dance.indiaArticle for SITI- Unesco magazine in Italy,  nr 11, 2012

This article is about the precious Intangible heritage of India:rare dances.

India is Asia’s quintessential cultural and artistic scenario. Its many cultural and natural heritages protected by UNESCO include Ajanta (1983), the Taj Mahal (1983), Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar (2010), Kaziranga National Park (1985), and Knuckles Mountains in Sri Lanka. The general public, however, is less familiar with its intangible or immaterial heritage, like music and dances. India may boast thousands of years of tradition in both arts, with customs that deserve promotion at local, national, and international level, in the awareness of their worth as vital elements of traditional cultures, as described by Article 1 of the UNESCO Convention for the protection of immaterial cultural heritage, in force since 2006. To increase awareness of these themes and, in particular, of the country that was the birthplace of great philosophical and religious traditions (Buddhism is the most famous example), in 2003 UNESCO inscribed three Indian dances in its list to safeguard them from the risk of lack of visibility and transmission to new generations. These are the Mudiyettu dance of Kerala, the Chhau dance of Eastern India, and lastly the Kalbelia dance of Rajasthan. For us to appreciate their traits and modern significance, we should mention the precepts of history of the arts of music and dance in classical India, without forgetting that there are new vital currents flanking them, although they are not included in the Intangible Heritage List because they are also widespread abroad (the traditional Bharatanatyam dance still practiced by contemporary Italian dancers are an excellent example).


Traditional Indian Music is all based on the concepts of  “raga” (scale, melodic method) and “Tala” (rhythmic cycle). The oldest source regarding music is Natyashastra, a treatise on the dramatic arts, or theatre, and also the essential complements of music and dance. It was written in the Gupta period (fourth-sixth century AD), inspired  by more ancient materials and it illustrates musical practice and technique in an exhaustive scientific manner.

The theories explored in this fundamental work underpin the treatises written in later periods, including the most significant: the Brhaddeshi (eighth-ninth century AD), the first text to use the word “raga”; the Sangita-Ratnakara (thirteenth century AD). Indian classical music developed into two main branches over recent centuries: Hindustani (northern style) and Carnatic (southern stle). Despite differences, which increased during Muslim domination leaving a more pronounced influence on Hindustani musical aesthetics, these two schools still share the same theoretical framework.


Even today, one of India’s most popular and vital arts is that of dance and in the civilization of the subcontinent it quickly acquired a remarkable degree of sophistication and complexity. The oldest testimonies date back to the second-first century BC. The first treatise expressly dedicated to dance as an art form distinct from drama and music was Nandikeshvara’s Abhinaya Darpana, written in the second century AD, exploring aspects of abhinaya,the communication of feelings and moods using coded gestures (mudra) and facial expressions. In Brahman tradition dance was assigned a major role in worship and symbolism. It is through his cosmic dance that the god Shiva Nataraja ( also known as the King of Dance) regenerates the cycles of the universe and for this reason dance became one of the most noble forms of paying homage to the divinity. The tradition of temple dancers was deeply rooted, with pavilions expressly dedicated to performing ritual dances that also became a constant element in the architecture of some regions. Countless styles developed and several have survived to the present day. For its highly intangible character (for generations the various classical styles were often transmitted only orally), dance constitutes perhaps the most precious of India’s immaterial arts, whose plurality of styles is frequently in danger of extinction.


Also known as Mudiyettu, this is a dance traditional to the region of Kerala. It mixes elements of mythological narration evoking the battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. The dance is part of the Bhagavathi cult and is performed by the ethnic Marar and Kuruppanmar groups in the Bhagvati Kavus temples from February to May. Following its inscription in UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List in 2010, Mudiyettu has officially become Kerala’s second art form. Its survival in world culture relies on the oral tradition and, there are no schools in India or abroad that teach this ancient dance.

CHHAU dance

The Indian tribal martial dance is popular in Orissa, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. There are three subgenres, linked to the places of origin and development: the Seraikella Chhau, the Mayurbhanj Chhau and, lastly, the Purulia Chhau. This dance is performed during regional festivals, such as the Chaitra Parva spring festival, which lasts thirteen days and involves the entire community. Usually the dance is performed by men from families of traditional artists, and is presented in the evening in an open space known  as an “akhada” or “asar”. The subjects represented are local legends, folklore, and episodes of the Ramayana or Mahabharata epics of Indian mythology. Chhau  dances are performed by ethnic groups like the Munda, Mahato, Kalindi, Pattnaik, Samal, Daroga, Mohanty, Acharya, Bhol, Kar, Dubey, and Sahoo. Musical accompaniment and the construction of instruments are the work of the Mukhi, Kalindi, Ghadhei, and Dhadas communities. The masks are another of the anthropologically characteristic elements of this dance, which astonish viewers for their vibrant colors and meticulous designs. Again, in this case, the tradition of teaching Chhau, its musical accompaniments and design production of ritual masks is transmitted only orally from master to disciple.


This dance is one of the most sensual art forms in the region of Rajasthan, performed by the eponymous tribe. Within this community dance is an integral and substantial part of the culture, and both men and women take part in it during festive occasions. Nevertheless, Kalbelia is known as a mainly female dance because it takes its name from a community of women. The dancers wear classic traditional dress, embellished with jewels and trinkets typical of their society. The dance is inspired by the vigorous sinous movements of the snake, alternated with the rhythm of the songs from a folk repertoire. The steps are stimulated by loud cheerful shouting from the dancing women and synchronized with the cadenced music and voices. Because of the movements of the arms, feet, hips, and back, in addition to the rituality of this art, linked to specific coded signals, this dance is one of the most representative forms of intangible heritage in the whole of Southeast Asia.

India is now being discovered by Westerners, chiefly specialist scholars and travelers with a passion for Asia because of its immense artistic heritage as well as its philosophica and religious traditions, including Hinduism (the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia are one example) and Buddhism (whose heritage dominates not only all of Southeast Asia but also the Far East). Research is still marginal in the context of the intangible component of Asian civilizations, particularly the ethno-musicological field and the history of dance. It is necessaryto raise public awareness of these subjects as they represent unique mediums of the identity of populations because of their symbolism and body language. Knowledge of the world must pass through the encounter and contrast with cultural otherness, and therein lies the ultimate wealth of what UNESCO seeks to preserve- like the ancient dances of India- as Intangible Heritage.


About Odile Milton

I travel through words whenever possible. Odile Milton is my signature on the web as I wanted an alter ego to indicate only my writings and works, not my personal life. Odile like the dancer in black swan, and Milton from the novel An old-fashioned girl. View all posts by Odile Milton

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