Classical Solo Dances, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Orissi, and Kathak

As has already been mentioned several times, in India the borderline between “classical” (margi) and “folk/regional” styles (desi) is not always clear. Many traditions discussed in this text evade this simplified categorisation.

However, during the 20th century it became established that six and later eight major schools of dance were defined as “classical” styles. The former classification includes bharatanatyam (originally from Tamil Nadu), manipuri (Manipur), kathak (a Persian-influenced, originally North Indian style), kathakali (Kerala), kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), and orissi (Orissa).

Most of them are now most often performed as solo forms and were originally performed by the devadasis, or the female temple servants, who were given to the temple to be “married” to the main deity of the temple. This practice was closely linked with the devotional bhakti sect of Hinduism.

One more regional variety of this kind of female solo dance has already been discussed in connection with the performing arts of the State of Kerala. It is mohiniattam, which for some strange reason was not added to the list of the “classical” forms.

All these forms can be, according to the ancient Drama Manual, the Natyashastra, classified as soft, feminine lasya dances. Two different dance categories are mentioned in the Natyashastra. They are lasya and tandava. Strong or “masculine” tandava is related to the god Shiva’s creative and destructive cosmic dance, while graceful or “feminine” lasya is said to have been created by Shiva’s spouse, the goddess Parvati.

Lasya also indicates a type of performance in which a solo performer both dances as well as enacts, through gestures and mime, a text sung by a singer. One characteristic of lasya solo dances is the fact that they combine both non-narrative nrtta sequences with the mimetic abhinaya sequences, in which the solo dancers play all the characters mentioned in the text sung by the singer.

Of these lasya-style dances, bharatanatyam has, for historical reasons discussed later, been the dominant one. One could almost speak about the bharatanatyamisation of other solo forms, since both mohiniattam and kuchipudi have been deeply influenced by its style and particularly by its repertoire.

Northern Indian kathak, however, stems from a very different context. In the north, following invasions from Central Asia in the 10th–12th centuries, large areas came under the rule of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate and, later in the 16th century, the Moghul Empire. Thus North India was influenced by the Islamic, particularly the Persian, culture.

Kathak is a fruit of the fusion of the Persian-influenced Moghul culture and a local, northern Indian tradition. Kathak, however, like bharatanatyam, is no longer a style limited only to the region of its birth. Both are studied and performed around India as well as abroad. Internationally they are probably the best-known forms of Indian dance today.