Indian Classical Dance

Indian Classical Dance is one of the most comprehensive and oldest dance forms in the world. Most of the development of Indian dance is linked to the 2nd century B.C. treatise. This treatise, Bharata’s Natyashastra, is the most important source for establishing the characteristics of Indian dance and drama. The Natyashastra lays down two aspects of dance Nritta- pure dance and Nitrya- interpretative dance. Nritta is the expression of rhythmic movement primarily through use of the hands and feet often in specific poses. Nritya uses gestures and facial expressions to show the poetic or emotional meaning while combining rhythmic gaits and postures.

Dancing for Gods

In India, most classical dances evolved as a temple art. Many Indian dynasties from the 6th century onwards have contributed to this art form. This interest in temple art was brought about by spurts of building temples in the 9th and 10th centuries. The Devadasis (servants of God) performed dance at the temples. In the early 19th century, four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet defined dance tradition. Dance was one of the mediums of worship. The dancer performed facing the idol of the God. This is the reason Indian classical dance is primarily a solo based art. The mission of temple dancing was to take art to the people. Temples vied with one another in having the best dancers and musicians in their services. Thereafter, temple dancing was institutionalized and kings patronized the dancers

It is only now that ballets or group dances are in vogue. But still, true classical Indian dance remains as a solo performing art.  The fundamental attributes of Indian classical dance forms have risen from religious beliefs of people and the mythological lore of the Hindu religion.

Classical Dances of India
India offers a number of classical dance forms, each of which can be traced to different parts of the country. Each dance form represents the culture of a particular region or group of people. The most famous classical dance forms are Bharatnatyam of Tamilnadu, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam of Kerala, Odissi of Orissa, Kathak of Uttar Pradesh, Kuchipudhi of Andhra Pradesh and Manipuri of Manipur.

Bharat Natyam: Named after sage Bharata, the author of Natya Shastra (manual of dramatic art), originated in temples, used to enact religious themes. Involves elaborate system of postures, hand gestures, foot movements (13 postures of the head, nine of the neck, 36 of the eye, 37 of the hand)

Kathakali: Lyric dance of Southern India, involving intensive footwork. Performed with acrobatic energy and highly stylized pantomime.

Manipuri: Dance associated with Manipur in Northeastern India and characterized by gentle lyrical style

Kathak: An intricate dance of northern India that includes passages of narrative pantomime

Odissi: A romantic dance of love and passion

Indian Classical Dance vs. Western Ballet
The style of movement in Indian classical dance is very different from that of Western ballet. In ballet the emphasis is frequently on the action of the legs, which create ballet's characteristic qualities of height, speed, and lightness. The body itself remains relatively still and the arms frame the face or balance the body. In Indian dance, however, the legs are usually bent, with the feet flat rather than lifted and pointed. Jumps are usually low and the dancer rarely covers much ground or performs intricate steps. The complexity of the footwork lies in elaborate stamping rhythms. (These stamping rhythms enhance the dance; many dancers wear bells around their ankles, supplying their own accompaniment in addition to the musicians). The torso, face, arms, and hands are extremely active. The head is quite mobile, with subtle changes of direction and a characteristic side-to-side movement emphasizing the dancer's changing facial expressions. The movement of the torso is graceful and fluid, shifting from side to side or turning on the axis of the spine, while the movement of the hands and arms is subtle and elaborate, every gesture having a function. Indian dancers have a vast repertoire of gestures through which they express complex events, ideas, and emotions. There are, for example, 13 gestures of the head, 36 different glances, and 67 mudras, or hand gestures, that can, in different combinations, yield several thousand different meanings.

Profile of Triveni School of Dance

Neena Gulati, an acclaimed dancer from New Delhi, India, founded the Triveni School of Dance, in Brookline Massachusetts in 1971. Triveni is a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and performance of Indian Classical Dance, social awareness and the celebration of cultural diversity.
Neena Gulati has 175 students ranging in age from five to fifty-five. She teaches three forms of classical Indian dance: Bharat Natyam from Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, and Odissi from Orissa. Neena Gulati and her students have brought the dance, music and storytelling of a culture to thousands of people in New England. They perform in festivals, cultural events and benefit performances throughout the year.

The Triveni Dance Ensemble consists of Neena Gulati and her senior students. The company performs professionally throughout New England.

Neena Gulati-Founder/Director
Neena Gulati was born in New Delhi, India, and began dancing when she was only four years old. She performed her Arangetram, which is a solo graduation performance, at the Fine Arts Theater in New Delhi in 1961.  She concentrates on the Panthanallur style of Bharat Natyam; Neena Gulati has received high critical acclaim for her professional performances throughout India and the United States. In 1964, Neena Gulati was invited to perform at the United Nations General Assembly. Since moving to the U.S. in 1967, she has performed at countless functions and universities across the continent and in England.

Neena Gulati has taught at Brown University, and has been guest artist in several Universities and schools in New England. She gives lecture- demonstrations, explaining and demonstrating her art form to varied audiences. Neena Gulati has collaborated with many artists of different disciplines, including actors, musicians, dancers and poets. She has been involved in numerous benefit performances and has choreographed dance dramas. An energetic and loving teacher, Neena is an excellent example of the guru-shishya tradition of teaching that has preserved the purity of Indian classical dance since the time of the Vedas.

Dance Forms taught at Triveni
Bharata Natyam~
Bharata Natyam originated in the temples of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Bharata Natyam derives its name from the first syllables of the three vital elements of dance Bhava-Expression, Raga-Melody, and Tala- Rhythm. This dance form is highly stylized in its technique and also interprets themes from Indian Mythology and epics.

Kuchipudi is a dance from that originated in the state of Andhra Pradesh on the mid eastern coast of India. It was originally a dance-drama in which, as in Shakespeare’s theater, men danced both male and female roles. An important part of the tradition is the dramatization of Satya Bhama, one of the wives of Lord Krishna. This dance form is very fluid and feminine.

Odissi comes from the state of Orissa in the northeastern coast of India. Devadasis in the temple of Lord Jagannath originally performed this dance form. Odissi mainly focuses on the subject of Lord Krishna. It is said that his wife Padmavati who was a temple dancer composed the celebrated masterpiece, Geetagovinda by the poet Jayadeva to be a dance in Odissi style. The Odissi dance style is lyrical. The body from above the waist moves as if it was independent of the legs and falls and sways with delicate grace.

Click here to read the interview with Neena Gulati.
Click here for an interview with Amy Chako.


  • Art India's Odissi section
  • Kathak
  • India's cultural page on dance
  • Indian music & dance

  • Please send questions or comments to Monica Balsara