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.


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