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On Assessing Indian Dance

On Assessing Indian Dance

25 June 2013

A presentation from the All England Dance Adjudicators Seminar

This presentation was made by Sanjeevini Dutta in December 2012 at the request of the Classical Indian Dance Faculty as someone who could offer expert advice on assessing Indian dance. 

Most of us will agree that there are only two kinds of dance, ‘good dance' and 'bad dance'. As adjudicators you all already know that. Having said that, in order to assess students with confidence, it helps to have an understanding of the background and the influences that shaped the dance form and an insight into its salient features. In this short presentation I will attempt to pull-out some of the defining elements of classical Indian dance. 

Dance in India emerged from ritual worship. Girls, dedicated to the temples from a young age, were trained to sing and dance before the deities. The dance was performed with musical accompaniment and would involve the use of gesture and mime in invoking the gods and asking for their blessings. In a sub-continent as vast as India, several classical dance styles (eight recognised today) evolved with distinct characteristics. Broadly for the purposes of assessing classical Indian dance, we will consider two major styles offered in examinations by the ISTD; Kathak from North India and Bharatanatyam from the South. 

Alongside dancing for deities in the temples, there existed a strong tradition of performing stories of the gods and goddesses in temple courtyards and village squares for the populace. These dance dramas such as Krishna Lila (play on the life of the god Krishna), like the Medieval Mystery plays in Europe, were enacted by travelling companies and were intended to pass on moral values and encourage ethical living. The stories were heroic and mostly about gods, with lessons that tackled large human dilemmas. 

Thus there developed two kinds of dance; ‘pattern-making dance’ or nritta, and ‘storytelling dance’ or nritya. It is really important to understand that not all movements and hand gestures ‘mean something.’ 

A handy template to classify elements of Classical Indian Dance is as follows: shape, rhythm and expression. 


Indian dance is marked by very strong geometric shapes which are held in contrast to Western Contemporary dance in which the line or the flow of energy has prominence. The dance is studded with shapes of the circle, triangle and square and the body comes to rest in dramatic, sculptured positions. In the South Indian style of Bharatanatyam particularly, the depth of the turnout (at the knee in the demi-plié position) emphasising the square, is the hallmark of a good dancer. 

The torso is held in an upright position with the vertical axis crossed by the three horizontals of the neck, waist and hips. These axis come into play with side-to-side movements of the neck, hands held at the waist or the chest level, and the exaggerated diagonal line from the heel of left foot to the tip of finger of the extended right arm. The Indian cultural historian, Kapila Vasayan, has commented on the importance of the skeletal, musculature and joints in Classical Indian Dance expressed through the isolations of the small movements of wrist, neck, and waist that punctuate the genre.

The lines of Bharatanatyam are more stretched and extended and as a form, are more reliant on geometry than Kathak in which the lines are softer and more fluid. The feet in Kathak are slightly turned in a V shape, but there is no turnout at the knee or sitting position; the stance is upright. The energy flow in Kathak is also less staccato than that of Bharatanatyam. 


Rhythm is the heartbeat of all dance but in some styles such as Tap, Irish, Flamenco and Indian Dance, it has particular prominence. The feet, with the added amplification of ankle bells, mark out the rhythm with great exactitude. Kathak plays with rhythm patterns in infinite permutations. The taal is the measure and the popular 16-beat cycle is divided into four-fours with the flourish coming on the 16-plus-1 beat which is called the sum. The tihai is a punctuation which is created by a rhythmic syllable being repeated three times, ending on the sum. 

Jatis in Bharatanatyam and tukras, torahs and parans in Kathak are 'sound composition' which are played on the drums – tabla in the case of Kathak and mridangam for Bhratanatyam – while the dancer translates these into quick, sharp movement patterns with feet stamping out the same. 

Rhythm seeps through the whole body as the neck, the wrist and even the eyes and eyebrows mark the beat. 


The importance of expression both in abstract and narrative dance cannot be over emphasised. Dance students are drilled in maintaining focus and follow the golden rule, “Where the hands go, the eyes must follow.” It is held as a truism to complete the instructions from the 5th Century text, the Natya Shastra, that “Where the eyes go, the mind must follow, and where the mind goes, expression is born.” The body/mind connection is always present in Indian dance. 

Dancers are taught the Nava Rasa or the nine significant moods: Love/Erotic, Compassion, Anger, Valour, Fear, Disgust, Laughter, Wonder and Peace/Renunciation. In narrative dance, which uses mime and stylised hand gestures, the training in the Nava Rasa comes into the forefront. 

Against the backdrop of the main pillars of Indian dance, shape, rhythm and expression, I would suggest a quick check-list to examiners for judging quality: 

  • stance/posture – straight back, shoulders open, lengthened torso with the golden thread through top of head to ceiling and beyond 
  • a good line with the principal limbs in correct alignment; a batsman would have it as would a tennis star 
  • a clean delivery of tukras, toras and jattis both in terms of body shape and rhythmic precision 
  • clarity of the footwork 
  • depth of the stances in the plie (araimandi) position 
  • the reach of the line – the lower the bends, higher the verticals and more extended the diagonals 
  • musicality – the whole body responding to the rhythm 
  • Speed – the ability to keep clarity while maintaining speed 
  • focus – eye/hand co-ordination and tension in the hand gestures 
  • grace and fluidity 
  • expression – the aliveness, the honesty, and the ability to lose yourself in dance 
  • intelligence of interpretation – bringing something from everyday life to add a personal touch to the dance 

Strangely this list may do for any other dance styles as well as it pertains to Kathak and Bharatanatyam, which goes to show that there is more commonality in the elements that draw us together as humans and artists than there are differences that divide. 

I hope that this brief exposition of the nature and characteristics of Classical Indian Dance will have made your jobs as adjudicators of a less familiar dance style, a little easier. 

Sanjeevini Dutta 

Sanjeevini Dutta is the Editor of Pulse magazine, the leading publication for South Asian dance and music in the UK, and website www.pulseconnects.com

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