Classical Indian Dance | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Classical Indian Dance

After long and persistent efforts on the part of Indian dancers living in Canada, Indian forms of dance came to be acknowledged as classical art by the arts councils and the Canadian dance audience at large.

There exist two basic genres of dance art in India: the traditions of solo dance, usually connected with women, who were often ritually consecrated or employed by courts or patrons; and the traditions of dance-theatre, group performances often danced by males and almost always centred around the representation of religious narratives.


Both the traditions of solo dance and those of dance-theatre employ two basic modalities of aesthetic expression: narrative mimesis, where the dance movements mimic the story being told, and abstract movement. The narrative element is the central element for almost all forms of traditional artistic expression in India. In the realm of performance art, the transmission of the meaning and interpretation of text (sahitya) is considered of utmost importance. The texts are usually vernacular adaptations from religious narratives in the case of the dance-theatre genres, or emotionally charged devotional erotica dedicated to male deities in the case of the solo dance traditions. These types of texts are usually the preserve of female artists, and relate to female desires and emotions. The representation of these texts through dance and drama is known as abhinaya (carrying forward), performed by the use of facial expression (mukhaja bhava) enhanced by mimetic hand gestures (hasta-mudras).

Abstract movement (nritta) is almost always framed by a narrative context. As a secondary element in most of the traditional dance-theatre genres of Indian dance, abstract movement can involve minute movements of the eyebrows to expansive movements of the entire body. Nritta is usually characterized by a play on rhythm (often involving sounds played on percussion and recreated by the feet of the dancer) and the use of hand gestures, which serve a purely ornamental purpose.

History of Classical Indian Dance Forms

Kutiyattam is probably the only living form of performance art that has a direct correspondence with the ancient theatrical styles mentioned in both Sanskrit and Tamil textual sources. Kutiyattam, practised in the state of Kerala, can be called Indian dance-theatre par excellence. This form depicts various myths from epics and texts describing myth and cosmology called Puranas in Sanskrit. Each actor comes from the hereditary community known as chakyar and the performances last several hours, beginning early in the night. Later, the Kutiyattam tradition gave rise to other forms performed in the local Malayalam language. Kathakali is perhaps the best known of these. Bringing together the highly stylized abhinaya of Kutiyattam and the athletics of the gymnasia (kalari), this form also serves to interpret mythological narratives relating to the god Vishnu in his forms of Rama and Krishna.

Bharatanatyam is the modern nomenclature given to the art form from South India known earlier as sadir, chinnamelam or dasiyattam. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Tamil culture, where female bards known as virali sang and danced about the ruler and his land. Later, female temple dancers known as devadasis came to serve in the temples, royal courts and at the homes of wealthy landowners. Devadasis had an elevated status in society since they were considered to be married to the deity of the temple in which they served. Their various repertoires served religious, artistic and social functions in the temple, court and homes of landowners respectively. Four brothers (collectively known as the Tanjavur Quartet) who lived in the 19th century codified the court repertoire, and expanded the significance of the city of Tanjavur in the state of Tamilnadu for the traditions of music and dance. During the colonial period, the somewhat ambiguous (ie, non-married) social status of devadasis caused the art form to fall into disrepute in the eyes of both the Victorian ruling elite and the emerging Indian middle class. In the 1930s, the court repertoire of the devadasis was given renewal by members of the uppermost Brahmin caste, was given the Sanskrit name Bharatanatyam and was made accessible to persons outside the hereditary community.

The ritual dance traditions of the eastern coast of India find their fullest representation in the daily ritual of the devadasis (female temple dancers) of the city of Puri, in the state of Orissa. The word for devadasis in the local Oriya language was mahari. The maharis would perform dance during the mid-day ritual dedicated to the god Jagannatha (Vishnu) in the Puri temple. Around the 17th century, young boys called gotipua performed dances that imitated those of the maharis in gymnasia and the homes of wealthy patrons. A fluid exchange in technique and repertoire occurred between the maharis and gotipuas. The modern form known as Odissi is a reconstructed amalgam of these two streams of dance culture.

The popular theatre forms of Northern India, variously called rama-lila, rasa-lila and nautanki, emerged with the rise of devotionalism (bhakti) in Indian religious culture, around the 14th century. Male performers known as kathakas told stories relating to the mythology of the god Vishnu in his forms of Rama and Krishna. Later, this art form became secularized and developed a repertoire suitable to be performed by women in the Islamic Mughal courts for the entertainment of wealthy patrons. The modern form presently known as Katthak brings together repertoire from the Hindu and Islamic traditions called bhakti and darbari respectively.

Manipuri from the northeastern state of Manipuri was given shape by Maharaja Bhagyachadra (1764-89). However, prior to this systematization, narrative ritual dances known as lai haraoba and drum dances or cholom were performed by females and males respectively. Bhagyachandra's codification of the tradition was based on dances about the god Krishna called rasa-lila and the technically complex bhangi parengs. The modern Manipuri, given a renewal by the Nobel Prize winning Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, combines all these sub-genres of performance.

Kuchipudi is the name of a small hamlet located some 20 kilometres away from the city of Vijayawada in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. The devadasis (female temple dancers) of Andhra are referred to as sani in the written record, probably derived from the Sanskrit svamini (one who [serves] her lord). In medieval Andhra, there existed both a ritual repertoire of dances performed by these women as well as an exclusively male-oriented dance-theatre repertoire performed by brahmin (high caste) males who would take on roles of both sexes. The most famous of the latter traditions began sometime in the 15th century in the village of Kuchipudi, where a special emphasis is placed on the portrayal of the prized role of the god Krishna's wife Satyabhama, who became the focal point of both religious and artistic reflection. Later, the devadasis, in their public performances outside the temple, learned this art from the brahmins and incorporated it into their kacheri (court or public) repertoire. The technique of Kuchipudi is similar to that of Bharatanatyam and Odissi, and contains overt influences of both the Tamil and Oriya cultural systems.

Indian Dance in Canada

One of the central issues concerning the transplantation of Indian dance into a diaspora setting is its representation as a form of ethnic folk dance. Indian dancers who arrived in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Katthak dancer Rina Singha and Bharatanatyam/Odissi dancer Menaka Thakkar (both based in Toronto), had to tackle this problem from the outset. They argued that programming Indian classical dance with forms such as Irish folk dance or Ukrainian folk dance and projecting it as folk culture was incongruent with its aesthetic canon. Instead, they wanted to see forms such as Bharatanatyam and Katthak recognized as belonging to the same category of high art as Ballet and Modern Dance . After long and persistent efforts on their part, Indian forms of dance came to be acknowledged as classical art by the arts councils and the Canadian dance audience at large. Since then, several artists specializing in forms such as Odissi (for example, Chitralekha, Ellora and Devraj Patnaik) and Manipuri (such as Sukalyan Bhattacharjee) have made Canada their home, and the number of Bharatanatyam and Katthak dancers in the country is ever increasing. Indian dance companies, such as Lata Pada's Sampradaya Dance Creations based in Mississauga and Mamata Nakra's Kala Bharati in Montréal, produce original works with their students. Also beginning in the late 1960s, Indian-trained Canadian dancer and teacher Anne-Marie Gaston, who performs under the name Anjali, began performing classical Indian dance at venues across Canada, including the National Arts Centre.

Operational funding was given first to Menaka Thakkar as a solo artist in 1993 by the Canada Council for the Arts, and was later extended to her company. This clearly marked the ascension of Indian dance to an altogether new level in Canada. The recognition of Indian dance as a bona fide system, and the increase in public support for the form due to the efforts of Thakkar, point to the invaluable contribution of this unique individual. Thakkar's bold steps in cultural hybridization were mirrored by the curatorial efforts of her sister, Sudha Thakkar-Khandwani, whose organization Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada was established to disseminate both traditional forms and the genre of new Indian dance into the Canadian artistic mainstream. In 1993, Kala Nidhi Fine Arts presented a monumental international dance festival, New Directions in Indian Dance, focusing on non-traditional, creative explorations in Indian dance.

The era of contemporary expressions of traditional dance genres was ushered in by Thakkar's work in the late 1980s and 1990s. Since then, radically hybrid forms have been created by the interaction of Indian dance artists with the modern dance community in Canada. For example, Hari Krishnan of Toronto, a respected exponent of traditional Bharatanatyam, is also a cutting-edge contemporary artist on the Canadian scene. Trained extensively in modern dance, his work reflects a cerebral, post-modern surrealism. Meanwhile, his performances of traditional Bharatanatyam preserve the last few temple and court remnants of the style, and are marked by the performance of vintage compositions, which he continues to revive and document extensively. This tendency to reflect back on traditional forms while making contemporary work is characteristic of many Indian dance artists in Canada. On the one hand they are seen as representatives of traditional forms and are expected to act as transmitters of culture, yet on the other hand they also engage their creative energies in the formulation of trans-cultural, composite dance vocabularies. Other dancers such as Ottawa-based Deepti Gupta, originally trained in Katthak, explore alternative Indian movement vocabularies such as Cho from northeastern India. (See also Fusion Dance.)