Dance in India has thousands of forms, and includes a range of dance and theatrical dance styles. As pluralistic as the rest of the country, dance in India can be found in temples, in schools of the ancient classical style, in street folk dances, and in modern Bollywood. Interestingly, Krishna, Shiva, and Kali, three of India’s most easily recognizable Hindu deities, are typically represented dancing.
Classical and Folk Dance:
There are many genres and sub-genres of Indian folk dance, with each form particular to the culture of the region, its people, and religion. Among these are eight recognized primary styles: Bharata Natyam (from the Tamil Nadu region), Odissi (from the Orissa region), Kathakali and Mohiniyattam (both from the Kerala region), Kathak (from the Uttar Pradesh region), Sattriya (from the Assam region), Kuchipudi (from the Andhra Pradesh region), and Manipuri (from the Manipu region).
Odissi style dance
Kalyanasougandhikam, one of the famous plays of the Kathakali style.
Indian classical dance is really a misnomer, a term coined by British authorities to encompass all performing art forms in India for lack of any European equivalent. Thus, Indian dance often refers to Natya, or sacred Hindu musical theater. While Natya includes dance, or nritta, it also features song and abhinaya, which roughly translates to mime acting. Mudras, hand positions and gestures, play a large role in what we call Indian classical dance. Performers use mudras as a kind of sign language to illustrate the story of the dance. Facial expressions are also integral in the dramatic communication of plot and emotion.
Manipuri style dance
Dance in classic Bollywood was lifted almost directly from the performance style of classical Indian dance as well as the traditions of tawaif, Indian courtesans. Modern Bollywood blends classic styles of dance with Western dance, particularly the genres of pop and hip-hop, and it is not unusual to see both classical dance and modern dance numbers side by side in the same film. Dance in Bollywood films integrates directly with song, into what are essentially music videos in which the hero or heroine performs with a troupe of supporting dancers. These lavish, colorful sequences are used to promote the film and can be enjoyed in their own right, though they often have little relevance to the rest of the film in time, location or even plot. Historically, Bollywood films have used what are now called “item numbers”. These consist of the “item girl”, usually a physically attractive female character who is often completely unrelated to the rest of the film, performing a catchy song and dance number. In classic Bollywood, the “item girl” was often a courtesan, or tawaif, performing as part of a cabaret show or for a wealthy client.
This video from the film, Bunty aur Babli, featuring the great Bollywood actress, Aishwarya Rai, in the “item number”. The song, “Kajra Re” meaning “night eyes”, or “kohl-lined eyes”, has its roots in the folk song of Braj Bhoomi, in which the celebrated black eyes are Lord Krishna’s.