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MOVING BEYOND FORM Explorations in Rhythm
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Classical Indian Dance

Where the hand goes, the glance follows
Where the glance leads, the mind follows,
Where the mind goes, the mood follows,
Where the mood goes, the real flavor is born.
                        - Abhinaya Darpana 

Dance in India dates back several thousand years.  Myth has it that dance was created by Lord Brahma, who took words from the Rig Veda, 1 music from the Sam Veda, Abhinaya (expression) from the Yajur Veda, and Rasa (flavor) from the Atharva Veda, to create a fifth Veda - the Natya (movement and dance) Veda. The legend continues that his son Bharata codified this in the ancient text, Natya Shastra.2 Thus, although classical Indian dance is called such, it necessarily involves an understanding of other art forms, particularly music, drama and poetry. 

Classical Indian dance is generally divided into nritta (pure technical dance), natya (movements with meaning and accompanied by verbal lyrics), and nritya (expressive dance).3 Many of the classical forms, trace their fundamental roots to ancient texts such as the Natya Shastra.  It is believed that the sage Bharata Muni authored the text between 200 A.D. and 200 B.C. thereby providing the groundwork for dance grammar and vocabulary from which theory and movement could be derived.  Hand gestures (hastas), eye movements, neck movements, spatial direction, positions of the feet, and other rules of dance were provided by the text. Another seminal text, Abhinaya Darpana, is also believed to have been written during this period by Nandikeswara.  It was probably meant to be a practical guide for dancers, and is heavily used in Bharata Natyam.4

Dance was not meant for mere aesthetic purpose, but was considered a spiritual link between the dancer and the perceiver. By the fifteenth century, regional variations of classical dance were being recorded5 and are known today as Kathak (North India), Odissi (Orissa), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Bharata Natyam (Tamil Nadu), Manipuri (Manipur), Kathakali (Kerala) and Mohiniattam (Kerala).  Dance in the South of India was greatly promoted during the rule of the Pallavas and Cholas (300 A.D. to 1100 A.D.).  Kings encouraged dance in their courts, temples were constructed with sculptures of dancing figures, and saints, musicians and composers were actively creating literature and drama that incorporated dance.6  The dancers themselves were called Devadasis (servants of God) and were integral members of the temples.  Highly respected in their communities, no birth, marriage, or ceremony was considered complete without the presence of a Devadasi.7  

In the beginning of the 20th century, without the patronage of temples and amidst political instability, Devadasis began to entertain rich merchants and landlords.8 They and their dance forms became associated with disrepute and vulgarity.  In 1892, while India was under British colonial rule, an appeal was made to the Viceroy and Governor General of India, purporting the existence of “a class of women community” who were invariably prostitutes, or, “nautch girls.” The anti-nautch movement, pressured by European missionaries and priests, urged the end of dedication of girls to the temples to become Devadasis, and organized public opinion to ostracize them.9  

The revivalist movement coincided with advocacy for home-rule in India, and promoted dance as a subject of national identity.  The movement called for the preservation of the classical Indian dance and music of the Devadasis, and was spearheaded by the lawyer and freedom fighter E. Krishna Iyer, and dancer Rukmini Devi, who founded the Kalakshetra style of Bharata Natyam.  Ironically, Rukmini Devi initially sought to learn ballet from the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and under Pavlova’s influence, Devi decided to return to the classical Indian dances. Rukmini Devi devised new costumes, used new compositions, and helped to remove the stigma attached to Bharata Natyam.10   

Girls were encouraged to learn dance from the Devadasis, and it was this generation of women that again reconstructed dance during what is called the Indian dance renaissance.  These are the forms passed down today, such that a very ancient tradition remains in many respects, very young.


1. The word “Veda” is Sanskrit for “knowledge.” Collectively, the Vedas form the basis for Hindu philosophy.
2. U.S. Krishna Rao and U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi, A Panorama of Indian Dances, at 9 (1993); Mandakranta Bose, Speaking of Dance: The Indian Critique, at 5 (2001).
3. Sunil Kothari, Bharata Natyam, at 36 (2000), Bose at 5.
4. Bose at 29
5. Id. at 3.
6. Kothari at 28-31.
7. Anil Chawla, Devadasis: Sinners or Sinned Against, at 6, 10 (2002), available at, http://www.samarthbharat.com/files/devadasihistory.pdf.
8. Rao and Devi at 10.
9. Chawla at 18-19.
10. Kothari at 32-34.

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