The term “Indian dance” encompasses several different, distinct dance styles, from Bharata Natyam, the most prominent, to Kathakali, Kuchupudi, Manipuri, Odissi, Kathak, and folk, among others.
Bharata Natyam is a concoction of complex rhythm patterns, dozens and dozens of hand movements, several graceful body moves and postures, and, perhaps most importantly, a dazzling variety of precisely drawn facial expressions. Indeed, the broad range of facial expressions are truly unique to Indian dance—no other dance style in the world deals with as many subtle states of emotion as Indian dance does.
The dances can be purely rhythmic, or they can tell stories—all kinds of stories, from legends and myths of Indian gods, princesses, and demons, to historical tales of kings and warriors. Contemporary Indian dance also delves into the realm of social issues, such as overpopulation, women’s issues, the environment, etc.
Classical dance from Southern India—known as Bharata Natyam—presents a unique spectacle for the viewer because it depicts myths drawn from the ancient Indian texts—as well as from the collective Indian imagination—through the usage of expressive hand movements and striking foot patterns set to voiced rhythmic syllables. The abstract gestures render the beloved stories alive, so the facial expressions are imperative, unlike in the most other forms of dance.
Intricate costumes are also essential to the dance. Saris and specially made dance-dresses swirl in a riot of colors: magenta, red, white laced with gold, blue threaded though silver, forest green, rose pink…the variations of the colors mesmerize, as they are literally endless. Jewelry also adorns the dancers—from delicate gold necklaces to colorful bangles, to ornaments, such as a miniature sun and moon, especially crafted to worn on a dancer’s hair.
The origins of the dance are lost in legend; it is said the dance is nearly 2000 years old, originated in the heavens when Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, taught Sage Bharata, a celestial ascetic, the sacred art form. Sage Bharata, in turn, laid down the rules for the dance in a text called the Natya Shastra (Book of Dance). The dances were originally performed in temples, but are now regularly performed in auditoriums and theatres around the world.
In spite of their religious origins the dances prove surprisingly flexible, willing to soften the rigors of traditions to accommodate modern sensibilities. Thus the dance remains very much a living force instead of being hidden away in history. Indian dance has been performed in combination with flamenco, for example, or has portrayed themes still important in the present day, such as the danger of too much gossip!
Indian dance was introduced to the St. Louis area by Mrs. Asha Premachandra, who specializes in Bharata Natyam but who also teaches Kuchipudi, another form of classical dance, as well as a variety of folk dances. She has been teaching for over 30 years, and has had students from India, the United States, Canada, Chile, and China, among other countries. She has always been innovative in her presentations of the dance, from using creatively-designed costumes to artistic manipulations of lighting to interpreting classical pieces with unique twists. However, she always remains true to the classical core of the dance, ensuring that the dance does not lose its roots as it seeks to touch the imagination of modern-day viewers.
To truly understand Indian dance, you must see it in action! If you are unable to see a performance, watch our video.