Kottarakara saw this play and was so impressed that he requested the Zamorin of Calicut to send the troupe to his kingdom. The Zamorin refused and this angered the ruler of Kotarakara. He decided then to create his own play on the life of God Rama called the Ramanattam. This was in Malayalam the language of the people whereas Krishnattam was in Sanskrit. Soon Ramanattam became popular and spread everywhere.

The ruler Tampuran of Kottayam then gave it the fillip that it needed to become the now famous ‘ Kathakali’. Besides improving the costumes and make up so that the facial expresssions were emphasised, he also selected interesting dramatic plots for presentation. He chose episodes from the Mahabharata which were more attractive to the audiences. He also renamed the style calling it ‘Katha’- story + ‘kali’ – act or play.

However even with all these changes Kathakali remained in the shadows till the advent of the great poet Vallathol. This ‘renaissance man’ for Kathakali was so enamoured with the art that out of his own savings he started the ‘Kerala Kalamandalam’. This is a ground breaking institution for the art and through the work of Vallathol and the gurus like Kunju Kurup, at this institute Kathakali has acquired world wide recognition.

One of the great living performers this art today in Kerala is Guru Ramankutty who both teaches and performs all over the world with his troupe.

Another well known Guru and practitioner of this style in Bombay is Guru Gopalakrishnan. Before him the late Guru Warrier was well known in Bombay for his Kathakali performances.

History of Kuchipudi

imagez5In the 13th century there was a young man named Siddhappa whose marriage was arranged to a beautiful girl. Unfortunately while crossing the river to attend his wedding his boat capsized and he was on the verge of being drowned. He pleaded with God to save him and promised to dedicate his life to the service of God. Miraculously he was saved, and on that day, he was “re-born” as Siddhendra Yogi. He wrote a drama in praise of Krishna and gathered dancers to perform the same. These dancers were all male as he felt the inclusion of females might lead to the decadence of the art. This style which had its origins in the Bhagavata Mela Natakam or dance drama tradition has come to be known as the Kuchipudi dance style today. The dance style gets its name from the village called Kuchipudi, where this dance drama tradition was nurtured in all its sanctity for many decades. In the photograph, are Guru Raja and Radha and Kausalya Reddy, famous exponents of this form.

Guru Raja, Radha and Kausalya ReddyHow this dance drama tradition came to be nurtured in the Kuchipudi village is a story of the religious tolerance that existed in India even in the 13th century. It so happened that a group of dancers performed in the court of a nawab in Andhra Pradesh.

Their rendition of the dance drama was so impressive that he gifted the village of Kuchipudi to the artists with the promise that they would continue the tradition of performing . From that day onwards all the male scions of the Kuchipudi village have pursued this art. Different themes taken from Indian mythology form the content of these dance dramas. There are several interesting incidents in the history of Kuchipudi. Once a group of Kuchipudi artistes depicted the atrocities inflicted by a cruel ruler in the neighbouring king’s court. So effective was their rendition that the king put an immediate end to the tyrannical ruler. The Kuchipudi dance drama tradition went on for several years and is regarded, even today, as the closest to the Sanskrit theatrical tradition followed in Bharata’s Natya Shastra. This dance-drama tradition was so beautiful that close to the turn of this century it developed into a solo dance style and was performed by female artistes. The present day Kuchipudi dance style has its source in the ‘nattuva melamu‘ and ‘natyamelamu‘.

1 ‘Natyamelamu‘ consists of a group of actors (males) performing Kuchipudi dance drama.

2 ‘Nattuvamelam‘ is a tradition of dance performed by woman artistes. This tradition had two sections , those who performed at the royal courts and those who performed in the temples.

Kuchipudi has now gained immense popularity because of its lilting music and graceful and flowing movements and vibrant stage presentation. The well known artists who pioneered its popularity are Yamini Krishnamurthy, Swapnasundari and the couple, Radha and Raja Reddy. The great gurus in this style are Guru C.R. Acharyulu, Guru Vempeti Chinna Satyam and Guru Korada Narasimha Rao. Beautiful costumes, enchanting music and vivacious dance technique make this style a delight to watch. The photos on this site belong to the famous exponents Guru Raja and Smt. Radha Reddy.

History of the Manipuri style

imagez6Coming from the state of Manipur in the northeast region of India, this style never fails to impress with its lyrical movements. It takes the mind on a peaceful and quiet journey which is almost a prerequisite for happy human existence.

The land of Manipur boasts of a tradition beginning as early as 154 AD . A copper edict of the period says that the then ruler of Manipur created the mridangam(a double sided drum) and cymbals for dance.

The people of the land were called Meithei and they performed many ritual dances which belonged to a locally practised religion. The jogoi or circular dance performed by them is the precursor for the present day Manipuri style. In 1714 AD a ruler changed the course of history, he was Pa Meiba or Pamaiba. This king embraced the Vaishnava sect and he ruled that earlier cult be discontinued. Many devotional dances in praise of Vishnu came into being. However the earlier traditions were also nurtured quietly by the common people. The king’s grandson Chintan Khomba or Bhagyachandra (1764 AD)became a Vaishnavite and brought in a period where the Ras and Sankeertan styles of Manipuri dance were formed. It is during this time that the Ras dance of lord Krishna became one of the favorite dances of the people. The photograph shows the Jhaveri sisters in Vasanta Ras playing the Holi. This is a festival where Krishna and the gopis throw powder colours and coloured water on each other.

Krishna is said to appeared in the dream of the king and shown him his divine dance. As an offering to Krishna the king had natmandaps or small halls built in temples where the dance could be performed. He introduced beautiful costumes and even created a dance composition called the Bhangi Parang.
King Gambhir Singh in 1825 AD made a few changes. Bhangi parang was divided into two compositions the ‘goshta parang’ and the ‘gostha brindavan parang’, which were vigorous in nature.

In 1850 AD, king Chandra Keerti Singh added some compositions and was instrumental in introducing 64 pung dance or drum dances. This is a current photograph of Ranjit Singh and his group in the dance called Pung Cholom doing spiral turns with the pung or drum.

With the advent of the British the Manipuri dances fell into bad times and were discontinued except in a few places. Later after the British left slowly the dance has regained lost foothold and remains to this day the lifeblood of the Manipuri people.

The most well known performers and teachers are the (late) Guru Bipin Singh, and Guru Singhajeet and his wife Charusheela.

In Bombay the famous performers and teachers are the Jhaveri sisters – Nayana,Suverna, Darshana and Ranjana Jahveri. They continue this tradition at their institution ‘Manipuri Nartanalaya’. These artists have spread the beauty of Manipuri dance all over the world and have been honored both nationally and internationally on this subject. The credits and copyrights for all photographs on this site are with the Jhaveri sisters.

History of Mohini Attam

imagez7A style exclusively performed by women, comes from the state of Kerala in southern India. The name comes from the myths which say that Vishnu assumed the form of a beautiful enchantress time and again in order to protect Truth.

There are many stories, the most popular one being the myth of the churning of the ocean. Once upon a time the gods and the demons churned the milky ocean to get the nectar of immortality. When the deity holding the jar of nectar appeared the demons managed to snatch it first which created a panic among the gods. Vishnu appeared in the form of a beautiful enchantress and extracted a promise from the demons that she would distribute the nectar equally between the gods and the demons. Dancing her way among the gods and the demons she cleverly gives the nectar of immortality only to the gods and thus preserves the world order. Thus the dance of Mohini attam is meant to symbolize this dance of protection and enchantment.

As early as the 18th century there are references to this style. The great poet scholar king Swati Tirunal belong to the 19th century encouraged musicians who composed songs for this style. After him the style was largely ignored till the advent of Kerala Kalamandalam by the great poet Vallathol. Mohini attam was then taught in the environs of Kalamandalam and today has its place among the other classical styles of India. The most well known performers are Dr. (Guru) Smt Kanak Rele and Guru Bharati Shivaji. All the photos used on this site are credited to Dr. Smt. Kanak Rele.

History of Odissi

sap_odihIt is as late Ithe 1950’s that the present day Odissi style of dance came into existence. ItThis style emerged from a confluence of scholars, teachers of traditional dance traditions and musicians.

However the state of Orissa itself boasts of a rich heritage of dancing, as is seen in the dance sculptures and reliefs on the temples at Bhubaneshwar. Many historical inscriptions show that for years devadasis or handmaids of gods trained in dance and music were dedicated to the temple of Jagannath (Lord Krishna) at Puri. The Geeta Govinda written by poet Jayadeva was the subject of the dances at the Puri temple. Even today the Odissi dance style retains the rendition of Geeta Govinda. These temple dancers were known asmaharis. Gotipuas were a class of young boys who were also trained in dance. They were employed to perform both in temple and in secular functions. The present day Odissi dance style combines the devadasi and the gotipua traditions. They also were inspired by the sculptural legacy at the temples like the sun temple at Konarak.

The legend in this style is undoubtedly Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra who with his dedicated student and exponent, the (late) Sanjukta Panigrahi established the Odissi style on a global platform. Great Gurus like Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Mayadhar Raut have also contributed to the establishment of this style. The most well established practitioners of this style are Sonal Mansingh, Madhavi Mudgal and Kum Kum Mohanty.

The photographs on this site are courtesy Guru Shri Rabindra Atibudhi who is a well established guru and performer in Mumbai /Bombay.