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The Matter and Spirit of Classical Indian Dance

Sagar Rambhia
Case Western Reserve University DANC 121

Indian classical dance is one of the oldest dance forms in the world. Most of the dances were
developed for the purposes of worship and can be seen across the walls of ancient indian
temples. For Indians, classical dance evolved as a relationship between God and the servants of
God (or dancers). Indian dance differs from western dance. Western dance allows for more
experimentation to link matter and spirit through the body (Dance, 2014). Rather, classical indian
dance is a tested path to self-knowledge and thus focuses on traditional form. Traditional form
and preservation remain its hallmark to link matter and spirit.

As explained in Hindu mythology, dance evolved from the mind of Bharta Muni who drafted the
Natya Shastra, which provided a codified practice for dance and drama (Devi, 1990). Bharata
Muni created his Natyaveda (body of knowledge about dance) by combining the words of the
Rigveda, gestures of the Yajurveda, music from the Samaveda, and emotions from Atharavaveda
(Devi, 1990). Classical indian dance and Hinduism have an intimate relationship, with one often
overlapping into the other. Often youll find statues of Hindu deities holding dancing positions.
Similarly, classical dance is used to tell the stories of the Hindu deities (Devi, 1990).
In Hindi teachings, the experience of enlightenment was depicted through descriptive
images. Part of this is imparted to describe the energy of the dance (Tandon, 2008). The Human
Energy is coiled like a serpent and poised at the base of the spine. The spine is the highway for
this energy, Goddess Kundalini, which like the snake, uncoils and can travel along the spine,
going up until enlightenment happens (Tandon, 2008). By achieving a balance between the
mental desire for movement and rest, the experience is as much defined by energy, as it is
peacefulness of having an equilibrium state within these energy channels that exist along the
spine. This energy ascends the spine until it reaches the third eye, unlocking the chakra,
allowing the unconscious to become conscious (Tandon, 2008). These principles became the
foundation of the Odissi dance tradition and eventually, yoga and Indian classical dance. The
Odissi dance traditions define the rationale behind the dance movements (Tandon, 2008).

The movements of classical dance preserve the image of the ascending of the energies along the
spine. The link between the dancers vertical alludes to Hinduism, called the Brahma sutra, with
emphasize on the movements of the lower body to target the lower spine. This lower body
position is traditionally held in several of the types of classical dance, in particular
Bharatanatyam (Tandon, 2008). This half sitting allows the dancer to achieve a series of
triangles, and allows the distance between the head and the navel to be equal to that of the earth
and the navel (McFee, 1994). The lower body powers the torso, neck and head. The spine will
be held vertically and upright with the body moving symmetrically to emphasize harmony
(Nandan). The symmetrical dance style allows the body to be balanced and the chest to be even.
With even chest comes even breathing from the left and right nostrils. This technique is requisite
for the flow of energy and for the dancer to achieve heightened states of consciousness. This
translates from classical dance to yoga, where controlling ones breath, or pranayama is
emphasized. Emphasizing fluidity expands this harmony (Tandon, 2008). A fluid body is
necessary to classical dance, like many other dance forms. More so than a strong body, flexibility
of joints are critical (Tandon, 2008). These features together embody the approaches by various
classical Indian dances.

Discussing the positioning of the body naturally leads to the purpose of the movements. Dance,
intended as an offering to Deities, rely on the movements, gestures, music, and literature to give
the dancer the tools to interact with the larger power of the deity (Nandan). This is referred to as
an expansion of the consciousness that allows for the identity with the deity to become within
and replace the self-identification or often called the ego-identification. The dancer must allow
the body to draw patterns and projecting movement from the energy originating in the spine. The
triangle that was mentioned before is critical as it is an energy field signifying fire, a square
represents stability or early, a cresent for water, and a circle for air. The smallest element is the
dot, or bindi (Tandon, 2008). Together, all five of these shapes create the scaffold for classical
Indian dance. Movements and stillness are effectively used throughout the dance process while
maintaining the geometry and symmetry of the body (Tandon, 2008). Every movement is
deliberate, by the torso, arms, hands, neck, head, and eyes. These movements culminate together
to allow the dancer to achieve a meditation state, one that connects them with God. This ideology
exists in all of the classical Indian Dances ("Indian Classical Dances").

Indian culture and dance is deeply intertwined. Making reference to Christianity, western dance
often exists within the dominant culture, but without reference to the blueprint of the culture.
This allows more freedom to challenge the style and form of dance (McFee, 1994). Western
dance is allowed to be redefined; the matter and the spirit. This has resulted in the gradual
detachment of dance from religion. This does not exist in Indian classical dance. Dance evolved
in India as a primary function of worship ("Culture of India," n.d.). There were no dance halls,
auditoriums, or theatres, only temples (Chander, 2003). Dance was performed in temples for
religious celebration, festive occasions, and harvests. This dance form exists well within its
culture and religion and has maintained its traditions to this day in performance halls and temples
all across the world. Dance has since evolved and coexists with the theatre culture (Chander,
Classical indian dance has developed into a dance-drama fusion and is one of Indias
primary sources of theatre ("Indian Classical Dances"). Telling stories, re-enacting religious
history, and pouring emotion through gestures and expression, classical dancers are as much
actors as those that find home in Bollywood. The body is the vessel to which the story is told.
The dancer acts the story with no words, simply with expression, movement, and gestures. The
dance is considered classical if it adheres to the Natyashastras guidelines (Narayan, 2005). The
universal metric of most performances, and of Natyashastra as to the quality and
accomplishment of a performance, is if it is able to produce rasa and bhava, emotion and facial
expression ("Indian Classical Dances"). These qualities and feelings exist within all indian
classical dance forms. These different forms of indian classical dance and performance represent
the culture of the region from which they originated: Bharatnatyam from Tamil Nadu, Kathak
from North India, Kathakli from Kerala, Kuchipudi from Andra Pradesh, Manipuri from
Manipur, Mohiniyattam from Kerala, Odissi from Odisha, and Sattriya from Assam (Narayan,

Classical performances and dance continue to influence daily life and the rituals of rural village
communities ("Culture of India," n.d.). These dances that are performed amongst the community
in groups often have religious or festive significance and symbolize joyous times. These dances
are described by the worlds oldest language, Sanskrit, and, similarly to classical dances, are
defined regionally ("Culture of India," n.d.). Classical dance has also influences life in bigger
cities with the popularity of dances in Bollywood.

Bollywood is the modern counterpart of indian classical dance. Since the first introduction of
song and film in 1931, Bollywood has relied on equal parts, song, acting, and dance in order to
produce successful films (Gopal, 2008). The dance initially was rooted on the classical dance
styles and folk dance styles previously described ("Dance in India," n.d.). More modern films
choreograph dance based on western styles with classical dance elements to create Indian fusion
dances. Similarly, modern films also integrate western style dances and classical dances
independently in different dances ("Dance in India," n. d.). In one film scene, you could see a
western dance similar to what you would expect on So You Think You Can Dance, and in another
scene see a classical Kuchipudi dance between the leads, the hero and heroine. These dance
sequences portrayed in Bollywood are often mimicked in weddings, festivals, commercials, and
TV shows. Bollywood has taken indian classical dance, along with many others, and evolved
into its own form of dance ("Dance in India," n.d.).
Classical Dance has influenced Indian culture, it has influenced religion, and it has
influenced current pop culture with Bollywood. The intricacies of positions, and movements
when mastered allow the dancer to achieve a trance like state that continues to influence the
classical Indian dances of the various regions, yoga, and meditation. Dance is critical in India.
Dance is used for celebration, for worship, and finding peace. It will continue to influence the
great country of India with the deep respect for preservation of the traditions.


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Devi, R. (1990). Dance Dialects of India (2nd rev. ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gopal, S. (2008). Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi song and dance. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press.

Indian Classical Dances. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014, from

McFee, G. (1994). The concept of dance education (pp. 127-128). London: Routledge.

Nandan, A. (2007, October 3). Ardhamandala in Bharatanatyam. Retrieved October 13, 2014.

Narayan, S. (2005). The Sterling book of Indian classical dances. Slough: New Dawn Press.

Tandon, R. (2008). The Symbiotic Relationship between Indian Dance and the Yogic Chakras.
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