Dance Classification: Nritta and Abhinaya


Odissi, like other Indian Classical dance forms is classified into two kinds of presentations: Nritta and Abhinaya.

Nritta is abstract dance, where the body makes patterns in space and there is no particular meaning attached to any gesture or movement. Each form of Indian Classical Dance has its own technique and relies on a vast vocabulary of movement.

a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.

Odissi nritta is based on the vocabulary of steppings, charis, brahmaris, utplavanas and other such movements. Even though mudras are used vastly in nritta, they are not used to convey stories.

Nritta is designed around tala and raga. Time measure is an important part of nritta and exploration of the rise and fall of a raga.

Thus the main aspects of dance Space, Time, Energy and Movement form the foundation of nritta as they do with any other dance form around the world.

Abhinaya: However Indian Classical dances have a very unique feature- a tradition of story-telling.  This concept of dance is called Abhinaya- abhi- ‘towards’ + nii(naya)- ‘leading/guide’, so literally it means a ‘leading towards’ (leading the audience towards a sentiment, a rasa). Dancers bring forth stories based in myth or even contemporary commentary to invoke a certain response in the audience.

Other forms of dance such as ballet and certain folk dances build stories through dance but it is in a dance-drama format. In Indian classical dances each individual dancer brings forth stories through a vast well codified vocabulary that is studied for this purpose.

This story telling is brought forth with the use of mudras and bhavas. Mudras are gestures of the fingers and bhavas are the emotions that a dancer employs. Each mudra is given a name and a list of uses (uses of each mudra is known as the viniyoga of a mudra). This dictionary of mudras and their uses are the basis of story- telling, so both the dancer and the audience has to have an understanding of the uses of the mudras to understand the story. The music for abhinaya pieces are set to lines of beautiful poetry, which an audience can listen to, to gain a better understanding of the story the dancer is portraying. Sometimes an audience foreign to the vocabulary of Indian dance, or even without knowing any Indian language can still follow the story because of a dancer’s ability to portray emotion.

Thus we can further classify abhinaya as being of four kinds:

1)Angika- physical- where the dancers employs her body or parts of her body, such as her fingers,

2)Vachika- speech- where dancers perform to songs and poetry, or sometimes even sing themselves

3)Aharya-ornamentation- where dancers make use of stage props, costumes and ornaments to depict settings and characters

4)Satvika- emotions- where dancers bring forth emotions and convey messages through feeling  a characters emotions

Alternate Classification

If story telling is termed as abhinaya, or taking the audience towards a certain feeling, does that mean that when a dancer dances nritta she makes the audience feel nothing? As dancers one often finds that even while doing abstract movements one is always making up stories of one’s own, infusing each gesture with one’s own meaning and the aim is always to connect to the audience- to make them feel something. Keeping this aspect in mind people often go beyond the simplistic classification of dance into nritta and abhinaya and instead talk of dance only being abhinaya- but divided into nritta, nrithya and natya. Nritta- the use of the body and rhythmic movement falling under angika abhinaya. Nrithya- story telling through the use of angika abhinaya and satvika abhinaya. And finally Natya being a musical dance drama style using all aspects of abhinaya and even having group performers.


Arpana Dancer Stories: Kavya Bharadwaj


Kavya sent me this in November of 2015. We had a mishap with the blog, with the entire site getting deleted! Which is why we didn’t post this earlier. We are back on track and will be posting regularly henceforth.

Kavya is now preparing for the first Odissi performance on Saturday, July 2nd. We hope her own reflections months back will inspire her today! (Especially the punctuality bit perhaps!)

Over to Kavya:

India has been and is still a country with various cultural art forms in its platter for centuries. Every art form never the less is beautiful and has its own aesthetics, significance and a rich history. It is gracious as to how an art form has been celebrated, transferred and spreading joy since centuries. This never failed to surprise me every time I give it a thought. Artists spread euphoric bliss by just sharing their own way of celebrating a discipline to which they have willingly surrendered. Dance, music, theater, painting, storytelling etc. has always been what the mankind has turned to for their recreation. The very word recreation has a very deep sense to it, and an artist contributing to it ever since history can be tracked
down just proves to us on what an important role they play in everyone’s life. Paying all my respects to the artists living, dead and the ones yet to come, I would like to share my experience about how I came across a beautiful dance form which always made everything around me better and beautiful.

In India, we see this paradigm of small kids at the age even before 5 being put into some form of art class just to match up to the practice of “every child being involved in some sort of extracurricular activity.” I personally feel that this is being imposed upon the kids even before they realize to themselves as to what do they really want to learn and inclined towards. I was not spared as well. I started to learn Bharatnatyam when I was 5. Ofcourse, I enjoyed myself dancing and I always felt lucky about meeting my Bharatnatyam teacher and having being taught by her. Yet, as I got older it started to dawn upon me that I practiced it because I was told to, because it became a routine for me to dance and because I am conditioned to feel incomplete when I missed classes for a long time. There is no doubt about my love towards that form of dance. But, is that really MY CHOICE of art form to learn is what I kept asking myself. Due to certain situations I had to discontinue my classes.

When I was 18, I was just browsing through the internet and wanted to watch a Bharatnatyam piece because I felt I like watching it. Somewhere in a corner which said “videos you might be interested in” showed a dance piece by Sujata Mohapatra. I clicked on it and ever since I am hooked. I can go to an extent to call that the best click of my life. Since 18 to 23 I watched Odissi videos for my recreation, sometimes when I was bored, sometimes when I was low and sometimes took out time just to watch it. It’s my belief that loving and choosing a teacher you want to learn from is equally important as choosing an art form you really want to learn. I kept watching videos and was also searching for a teacher from
whom I was determined to learn. When I was 21 I heard about this Odissi flash mob in a very prominent mall in Bangalore. First thing I did was to check it out on YouTube. Sometimes you just have no reasons as to why you can connect to someone or something. The same way, I was awestruck by the concept and the dance. And that is when I decided on whom I want to learn it from. It took me two years to step into her dance class as a student. From 2013-2015 I tenaciously followed the Facebook page of the academy and her performances. The first day I of my Odissi dance class is something I will never forget. I was excited and delighted when all that was happening for real. Every moment I danced since that day, the dance never failed to remind me why I am in love with it.

When we learn an art form which is also a discipline, I feel it’s more than just the form itself that we are learning. The way I was taught this form was to feel that I was connected by a thread to the sky and the ground when I sat in a chauka, to feel like a tree with strong roots grounded and the upper body swaying with the wind, to feel like a mercury, to take in all the energy by this exercise of lifting the light and forming it into a ball to take in all the energy. This made me observe and feel the movements in my body consciously with all the focus. I felt like I was more connected to everything around me. This unusual feeling made me introspect further and go deeper into it. To my surprise, I started to realize
that the practice of not keeping my body tense while I was anxious be it any part like the slightest frown of my brow or lifting my shoulders while I was tensed started to recede. I was able to do this because Odissi has taught me observe my body more meticulously and which needs constant focus and alertness of yourself. And this simple exercise improvised my state of being immensely. I will not stop myself from saying that this is just a small dust particle of the scratch about how it made me aware of what this dance form has in its store for me. As the classes kept happening, I was taught and made aware about how serious discipline this is. I was once sent back from my dance class because I was late to the class. My teacher told me that there is a system she had been following and everyone has to stick by it. I was in the verge to negotiate with her to dance an hour extra to make up for it. That’s when it struck me that she was disciplining me and dancing an hour extra is not even a punishment. Dancing is never punishment. Given my usually unpunctual behavior, that was one of the very rare times when I swore to myself that I will never be late again. Because you just happen to take something you love seriously. It was a matter of time for me to notice how this gets order, happiness and awareness into me.

Coming back to where I started, I profoundly believe that all this is happening because this is art form I CHOSE to learn. The form I loved and admired. If all of them are given a choice to learn what THEY are inclined towards, it not only helps in celebrating an art in a better way but also will be rightly valued.






Taking the Leap

Ashwini Raghupathy

(This post is for anyone considering taking up dance as a full time career, after going through a significant period of practice in a style of dance.)


One of my students wrote to me yesterday stating her confusion in choosing a path for herself after her imminent graduation from college. She is torn between taking up a regular job or choosing to dance full time.I copy my reply to her here, thinking that it could probably help one other such person who finds themselves at cross roads too.

I have met a lot of people who have worked for several years and bitterly regret not taking the leap of faith into dance. Equally so I have met people who get so carried away by the romance of the dance that they immediately drop everything and take up dance as a career, and are rudely woken up to the fact that they don’t have what it takes to take up this discipline.

So here is an extract from my e-mail, it is written conversationally, and is an extract so it may not read very well.  :

“Dear S

I’m really happy to hear that you have been practising and that you want to pursure dancing . :)

About taking it up full time- I can only tell you how I made the decision to do so.

I started learning Odissi when I was 18. I was then also dancing professionally with a contemporary dance company and earning enough to pay my college fees and save up a bit too. After I finished college- I left the dance company and I took up a job at an NGO (I used to teach dance there as a volunteer throughout my degree) and then I worked in different organizations for five years. throughout these five years I was learning Odissi on and off (I had a job where I had to travel a lot and was not around to learn systematically- also I faced the challenge of not finding good teachers)

From the age of 18 to 25 I was all over the place emotionally/mentally. I tried a million things. If I look back- I feel I was scattered all over the place. When I was 25 I started practising Odissi again. Immediately it made such a big difference in my life (I don’t just say it for publicity when I say Odissi has the power to change you from within- I mean it because I have exprienced it myself). It brought me into a focused state of being, and a lot of things changed in my life since then. The simple act of dancing Odissi has been the most spiritual experience for me.

So at the age of 25, I restarted practice while I was working simultaneously in a super fun job. But at the end of that one year of dedicated practice and seeing how it helped me- it was a very simple choice for me to make to quit my job and only do dance.
You do have the talent to pursue dance full time, and more importanly- you have the right mind set which you need to survive as a dancer. But I would suggest that you work for sometime and see.
So the best way to make the choice is when there is no choice. I would suggest that you wait for the day when it is not an either/or situation, when there is no doubt. When you know that you must only dance. Until then there are many fun jobs out there too!

Short Introduction to Odissi

Compiled by Sonakshi Gopi


Odissi, also known as Orissi is one of the eight classical dance forms of India. It originates from the state of Odisha, in eastern India. It is the oldest surviving dance form of India on the basis of archaeological evidences. The  classic  manual  book  of Indian dances, Natya Shastra, refers to it as Odra-Magadhi. 1st century BCE bas-reliefs in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneshwar) testify to its antiquity.

Famous exponents of Odissi are guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Protima Bedi, Sonal Mansingh, etc.

Dance movements and music

It is distinguished from other dance forms by the importance it places upon the Tribhangi –  the movement of chin, chest and pelvis and upon the basic square stance known as Chauka or Chouka that symbolises Lord Jagannath. This dance is characterised by various Bhangas (Stance), which involves stamping of the foot and striking various postures as seen in Indian sculptures.

Odissi was initially performed in the temples as a religious offering by the Maharis who dedicated their lives in the services of God.

Odissi dance is accompanied by Odissi music, a synthesis of four classes of music, i.e. Dhruvapada,ChitrapadaChitrakala and Panchal.

Costume and jewellery

The jewellery is made from intricate filigree silver called Tarakasi. The jewellery pieces are an important part of the female Odissi dancer’s costume. This jewellery includes Tahiya ,Seenthi , Mathami or Matha Patti , Allaka , Kapa, an ear chain, Jhumkas, a short necklace and a longer necklace with a hanging pendant, Bahichudi, a pair of Kankana (bangles) at the wrist, an elaborate belt and a pair of ankle bells The dancer’s palms and soles are painted with red coloured dye called the Alta.

The Saree worn by Odissi dancers are generally sambhalpuri and bomkai, coloured with bright shades of orange, purple, red or green.

(About the author: Sonakshi, all of eleven years, is a bubbly, enthusiastic student who has just started classes at ARPANA. The ARPANA blog hopes to receive more of her contributions and share in her dance-discoveries!)




Introduction to the Natyasastra: A Good Start!

Devina Wallang 26th June 2013. 10:20 a.m

India has a rich and diverse culture that reflects the wide facets of our heritage. An integral part of our heritage is the colourful and vibrant treasure of performing arts encompassing theatre, dance and music.
The Natyashastra, attributed to sage Bharata, defines most of the structure and terminology of Indian classical dance, classical music and theatre. In fact, the Natyashastra forms the basis of all movements for a variety of dance forms even across South East Asia (Reference: Karanas-Common dance codes of India and Indonesia by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam).

Apart from being a source of ancient knowledge, how can learning the Natyasastra movements help?

Indian Classical Dance is characterized by the complexity of elaborate footwork which involves rhythmic footwork. The upper body is generally fluid and graceful while the arms, hands and the face of the dancer are always active expressing and gesturing events, ideas and emotions. The Natyashastra provides a firm foundation, to achieve grace and progress in Indian Classical Dance. Some advantages are briefly mentioned below:

Core Control and Precision – The core is the center of gravity from which all movements originate. Exercises and movements in the Natyashastra strengthen the core so it helps stabilizes the legs, mobilizing the bones, stretches the muscles, facilitates lifts and leaps, bending and adding grace to movements. Developing the core also aids in balance and coordination of the two halves of the body (the left side and the right side) and thus produces an artistic and perfect symmetry, essential for a good dancer.

Buoyancy and Agility – The Charis incorporate a number of animal related movements that are useful for developing a sense of buoyancy and improving the agility of the dancer. Indian Classical Dance pieces string together a variety of steps, which require great agility to switch from one movement to another without losing the essence of the story or the attention of the audience.

Health and Energy – Regular work on these body conditioning exercises will not only strengthen one physically and instill energy, but also enhance self awareness and psychological well being. Dancers become aware of their strengths and limitations and can consciously work towards enhancing what they are already good at and working on improving what they can be better in.

The Course: Introduction to the Natyasastra


Thus, Arpana is organizing a three month course on “Introduction to the Natyashastra” so that trained dancers and inspiring dancers alike can explore this vocabulary in a positive, encouraging and committed environment. The course will cover the major Anga Bhedas (movements of the major limbs), Bhoo Charis and Aakash Charis (body conditioning using earth and sky levels). Apart from this dancers will also learn Hasta and Pada Bhedas( From the Abhinaya Darpana) and traditional Odissi body condioning exercises.
The course spans over three months (24 classes of one hour each) on weekends.

It is open to students of any age background. Not only is it a great way to introduce children to learning dance but also adults who feel that their bodies will not allow them to dance anymore will discover that this course will coax their bodies to dance!

Becoming a good dancer is not just about learning complicated steps and movements. It’s about understanding yourself, your body and developing confidence in your art and skills which comes with a good foundation in dance.