When we think of Indian dance, there are a number of different styles that may come to mind. We might think of the bright, colourful folk dances of the Rajasthan desert, or the vigorous temple dances of South India - or of the courtly dances of North India, or even of the lively and energetic dancing found in Bollywood films.
Classical Indian dance forms often (although not exclusively) take their inspiration from narrative, including religious mythology (purana and kavya) and epic (itihasa), as well as other non-narrative textual forms such as prayer or poetry. Bharatanatyam, the classical form of South India, uses a combination of nritya (pure dance) and mudras or abhinayas gestures that communicate a story or meaning to the audience. Different set dances communicate different ideas or meanings; a padam or a kruti will tell a story or express the emotion of a character, whereas a thillana will combine pure dance with a devotional prayer. The mudras, or hand gestures, can be used as pure ornamentation, or as a kind of alphabet or sign language to gesticulate the content of the story episode or prayer.
Classical dance is generally learned at dance schools in India, and great importance is placed upon the relationship between teacher and pupil. When the teacher feels that the pupil has attained an appropriate standard, the student is presented for their arangetram (a Sanksrit term meaning 'ascending the stage'). This is a dance display that marks the end of training and the beginning of the student's professional dance life. A student will usually dance their arangetram in their late teens; it is an important culmination of training, whether or not the student does intend to continue as a professional dancer.
In the UK, the same system of training has been used to teach classical Indian dance. In addition, since 1999 the ISTD (Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing) has offered a teaching syllabus with grade examinations, bringing Bharatnatyam and Kathak teaching in the UK into a pattern that matches much European dance teaching.
As more Indians moved to Britain from East Africa, India and Sri Lanka, their desire to keep traditions alive for the next generation has increased the demand for learning and teaching dance in the UK. In fact, wherever in the world there is an Indian community, there is bound to be Indian dance - taught and trained formally or learned informally at community gatherings.
Classical Indian Dance
Classical dance has become an important means by which members of Indian communities worldwide - often from different regional, linguistic and religious backgrounds - can come together and share an important part of their cultural heritage.
One of the most beautiful, subtle, sophisticated and graceful dance forms in the world, bharatanatyam is the most popular of the classical dance forms in India. It is a traditional dance which evolved over many centuries in the temples of southern India. Always performed in a 'half-seated' posture, it highlights the beauty of strong lines leading out from the dancer's body and is embellished with intricately expressive hand gestures.
The two main elements of bharatnatyam are the hand gestures or mudras, combined with facial expressions and the characteristic neck-movements which make up the expressive quality of the dance and strong, rhythmic footwork. The footwork is highlighted by the bells worn by the dancer, which are called gungru; these emphasise the rhythms of the dancer's feet.
As well as representing a mythological or legendary narrative, the content of the dance expresses one of nine different bhavas or 'moods' – love, jealousy, anger, fear, pride, devotion, disgust, surprise, humility. The bhava is what the dance and the dancer express; correspondingly, the audience should experience the rasa or 'taste' of the dance, such that when the dancer performs in sringara bhava (the mood of love), the audience should feel sringara rasa (the feeling or 'taste' of love).
According to the mythology, the gods asked Brahma for a fifth Veda to be created to purify mankind and to create an art-form that mankind could make use of and that could communicate religious values. In response, Brahma created the Natya-Veda, whose earthly manifestation is the text of the Natya-shastra - the mundane documentation of the divine text and still the textbook for artists and teachers that contains the fundamentals of classical dance forms in India. The dance form was originally performed at temple as a form of worship; a bharatanatyam dancer is often instructed to stand or sit in the manner of one of the carvings of karunas or body postures found frequently in South Indian temples, and to bear these sculptures in mind when dancing.
Where bharatnatyam is associated with South Indian temple worship, kathak is associated with North Indian courtly life. Kathak also uses mudras or hand gestures, and rhythmic footwork, but the dance is performed in an upright posture rather than in the half-seated posture of Bharatnatyam.
The word 'kathak' is derived from the Sanksrit 'katha', meaning 'story' or 'storytelling,' and, like bharatnatyam, kathak narrates the histories and legends of Sanskrit literature. Kathak began as a devotional dance form, but later evolved into a form of palace entertainment at Hindu and Muslim courts and the dance form became associated with courtesans and decadent living. Since the 19th Century, Kathak has enjoyed a renaissance as a classical artform.
Characteristic kathak movements are graceful spins called chakars, and fluid hand-motions led from the wrist. In the UK, male dancer Akram Khan has brought kathak to a new western audience, fusing the classical Indian form with western contemporary dance.
Bharatnatyam and kathak are the two most popular classical Indian danceforms in both India and among Indian diasporic communities around the world. Other classical Indian dance forms include 0dissi (a temple dance originating from Orissa in eastern India), kuchipudi (originating from Andhra Pradesh in the South), manipuri (from Manipur), and kathakali (a dance-drama form from Kerala known for its extravagant costumes and make-up when danced in ritual or public performance).
Contemporary Indian Dance
Traditional folk dances are generally learned at festivals and events where dancing takes place, but Indian dance is a living art-form and is constantly evolving. In the UK, there are bhangra and Bollywood classes, but it is quite common for dancers to pick up movements from friends and peers and in clubs.
Bhangra is a lively, energetic folk dance originating from the Panjab region of India. Traditionally, bhangra was danced on the harvest festival of Baisakhi, but today's bhangra (or, more properly, bhangra-pop) is a popular dance in clubs and at parties not only in India but among the Indian communities of Britain, and increasingly all over the UK. Bhangra dance movements include strong hip movements, turns, and hand movements that, although simpler than those of classical dance, embellish the dance as it is performed.
The term 'Bollywood dance' covers any kind of dancing that might be associated with the song and dance (nac-gana) routines that are an essential and spectacular part of Hindi ('Bollywood') cinema. 'Filmi' dances might be performed solo, in pairs, or in large groups, and the choreography might involve a fusion of any of the dance forms already mentioned - classical, folk, and movements inspired by western pop videos.
Dance numbers in Hindi films have strong visual appeal, and provide an opportunity for the typically demure Indian heroine to show her vampy side. Filmi dances, with their accompanying songs, might tell the narrative of the hero and heroine falling in love, or show a family celebration, or might provide pure spectacle for the audience.
As Bombay film studios run on extremely tight time schedules, with stars often working on several film projects at one time with limited rehearsal time for each, Bollywood film choreography can often be rather improvised in nature with choreographers needing to think on their feet and create and teach dances in a very short space of time. This has led to a particular movement vocabulary developing, from which dance can be created that dance performers can quickly learn on set, even for big dance numbers. Typical Bollywood movements concentrate on the hip and bosom areas for women, and fast, funky footwork for men.
Film-makers in the 1980s imported western sounds into the musical numbers, and western movement into dance numbers. Recently, there has been more of a return, both musically and in dance, to classical traditions. Many Indian film stars have classical dance training, and new contemporary fusions of classical forms are appearing in more and more current films.
Indian dance has a long heritage, stretching back 2,000 years, but is also always in the process of renewing itself, drawing inspiration from both inside and outside the subcontinent.