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During the past few years, I’ve encountered Indian dance forms on a variety of performance platforms – Bharata Natyam (also written as one word – Bharatanatyam) at this year’s American Dance Festival, Kuchipudi during UNC’s 2011-2012 performance season at Memorial Hall, and Odissi during my education at the University of Illinois. In addition to these classical dance forms, Bollywood style dancing has established a presence in my dance-viewing life; this popular form of Indian dance fusion is on everything from So You Think You Can Dance to Internet memes. So, over time, I’ve grown curious. What exactly are the major forms of Indian dance, and how does Bollywood fit into the picture? Thanks to my best friend (the Internet), I’ve now got a much better idea.

Classical Indian dance has five major styles – one to represent each natural element as manifested in the human body. Bharata Natyam represents fire; Odissi, water; Kuchipudi, earth; Mohiniattam, air; and Kathakali, sky or ether.

Today, I’ll focus on Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Bollywood dance, as those are the forms with which I am most familiar. In Part Two, we will learn together about what elements characterize Odissi, Mohinattam and Kathakali. I’ve labeled each dance with the region from which it originates.

Bharata Natyam – Southern India

Ragamala Dance / Photo credit: Ed Block

One of the most popular and widely recognizable classical forms of Indian dance, Bharata Natyam is known for its grace, purity, tenderness and sculpture-like poses. The form incorporates the dramatic art of storytelling, called Abhinaya or Nata, and pure dance movements that represent the rhythms in the music. This element is called Nritta.

The photos at right and below depict Ragamala Dance, one of the Indian Diaspora’s leading dance ensembles, performing an repertory work in the style of Bharata Natyam.

Ragamala Dance / Photo Credit: Hub Wilson

This year’s American Dance Festival presented Ragamala Dance’s “Sacred Earth” in mid-July.  The work incorporated live music and dance, slide projection (as seen in the photo above), and Tamil Sangam poetry.

Kuchipudi – Andhra Pradesh, India / Southern India

Kuchipudi shares many common elements with Bharata Natyam, but has some stylistic differences and dances that are unique to the form.  In Bharata Natyam, there are many lyrical compositions that reflect the desire of the devotee to merge with God; Kuchipudi does not have these, and is generally more virtuosic than its Southern Indian dance counterpart.

Kuchipudi also features the following unique dances:

The Tarangam – In this dance, the dancer balances a water-filled vessel on her head while dancing on a brass plate. This dance symbolizes the mischievous childhood of Lord Krishna. See an example of the Tarangam below.


Krishna Shabdam – In this number, the dancers showcase their womanly charms. See an example of Krishna Shabdam below.


Kuchipudi dancers also sometimes enact the role of Satyabhama, the proud and self-assured queen of Lord Krishna, from the dance-drama Bhama Kalapam.

Kuchipudi Dancer Shantala Shivalingappa performs in Shiva Ganga.
Photo credit unknown. From http://www.shantalashivalingappa.com/photogk.html

Dancer Shantala Shivalingappa performed a one-woman Kuchipudi show at UNC’s Memorial Hall in November 2011. Her work, “Shiva Ganga,” is inspired the complementary energies of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, and Ganga, the Goddess of the Sacred River Ganges.

Bollywood – ?

Bollywood dance is a blend of many different Eastern dance styles, such as belly-dancing, Kathak and Indian folk dance, in addition to Western styles like modern, contemporary and jazz. The form’s exact definition, geographic roots and stylistic characteristics are difficult to verify, but a few things are certain:

1. Bollywood dances are often romantic and/or playful.

2. The performers’ costumes strongly determine the overall feel that a dance will have in the scope of a Bollywood film.

3. Bollywood dance has found its way into American popular media.

Below is a clip of SYTYCD Season 4, in which dancers Katee Shean and Joshua Allen perform the show’s first ever Bollywood routine.


The following clip features Bollywood dance sequences from the 2006 Telugu film, “Ashok“.


And now, the same dance sequences set to the tune of the Internet meme, “Nyan Cat.”

I hope you learned something; I know I did! Stay tuned for Part Two to learn more about Odissi, Mohiniattam and Kathakali.