Dance and Drama


A lady performing Bharata-Natyam at Janmashtami celebrations in England.

The earliest known treatise on the performing arts is the Sanskrit classic “Natya Shastra,” written by the sage Bharata Muni. It is effectively a handbook for dance and theatre and details the techniques of dramatic expression. Early artistic performances were almost entirely associated with religion, and the first theatres were temples, where artists danced for the pleasure of deities. Later, during the time of the Moghul and British Empires, dance moved to the royal courts and became more associated with entertainment. However, many contemporary dances still accommodate spiritual themes derived from the Epics, Puranas, and other Hindu texts. There are two main categories of dance – folk and classical, each with its own distinctive styles, as shown below.

Main Folk Dance Styles

Garba — a Gujarati clap-dance using circular movements and mainly performed by women during Navaratri.
Dandiya Rasa — a dance from Gujarat using wooden sticks to emphasise the rhythm. It was traditionally performed by men and women in November but is now popular after Garba during Navaratri.
Bhangra — an energetic and colourful harvest dance from Punjab mainly performed by men and boys.
Giddha — a graceful female dance from Punjab.

Main Classical Dance Styles

Kathak — the major northern style used to relate stories (katha) and employing intricate footwork.
Bharata Natyam — the name is derived from Bharata’s Natyashastra and is the major Southern dance style. It is a graceful dance using facial expressions and hand gestures (mudras).
Kathakali — a powerful dance-drama discipline from the South, recognised by its elaborate and colourful facial masks.


An actor dressed as Rama at a presentation of the Ramayana by the Bhaktivedanta Players. This UK troupe performs both traditional and contempoary plays – this one to Welsh schoolchildren – using colourful costumes imported from India

Entertainment was a feature of ancient Indian life, but it rarely lacked a spiritual element. Drama was a principal form of entertainment, delivered by exclusively male troupes. This is now changing, and there are a number of mixed Hindu theatre groups currently performing in the UK.

Dance and drama were often interwoven (as in Kathakali, mentioned above) and integrated with other art forms. Especially popular were storytelling and poetry recitals, often with musical accompaniment. Still popular, especially during festivals, is the theatrical portrayal of lilas (divine pastimes), especially Rama-lila and Krishna-lila. In these performances, the actor is often considered to become the deity he is playing. Hindu dance and drama troupes have moved into the realm of contemporary theatre, expressing the ancient Hindu message in a way that is relevant and accessible to the post-modern world.