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South Indian Dance Forms: a Treat for Art Lovers

Updated: Mar 28, 2023


  • History and Origin

  • Styles and Techniques

  • Costumes and Jewellery

  • Musical Instruments

  • Some of the Lesser known Dance Forms

  • Benefits of connecting to Indian Culture through its Dance Forms

History and Origin:

India is a country with a diverse range of faiths, practices, beliefs, and cultures, and is also known for having some of the earliest forms of dance in the world. While many people may associate dance in India with Bollywood culture, the country actually has a wealth of dance forms that are deeply rooted in its rich and ancient heritage.

The roots of Indian classical dance can be traced back to the Natya Shastra, a book dedicated to performing arts written by the sage Bharata Muni. This book records all the rules and regulations related to performing arts and is a valuable resource for understanding the history of Indian dance.

There are eight well-known classical dance forms in India, but there are also many lesser-known classical dances found in deeper regions that are influenced by the folklore and beliefs of the place. South India is home to many ancient and captivating dance forms, including Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, and Mohiniyattam.

Styles and techniques:

South Indian Classical dance forms were traditionally performed to entertain deities. The common element in all these dance forms is hand gestures, known as mudras, as a universal mode of expression. Facial expressions also play a vital role.

Bharatanatyam, which originated in Tamil Nadu, is considered the oldest form of these dances. This style is characterised by a stable upper body, bent knees, and a complex footwork. The dancer utilises a combination of hand gestures, facial expressions and bodily movements to convey the theme of the performance.

Originating in Kerala, Kathakali stands apart from other south Indian dances in that it incorporates elements of ancient Indian martial arts and athletic moves. This dance form emphasises both choreography and acting and is considered the most challenging style to perform on stage. Along with music and vocal performance Kathakali relies on hand and facial expressions to communicate ideas.

Kuchipudi, which traces its roots to a village of the same name in Andhra Pradesh, is a dance form that combines drama with intricate movements of body, hands, face and eyes. Many of the postures and gestures used in Kuchipudi and similar to Bharatanatyam. Originally Kuchipudi was performed by all-male troupes, with the dancer playing the male role wearing a dhoti and the dancer playing the female role wearing a saree.

Mohiniyattam is a dance form, developed in the state of Kerala, that essentially involves enacting a play or song through dance. The recitation of the song is performed either by a vocalist or by the dancer themselves. The songs used in Mohiniyattam are in a language called Manipravalam which is a blend of Malayalam and Sanskrit. This dance form follows the Lasya style, described in Natya Shastra which emphasises delicate feminine movements. Traditionally, Mohiniyattam has been performed as a solo dance by women.

Costumes and Jewellery:

The attire of a female Bharatanatyam performer consists of a colourful saree that boasts a zari border. The saree is draped in such a way that a pleated portion hangs in front, which opens up like a fan when the dancer bends her knees. The male performer dons a white cloth resembling a dhoti and leaves the upper portion bare. The dancer is adorned with ornate jewellery on the head, neck, ears, nose, and wrists which enhance her gracefulness. Additionally, she wears ghungroo anklets which announce the leg movements. The facial expressions are accentuated by heavy makeup, with kohl highlighting the eyes and alta applied on hands and feet.

In the traditional form of Kuchipudi, all dancers were male. The male performer wore a dhoti and the female performer wore a saree with light makeup. However, in modern times, there is an increase in female artists and they dress up similar to Bharatanatyam performers.

The costume of a Mohiniyattam performer is a white or off-white saree with a golden border. A golden belt highlights the waist and the saree’s end is tucked in it, with a pleated sheet hanging below it. The dancer wears simple jewellery with light makeup, with bright red lipstick accentuating the lips. In contrast, male performers wear a dhoti with light makeup.

The elaborate costumes, makeup, and headgear worn by Kathakali performers are used to depict the character being portrayed in the story. Male dancers wear dark full-sleeved jackets, with scarves on either side and heavily pleated skirts to enhance their proportions. They also wear breastplates and ankle bells as part of their ornate attire. Makeup is a significant aspect in Kathakali, applied using rice and vegetable paste for different colors. The performer's eyes are particularly important and are often reddened using a flower for drawing attention.

Indian classical music relies on four types of instruments: string instruments such as the Saraswati veena, wind instruments like flute, percussion instruments including mridangam and drums, and metallic instruments like jingles and cymbals. The cymbals in particular are played to match the dancer’s footwork.

In a classical dance orchestra these instruments, along with a talented vocalist, play a crucial role in creating an appropriate ambience for both the dancer and the audience in a sabha (gathering). The dancer’s footwork and emotional expressions are accentuated by music to enthral the audience. While most shows feature renowned singers, some performers these days use recorded versions of the orchestra for their performances.

Get ready to be mesmerized by the enchanting performance of Lekshana, our young superstar, as she gracefully moves to the rhythm of the music!" Watch the Bharatanatyam performance of Lekshana 11 years old.

Some of the lesser-known dance forms:

Padayani (or Paddeni) and Theyyam are dance forms from two different rural regions of Kerala. While Padayani is associated with specific temple festivals, Theyyam is considered a socio-ritualistic ceremony.

Kummi and Kollatam are of Tamil origin and they involve females forming circles and clapping as they dance. Kargam Puli Vesham is another dance form from Tamil Nadu which is dedicated to the goddess of health and rain.

The Perini Thandavam is a traditional male dance performed by warriors. It is an ancient dance form of Telangana.

The Tapetta Gullu involves more than 10 participants who sing songs in praise of their local goddess. It is native to a district in Andhra Pradesh.

Semi-nomadic Lambadi tribes perform the Lambadi dance during significant social occasions like weddings. This tribe is found throughout Andhra Pradesh.

Benefits of connecting to Indian culture through its dance forms

Connecting to Indian culture through its dance forms can be beneficial in many ways. Some of these benefits include:

Cultural Understanding: By learning and practising Indian classical dance forms, one can gain a deeper understanding of Indian culture, its values, and its rich history. It will inculcate an appreciation for the diverse traditions and customs that make India unique.

Physical Fitness: Indian classical dance forms are highly dynamic and provide an excellent workout for the body. Practising them can help improve flexibility, strength, stamina, and balance.

Emotional Well-being: Having a passion for something, and working on it gives a creative outlet. Additionally, performing better each time boosts self-esteem.

Self-expression: Indian classical dance forms provide a unique platform for self-expression, allowing individuals to express themselves creatively and authentically. By learning to express themselves through dance, individuals can develop greater confidence and a stronger sense of self.

Social Connection: Practising these art forms can provide an opportunity to connect with others who share a common interest. By participating in dance classes or performances, individuals can meet new people and develop meaningful relationships.

Spiritual Growth: These art forms have their roots in spiritual traditions and are believed to bring spiritual enlightenment to both the performers and the audience. By taking part in these activities, one can develop a deeper sense of spirituality.

Currently, various facets of our lives are influenced by modern culture, which is reasonable. That said, putting an effort into staying in touch with our traditions allows us to understand our culture and take pride in its rich heritage and legacy.

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