Indian Dance Forms

Indian Dance Forms
Indian Dance

India can boast of an innumerable number of folk dances, each dance forming a specialty of a particular region or tribe. Each dance form will have its own specialty & grace, along with a set pattern of costumes & make-up.

“All classical dance forms of India are a form of communion with God. These art forms were designed to be performed in places of worship.”

The classical dance forms which have developed, have set rules that have been followed traditionally over the years. On the basic model, various gurus incorporate their own imaginative innovations, leading to various schools within a particular dance form. Apart from the gracious hand & leg postures & movements, the dancers have to acquire the skill of portraying various emotions faithfully in each expression on their face & each fluid movement of their hand, legs & in fact their whole body. Every part conveys some meaning in its graceful motion.

The costumes for all forms are elaborate & rich, but each form & style have their own traditional patterns set down. Jewels for the dancers are also specially created to suit their purpose. Flowers adorn their hair & in the case of the portrayal of Gods, their necks as garlands. The hall is also richly decorated with flowers. The application of mehndi in various styles is also an essential part of the make-up in most forms.

From the late thirties, many regional styles evolved and transformed their earlier structures and practices into a new format. In this process, some got recognition as classical dance forms. Bharatanatyam was the first, followed by Kathakali, Manipuri, and Kathak. Three other forms-Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Mohiniattam were ‘rediscovered’ in the following decades and got added to the list of classical dance forms of India.

Dance Forms Of  India:


Bharatanatyam is the most popular of Indian dances and belongs to the South Indian state of Tamilnadu. Its antiquity is well established. In the past, it was practiced and performed in the temples by a class of dancers known as the devadasis. It was a part of the religious rituals and has a long and hoary past. The kings and the princely courts patronized the temples, as well as the various traditions sustaining the dance form.

The salient features of Bharatanatyam are movements conceived in space mostly either along straight lines or triangles. In terms of geometrical designs, the dancer appears to weave a series of triangles beside several geometrical patterns.

In Nritta (pure dance) to the chosen time cycle and a raga (melody), a dancer executes patterns that reveal the architectonic beauty of the form with a series of dance units called jathis or teermanams. The torso is used as a unit, the legs are in a semi-plie form and the stance achieves the basic posture called araimandi. The nritta numbers include Alarippu, Jatiswaram, and Tillana, which are abstract items not conveying and specific meaning except that of joyous abandon with the dancer creating variegated forms of staggering visual beauty.


With origins shrouded in mystery, the Chhau dancer communicates inner emotions and themes through cadences of body flexions, movements, and kinetic suggestions. The word Chhau is interpreted differently by scholars. ‘Shadow’, ‘Disguise’ and ‘Image’ are the most common interpretations due to the extensive use of masks in this dance form. The martial movements of Chhau have led to another interpretation of the word as meaning ‘to attack stealthily’ or ‘to hunt’.

Three styles of Chhau exist born from the three different regions of Seraikella (Bihar), Purulia (West Bengal), and Mayurbhanj (Orissa). Martial movements, strong rhythmic statements, and dynamic use of space are characteristic of Chhau.


Kathakali means a story play or a dance drama. Katha means story. Belonging to the South-Western coastal state of Kerala, Kathakali is primarily a dance drama form and is extremely colorful with billowing costumes, flowing scarves, ornaments, and crowns. The dancers use a specific type of symbolic makeup to portray various roles which are character-types rather than individual characters. Various qualities, human, godlike, demonic, etc., are all represented through fantastic make-up and costumes.

The world of Kathakali is peopled by noble heroes and demons locked in battle, with truth winning over untruth, good over evil. The stories from the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as the Puranas, constitute the themes of the Kathakali dance dramas.

The macro and micro-movements of the face, the movements of the eyebrows, the eyeballs, the cheeks, the nose, and the chin are minutely worked out and various emotions are registered in a flash by a Kathakali actor-dancer. Often men play the female roles, though of late women have taken to Kathakali.


Kuchipudi, like Kathakali, is also a dance-drama tradition and derives its name from the village of Kuchipudi in the Southern State of Andra Pradesh.  In recent years, it has evolved as a solo dance for the concert platform and is performed by women, though like Kathakali it was formerly the preserve of men.  The female roles were enacted by men and even today, the tradition boasts of gifted male dancers enacting female roles with such consummate artistry that hardly anyone would notice them as male dancers.

The movements in Kuchipudi are quicksilver and scintillating, rounded, and fleet-footed. Performed to classical Carnatic music, it shares many common elements with Bharatanatyam. In its solo exposition, Kuchipudi nritta numbers include jatiswaram and tillana whereas in nritya it has several lyrical compositions reflecting the desire of a devotee to merge with God – symbolically the union of the soul with the super soul.


Manipuri dances originate from the North Eastern state of Manipur and derive their name from their native state. Intensely devotional in the mood, the Manipuri dances are a part of the daily life of the Manipuri people. Essentially presented as a group dance with gorgeous, colorful costumes and gentle, swaying petal-soft movements, Manipuri dances create a hypnotic impact. The dances are influenced by the religious movement of Vaishnavism, the worship of Lord Vishnu, and have flowered in exquisite Rasalila performances, the favorite dance in a circle by Krishna with his milkmaids. Various types of Rasalilas are performed on special occasions and festivals.

Besides Rasalilas, there are other dances called Natasankirtana, in which a group of men plays cymbals and dance in a circle or in two rows singing praises of God. In Pung Cholom, the dancers play upon pung, the drum, and dance while playing the intricate time cycles, executing somersaults and breathtaking acrobatic feats.


Odissi has been revived in the past fifty years and can be considered as the oldest classical Indian dance on the basis of archival evidence. The form belongs to the East Indian state of Orissa. Odissi has a close association with the temples and its striking feature is its intimate relationship with temple sculpture. Tribhanga, the three-body bend characterizes this dance form. It has a vast range of sculptural body movements which gives one the illusion of the sculptures coming to life.

Yaksha Gana

 Yaksha Gana belongs to Karnataka & has a rural origin. It is an admixture of dance & drama. Its heart lies in Gana meaning music.  Yaksha Gana is about 400 years old. The language is Kannada & the themes are based on Hindu Epics.  Yaksha Gana costumes are almost akin to the Kathakali ones & the style seems to have drawn inspiration from Kathakali. As prescribed in the Natya Sastra, it has the Suthra Dhara (conductor) & the vidushaka (the Jester).

List of folk dances of Indian states

States  Name of their Folk Dances
Jharkhand Chhanu, Sarahul, Jat-Jatin, Karma, Danga, Bidesia, Sohrai.
Uttarakhand Gadhwali, Kumayuni, Kajari, Jhora, Raslila, Chappeli.
Andra Pradesh Kuchipudi (Classical), Ghantamardala, (Ottam Thedal, Mohiniattam, Kummi, Siddhi, Madhuri, Chhadi.
Chhattisgarh Goudi, Karma, Jhumar, Dagla, Pali, Tapali, Navrani, Diwari, Mundari.
Arunachal Pradesh Mask dance (Mukhauta Nritya), War dance.
Himachal Pradesh Jhora, Jhali, Chharhi, Dhaman, Chhapeli, Mahasu, Nati, Dangi, Chamba, Thali, Jhainta, Daf, Stick dance, etc.
Goa Mandi, Jhagor, Khol, Dakni etc.
Assam Bihu, Bichhua, Natpuja, Maharas, Kaligopal, Bagurumba, Naga dance, Khel Gopal, Tabal Chongli, Canoe, Jhumura Hobjanai, etc.
West Bengal Kathi, Gambhira, Dhali, Jatra, Baul, Marasia, Mahal, Keertan etc.
Kerala Kathakali (Classical), Ottam Thulal, Mohini-attam, Kaikottikali, Tappatikali, Kali Auttam.
Meghalaya Laho, Baala, etc.
Manipur Manipuri (Classical), Rakhal, Nat Rash, Maha Rash, Raukhat, etc.
Nagaland Chong, Khaiva, Lim, Nuralim, etc.
Orissa Odissi (Classical), Savari, Ghumara, Painka, Munari, Chhau, Chadya Dandanata, etc.
Maharashtra Lavani, Nakata, Koli, Lezim, Gafa, Dahikala Dasavtar or Bohada, Tamasha, Mauni, Powara, Gouricha etc.
Karnataka Yakshagan, huttar, Suggi, Kunitha, Karga, Lambi
Gujarat Garba, Dandiya Ras, Tippani Juriun, Bhavai.
Punjab Bhagra, Giddha, Daff, Dhaman, etc.
Rajasthan Ghumar, Chakri, Ganagor, Jhulan Leela, Jhuma, Suisini, Ghapal, Panihari, Ginad etc.
Mizoram Khanatm, Pakhupila, Cherokan etc.
Jammu & Kashmir Rauf, Hikat, Mandjas, kud Dandi nach, Damali.
Tamil Nadu Bharatnatyam, Kumi, Kolattam, Kavadi,
Uttar Pradesh Nautanki, Raslila, Kajri, Jhora, Chappeli, Jaita.
Bihar Jata-Jatin, Bakho-Bakhain, Panwariya, Sama-Chakwa, Bidesia, Jatra etc.
Haryana Jhumar, Phag Dance, Daph, Dhamal, Loor, Gugga, Khor, Gagor, etc.

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Simmi Kamboj

Simmi Kamboj is the Founder and Administrator of Ritiriwaz, your one-stop guide to Indian Culture and Tradition. She had a passion for writing about India's lifestyle, culture, tradition, travel, and is trying to cover all Indian Cultural aspects of Daily Life.