Dance Your Way Through India While Volunteering

by Madhavi Reddi

India has made its way into the hearts of many and is well known for its spices and films, but no one should pass over the dances of India. Knowing a bit about eight of the most popular dance forms while volunteering in India will take you on an enchanting tour of stories and movement starting from the Southern state of Tamil Nadu all the way up to Punjab!

traditional Bharatanatyam dance, India
A traditional Bharatanatyam dance performed by Madhavi Reddi, the author of this article!

Bharatanatyam: The National Dance

The Southern most state of Tamil Nadu is the birthplace of the most ancient Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam. Though it dates back to almost 3000 years, today it is the most popular of the seven forms of Indian classical dance. Bharatanatyam is a combination of story telling and dynamic movements that constantly challenge the stamina of the dancer.

The stories enacted through Bharatanatyam narrate various episodes of Hindu mythology and are set to Carnatic music (traditional classical music of South India). Every December in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, there is a festival of music and dance, where dozens of shows are held every day at various venues across the city. Stalwarts, amateurs, and groups perform and share their art with connoisseurs, tourists, and international volunteers alike, creating the perfect atmosphere to experience the national dance of India.

Kathakali: The Face of India

Kathakali dancers usually grace the covers of guidebooks to India and tourism ads. Known for their extravagant costuming and extensive face paint, Kathakali is a form of classical dance native to Tamil Nadu’s neighboring state, Kerala. Theatrical in nature, “Kathakali” literally means “story-play.” Productions feature group enactments of Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Each character in the production is distinguished by the color of their face paint, for example, characters of high status wear green face paint while evil character’s faces are painted in red.

Because the stories depicted in Kathakali feature a good over evil theme, shows traditionally started in the evening and continued until the next day at dawn, which is considered the auspicious time of day when good conquers evil. However with the progression into modern times, this has become increasing less feasible. Today, you can enjoy a Kathakali production in the span of a few hours.

Kuchipudi: Theatrical Roots

At first glance, this dance form from the state of Andhra Pradesh might look a lot like Bharatanatyam with similar costuming, make up, and even some movements. However with a closer look, you’ll find that Kuchipudi has elements that make it unique and give the audience a different kind of experience. Apart from the subtle differences such as more fluid movement, and more alluring expressions, one of the biggest differences between Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam is the vaachika abhinaya, where the dancer mouths the words of the song they are dancing to. This practice can be traced to Kuchipudi’s theatrical roots, when dancers used to sing and dance simultaneously to enact episodes of Hindu mythology.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Kuchipudi is the tarangam, where the dancer dances on a brass plate, balancing a brass pot on their head, and lit lamps in each hand. This feat is done to demonstrate the concentration of the dancer as well as their command over the technique. Like the December Chennai festival in the case of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi has a similar festival where anyone can experience the dance form in all its authenticity. Every March, the village of Kuchipudi (where the dance was originated) has a month long series of shows featuring dancers of all calibers.

Odissi: A Human Helix

Moving up to central India is the state of Orissa, home to its native dance form, Odissi. What makes Odissi particularly unique is its use of tribhangi in which the dancer forms a helix with his or her body, bending into three different postures. The dress is also distinctive; an Odissi dancer’s costume is accented with specially designed silver jewelry and completed with a crown known as Mukoot.

With music set either in state language of Oriya, or in Sanskrit, Odissi artists always include a piece in honor of Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. So if Orissa is on your list of places to visit while you volunteer in India, be sure to check the performance schedules at the various temples across the state.

Kathak: Spinning and Storytelling

Kathak, perhaps the most prominent classical dance form of North India, is derived from the word katha which means “story or storytelling,” and a Kathak dancer is a Kathaka. In addition to story telling, Kathak is known for its intricate footwork and chakkars or spins. Sometimes, a Kathaka will spin over 100 times at once! The aspect of kathak that sets it apart from the other classical dance forms is its use of religious content from Hinduism and Islam. During the rule of the Mughal Emperors, the patronage of Kathakas were split between the Hindu and Mughal courts, thereby creating this diversification. If you happen to find yourself volunteering in North India, you can be sure to find a kathak performance in any theater.

Lavani: Beauty in Movement 

We now skip West to Maharashtra, home of the Lavani folk dance. With the dancers draped in nine yard saris, gold jewelry, and flowers in their hair, it is no wonder that Lavani comes from the word Lavanya, meaning beautiful. Lavani is predominately erotic in nature, as it was once a form of entertainment that provided a boost to exhausted soldiers. While most of the songs sing stories of the love between a man and a women, some songs are philosophical and religious. This lively and rhythmic dance is performed both in villages as well as various festivals across Maharashtra and parts of Madhya Pradesh.

Garba and Dandiya: Nine Nights of Dance 

Like the classical dance forms, the folk dances of India tie back to religion. Just north of Maharashtra is Gujarat, where Lord Krishna is said to have come from and passed down the traditional Gujarati folk dances, Garba and Dandiya. Every October during the Navarathri festival, people gather for nine nights to dance around Goddess Durga celebrating her nine forms. 

They start with Garba, which involves dancing in a circle while clapping and twirling in various patterns. This is followed by Dandiya (also known as Raas) where dancers use decorated wooden sticks, tapping them against their partner’s sticks in rhythmic patterns. The dance is accompanied by colorful costumes - women wearing brightly colored skirt and blouse sets known as a ghagra choli and men wearing short flared shirts and matching pants called kediyu. If you are planning to volunteer in India in the fall, make sure to stop by Gujarat and join in the Navarathri  celebrations.

Bhangra: A Household Word

Now here is a dance that everyone has heard about! Bhangra, the energetic folk dance that hails from Punjab, is a household word. You can see Bhangra teams in colleges, at cultural events, weddings, and even clubs. But the original roots of Bhangra somehow get lost in the festivities. Bhangra is said to have originated in the farms of Punjab, where farmers would sing and dance to celebrate the harvest. They would sing and dance to songs on themes reflecting turbulent history of Punjab, as well as love or social issues. As time passed, the tradition of Bhangra extended to cultural festivals and other significant family occasions.

Bhangra dancers have always maintained the traditional costumes of a kurta, lungi, and turban for men, and a salwar kameez and dupatta for women. While the best time to experience Bhangra would be the Baisakhi (harvest) festival in April, no need look further than any Punjabi wedding, birthday, or festival celebration to experience this vibrant dance form. 

Just A Sample

This list of eight dances is just a small selection of the hundreds of other classical, folk, and tribal dances of India. The dances of India, although diverse in form, carry the central theme of depicting the beauty and power of movements that elevate the minds of the audience to higher spiritual realms. Witnessing any of India’s traditional dances is a MUST for anyone volunteering abroad in India.