What is South Asian dance?

South Asian dance encompasses dance forms originating from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and varies between classical and non-classical dance.

The classical dance forms often described as Indian Classical Dance include Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam and Sattriya. Other dance forms include Kalaripayattu or Kalari and Chhau which are influenced by martial art. The non-classical dance are Bollywood dance and folk dances such as Bhangra, Garba, Kalbelia and Bihu dance.

Classical Dance


Bharatanatyam, also spelled as Bharata Natyam, is one of the oldest classical dance forms that originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu in South India. Meaning of the word Bharatanatyam is derived from “Bhavam” means expression, “ragam” meaning music, “talam” meaning rhythm and natyam meaning dance. This dance form was codified by Sanskrit Scholar Bharata Muni in Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, encompassing theatre, dance and music.

The dance movements in Bharatanatyam are characterized by Aramandi or Ardhamandala, a position similar to a plié in ballet (knee bend position), combined with expressive hand gestures and elaborate facial expressions used in storytelling.

Bharatanatyam involves 3 aspects to dance; Nritta, Nritya and Natya.

Nritta is a pure dance without any emotions or expressions. It involves rhythmic dance were movements of the body do not convey any mood or meaning.

Nritya involves emotions and expressions, where the lyrics of the song are conveyed using hand gestures (hasta mudras) and facial expressions (abhinaya).

Natya means dramatic representation or drama with speech, music and dancing. Natya is combination of Nritta & Nritya.


Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word katha meaning story and Kathakars meaning the one who tells a story. Kathak traces its origins to the nomadic bards of ancient northern India who used to recite religious and mythological tales using mime and dance accompanied by musician. Kathak started in temples in Northern India and later transited to Mogul court during the Mogul era. This is the only classical dance form that has links with Hindu and Muslim culture.

The pirouettes are the most distinguished feature of Kathak, the technique is built by the use of an intricate use of foot-work, soft gliding movements of the neck, eyebrows and the wrists.

Recitation of the rhythmic syllables is common; the dancer often pauses to recite these to a specified metrical cycle of 16, 10, 14 beats followed by execution through movement. Both the drummer (often a tabla player) and the dancer weave endless combinations on a repetitive melodic line.

The beats are called differently by the names tukra, tora, and parana, all indicative of the nature of rhythmic patterns used and the percussion instrument accompanying the dance. The dance often commences with a sequence called Thaat. This is followed by a conventional formal entry known as the Amad (entry) and the Salami (salutation).

There are three major schools or gharana of Kathak: the Lucknow gharana, known for the expression of moods and emotions, Jaipur gharana famous for its rhythmic virtuosity and Varanasi gharana, which is characterized by the exclusive use of the Natwari or dance bols, which are different from the tabla and the pakhawaj bols. There is also a great use of the floor. These schools are named according to the geographical area in which they were developed and each gharana has a slight difference in interpretation and repertoire.


This classical dance form originates from the eastern state of Orissa in India. According to archaeological evidences, it is the oldest surviving dance form of India. This dance form is referred as Odra-Magadhi in Natya Shastra, the classic treatise of Indian dance.

Odissi was initially performed in the temples as a religious offering by the Maharis (temple girls) who dedicated their lives in the services of God. It has the closest resemblance with sculptures of the Indian temples

Some of the most distinguishing features of Odissi dance are the Tribhangi, which involves movement of head, chest and torso and Chauka or Chouka, the basic square position that symbolises Lord Jagannath. These poses are more curved than other classical Indian dances. Mudra is also an important component of Odissi dance. The term Mudra means stamp, and is a hand position which suggests a wide array of symbolism and emotion. Odissi themes are most often religious in nature, and many revolve around expressing the stories of Lord Krishna.

Odissi is characterised by various stances known as Bhangas, which involves stamping of the foot and striking various postures as seen in Indian sculptures. The common Bhangas are Bhanga, Abanga, Atibhanga and Tribhanga.


Kuchipudi is a classical dance form from the South-East state of Andhra Pradesh in India and is also popular all over South India. It derives its name from the village of Kuchelapuram, a small village about 65 kms from Vijaywada.

Bharata Muni who wrote the Natya Shastra had explained various aspects of this dance form. Later, the impetus to kuchipudi was given by Sidhendra Yogi who redefined the dance form.

Performed to classical Carnatic music, Kuchipudi shares many common elements with Bharatanatyam. The technique of Kuchipudi makes use of fast rhythmic footwork and sculpturesque body movements and uses miming and subtle facial expression, combined with strong narrative and dramatic character.

Historically Kuchipudi was performed as a dance drama by male dancers only, with several dancers taking different roles. By the 20th century, Kuchipudi fully crystallized as a classical solo dance form. Thus there are now two forms of Kuchipudi; the traditional musical dance-drama and the solo dance.

Kuchipudi is accompanied by Carnatic music. A typical orchestra for a Kuchipudi recital includes the mridangam, flute and violin. A vocalist sings the lyrics, and the nattuvanar conducts the orchestra and recites the rhythmic patterns.

The themes are mostly derived from the scriptures and mythology, and the portrayal of certain characters is a central motif of this dance form. One example is Satyabhama, the colourful second consort of Lord Krishna. Another unique feature of Kuchipudi is the Tarangam, in which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated rhythmic patterns with dexterity, while sometimes also balancing a pot of water on the head.


Kathakali originated in the South Western state of Kerala in India during the 17th century. Kathakali is a classical Indian dance-drama noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion.

Kathakali is a visual art where aharya, costume and make-up are suited to the characters, as per the tenets laid down in the Natya Shastra. The characters are grouped under certain clearly defined types like the pacha, kathi, thadi, kari or minukku. The face of the artist is painted over to appear as though a mask is worn. The lips, the eyelashes and the eyebrows are made to look prominent. A mixture of rice paste and lime is applied to make the chutti on the face which highlights the facial make-up.

In no other dance style is the entire body used so completely as in Kathakali. The technical details cover every part of the body from facial muscles to fingers, eyes, hands and wrists. The facial muscles play an important part. The movement of the eyebrows, the eye-balls and the lower eye-lids as described in the Natya Shastra are not used to such an extent in any other dance style. The weight of the body is on the outer edges of the feet which are slightly bent and curved.

Traditionally all Kathakali dramas were composed to last a whole night. However nowadays stories are presented in parts and lasts no more than three to four hours.

In Kathakali dancers play various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Colours used in the make-up determine the character in the drama, for example the faces of heroic characters such as Rama are predominantly green. Characters of demon characters as Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base.


Manipuri originated in the state of Manipur in the north-eastern region of India. Manipuri dance incorporates both the tandava and lasya and ranges from the most vigorous masculine to the subdued and graceful feminine. Generally known for its lyrical and graceful movements, Manipuri dance has an elusive quality. In keeping with the subtleness of the style, Manipuri abhinaya does not play up the mukhabhinaya very much – the facial expressions are natural and not exaggerated – sarvangabhinaya, or the use of the whole body to convey a certain rasa, is its forte.

Among the important constituents of the Manipuri repertoire are the Sankirtana and the Raas Leela, based on the devotional theme of Krishna and Radha. The Raas Leela depicts the cosmic dance of Krishna and the cowherd maidens. The beautiful embroidered skirts of the dancers, long and flared from the waist, and the transluscent veils, along with Krishna’s costume with the tall peacock feather crown, add to the radiant appearance of this dance, as the performers sway and twirl to an ascending tempo.

Manipuri dancers do not wear ankle bells to accentuate the beats tapped out by the feet, in contrast with other Indian dance forms, and the dancers’ feet never strike the ground hard. Movements of the body and feet and facial expressions in Manipuri dance are subtle and aim at devotion and grace.


Mohiniyattam, also spelled Mohiniattam, is a classical dance from Kerala, India. The term Mohiniyattam comes from the words “Mohini” meaning a woman who enchants onlookers and “aattam” meaning graceful and sensuous body movements. The word “Mohiniyattam” literally means “dance of the enchantress”.

Mohiniattam is characterized by swaying movements of the upper body with legs placed in a stance similar to the plie position. The eyes play an important role in accenting the direction of the movement.

The costume includes white sari embroidered with bright golden brocade (known as kasavu) at the edges. The dance follows the classical text of Hastha Lakshanadeepika, which has elaborate description of mudras (gestural expressions by the hand palm and fingers).

The Jewellery our traditional dancers wear is the typical complete set of Temple Golden Finish Jewellery with a proper wide Golden Lakshmi belt specially designed for Mohiniyattam. The foot steps are made tinkling with a good pair of original Chilanka or either known as Ghungroo or Dancing bells worn by the dancer on her legs. The performer also adorns herself with Fresh white Jasmine flowers which is decked to her hair bun arranged on the left side of the head pinned on to a beautiful Jurapin, which makes Mohiniyattam artists distinct from other dance forms artists of India.

The vocal music of Mohiniyattam involves variations in rhythmic structure known as chollu. The lyrics are in Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam. The Mohiniyattam dance is performed to this accompaniment by the subtle gestures and footwork of the danseuse. The performer uses the eyes in a very coy, sensual manner to enchant the mind without enticing the senses.


Sattriya dance was originally practised by celibate monks in Assam in the form of mythological dance-dramas. This dance form has remained a living tradition in Assam’s Vaishnava monasteries, known as sattras, for over 500 years now. These dance-dramas were written and directed by the Assamese Vaishnava saint and social reformer Sankaradeva, and by his principal disciple Madhavadeva. They were mostly composed during the 16th century.

Sattriya dance’s strict adherence to the principles of the sattras has allowed it to maintain its pure form and its distinct style. Traditionally, Sattriya was performed only by male monks in monasteries as a part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, Sattriya is also performed on stage by men and women who are not members of the sattras.

Like the other Indian Classical dance forms, Sattriya encompasses the principles required of a classical dance form such as a distinct repertoire (marg) and the aspects of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressive dance), and natya (abhinaya).

Sattriya Nritya is accompanied by musical compositions called borgeets (composed by Sankardeva and Shree Shree madhavdev, among others) which are based on classical ragas. The instruments that accompany a traditional performance are khols (drums), taals (cymbals) and the flute. Other instruments like the violin and the harmonium have been recent additions.

The costumes are usually made of pat – a silk produced in Assam which is derived from the mulberry plant – and woven with intricate local motifs. There are two types of costumes: the male costume comprising the dhoti and chadar and the female costume comprising the ghuri and chadar. The waist cloth which is known as the kanchi or kingkini is worn by both the male and female dancers. The ornaments, too, are based on traditional Assamese design.

Martial Art Forms


Kalaripayattu also known as Kalari, originated in northern and central parts of Kerala in India. A kalari is the school or training hall where martial arts are taught. Kalaripayattu has strongly influenced the evolution of several of Kerala’s theatre and dance forms, most prominently Kathakali. Kathakali practitioners are required to train under Kalari masters to develop various attributes such as fitness, stamina, and martial movements enacted in their performances. Kalari practitioners claim that Bodhi Dharma, a Buddhist monk who was responsible for training the Shaolin monks in kung-fu, was in fact a Kalari master.

Kalaripayattu is today emerging in a new avatar – an ancient art form – a source of inspiration for self-expression in dance forms – both traditional and contemporary, in theatre, in fitness and in movies too.

The Kalaripayattu artist is trained in an enclosure called ‘Kalari’, which is 21 feet by 42 feet. The entrance faces the east. In the south-west corner is a seven-tiered platform called the “poothara”, which houses the guardian deity of the kalari. These seven steps symbolise seven abilities each person requires. They include Vigneswa (Strength), Channiga (patience), Vishnu (commanding power), Vadugashcha (the posture), Tadaaguru (training), Kali (the expression) and Vakasta – purushu (sound). Other deities, most of them incarnations of the Bhagavathi or Shiva, are installed in the corners.

Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry and healing methods


Chhau dance originated as a martial art and contains vigorous movements and leaps. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of the princely rulers of the Orissa region took a keen interest in the development of this art. They maintained troupes that performed on special occasions and festivals.

Some Chhau dances use large stylized masks. The depiction of birds and animals is a distinctive feature. There are also heroic dances with sword, bow or shield, with which dancers demonstrate their dexterity. In keeping with the martial origins of Chhau, some of the themes include the depiction of mythological heroes, such as Parashurama, Mahadev, Indrajit and others, from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. Over the course of time, female characters and more diverse themes were added.

There are three recognized schools or styles of Chhau. These are the Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj varieties. Mayurbhanj Chhau dancers do not wear masks. In recent times, Mayurbhanj Chhau has become popular as a medium of choreography, with its wide range of postures and movements that adapt well to modern as well as traditional treatment.


Bollywood is a popular dance-form used in the Indian films, hence it is also called Filmi dance. Bollywood is often a combination of fusion form or pure forms and encompasses dance styles such as Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Garba & Bhangra as well as Belly-dance, Latin, Hip hop, Contempory and Jazz.

Bollywood is popular in western culture especially because of its use by stars such as Madonna, Shakira, Britney Spears and others who have used Bollywood moves and costumes in their video clips.

Folk Dance

Folk dance in India is a term broadly used to describe all forms of folk and tribal dances in regions across India. While Indian classical dance is considered a higher form of art and was practiced in courts, temples and on special occasions, folk dance forms are practiced in groups in rural areas as an expression of their daily work and rituals. They are performed on religious or seasonal festivals. Some of the popular folk dances that are performed across villages and cities are Bhangra, Garba, Kalbelia and Bihu.

Bhangra refers to several types of dance originating from the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent and it is a celebratory folk dance which welcomes the coming of spring, or Vaisakhi, as it is known. Bhangra dance is based on music from a dhol, folk singing, and the chimta. The accompanying songs are small couplets written in the Punjabi language called bolis. The dancers move with passion and use lots of energy. The dance rhythm is set by the dhols. Bhangra is often danced in circles and uses a lot of arm and shoulder movement.

Some dances use sticks and swords. Other dances use stunts such as a dancer sitting on someone’s shoulders, while another person hangs from his torso by his legs.

Garba is a form of folk dance that originated in the state of Gujarat in India. Traditionally, it is performed during the nine-day Hindu festival of Navaratri. Either the lamp (the Garba Deep) or an image of the Goddess, Durga is placed in the middle of concentric rings as an object of worship. It is a joyful style of dance, based on a circular pattern and characterized by a sweeping action from side to side. Garba performances often include singing and a musical accompaniment traditionally provided by dhol (double-headed drum) and the similar but smaller dholak; hand clapping; and assorted metallic idiophones, such as cymbals. Both men and women usually wear colorful costumes while performing garba.
Kalbelia dance is a folk dance of Rajasthan state of India. It is well known by other names like ‘Sapera Dance’ or ‘Snake Charmer Dance’. Kalbelia dance is particularly performed by a Rajasthani tribe called ‘Kalbelia’. Kalbelia dance, males play various traditional instruments and females perform dance. Kalbelia dance is one of the most sensuous dance among all Rajasthani dances.
The Bihu dance is a folk dance from the Indian state of Assam related to the festival of Bihu. It is a group dance in which males and females dance together but maintain different gender roles. In general, females follow stricter line or circle formations. The male dancers and musicians enter the dancing area first, and they maintain their lines and follow synchronized patterns. The dance is usually characterized by definite postures; movements of the hips, arms, wrists; twirls, squats and bends but no jumps. Male and female dance movements are very similar, with only minor but subtle differences. The dance is performed in accompaniment with traditional Bihu music. The most important musicians are the drummers (dhulia), who play a particular twin-faced drum, the dhol, slung from the neck and played with one stick and a palm.