There is perhaps no better way to explore the vast cultural landscape of India than through its folk song and dance. Each state and region offers a unique glimpse and taste into its way of life, rituals and traditions.
Rouff, Jammu and Kashmir
Rouff is the traditional folk dance of Kashmir, performed solely by the women on festive occasions. The dancers split themselves into two rows and put their arms around the shoulders of the ones standing next to them.
The dance involves simple footwork, and is performed to a pleasant poetic song called the Chakri.
This dance originates from the Majha area of Punjab. Bhangra is practiced and performed in the month leading up to the harvest festival of Vaisakhi.
Traditionally, this is a dance performed solely by men. Bhangra’s vibrant rural flavours are highlighted by the singular beats of the dhol and the bright costumes worn by the dancers.
Rasleela, Uttar Pradesh
Rasleela is an ancient form of folk dance originating from the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh. It’s a retelling of the night when the Gopis of Vrindavan heard the sound of Krishna’s flute, snuck away from their households, and into the forest to dance with Krishna throughout the night.
The Indian classical dance form of Kathak is said to have originated from Rasleela. This dance is popular especially during the festivals of Janmashtami and Holi. This is also a popular folk dance in Manipur.
Garba is the folk dance of Gujarat, now popular in its neighbouring states too. The dance symbolises a celebration of life. Usually performed around a clay lantern, the dancers honour the Goddess Durga, the feminine representation of divinity. Garba is always performed in a circle (as a metaphor for the cyclic nature of time).
In modern times, the Garba that is performed is heavily influenced by the Dandiya Raas, thus giving it the high energy it is known for. The elaborate costumes of the dancers (especially, women) also make Garba a treat for the eyes
Ghoomar is performed by women in colourful swirling ghagharas. The beauty of this dance is in the stunning pirouetting which go on to reveal the various gorgeous colours of the swirling skirts. The steps of a Ghoomar dance are carefully measured, and paired with graceful inclinations.
The women also clap and snap their fingers while dancing, at particular parts during the song. The dance is performed in honour of the Goddess Saraswati, the Goddess of wealth. Ghoomar is an absolutely fascinating and hypnotic dance to watch.
Bihu is a fast-paced, extremely joyful dance, hailing from the state of Assam. It is performed by young girls and boys during the festivals of Bihu, Assam’s three important agricultural festivals.
The dance is performed to a twin-faced drum, with one end played with a stick and the other with the palm. A Bihu performance is usually pretty long and is full of exciting changes in rhythm, mood, movements, pace, tempo and improvisation.
Traditionally performed to the beat of the dholki, Lavani is a high-energy performance (usually by women), and has contributed immensely to the development of folk theatre in Maharashtra.
There are two types of Lavani performances – Phadachi Lavani (enacted in a public space, a theatrical atmosphere) and Baithakachi Lavani (performed in a closed space to a select audience, and mostly while sitting down). Lavani dancers wear bright and decadent looking Navvari sarees, tie their hair in a tight bun and are adorned in stunning jewellery.
A Lavani performance usually chronicles the story and elements of a man-woman relationship.
Raut Nacha, Chhattisgarh
The Raut Nacha dance is performed by the Yadava/Yaduvanshi tribe of Chhattisgarh. The Yadavas are considered to be direct descendents of Lord Krishna. The dance is performed during the ‘Dev Udhni Ekadashi’ – considered to be a time when the Gods awaken from their brief rest.
The dance highlights the battle fought between the King Khansa and cowherd community of Yadavas, who emerge victorious, being blessed by Lord Krishna himself. This dance is a celebration of victory over all evils.
Ghumura is an ancient folk dance originating from Odisha. Ancient mythological texts suggest that Ghumura was a war dance of the Gods and Demons.
Over the course of time, Ghumurawas imbibed into performing arts and entertainment in Odisha. Dancers gather at temples or around their deities such as Manikeswari, Lankeswari, and Raktambari, during the festival of Dussehra to perform this dance. This dance is mostly performed by males.
Puli Kali, Kerala
Performed during Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, Puli Kali is a visual art in almost every aspect. Artists and dancers paint their bodies as tigers and hunters and dance to the beat of musical instruments like the Udukku and Thakil.
It takes place on the fourth day of Onam, and people and performers attend and participate in the festival in huge numbers. Over the course of time, the costumes, the paintings and the body art have become more vivid, vibrant and colourful, and are an awe-inspiring sight to behold!
Matki Dance, Madhya Pradesh
Matki dance originates from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. This is a solo dance performed by women on special occasions such as birthdays, festivals, weddings, etc.
The performer dances with a Matki (clay pot) on top of her head (often more than one, and sometimes even a dozen). The dance involves intricate dance moves in colourful costumes, which only adds to the elegant beauty of this dance.
Dollu Kunitha, Karnataka
Dollu Kunitha is a folk dance performed in the temples of Beereshwara or Beeralingeswara, in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Dollu is a musical instrument, much like the drum, that is hung from the temple ceiling. Every time worship is made, there’s instantaneous beating of the Dollu accompanied by swift and supple dancing. The dance requires immense upper body strength, muscle power and endurance. The men stand in a semi-circle and move to the beat of the cymbal played by the leader of the group. The rhythms alternate between fast and slow, and the men perform some really quick and intricately woven dance moves.
Veeranatyam, Andhra Pradesh
Popular in the eastern and western regions of Godavari, as well as the districts of Kurnool, Ananthapur, Warangal and Khamman districts, Veeranatyam basically means ‘Dance of the Brave’. The dance is performed as a tribute to Lord Shiva as well as Goddess Veerabhadra. The dance includes dexterous hand gestures, flaming tridents and spears. Dancers also use a big flaming plate of palm, and the dance goes on until the flame is extinguished. The dancers are dressed in colourful dhotis and are covered in sacred ash.
Chhau, West Bengal
This is a tribal martial arts dance popular in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa. It is mainly performed during regional festivals, especially the spring festival of Chaitra Parva, which is a thirteen-days long event. The highlights of this dance are its combat techniques, stylized moves inspired from birds and animals, as well as movements based on domestic chores. Thus making Chhau a very rigorous and unique dance.
Contemporary dance in India encompasses a wide range of dance activities currently performed in India. It includes choreography for Indian cinema, modern Indian ballet and experiments with xisting classical and folk forms of dance by various artists.
Uday Shankar and Shobana Jeyasingh have led modern Indian ballet which combined classical Indian dance and music with Western stage techniques. Their productions have included themes related to Shiva-Parvati, Lanka Dahan, Panchatantra, Ramayana amon
The presentation of Indian dance styles in film, Hindi Cinema, has exposed the range of dance in India to a global audience.
Dance and song sequences have been an integral component of films across the country. With the introduction of sound to cinema in the film Alam Ara in 1931, choreographed dance sequences became ubiquitous in Hindi and other Indian films.
Dance in early Hindi films was primarily modelled on classical Indian dance styles such as Kathak, or folk dancers. Modern films often blend this earlier style with Western dance styles (MTV or in Broadway musicals), though it is not unusual to see western choreography and adapted classical dance numbers side by side in the same film. Typically, the hero or heroine performs with a troupe of supporting dancers.