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Bharata Natyam
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 practised ad 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 patronised 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 besides 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.

In nritya, a dancer performs to a poem, creating a parallel kinetic poetry in movement, registering subtle expressions on the face and the entire body reacts to the emotions, evoking sentiments in the spectator for relish - the rasa. The numbers are varnam, which has expressions as well as pure dance; padams, javalis and shlokas. The accompanying music is classical Carnatic. The themes are from Indian mythology, the epics and the Puranas.

This dance form is believed to have been introduced to Kerala by the early Aryan immigrants & is performed only by the members of the Chakiar caste. A highly orthodox type of entertainment, it can be staged inside temples only & witnessed by the Hindus of the higher castes. The theatre is known as Koothambalam. The story is recited in a quasi-dramatic style with emphasis on eloquent declarations with appropriately suggestive facial expressions & hand gestures. The only accompaniments are the cymbals & the drum known as the mizhavu, made of copper with a narrow mouth on which is stretched a piece of parchment.

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.

Seraikella Chhau flourished under royal patronage. Its vigorous martial character made it suitable only for male dancers. The princes were not only patrons but also dancers, teachers and mask-making experts. The Seraikella masks are similar to those used in the Noh dance of Japan and the Wayang Wong of Java.

Purulia Chhau uses masks which is a highly developed craft in the region. The barren land with its tribal inhabitants and multi-layered influences of Vedic literature, Hinduism and martial folk-lore have all combined to shape the Purulia Chhau dances which have only one message - the triumph of good over evil.

Mayurbhanj Chhau has highly developed movements, no masks and a more chiselled vocabulary than the other two Chhau styles. Like Seraikella Chhau, it had also thrived under royal patronage and is considered a link between the earthy Indian dance movements and the flying, springing elevations of Western dance. Unlike other Indian Classical dance forms, vocal music in Chhau hardly exists! Instrumental music and a variety of drums like the Dhol, Dhumba, Nagara, Dhansa and Chadchadi provide the accompaniment. Combining folk, tribal and martial traditions and yet covering the three aspects of Nritta, Nritya and Natya as well as the Tandava and Lasya aspects of classical dance, the Chhau dances are complex combinations of Folk and Classical motifs.

Prevalent in the North as a classical dance form, Kathak has a long history. Nurtured in the holy precincts of the Hindu temples, Kathak has over the centuries attained refinement and enriched itself with various hues and embellishments. Kathak means a story teller and it developed as a dance form in which a solo dancer tells and interprets stories from mythology.
In nritya, the expressional numbers called gats are danced by delicate glances of the eye and by using the art of mime. Themes from life are taken like enacting simple chores of carrying water from the well or walking gracefully, covering a face with a veil and looking through it in a tantalising manner at the lover.

Also, to the lyrics, expressions are shown evoking the rasa or emotion in the spectators, who, if the musical traditions are shared along with the songs, enjoy it by expressing their appreciation with a round of applause.

The themes of Krishna, Radha, Shiva, Parvati and mythological characters find a prominent place in the Kathak dancer’s repertoire. Nowadays, experiments are being carried out with group choreography exploring the dance form. Both men and women perform Kathak which is also used to present dance dramas of historical tales and contemporary events.

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 colourful 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.

The pure dance element in Kathakali is limited to kalasams, decorative dance movements alternating with an expressional passage where the actor impersonates a character, miming to the liberetto sung by the musician. A cylindrical drum called chenda, a drum called maddalam held horizontally, cymbals and a gong form the musical accompaniment, and two vocalists render the songs. Using typical music known as Sopanam, Kathakali creates a world of its own.

The most striking feature of Kathakali is its overwhelming dramatic quality. But its characters never speak. It is danced to the musical compositions, involving dialogues, narration and continuity. It employs the lexicon of a highly developed hand-gesture language which enhances the facial expressions and unfolds the text of the drama.

Practised and preserved by the Chakyar community in Kerala, Koodiyattam is the oldest surviving link with ancient Sanskrit theatre. A precursor of Kathakali drama, Koodiyattam has several conventions which reflect the aesthetic conventions of the Natyashastra. The stylised mode of acting, the same character playing different roles, the use of the spoken word akin to chanting, stories within stories, flash backs, improvisations, eye expressions (netrabhinaya), an extensive gesture vocabulary or 'hastas', body movements (angika abhinaya) and facial expressions (mukhajabhinaya), the use of Sanskrit by the main character and Malayalam by the court jester or vidushaka who comments, satirizes and ridicules the protagonists... these are the salient features of Koodiyattam.

Performances are traditionally held in the Koothambalam which are special theatres attached to temples. The Sanskrit play selected for the performance usually takes over several days. Female dancers called Nangiars deliver the invocatory songs and also participate. The use of the tirashila or curtain, different colours for the face to depict characters and elaborate ornaments are all similar to Kathakali. The mizhavu is a special drum used as an accompaniment for Koodiyattam performances.

The repertoire consists of Sanskrit dramas like Ascharyachudamani of Shaktibadra, Subhadradhananjeyan of Kulasekara Varman, Abhisekha Nataka and Swapnavasavadatta of Bhasa, Kalyana Saugandhikam of Mahendra Vikrama and Bhagavadajjukiyam of Bodhayana which are the popular favourites. With disciplined and dedicated performers like Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, Kocchukuttan Chakyar and Kitangur Kuttappan Chakyar, this ancient classical form has a growing legion of students and afficionados in India and elsewhere.

It is intended for presentation on eight successive nights to unfold the entire story of Lord Krishna, the style is almost akin to Kathakali.

Kuchipudi, like Kathakali is also a dance-drama tradition and derives its name from the vilage 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 exxposition 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.

The songs are mimed with alluring expressions, swift looks and fleeting emotions evoking the rasa. A special number in the Kuchipudi repertoire is called tarangam, in which a dancer balances herself on the rim of a brass plate and executes steps to the beat of a drum. At times she places a pot full of water on her head and dances on the brass plate. The song accompanying this number is from the well known Krishna Leela Tarangini, a text which recounts the life and events of Lord Krishna.

In expressional numbers a dancer sometimes chooses to enact the role of Satyabhama, the proud and self-assured queen of Lord Krishna, from the dance-drama Bhama Kalapam. She goes through various stages of love. When in separation from Lord Krishna, she recalls the happy days of union and pines for him. At last they are reunited when she sends him a letter. One more number from the Kuchipudi repertoire that deserves mention is Krishna Shabdam, in which a milkmaid invites Krishna for a rendezvous in myriads of ways giving full scope for the dancer to display the charms of a woman.

Manipuri dances originate from the North Eastern state of Manipur and derives its name from its native state. Intensely devotional in mood, the Manipuri dances are a part of the daily life of the Manipuri people. Essentially presented as a group dance with gorgeous, colourful 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 favourite 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 play 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. In group dances like Lai Haraoba, the merry-making for the gods, the dancers perform various steps and weave patterns, involving various choreographic compositions. From the corpus of Manipuri dances, one sees on the contemporary stage solo, duet and group performances. The music is typical of the region and is influenced by the kirtan school of Bengal due to the influence of Vaishnavism.

Rasalila, Lai Haraoba, Choloms, Pung Cholom, Natasankirtana, Khubak Ishai and other Manipuri dances share both nritta and nritya aspects and are edited judiciously for the concert platform to suit the urban audience. However, to enjoy Manipuri, one should see the dances in their natural setting. Gossamer veils, cylindrical mirrored skirts and ornaments dazzle the audiences with their colourful costumes which create a dream-like effect.

Mohini Attam as a dance form has developed in Kerala. Performed by women it has graceful, gentle bobbing movements. Mohini means an enchantress and a dancer with enchanting movements, dressed in a typical white saree with gold border, hair gathered in a bun on one side and with golden jewellery epitomises the image of a beautiful maiden. Apparently it resembles the Bharatanatyam dance form but is quite distinct in its execution of movements, usage of hand gestures and its stark, simple costume.

Mohini Attam has enjoyed a revival in recent times and is the most popular dance form among the young aspirants in Kerala. It has a format which follows the Bharatanatyam form and the repertoire has common names. In nritta a number called Cholukattu consists of pure dance movements at the end of which is tagged a poem that is in praise of a deity and also narrates the story of the Ramayana in a nutshell. The mnemonic syllables are sung instead of being uttered by the musician. Another item of pure dance is Tillana which follows the musical mode of Bharatanatyam with classical Carnatic music. However, of late, kerala's Sopana music is being employed for Mohini Attam and the repertoire has also been enlarged with the choreography maintaining the typical movements of this graceful style.

In nritya, the padams are mimed with facial expressions and hand gestures and the themes are drawn from mythology. The nayika or heroine longs for union with her beloved. A confidante goes and conveys the message to the lover and the nayika describes the pangs of separation. A varnam follows the structure of a Bharatanatyam varnam dwelling upon the narration, impersonation and alternating with pure dance. Though the dance units in Mohini Attam are limited, the quintessential grace and the measured movements are its distinct features.

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 characterises this dance form. It has a vast range of sculptural body movements which gives one the illusion of the sculptures coming to life.

In nritta the numbers consist of batu nritya, pallavi and mokhya. In batu nritya the dancer strikes poses holding various instruments like veena, flute, cymbals and drums and the choreography of this number reveals the imagination of the choreographer-gurus. Pallavi means to elaborate, and a dancer performs pure dance to a chosen time cycle and a musical raga (melody). Various body postures similar to temple sculptures are woven in this number. In mokhya, before the dance concludes, a dancer employs various dance units creating arresting visuals. In nritya, the songs from the celebrated Gita Govinda of poet Jayadeva written in the 12th century A.D., are used by dancers for expressional numbers.

The exquisite Sanskrit poetry and the sculptural movements to the typical Odissi music almost cast a spell on the spectators. Songs of other Oriya poets are also danced with subtle expressions, replete with emotions. In its revival period Odissi has received enthusiastic support from the young exponents and often one finds Bharatanatyam dancers also mastering the Odissi technique and performing both the dance forms though while doing so, they maintain the clearcut differences in the execution of the movements. In recent years, group choreographic presentations and dance dramas are also attempted in order to bring out the full glory and sculptural wealth of Odissi which is truly a visually fascinating performance style.

Ottan Thullal
It is performed solo & because of its ready mass appeal, it is also known as the poor man's Kathakali. Kunjan Nambiar evolved it & brought out the social conditions of his time, the distinctions of class & the weakness & whims of the rich & the great. The dialogue is in simple Malayalam & therefore ensures mass appeal.

Yaksha Gana
This belongs to Karnataka & has a rural origin. It is an admixture of dance & drama. Its heart lies in Gana meaning music. It is about 400 years old. The language is Kannada & the themes are based on Hindu Epics. The 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).

The info about Bharatanatyam, Chhau, Kathak, Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohinattam, Odissi have been provided from "Narthaki - A web directory of Classical Indian Dances"