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.


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.