The Need of a Shaastric Framework for Indian Dance – 4

This article is part 4 of 5 in the series The Need of a Shaastric Framework for Indian Dance

We shall have a look at Indian dance from the perspective of shaastra and heritage (sampradaaya).

Indian dance, just like other art forms and knowledge systems of India, is idealized. It mainly shows us how things ought to be and not how they currently are or how they appear to be. In other words, it helps us look at nature from the perspective of culture. Bharata Muni speaks of this at the beginning of the Naatyashaastra (1.107 to 1.123)

Bharata Muni says the governing philosophy of theater art (Naatya) is “त्रैलोक्यास्यास्य सर्वस्य नाट्यं भावानुकीर्तनम्” (“Naatya is the exalted imitation of the bhaavas of the three worlds”). Indian dance (Nrtya) too follows the same model. Thus, it is not mere imitation (anukarana), but is exalted imitation (anukeertana). It is something that entertains and gives us peace.


Naatya in essence, is distilled form of Shruti (Vedas) and Smriti (Puranas and other texts). Abhinavagupta, in his Abhinava-bhaarati, the commentary on Naatyashaastra clarifies this point by saying – ‘‘तस्मादनुव्यवसायात्मकं कीर्तनं रूषितविकल्पसंवेदनं नाट्यम् | तद्वेदन वेद्यत्वात् | न त्वनुकरणरूपम् |’ Moreover, the Art in itself is always blissful and is beyond the world. (Cf, ‘नियतिकृतनियमरहितां ह्लादैकमयीमनन्यपरतन्त्राम् | नवरसरुचिरां निर्मितिं ....’ Mammata’s Kaavyaprakaasha 1.1). Indian classical dance, just like other classical art forms, cannot be learnt just by observing the world unlike several non-classical art forms that rely on mere imitation. Theater and cinema too are more realistic than stylized. Classical dance, however, has Naatya-dharmi (stylization) as its primary means of communication, which is a bit more prominent than Loka-dharmi (realistic presentation). One needs to have the background of shaastra and classical heritage to be able to understand Naatya-dharmi. Thus, classical Indian dance will lose its meaning without the backing of shaastra.

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A shaastra is useful for only those who have talent inherent in them. It is a pain for people who lack talent. This, however, is not shaastra’s fault but is the shortcoming of the dancer. We know that even poison is an ornament for Shiva’s neck, but the divine nectar (amrita) turned fateful for Raahu. Thus nothing is impossible for the talented to digest.

Now, focusing on Naatya (theater) or Nrtya (dance), the shaastra speaks about the following elements:

रसाभावा ह्यभिनया धर्मीवृत्तिप्रवृत्तयः |
सिद्धिः स्वरास्तथाssतोद्यं गानं रङ्गश्च संग्रहः || (6.1)

The eleven elements which this shaastra speaks about are: Rasa, Bhaava, Abhinaya, Dharmi, Vrtti, Pravrtti, Siddhi, Svara, Vaadya, Gaana and Ranga. The definitions for these are given in the same chapter (sixth) and the rest of the work (of 36 chapters in total) is dedicated to the elaboration of these. To describe these elements in detail would be outside the scope of the current article and would be as good as presenting the entire Naatyashaastra. Thus, we shall only have a look at their definitions.

Rasa: There are eight/ nine rasas in total (In my opinion, it should be a total of eleven or even more). The delineation of the rasas, the means of executing different rasas, the nature of rasaananda are described. It would not be wrong to say that the very essence of Art is given in this chapter. The shortcomings in rasa can only be resolved by a shaastra that is the product of creative genius and propriety (auchitya).

Bhaava: Eight primary/ fundamental emotion states (sthaayi-bhaavas) for each rasa, thirty-three transitory emotion states (sanchaari bhaavas), eight saattvika-bhaavas (subtle and involuntary emotion states) are defined in this chapter. One must understand these from the background of shaastra and heritage.

Abhinaya: The art of communication, abhinaya is of four kinds – aangika, vaachika, aahaarya and saattvika. The two ways of doing aangika, - uddata (energetic) and sukumaara (soft), the movements of major and minor limbs (anga, pratyanga and upaanga) are discussed in detail. Movement vocabulary that includes Sthaanaka, Chaari, Nrttahasta, Rechaka, Karana, Angahaara, Mandala, Pindi, etc are described. The ‘adavus’ that are practiced in today’s dance systems are also a subset of this. All aspects connected with prose and poetry are described in the sections related to vaachikaabhinaya. The relation between sound and sense (shabda and artha), styles, figures of speech (guna-reeti-alankara), meters (chandas), grammar (vyaakarana), different varieties of poems and plays, suggestion (dhvani), propriety (auchitya) are elaborated. The usage, pronunciation and intonation of Sanskrit and several Prakrits (regional/ colloquial adaptations of Sanskrit) are discussed. Aaharya is not just limited to the costumes of the actors, but also includes stage-setup, stage properties (props) and back-stage arrangements. It also deals with facial colours, hair-dos and other elements related to the costumes of dancers. Saattvikaabhinaya is to be inculcated by a close observation of the world, from deep study and from classical heritage. It needs to get cultivated by experience.

Dharmi: There are two kinds of dharmiNaatya-dharmi and Loka-dharmi. Although Loka-dharmi cannot be directly learnt from shaastra, one needs to have an exposure to classical heritage to be able to present it on stage. Natya-dharmi is the very grammatical framework of dance. It is can be called ‘dance convention’ or ‘stage convention’. The light (aviddha) and serious (aaviddha) types of presentations are also described here.

Vrtti: The four kinds of vrttisSaattvati, Kaishiki, Bhaarati and Arabhati correspond to the four styles of dance execution – bhavya, lalita, udaatta and uddata. Without these, abhinaya loses its charm. The relative significance of each of these with respect to the other and the proportion in which they need to be presented are described in the Naatyashaastra. Naatya-dharmi governs the vrttis. There is scope for modern exploration and interpretations in vrttis. Intensity of emotion, gentleness, use of speech and energetic movements characterize each of these styles respectively.

Pravrtti: Regional adaptations of vrttis are pravrttis. Bharata Muni enlists five important pravrttis -  Avanti, Daakshinaatya, Oudhra-Magadhi, Paanchaali and Madhyaa. These five can have several more sub-varieties. Dance forms such as Sadir, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchupudi, Chau, Nautanki, Mohiniattam, Terukkuttu, Yakshagaana, Tamaashaa, Bhavaay, Bhaangraa, Garbhaa, Odissi, Sattriya, Manipuri and their variations can be classified under one of the pravrttis. All modern day presentations are representations of different pravrttis. Sometimes, such extreme preferences can lead to fanaticism/ regionalism. The reason for this is a lack of awareness about vrttis that are more fundamental to pravrttis and a lack of understanding of shaastras .

Siddhi: This is related to the result/ fruitfulness of a dance performance. Siddhi is of two kinds – Daivi and Maanushi. A successful and smooth staging of a production without any hindrances caused either by human or non-human factors is called siddhi. For this to happen, one has to have the right blend of talent and erudition. Maanushi-siddhi is the visible feedback and encouragement received from the audience. Daivi-siddhi is something that cannot be seen, but can only be felt as the adoration for the artists that rasikas (connoisseurs) have.

Svara: The seven svaras (notes) are described, followed by descriptions of 12 shrutis, 22 shrutis, moorchana, graama, jaati, mela and raga-raaginis. Along with this, the five kinds of rhythmic patterns (laya-gati), different kinds of taala are enumerated. In summary, it gives us the impression that music cannot be learnt without the guidance of a teacher who is well versed in the ways of the shaastra.

Aatodya: Tata, avanaddha, sushira and ghana are the four kinds of instruments. Their manufacture, usage, playing techniques and specialties are explained in detail. It is beyond doubt that instrumental music is also governed by shaastra.

Gaana: Gaana is related to Svara. In sections related to gaana, aspects related to the composition of geya-prabandhas, five dhruvas (praavesha-aakshepa-nishkraama-praasaadika-antara), etc are discussed. These sections have aspects which are common to dance, music and literature.

Ranga: This is related to the design of a stage. Bharata muni speaks of the vikrushta, chaturashra and tryashra kinds of stage design. We can include the circular, semi-circular and elliptical designs of stages too, which has come to us from the West with Greek influence. Today choreography demands an understanding of the design of a stage and the associated technology too.

(Some consider upachaara and mandapa as additional aspects with these eleven, making a total of thirteen. However, these two can be seen as sub-categories within the eleven we have discussed so far and they won’t be further elaborated)


Adapted from the original Kannada by Arjun Bharadwaj




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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