In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dance and Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Video Reference
  • Online Resource Portals
  • Edited Volumes
  • Classical Dance Traditions
  • Devadāsīs and Histories of Hereditary Dancers
  • Biographies and Dancers Writing on Dance
  • Śiva Naṭarāja as Lord of the Dance
  • Kṛṣṇa and Rās Līlā
  • Music
  • Gender and Sexuality

Hinduism Dance and Hinduism
Katherine Zubko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0226


Dance is a central practice in Hinduism across a variety of contexts, mythological narratives, and time periods. Gods such as Śiva and Kṛṣṇa are dancers, and humans also dance, often embodying these gods as part of bhakti, or devotion. Dance is a rich area for exploring the ways categories are created and negotiated: classical and folk, local and global, male and female, East and West, text and practice, colonial and postcolonial, and India and its diaspora. Coursing through these dynamic categories are questions of identity: gender, nationality, politics, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and immigrant experience—all experienced through the embodiment of devotional dance forms that continue to undergo many iterations as new populations, venues, and intentions emerge. This bibliography provides resources for the history and practices of dances that range from folk/ritual to classical. Folk dance forms are devotional and cultural, such as popular garba and raas dancing. Other ritual dances invite a god to be embodied in the devotee through possession or depicted theatrically in solos and dance-dramas. The emphasis of the majority of the scholarship is weighted toward the formation and practice of eight classical dance forms. These have been constructed out of a hybridization of preexisting regional temple, court, and folk styles in collaboration with the ancient textual authority of the Nāṭyaśāstra, “Science of Dance-Drama,” during the early twentieth century. This Sanskrit compendium infused technical vocabulary, movement grammars, a sacred origin story, and rasa, an audience-receptivity theory of aesthetic mood experienced by audience members as created by dancers through their physical expressions, or bhāvas. In the early 1900s, social welfare movements converged on an opportunity to respond to the ills of society and build an awareness of arts that could support an emerging nationalism. “Reformers” and “revivalists” claimed to undo systems of oppression of women, such as preventing dedication of devadāsīs who danced in Hindu temples, and “rescue” dances with ties to ancient and religious origins from the hands of these hereditary dancers, whose loss of patronage and misunderstood social systems led to them being labeled prostitutes under the British Raj. One of the first ongoing waves of critical scholarship reveals the erased histories and consequences of these changes. A second strand seeks to situate dance within transnational Hindu contexts. A third trajectory validates contemporary experiments that reframe the interpretive possibilities of religious and gendered themes across hybridized movement grammars within the bodies of dancers and across diasporic geographies.

General Overviews

Compendiums of dance in India range in style, audience, and frameworks. Some of the most popular are written by dancers, such as Devi 2002, which contains general introductions following a nearly identical organizational scheme: early chapters are devoted to common techniques and stagecraft traced to the Nāṭyaśāstra, and later chapters isolate and discuss up to a dozen unique dance styles. Written by a scholar-dancer, Vatsyayan 2015 is the most often referenced overview of classically designated dance forms, while Vatsyayan 2010 focuses on folk dance forms. These sources are encyclopedic in identifying devotional and contextual elements, including music, costumes, gestures, isometric movement grammars related to various body parts, and the physical expressional combinations, or bhāvas, for building nine moods on stage to be experienced as rasas by the audience, especially bhakti rasa, or devotional mood. Photos are an integral feature to show gestures and facial expressions epitomizing the rasas. As new editions of these texts are issued, the addition of dance forms over time reveals the processes of classification at work. The newest iteration is exemplified by Venkataraman 2015, a glossy coffee table book covering eight classical traditions and the more recent acknowledgement of the role of contemporary innovative work. For classrooms, Satkunaratnam 2009 gives the briefest accessible outline of what makes classical dance forms Hindu, and Schwartz 2004 is good for teaching undergraduates about dance as a Hindu devotional practice. The latter includes a chapter on a debut recital by a teenager that helps contextualize dance in diasporic adolescent contexts in relation to religious identity. Within dance studies, Beaman 2018 offers a comparative overview chapter of three primary classical dance styles, framed by questions about shifting dynamics in traditional dance forms.

  • Beaman, Patricia. World Dance Cultures: From Ritual to Spectacle. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    Chapter 1 of this comparative textbook introduces the history, techniques, and prominent dancers of three Indian dance styles rooted in aspects of Hinduism: bharatanatyam, kathak, and kathakali. Summary points and discussion questions create accessibility for students while also giving space to explore the tensions within evolving dance forms categorized as “traditional.”

  • Devi, Ragini. Dance Dialects of India. 3d rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002.

    This comprehensive volume (first published in 1972) provides a history and series of technical overview chapters of many dance styles, both folk and classical. Ragini Devi was the adopted stage name of an American dancer who traveled widely in India to learn many of these dances, becoming a well-known performer and translator of these art forms within the New York dance scene in the 1930–1950s.

  • Satkunaratnam, Ahalya. “Dance: Indian Classical.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 2. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 599–606. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Brief introductory overview of eight classical dance traditions, prefaced by a tripartite framework of the ways these dances are Hindu, namely due to contexts for performance, narratives being embodied, and the devotional nature of its practice. Available online by subscription.

  • Schwartz, Susan. Rasa: Performing the Divine in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Short introductory textbook that includes history, aesthetics, religious frameworks, and technical vocabulary, with extended case studies of bharatanatyam, kathak, and kathakali. A final chapter discusses the debut recital, or araṅgeṭram, of a teenage bharatanatyam dancer to highlight issues related to transnational, diasporic performing arts, identity, gender, and rites of passage.

  • Vatsyayan, Kapila. Traditions of Indian Folk Dance. 3d rev. ed. New Delhi: Clarion Books, 2010.

    Organized by regional areas of India, each chapter in this volume details the dance practices performed in rural, often indigenous settings, especially in relation to cultural and religious festival cycles. Taking a more anthropological approach, chapters focus on housing styles, food, and geography, and include diagrams of dance movement patterns, costumes, and instruments. A necessary companion to the more heavily referenced classical styles found in other publications.

  • Vatsyayan, Kapila. Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts. 4th ed. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2015.

    Originally published in 1974, this volume contains a thorough presentation of the history and technique of the designated classical dance forms, framed by terminology related to Sanskrit aesthetics, and with entire chapters dedicated to the unique features of five styles. As one of the foremost scholar-practitioners of dance, Vatsyayan demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge in a work intended for an educated general audience.

  • Venkataraman, Leela. Indian Classical Dance: The Renaissance and Beyond. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015.

    A dance critic presents introductions to eight classical dance traditions, with a mix of articles and color photographs. Prefaced by the history of each dance form, the main focus is on prominent dance exponents within each tradition. Includes key debates within each dance style’s evolution and a chapter on contemporary choreographic works, providing a new endorsement of these types of innovations that were previously seen as marginal to the “tradition.”

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