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Classical Indian Dance: Origins, Elements, Slokas & Links

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The origins of Indian Dance: The Natya Shastra

The Nayta Shastra is the principal work of dramatic theory in the Sanskrit drama of classical India. It was written by the sage Bharata Muni. It is a set of precepts on the writing and performance of dance, music and theatre. While the Natyasastra primarily deals with stagecraft, it has come to influence music, dance, and literature as well. Thus, an argument can be made that the Natyasastra is the foundation of the fine arts in India.

The Natya Shastra was created in the beginning of Treta Yug by Brahma on the request of Indra and other devas as an object of diversion (Kridaniyaka). As the lower castes (Shudras) were not entitled to listen to the four Vedas (Sama, Yajur, Rig and Atharav), Brahma created the Natya Shastra as the fifth Veda which was open to all, irrespective of caste and creed.

Prior to the creation of the Natya Veda, Brahma entered a yogic trance in which he recalled the four Vedas. He drew the recitative (Paathya) from the Rig, songs (Geeta) from the Sama, histronic representation (Abhinaya) from the Yajur and sentiments (Rasa) from the Atharv.

These aspects are the four main constituents of the Natya Veda.

When the Natya Veda was ready, the Gods expressed their inability to practise it, and Brahma passed it to Bharata Muni and his one hundred sons who were asked to practise it.

The dance was first seen at the Flag Festival of Indra to celebrate the victory of the Devas against the Daahavas.

Shiva learnt the Tandava (masculine) form of the dance, whereas Parvati, his consort learnt the Lasya (feminine) form.

The Natya Shastra

Elements of Indian Dance


Abhinaya is common to all Classical Indian dances. Abhinaya is the expressional aspect of dance, or nritya . In contrast to this, Nritta is composed of only pure dance and will feature striking and aesthetic poses, but will have no expressional meaning and symbolism.
Abhinaya has been analysed in the Natya Shastra and has been categorised into four types:
Angika - or physical, using movements of every part of the body to convey meaning, with hastamudras (hand gestures), mandis (postures) and even the walk of the dancer.
Vachikabhinaya - or vocal/verbal, used formally today by members of the orchestra or supporting, non-dancing cast.
Aharyabhinaya - or external, expression, mood and background as conveyed by costume, make-up, accessories and sets.
Satvikabhinaya - or psychological, shown by the eyes in particular and as a whole by the entire being of the performer, who feels the mood, the character and the emotion as emanating from the self, not as an act or practical presentation.

The Navrasas:

In addition, the navarasas, or nine emotions, give all dance a completeness that allows the dancer and the rasikas (audience) to experience the full beauty and meaning of the lyrics and the movements they are portrayed by.
These emotions are expressed in the eyes, the face, subtle muscle shifts and the body as a whole. They are:

hasya (happiness),
krodha (anger),
bhibasta (disgust),
bhayanaka (fear),
shoka (sorrow),
veera (courage),
karuna (compassion),
adbhuta (wonder) and
shanta (serenity).

Slokas specific to Classical dance

Slokas or verses which are full of wisdom are central and common to the traditional way of life; that is, life as per the Vedas. Thus it is only natural that we find many verses that pertain to the art of dance. Below I have presented only two, but these are very widely known throughout India and although appropriate to dance, they can fit in happily to all aspects of life.

In Bharata Natyam, as in many other dance forms there is an oft-repeated sloka:

Guru Brahma
Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheswaraha
Guru Sakshaad Parambrahma
Tasmay Shri Guruveh Namaha
Aangikam Bhuvanam Yasya
Vachikam Sarva Vangmayam
Aharyam Chandra-Taradi Tvam Namaha
Sattvikam Shivam

The sloka can roughly be translated to mean

Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, (My) Guru
I bow to you, the ultimate Lord/Guru:
You, whose limbs are the Universe,
You, the Originator of all speech,
You, whose adornments are the moon and stars,
You are The Truth.

The Natya Krama
The following sloka is:

Khantaanyat Lambayat Geetam
Hastana Artha Pradakshayat
Chakshubhyam Darshayat Bhavom
Padabhyam Tala Acherait
Yato Hasta Stato Drushti
Yato Drushti Stato Manaha
Yato Manaha Stato Bhavom
Yato Bhavom Stato Rasaha

This means:

Keep the song in your throat
Let your hands bring out the meaning
Your glance should be full of expression
While your feet maintain the rhythm
Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow
Where the eyes are, the mind should follow
Where the mind is, there the expression should be brought out
Where the expression is, there the rasa or flavour will be experienced (by the audience).

Below are some of my favourite Classical Dance (esp. Bharata Natyam) sites.

The most up-to-date and exhaustive links to all Classical Indian Dances
Darpana Academy
Bharata Natyam Study Guide
Amazing in depth info about Bharata Natyam
Arangham Academy founded by Anita Ratnam
A tribute to T. Balasaraswati, the Queen of Abhinaya.
Excellent and Insightful interview: Surupa Sen of Nrityagram
Sonal Mansingh and her Centre of Classical Indian Dances
Sundharani Raghupathy and Shree Bharatalaya
Chidambaram: The dance academy of Chitra Visweswaran

Some Folk Dances of India

My favourite pictures of Classical Dance

Read about Kashmir Shaivism

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Thursday 26th August 1999. Sangeeta Kaul Matu.