The History and Origins of Classical Dance Forms In India: Bharatanatyam

The History and Origins of Classical Dance Forms In India: Bharatanatyam

Maria ThomasJul 22, '22

The History and Origins of Classical Dance Forms In India: Bharatanatyam


Dance in the early ages - 

Dance and movement have been around for long before they were officially recognized as art-forms. If you look through history, several historians have found official records through cave paintings showing that dance used to be practiced as a core part of a transforming human civilization and the practices that dictated their culture. As civilization kept progressing, cultures were split giving room for more tradition, beliefs and practices. As cultures branched off, so did the traditions that made them leaving us with a vast range of ideologies, systems and art-forms with each differing from region to region. 


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In India, a country with a population of over a billion people of diverse cultures, it does not come as a surprise that we are home to the earliest known tangible record of dance forms, with several intricate sculptures and paintings going back in time to around 8000 BCE. Having deep religious connotations in them, these sculptures and paintings were considered part of a spiritual practice and transcended leisure or entertainment. Later it was discovered that the Egyptians too inscribed dance forms on stone and remains among the earliest dance forms. During the times of ancient Greece, dance became a pivotal part of worship as the Greek began to use these dance forms while paying homage to Dionysus - the wine God of Greek mythos, and then also to the Roman God Bacchus. These dances first became ritualistic practices and were then brought into the open through performances at the early Olympic games held in Greece and so on. 

The reasons for why or when people began dancing surely predate the findings, but dance seems like something that was in-built in us and tied to our cultural identities and evolution. What started as a religious practice soon grew into wider terrains and dance became a reason to make merry, to enjoy, to seduce, to pray and to entertain.   

It is the case throughout the history of mankind and the history of civilization that when we as individuals consider something the norm and repeat it enough number of times, it becomes more tangible, variable and throws open more room for newer forms of innovation. Such was the case with dance - what started out as something life-defining and life-transcending, spread far and wide to adapt to many other forms, cultures, places and people, and has remained as one of the most radical and transformative ways of human existence. 

India being a country of diverse beliefs, practices, faiths, cultures and terrains, is also, today, home to some of the most eccentric dance forms - some of which are not even known to us. Apart from the done and dusted Bollywood originals, there’s quite literally a world of dance and movement practices and forms that are rooted in Indian culture. 


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Dance today - 

Dance has transformed and adapted itself to newer forms by leaps and bounds. Among dance forms, there are various categories depending on the type of dance. From African-American Dance (with over 30 sub-types under them), Ceremonial Dance, Disco/ Electronic Dance, Free-style and Spontaneous Dance, Historical Dance Forms, Latin/ Rhythm Dance, Novelty and Fad Dances like the bunny hop or the Freddie, Social Dance, Street Dance, Swing Dance, K-POP, Acro to many more, the names are endless. 

These are just a few categories with numerous other dance forms that fall under each category. If the sea is vast and innumerable, dance and movement forms are just as vast and innumerable. One would think they may have heard of all forms, only to find out there are a range of dances they haven’t ever heard of and are new to. 


Origin of Dance in India - 

There are many stories and theories regarding the origin of dance in India. In ancient Hindu mythology, it is said that Lord Brahma, the creator, was the one who first prompted Rishi Bharata Muni to write a book dedicated to the performing arts and came to be known as the Natya Shastra. The book takes the reader/ believer on a gripping journey through the story of the origin of dance from which other dance and art forms emerged. The sage or maharishi, in his book, made a compilation of certain practices from the different vedas - pathya from the Rigveda, abhinaya from the Yajurveda, music from the Samaveda and Rasa from the Atharvaveda, and wrote the book forming the Natyaveda, which is the body or form of knowledge around dance and movement. 

Based on his various explorations of Hindu scripture, the Rishi birthed a newer book comprising all his learnings on dance and movement which soon enough became the founding stone for 8 newer and more unique forms or variants of Indian classical dance. These 8 different forms of classical dance were already deeply rooted in the Hindu culture by then, and have since then taken newer sub-forms, meanings and interpretations. 


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Why do we dance? 

Dance almost seems like it was always in our bones and in our genetic make-up. That is why, any time there is rhythm or melody in music, our bodies automatically start to move and vibrate in tandem with the music.

Truth be told, there are several reasons for why us human beings love shaking a leg every now and then. The reasons, of course, differ from person to person and culture to culture, but you may find that there are a few common reasons that make our reasons for dancing the same like religious practices or dancing for therapy or fitness. For many of us, dancing feels like a skill or a talent that we are born with, while for many others, dancing feels very alien. The reason some of us feel alien when it comes to dancing or grooving to a beat are many - for some it has to do with body-consciousness, for others it has to do with shame, for others it could me low-confidence, and for others it might simply be alien with a perennial fear of even moving the body just a little. Whatever the reasons are, our fears when it comes to dance and movement have a lot to do with societal conditioning and hierarchies. 

At the end of the day, a person who truly feels liberated in their bodies and their environment would find that it is a liberating experience when the body is allowed to move, dance; when the body can test its own capabilities and explore its never-touched-before sensual paradigms and shifts. We dance not just because we feel free, but we dance because we humans love to revel in the awareness that we are free. That nothing or nobody can dictate to us how, where, why or when we should move. 

Some of the reasons why we should dance are to feel physically fit, to feel mentally energized and aware, to stay alert to the changes within our own bodies, to pray or sing praise to a god or deity, to feel emotionally stable through a seamless and healthy channeling of the body’s energies, to lift our spirits and the spirits of others, to make merry and feel togetherness, among several others. 


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Indian dance forms - 

In India alone, there’s a sea of dance forms which are many in number depending on the place, language, ethnicity, culture, tradition and beliefs. Under the classical dance form, there are many sub-categories depending on the folklore and beliefs of the place. It is said that there are 8 well-known classical dance forms in India, but there are several lesser-known classical dance forms that are not so popular and are found in the deeper regions spread across the different corners of India. In Rajasthan alone you will find a variety of dances like Ghoomer, Kalbelia, Kachi Gori Chari, Taal, among many more. Apart from classical dances, India is also said to be home to a varied number of folk dances, with several having their roots in the North Indian subcultures, and several having their roots in South Indian subcultures.  


Bharatanatyam - India’s oldest dance form: 

Bharatanatyam is a dance form that is all too familiar to us - if not the dance itself, we have at least heard the name. A very unique, expressive and dramatic dance form, Bharatanatyam originated in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It is often regarded to be one of the oldest forms of classical dance in all of India. Nitya Shastra, the book written by sage Bharata Muni and Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror of Gestures) by Nandikeshvara, a well known theatrologist of ancient India, in the 5th-6th BC, are considered as the two main reference scriptures for Bharatnatyam

This dance form was famous for its temple performances and is a core part of many of the temple rituals in Hinduism. It is one of the 8 main classical dance forms carrying the nuances of South Indian culture, religious beliefs and core ideas of spiritualism.  

Bharatanatyam is regarded as the state dance of Tamil Nadu and narrates vivid stories of the mind, body and spirit. It tells stories and myths of yore that are spiritually inclined. The dance has various techniques, styles and nuances that when compiled together forms a sequence of art and literature. It is known for its vivid expressions using strong hand gestures, expressive eye movements, and distortion of the facial muscles.

The Nitya Shastra is itself said to contain over 6000 verses and talks about the dance of Shiva - the Tandava dance, the theory of rasa, bhava, expression, various poses, methods of acting along with all the basic practices required to master the dance form. According to the book, performing arts is a core part of dance and movement, and is used to express spiritual leanings, and to better narrate the scriptures. 


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Even today, you can walk into Kanchipuram’s Shiva Temple and be amazed at the detailed, intricate carvings that emulate the different dance poses akin to Bharatatyam. The temple is said to have been constructed around the 6th-7th century CE, revealing that the dance was already a norm by then. 

Today, Bharatanatyam has its own meaningful adaptations owing to the holistic and healing nature of the form. It is said to be a great regimen for those who enjoy working out, doing cardio and staying fit and healthy, as it aids blood circulation and eases the mind. According to choreographer Anita Ratnam, the various poses in the dance help in gaining a better posture and body balance. The dance also requires that dancers can make good use of their memory, imagination and inner creativity such that they can perform the dance as improv in case a step is forgotten. 

Bharatnatyam has all-round benefits for the body, soul and mind and the effects can be seen and felt. 

Are you someone who loves to dance, or know someone who does? We think you’ll like our collection of t-shirts dedicated to dance and movement. 


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Here’s a collection dedicated to all the wonderful dance forms in India. If you love fitness, dance, yoga and the likes, check out our Bharatnatyam CollectionKathakali Collection and Yoga collection. Let us know in the comments below.

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