Category Archives: Ritual Arts

Kuchipudi Dance Tradition

There are three components to Indian dance, which include bhava, rasa, and nava rasa. Bhava is the feeling of protection by the dancer in their performance, rasa is the spirit or essence that is absorbed by the audience to whom is watching the performance and the true realization of the performance. Lastly, nava rasa is the proficiency of the nine moods which include love, anger, humor, disgust, heroism, tranquility, amazement, fear, and sorrow (Gaston 84). It is very important that the costume, including jewelry and cosmetics, is constructed properly to ensure the performance or presentation of the dance will be considered successful (Gaston 77). This is very true of the Kuchipudi dance tradition.

The Kuchipudi dance tradition is comprised of two components: dance and drama. This dance-drama tradition is divided up into nritta, meaning pure dance, nritya, meaning expressional dance, and natya, meaning dramatic aspect (Kothari and Pasricha 43). To evoke the spirit of the dance or rasa; nritta, nritya, and natya are implemented into the dance tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 56). Rules concerning the performance aspect of this dance drama tradition are followed in the Natyasastra, a Sanskrit Hindu text, along with other additional texts (Kothari and Pasricha 45). Some of these rules include the carrying of the bamboo flag staff, the singing of the verses of prayer, and the offering of flowers. A typical Kuchipudi dance drama will start by reciting verses from Vedic (Sanskrit Hindu) texts. After these verses are recited, the stage is sprinkled with holy water and decorated with colored powders. Incense is then offered by another (other than the main performer) dancer. Flowers are offered to the audience viewing the performance in attempts to receive their blessings. Following these offerings, the performer of the dance drama is to cross the stage carrying a flag staff which is an act of driving off evil forces (Kothari and Pasricha 47).

Darus, a special structure of musical composition, were an important part of the Kuchipudi dance tradition, as they made up the singing and dialogue of the presentation. Singing as well as dancing add color or vibrance to a Kuchipudi dance performance, engaging the audiences’ attention (Kothari and Pasricha 56). Most dance dramas will typically end with mangalam, which are verses that bestow a blessing (Kothari and Pasricha 53). Performances usually took place in the evening when the only light available was from torches that were held by the village washermen. However, this changed when indoor lights were more accessible and available through industrialization (Kothari and Pasricha 56).

The most popular dance drama within the Kuchipudi dance tradition is called the Bhama Kalapam (Kothari and Pasricha 57). The Bahma Kalapam portrays the mercurial (fast, excitable, etc.) Satyabhama, who is Krsna’s significant other. The highest goal of a Kuchipudi dancer was to excel in this role. Kalapams were generally performed outside of the temple for the public to view (Venkataraman and Pasricha 124).

Kuchipudi is a dance tradition that originates in Andhra Pradesh, which is a state that

borders the South-Eastern coast of India. Its name comes from a village in Andhra Pradesh called Kuchipudi (Kothari and Pasricha 33). Although considered to be a classical dance form, Kuchipudi was not the first Indian dance discovered in Andhra Pradesh. In fact, there were a myriad of dance styles already in existence, some of which include Pindi bandha-s, and Perani dance (Kothari and Pasricha 23). The history of Kuchipudi dance is divided up into two different time eras; the first is between second century B.C. and the ninth century A.D., followed by the second era between the tenth century A.D. and the eighteenth century A.D (Kothari and Pasricha 24). The fifteenth century is when the Kuchipudi dance tradition, especially through the Yakshagana Brahmana Mela festival, seemed to prosper. During this time, the Kuchipudi dance tradition involved elements of both classical and folk styles. Additionally, it was during this period when the Bhakti cult began spreading to other areas of India and dance drama was beginning to become a form of expression.

Siddhendra Yogi was an immensely important person for Kuchipudi dance and believed by some to be the founder or developer of this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 33). He was a follower of Krsna and devoted his life to promoting Bhakti after crossing a river with great difficulty, which nearly cost Siddhendra Yogi his life. Siddhendra Yogi assembled a group of Brahmin boys and asked them if they would perform a dance drama that would be an offering to Krsna. He also made these Brahmin boys promise that they would perform this same dance drama once a year and that descendants of the Brahmin families will carry on preserving this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 31). Siddhendra Yogi used Brahmin males specifically because at this time in India’s dance history, girls were not allowed to perform the Kuchipudi dance; in fact, it was not until the nineteenth century that females were allowed to perform this tradition. Because girls were not permitted to dance in the Kuchipudi dance tradition at this time, Brahmin males often impersonated female characters. (Kothari and Pasricha 33).

Narayana Tirtha was also influential to the world of Kuchipudi and was recognized for his Sanskritic musical composition. He wrote the Krsna Leela Tarangiri, a work known for being a milestone in literature and art. It includes 153 keertanams which are known as lyrics of a specific sculpture, 30 darus which are special structure of musical composition, 302 slokams which are verses of praises for deities, as well as numerous gadya which are prose passages (Venkataraman and Pasricha 128).

As we fast forward to the nineteenth to twentieth century, there have been advancements in stage technique, lighting, decor, and costumes that drew audiences of the Kuchipudi dance tradition away from a more traditional presentation. There was immense competition from the film medium during this time, for example, Kuchipudi performers began to join popular drama companies. However, traditional presentation was once again brought back to the Kuchipudi dance drama in the revival of the freedom movement to the people who lived in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This was accomplished primarily through the writing of articles in newspapers and journals, and putting on more Kuchipudi performances. Films displaying the Kuchipudi dance drama had also enabled the popularity of this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 38).

During the mid-twentieth century, Kuchipudi dance tradition reached national status as they were invited to the All Indian Dance Seminar that was held in Delhi. After this seminar, this specific dance drama was viewed as a major classical dance form.

The Kuchipudi dance tradition today has spread throughout India and considered to be a precious dance form (Kothari and Pasricha 40). As Kuchipudi got more and more popular, Kuchipudi village became too small of an area to contain the growth of the dance drama. Many of the teachers moved to Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, to pursue a place in the world of film (Venkataraman and Pasricha 134). This dance is still practiced in Kuchipudi village in Andhra Pradesh, however, those who do practice have much less international exposure (Venkataraman and Pasricha 138). Today, the village of Sindhendra Kalakshetra has more students and teachers practicing Kuchipudi. There are also dancers being trained in Vempati Chinna Satyam as well as at the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai (Venkataraman and Pasricha 136).

In present day, the Kuchipudi dance tradition has moved to more urban areas which is quite different from the twentieth century, and the style of the dance itself has also changed. Because of the prevalence of women performers, there is little need for men to impersonate female characters. In fact, in some cases females have been impersonating male characters (Venkataraman and Pasricha 136). The Kuchipudi dance tradition heavily relied upon three major components; singing, dancing, and acting. However, today it is mainly dance oriented. The vocalist within the team of musicians would do the singing that is present during the dance tradition and it is rare that dialogue passages (I.e., from Vedic scripts) are recited (Venkataraman and Pasricha 128-129).


Gaston, Anne-Marie (2011) “Dance and Hinduism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice,

Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 77-85.

Kothari, Sunil & Pasricha, Avinash (2001) Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art. New Delhi:

Abhinav Publications.

Lopez y Royo, Alessandra (2010) “Indian Classical Dance: A Sacred Art?” In The Journal of

Hindu Studies 3 (March): 114-123

Putcha, Rumya S. (2013) “Between History and Historiography: The Origins of Classical

Kuchipudi Dance.” In Dance Research Journal, pp. 91-110.

Venkataraman, Leela and Avinash, Pasricha (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in

Transition. New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

All Indian Dance Seminar

Andhra Pradesh

Bhakti Movement

Bhama Kalapam







Krsna Leela Tarangiri

Kuchipudi Art Academy

Narayana Tirtha

Nasa Rasa






Siddhendra Yogi


Vempati Chinna Satyam

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

Article written by: Becca Todd (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Rasa Theory in Hinduism

Rasa theory explains how one can have an emotional experience while watching a drama (Sullivan 2011:166). Rasa is “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa “literally means the quintessential essence of a work of art” (Astha 2014). To better explain rasa theory the components that create rasa, the pleasure of food as a metaphor for the feeling of rasa, how the nine rasas are evoked in an audience, and the nine rasas unique presiding deities and colors will be described. To explore the complexity of rasa theory, rasas intrinsic connection with death, the role of the creator and the audience in producing a rasa experience, an example of rasa theory in practice within the performance of Kutiyattam, and the changes rasa experiences as Indian society changes will be depicted.

Rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood or an imitation of emotions (Astha 2014). Bhava conveys meaning through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava and anubhava. Vibhava is a stimulant and anubhava is the manifestation and enactment of bhava (Astha 2014). Rasa theory is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra which is “an ancient Indian treaty on the performing arts” (Astha 2014). It is thought to have been written in the 2nd century BCE (Astha 2014), and it is arguably the fifth Veda (Lidke 126). In the Natya-sastra, Brahma says, “the purpose of the Natya-sastra is to reveal to human kind the technology by which one can come to understand the nature of the world through its dramatic re-presentation” (Lidke 126-127). There are nine rasas: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 84). Bharata described eight rasas but Abhinavagupta, who is the principal authority on rasa theory (Mason 76), argued for nine rasas. He argued that tranquility should be added as the ninth rasa because tranquility underlies and pushes forth the original eight rasas (Astha 2014).

Rasa is often described as a metaphor for the pleasure of food. When one eats food, one receives pleasure from the flavours. When an audience watches a performance, they receive pleasure from the “emotions conveyed to them through practical performance devices” (Mason 72). The flavour “is produced by the bhava through acting” (Astha 2014). However, the Natya-sastra makes it clear that this metaphor is not an equivalent to the rasa experience (Mason 74). While experiencing a drama, one receives an emotional response while also “having the awareness that one is witnessing an enactment rather than real life” (Sullivan 2011:166). This is called aesthetic distance. In the Natya-sastra, “the distinction between performer and spectator, the distance between them, is essential” (Mason 76). One can be so connected to the performance that one “tastes” the emotions of the performance, but one also maintains aesthetic distance. For example, while watching Rama fall in love with Sita, the pleasure one receives from watching Rama’s feelings “comes not from feeling what Ram[a] feels (or ‘tasting his emotion), but from appreciating what Ram[a] feels from the privileged position of spectators” (Mason 76-77). The audience does not have to feel exactly what the character is feeling, they just appreciate that they get to witness what the character is feeling.

The nine rasas are experienced by the audience in association with a bhava portrayed on stage by the performers (Astha 2014). For example, the rasa of humour is “evoked through expanded lips, cheeks, wide staring and contracted eyes” (Astha 2014). The audiences’ laughter “is stimulated by disfigurement of dress, impudence, incoherent speech, deformed appearance, queer behaviour, [and] strange costumes” (Astha 2014). In order to evoke the love rasa, the performers must wear beautiful costumes and jewellery and portray longing and sensitivity to nature (Astha 2014). The anger rasa is stimulated by “boldness, insults, cruelty” (Astha 2014), and leads to fighting. In order to invoke the rasa of sorrow, the performer “expresses loneliness, longing, and yearning for the absent lover or God” (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is stimulated in the audience “by seeing or hearing words, sounds and objects or by fear of jackals and owls, empty houses, forests…weird persons or sounds of getting into fights” (Astha 2014). The amazement rasa is “stimulated by the sight of divine persons” (Astha 2014). It is also stimulated by the sudden achievement of what was desired by the hero and by magic (Astha 2014). The heroic rasa is stimulated when the performer shows courage, determination and justice (Astha 2014). Every facial expression and detail of the costumes is important in order to evoke specific rasas. Tranquility, the recently added rasa, represents freedom, salvation, stabilization and motivation (Astha 2014). Since this rasa encompasses all of the other eight rasas, it “stretches the transcendental possibilities of aesthetic experience” (Astha 2014). Each rasa is presided over by a deity and is associated with a specific color. For example, the love rasa is associated with the color greenish blue and the god Visnu, while the laughter rasa is presided over by Pramatha and the color white. The rasa of anger is presided over by Rudra and is associated with the color red (Astha 2014). The rasa of sorrow is represented by Yama and the color pigeon (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is represented by Kala and the color black (Astha 2014). The rasa of amazement is associated with the color yellow and its presiding deity is Brahma (Astha 2014).The heroic rasa is presided over by Indra and its associated color is silverish white (Astha 2014). The disgust rasa represents the color blue and is presided over by Siva (Astha 2014).

The rasas give the audience pleasure, even though most of them are connected with death. Four of the rasas “are not particularly pleasant”: sorrow, disgust, anger, and fear (Mason 75). Death is represented “either as an anubhava or vyabhicari- bhava” (Sullivan 2007) which is the manifestation and enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). In the Natya-sastra, Bharata explains that sorrow “is to be represented on the stage by an array of anubhava, including tears and falling on the ground, but also insanity and death” (Sullivan 2007). The disgust rasa is portrayed with “death, along with despair, insanity, and so on” (Sullivan 2007). Certain acts described with the anger rasa lead to death but it is not specified that the character is supposed to be killed; for example, characters are supposed to cut off the head and limbs of other characters (Sullivan 2007). In the love rasa, death is not excluded in the thirty-three transitory states therefore, “even in a drama emphasizing the erotic, death may figure as a transitory state” (Sullivan 2007). For example, death is the final stage in separation from the beloved, for female characters (Sullivan 2007). Bharata explains “how one should speak while dying on the stage, with a faltering voice or repeating oneself” (Sullivan 2007). Bharata also specifies that different kinds of death will have different appearances (Sullivan 2007). The rasas create aesthetic delight and the representation of death on stage is “important in evoking rasa experience for the audience” (Sullivan 2007).

The performers are important in order for the audience to experience rasa, but the creator of the art that the performers are enacting also plays a key role. The rasa experience is a two-way process because the artist strives for rasa while creating their art while the audience must detect it (Astha 2014). In rasa theory, “the term sahrdaya has been variously translated as critic, observer, reader, spectator, or one who savors (rasika) in the creative process” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The receptor of a work of art can be described in three words: spectator, auditor, and empathizer (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The auditor is part of a social group and the empathizer is “defined as one who has the same quality of heart and mind as the creator” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). This is the ideal critic or sahrdaya. The audience receives aesthetic delight through a performance because of the specific actions of the performers and the creator. The audiences’ appreciation emotions and the audiences’ understanding of the history of the story being presented also impacts one’s aesthetic delight. The audience members only attend Sanskrit dramas in order to “experience the Rasa that the work of art can facilitate” (Sullivan 2011:166). The creator’s skill is to “anticipate a mind that understands and appreciates” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be “qualified to appreciate the depiction” (Sullivan 2011:166); for example, if one does not know Sanskrit or the meaning behind a myth, one cannot effectively receive aesthetic pleasure from a drama. The appreciation emotions are awe, esteem, and respect (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The appreciation emotions are important for aesthetic appreciation in the rasa because it is important that “the creator and the ideal critic are one in mind and soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). Therefore, true criticism “implies idealized reconstruction in the reader’s soul of what is expressed in the poet’s soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). There are three stages in order to receive aesthetic delight: one must become attuned to the emotional situation, become absorbed in the portrayal, and this absorption becomes aesthetic delight (Sundararajan and Raina 2016).

The performance of Kutiyattam in Kerala is a religious act done by male actors called Cakyar, “who have the right and religious duty (dharma) to perform Kutiyattam” (Sullivan 2011:159). The goal of Kutiyattam is to “enact dramas to enable an audience to experience Rasa” (Sullivan 2011:158). Before a performance, Cakyars are “consecrated by ritual actions of Brahmin temple priests” (Sullivan 2011:159) and then pray to a deity “for inspiration and protection during the performance” (Sullivan 2011:158). After each performance, the Cakyars “worship and receive blessings from the priest” (Sullivan 2011:159) while still in their costumes, then “sprinkle consecrated water on the stage, on himself or herself, and on the audience” (Sullivan 2011:160). The actor must also ask the gods for forgiveness for mistakes or errors that were made in the performance (Sullivan 2011:160). A full performance of a drama may take many nights because the actors perform “only a small portion of any drama’s text in a night of acting” (Sullivan 2011:163) and only perform at night. Small portions are performed because “only small segments of a drama’s script are portrayed each evening” (Sullivan 2011:163) and the Cakyars must develop gestures and add more detail to the scripts (Sullivan 2011:163). A performance technique of some Cakyars is to recite a verse in Sanskrit, perform their gestures and then recite the previous verse again (Sullivan 2011:162). This repetition is done to “give full expression to the emotional tone of that moment” (Sullivan 2011:162). Due to the development of modern society, changes have been proposed to perform an entire performance in one night because audience members may be unable to attend multiple performances and “their Rasa experience is dependent on viewing the entire play, including the resolution of its plot in the final scene” (Sullivan 2011:166-167). One’s rasa experience could be inhibited or one could not receive a rasa experience at all if the performance is incomplete.

Social changes in Indian cities affect temples and performers (Sullivan 2011:165). For example, in Kerala, many performers stopped performing when temples that were affected by land reforms opened to lower caste groups (Sullivan 2011:165). Although social changes have decreased the number of performers, it has increased the diversity of the remaining performers (Sullivan 2011:165). Rasa is also affected by the debate on whether the performers should remain traditional or change their performances as society changes. Some performers believe the performances should remain the same in order for the audience to experience rasa from the traditional line repetition and gestures (Sullivan 2011:166). Keeping with tradition will allow rasa techniques to maintain their originality and purpose but changing with society will keep rasa theory relevant. In the representation of death, rasa theory does change depending on the audience. Bharata explains in the Natya-sastra that “actors should learn from and accommodate to local traditions concerning the representation of death” (Sullivan 2007). Global performances also affect rasa because the audience must be qualified and prepared to witness the drama, and foreign tourists and non-Sanskrit speakers may not be prepared (Sullivan 2011:167).

Rasa is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra as “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa theory explains how a rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava to create an emotional response in an audience (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood conveyed through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava, a stimulant, and anubhava, the enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). The metaphor for the pleasure of food is used to describe rasa theory. One receives pleasure from food just like an audience receives pleasure form a performance (Mason 72). However, aesthetic distance is important because the audience does not receive pleasure from feeling what the characters are feeling; they appreciate witnessing what the characters are feeling. The nine rasas are: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 2011). Each rasa is associated with a specific deity and color. Most of the rasas are also associated with death because death on stage is important for developing the rasa experience (Sullivan 2007). One’s appreciation emotions help one to become an ideal critic or sahrdaya (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be qualified and prepared to watch a performance. The audiences’ rasa experience is further affected by witnessing an entire performance. Social changes cause foreign and global audiences to be unprepared or not have the chance to watch an entire performance, which limits one’s rasa experience. A rasa experience, explained by the rasa theory, is caused by the creator of the art, the performer’s actions, and the audience themselves.
























Astha (2014) “Abhinavagupta’s exposition extends Bharata’s Rasa Theory in several ways.” Language in India, Vol. 14, No. 3: 83-93. Accessed February 1, 2017.

Fuller, Jason D. (2011) “The accidental pilgrim: Vaisnava tirthas and the experience of the sacred.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 62-74. New York: Routledge.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (2011) “Dance and Hinduism: a personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 75-86. New York: Routledge.

Mason, David (2006) “Rasa, ‘Rasaesthetics’ and Dramatic Theory as Performance Packaging.” Theatre Research International, Vol. 31, No. 1: 69-83. Accessed February 5, 2017. doi:10.1017/S0307883305001860

Lidke, Jeffrey (2011) “Tabla, spirituality, and the arts: a journey into the cycles of time.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 118-130. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2007). “Dying on the Stage in the Natya Sastra and Kutiyattam: Perspectives from the Sanskrit Theatre.” Action Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2: 422-439. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.1353/atj.2007.0041

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2011) “Experiencing Sanskrit dramas in Kerala: epic performances and performers.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 158-169. New York: Routledge.

Sundararajan, Louise and Maharaj K. Raina (2016) “Mind and creativity: Insights from rasa theory with special focus on sahrdaya (the appreciative critic).” Theory & Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6: 788-809. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/0959354316676398

















Further Recommended Reading

Gnoli, Raniero (1985) The Aesthetic Experience According to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Press.

Leslie, Julia (1991) “Dance and the Hindu Women – Bharata Natyam Re-ritualized,” in Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. London: Printer.

Richmond, Farley (1990) “Kutiyattam” in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance ed. by F. Richmond, D. Swann, and P. Zarrilli, 87-117. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Robinson, Tom and Hillary Rodrigues (2014) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. 2nd ed. USA: Baker Academic.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. USA: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2017) Hinduism – the eBook. 2nd ed. JBE Online Books.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Trepper, E. and J. Wood (1994) “Secularization and De-secularization of the Indian Classical Dance,” In South Asian Horizons – Enriched by South Asia, 15-34. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



















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This article written by: Kylie Thomson (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.


Rangoli is an art of decorating floors using various colored powders. It is considered that Rangoli has been practiced for eras, and has been modified throughout, yet its significance has been the same throughout. It is a living tradition in India and is practiced mostly by womenfolk. This form of art is believed to have survived even before it found its place in Hindu literature. The origin of this art is yet vague, but some of the scholars have dated it back to about 2000 years (Gode 241). The very first evidence found in Hindu literature is between 50-400 CE in the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana; which is mentioned as tndulkusumvlidikara (Gode 241). This floor art has had stability not only in Indian domestic lives but religious lives as well. Rangoli is an art that represents an energy field in religious context (Correa 92-113).

Rangoli is not only for the ecstasy of gods and the ruling deities, but also for beauty per Usinara. Usinaras are the middle country (Madyadesa) dwellers (Majumdar 248). It is said that the sage Narada gave a new kind of classification of these arts from the viewpoint of places and where the depictions are situated. They are classified in three different ways: of the floor (bhauma), of the wall (kudya), and of the top (urdhvaka) (ceiling). They again get classified into two more categories from another stance, permanent (zazvatika) and temporary (tatkalika, ksanika). The Rangoli that is still prominent in India is the floor or ksanika Rangoli (Gode 236).

Disciplines that explore the notions of this nonmanifest world are religion, philosophy, and arts (Correa 92-113). Rangoli is an sacred art that beautifies houses, brings positive vibrations, and peaceful feelings. The recurrence, proportion, balance, and liveliness, are few of the principles of this form of art. Rangoli is related to the method of Tantric design known as the Mandala. These designs are symbols of secret philosophical religious meanings (Dohmen 129-139). Different figures and arrangements within the design are associated with different aspects of human life. Circular designs within the diagrams evoke a sense of eternity of time, the unfolding of life, and the heart or the wheel (Das 2008).

Rangoli symbolizes auspiciousness and good luck in Hindu dharma. In ancient times, this sacred and versatile form of art was made to welcome gods and goddesses during special occasions. Durai (77) discloses the practice of Rangoli, about a century ago in the Madras Presidency. Madras is known as Chennai in present day India. According to Durai, these geometric diagrams are known as Kolam in Madras. They are typically made by Hindu women, every morning. To make a Kolam they use white rice powder. Lines and dots are connected in the process of making a Kolam, except when a death befalls in the family. Rangoli is made during the events such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and festivals such as Divali, Sankranti, Navaratra, Nagapancami, Tulsi Vrata, and Sravan Sukla Pancami. It is a gesture of hospitality and openness for the visiting guests, be it a human being or heavenly being. This attractive and decorative art is made with different materials such as, colored powders, rice flour, sand, sugar, or flower petals. The designs vary for everyday practice and special occasions. It can be plain and small for daily practice, and colorful and elaborate for festive events (Durai 77).

Different parts of India have different names associated with this form of floor art. It is known as Rangoli in Maharastra, Kolam in South India, Aripana in Bihar, Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh, Alpana in Bengal, and the list goes on. In Sanskrit, ‘Rang’ means color and ‘Avali’ means row, so Rangoli literally means ‘rows of colors’ (Gode 226). Alpana derieves from Sanskrit word alimpana which means ‘to plaster’ or ‘to coat with’ which is eminent in Bengal. Alpana is traditionally made of powdered rice. In modern days, the materials used to make Alpana have changed but some Hindu orthodox families still practice this traditional way of using powered rice. The powdered rice is mixed with water to make a paste, and small piece of cloth is used to design Alpana. Themes of Alpana typically consist of stars, sun, moon, plough, owl, rice stem, etc. Kolam is typically practiced in Tamil Nadu and South India using rice flour as well. Very famous designs of Kolam are Hridaya-Kamalam Kolam (Praghosa 2008). To precisely complete these projects one needs a lot of patience. That is why the dots and lines in the Kolam are believed to symbolize hurdles, hardships, and struggles that human beings face in life. And the finished project denotes that if humans, bravely, patiently, and serenely, face all the struggles and hardships, then they can get through life easily and peacefully. Kolam/Rangoli is made every morning at the thresholds of the houses to keep the negative vibes away and maintain positive and happy vibes throughout the day. The rice dust sprinkled on the ground, in the form of Rangoli, is not wasted, but considered to be a generous way to offer back to the nature, so the smallest of the creatures also get their feed. It is said to be one of the most prevalent methods of visual arts practiced in modern Tamil Nadu, because of the sheer magnitude of practitioners involved in making Kolam (Dohmen 92-113).

One of the most important Hindu festivals is Divali. Divali is known as the festival of lights and is associated with vibrant and vivid colors. Colorful fireworks across the villages, towns and cities; candle light around the houses; making of various sweets in excessive amount; exchanging gifts; and making elaborate and vibrant Rangolis, are associated with this festival. The principal deity Laksmi is present in the atmosphere during Divali. She is known as the goddess of wealth, good luck, and prosperity. She visits the homes that are well cleaned, well-lit, and beautifully decorated. Every Hindu household performs Laksmi Puja (act of worship) on the third day of Divali. As per the Hindu lunar calendar, this five-day festival falls on the new moon day on the month of Asvin (October or November). Various Rangolis such as goddess Laksmi’s footprints, eight petal lotuses known as ‘Ashtadal-kamal’ in Andhra Pradesh, eight pointed star known as ‘Hridaya-kalam’ in Tamil Nadu, and thousands of designs in Gujarat only, are made during Diwali. Diwali is thought to be inadequate without Rangoli. It is a welcoming gesture to the Goddess and the homecoming guests. The ritual of welcoming the guests is known to bring good luck and bliss to the family.

The festival that falls in the first fortnight of January is Sankranthi (Makara-Sankramanam), and during this festival, young Telugu girls of Andhra Pradesh compete with their peers to make the latest and elaborate Muggulu designs in their courtyard. In Andhra Pradesh, the floor decoration technique is known as Muggu or Muggulu in plural. People of all castes make Muggulu on their respective thresholds, after cleaning the surface with water and cow-dung. Colored Muggulu is made for special occasions and during the worship of gods and goddesses. Muggulu is drawn to honor the Sankranti Purusa, also known as Bali (Gode 243-246). Gode (1947) also discusses about Tamil girls, who enthusiastically bet with each other to draw the most widespread and intricate Kolam in the village (235). Even though these arts and designs are beautiful, they are ksanik, meaning temporary.

Due to colonization, and the influence of innovation and modernization, the Indian traditions and practices are perceived to be vanishing. Dohmen (135) provides understanding on Tamil editors that have tried to preserve Kolam by publishing the designs in their editions. Dohmen states, “These design magazine editors have taken on the circulation, innovation and preservation of traditional designs” (Dohmen 134). India is a mix of diverse cultures, languages and philosophies. Informing the youngsters about Indian values and socio-historical relations is the most influential way to preserve the heritage. Adir and Bhaskaran, in their research, suggest that children learn from very early age, so involving them in activities like making Rangoli, can be one of the many ways to preserve this art. They suggest that the kids who learn to make Rangoli when they are young can develop the skill of creative problem-solving. Since Rangoli is a collectively made project, they need to work together to determine the colors and shapes choices. Rangoli is a great means of socializing. It also requires eye-hand coordination and fine muscle control which can be an invaluable asset for children when they grow up (Adir and Bhaskaran 48-52, 54-55). Teachers and parents can use a variety of materials such as, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and chalks for outdoors (Guhin 2013).

Rangolis enlighten the ‘nature of the cosmos’. Rangoli is not just an idea, but symbolizes an energy field. The midpoint of a Rangoli signifies “shunya (the absolute void) as well as bindu (the world seed and the source of all energy)”. The midpoint is placed as Brahman, the primary source, in all the Rangolis. When the cycles of reincarnation are finally ended, according to Hinduism, the atman (the distinct soul) is free from each of us and goes to Brahman (to the center of this energy field) (Correa 92-113). Sacred does not only mean religious but primordial as well. The minutiae detail of Rangoli have various symbols and meanings associated with them. “The greatest of all the geometric depictions of cosmic order used as aids for meditation, this ecstasy is depicted as the interpenetrations of nine triangles, four facing upward and five downward, together symbolizing the union of Siva and Sakti” (Correa 92-113). This method of art has been practiced for centuries and it is considered to represent an energy field in religious context (Correa 1989). This form of floor art is still prominent in India and in Hindu countries around the world.


References and further recommended readings

Adair, Jennifer Keys, and Lilly Bhaskaran (2010) “Meditation, Rangoli, and Eating on the Floor:Practices from an Urban Preschool in Bangalore, India.” YC Young Children 65, no. 65:48-55.

Correa, Charles (1989) “The Public, the Private, and the Sacred.” Daedalus 118: 92-113.

Das, Praghosa (2008) “Sacred geometry, Rangolis, Mandalas and Yantras”

Dohmen, Renate (2001) “Happy Homes and the Indian Nation: Women’s Designs in Post-Colonial Tamil Nadu.” Journal of Design History 14: 129-39.

Gode, P. K. (1947) “History of the Rangavalli (Rangoli) Art – Between C. A. D. 50 and 1900.”

Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 28: 226-46.


Guhin, Paula (2013) “Rangoli: An Indian Art Activity Book.” An Indian Art Activity Book.a0352230655 (accessed February 27 2017)

Durai, G. H.(1929) “60. Preliminary Note on Geometrical Diagrams (Kolam) from the Madras Presidency.” Man 29: 77. Doi:10.2307/2790112.

Majumdar, R. C. (1951) “The History and Culture of Indian People: The Vedic Age.” G. Allen 8 Unwin, 1951 1: 248, 252.

Related topics for further investigations


Sravan Sukla Purnima


Tulsi Vrata

Swosthani Vrata



Laxmi Pujan

Importance of Cow in Hindu Dharma

Vasant Pancami


Importance of Tulsi

Noteworthy websites

This article was written by: Reena Sharma (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


The origin of Rangoli dates back to many centuries ago and is an important part of Indian festivals. Rangoli is a design that is drawn on the ground with colored powder sometimes even with colored rice. Since Rangoli is mentioned in the Epics, it probably originated from before they were composed. The tradition is said to have come from the story of Chitralakshana. [The son of the highest priestly son dies and is said to be drawn and as the painting is completed the priestly son comes to life] (Dhawan 1). During the beginning of this tradition, it is said in the epic Ramayana after the return of Lord Rama from his exile he was showered with love by the art of Rangoli (Rao 1)

In Hinduism anything that has a deep meaning to it, is taken very seriously among the older generations, such as art of Rangoli. It is not only just used for making the courtyard look pretty but also to avoid the evil spirits from entering the house. This is the reason why most Rangoli designs are made very intricate and detailed. Spirits and negative vibes that are surrounding the house to get intertwined in the intricacy of the design (Ashu 1). The designs are the first thing people see when they enter the house. It allows them to bring more positivity into the house after seeing the Rangoli. The traditional Rangoli were more symmetrical because it was pleasing to look at. Different types of shapes are included when making Rangoli, such as certain religious flowers, drawings of gods, and many other things that have some sort of significance. Mostly white was used in the traditional Rangoli as it was a sense of peacefulness and calmness. Rangoli is made during Diwali (festival of lights) to welcome the Goddess Laksmi (Goddess of wealth). During every festival or any special occasion, the women of the house make the Rangoli. They wake up early as it takes hours for them to complete. The designs are only made once the front yard is fully cleaned with water, as it is a way for the women to cleanse their mind and have a sense of calmness.

In traditional Rangoli making powdered color was not used but colors that were available naturally were used such as haldi, vermillion, and rice flour. Natural powders were used so that birds and other insects would have food. The principle of ‘Vasudaiva kutumbaka’ in Sanatana Dharma (Hindusim) meaning ‘the whole world is one big family’ (Sankar 1) is a reason why rice flower and such natural powders were used, so that the insects could feed off of them. Each color has a significant meaning behind it and is different in different parts in India. Now color that has dye in it is mainly used to attract more people and make it look more vibrant and realistic. Modern Rangoli is more focused towards the creativity of it rather then the spiritual aspect of it.

In southern India, there is myth about Lord Thirumal getting married in the Margazhi month, a time of the month that is said to be very auspicious. During this month, the girls get up before sunrise to start drawing Kolams [Rangoli is called kolam in southern India] to welcome the God of Thirumal (Dhawan 1). Going around a dot pattern makes Kolams.

During the month of January the Pongal kolam is made, in which the drawing is left undone until the next day so that they can join them with the neighboring houses.

More then just a design, Kolams is also used for mathematical ideas. They are very particular in using symmetry while making the designs and some even have a pattern that repeats several times. Some kolam are drawn using repetition of patterns in various angles Ascher (57-63). Symbols such as letters or numbers are used to explain the step-by-step way they are made.

Where Kolams are made up of more lines and have a geometrical pattern to them, Rangoli is made with vibrant colors and have many different designs. Each have there own significance and are used in different parts of India. Rangoli requires more intricate work than Kolams. Kolam is used more so in the southern part of India and Rangoli in northern part.

There are many different types of kolam designs; the most popular ones are the line and pulli Kolams. Line Kolams are free handed and are just geometrical lines. Pulli Kolams are designs where the dots are made in a certain sequence and lines are drawn to connect the dots. The pulli kolam has two different ways of making the design, one of which is connecting the dots and the other are twisted chains that are made around the dots Ascher (57-63). One other kind of kolam, called the snake kolam, different from any other Kolam, since it is drawn continuously and ends off where it began.

Rangoli is used in all of India whether it is for making drawing or used for special occasions. It has been passed down from centuries ago and is now being used in different ways and has even moved its way to a different side of it, the mathematical aspect. In the most recent years is when computer scientists have seen the usage of mathematical concepts being incorporated into the designs. As this tradition is passed down to future generations, the meaning and importance will slowly change as well. Slowly the designs will be improved by adding innovative aspects which differ from the past generations.. Rangoli’s is used upon arrivals of guests, family gatherings, and even when there are no special occasions. This allows women to get together and calm their minds down from the household work and provide them with a sense of relaxation from the tedious lifestyle. It is a way to express your happiness and allow others to enjoy the beautiful colors and designs made.


Sankar, Gayatri (2011) “Significance of Rangoli.”

Dhawan, Ashu (2015) “Why do we draw Rangoli? Significance & Importance!” Retrieved from

Subramanian, Ram (2014) “Kolam: A Tradition Combining Art and Geometry to Form Colorful Patterns.” Retrieved from

Ascher, Marcia (2002) “The Kolam Tradition: A Tradition of Figure-drawing in Southern India Expresses Mathematical Ideas and Has Attracted the Attention of Computer Science.” American Scientist 90, no.1: 56-63.

Rao, Venkata V (2006) “What is the origin of Rangoli?” Retrieved from

Hopkins, Dwight N (2001) Religions/Globalizations: Theories and Cases. Durham and London Duke University Press

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Pulli kolam

Line kolam



Lord Thirumal

Pongal kolam


Snake kolam



Goddess Lakshmi


This article was written by: Preet Parmar (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for this content. ab

The Natya Sastra

The Natya Sastra is an ancient classical treatise on the performing arts. The word natya means and comprises both dance and drama. The dual meaning signifies also the fact that drama, as conceived by Bharata, is an integrated art of music, dance, action, and poetry (Raghavan 36). This, along with the word sastra, a work of scripture/holy text, explains the meaning of the title of this treatise. It is also sometimes known as the “fifth Veda” or Scripture on Dramatic Arts. Authorship of the Natya Sastra is attributed to one of India’s greatest heroes and sages, Bharata (Lidke 126). This old Sanskrit text is often difficult to date; many estimates range from 500 BCE to 500 CE (Dace 249), and even 200 BCE to 200 CE (Raghavan 37).

The Natya Sastra begins with a passage describing the origins of drama and the theatre. It describes how the golden age, in which all human beings enjoyed a state of enlightenment, complete health, and fulfilment, had come to an end. The silver age had begun and humans were afflicted by the first symptoms of suffering (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). People took to uncivilized ways, were ruled with lust and greed, behaved in angry and jealous ways with each other and not only gods but demons, evil spirits, yaksas and such like others swarmed over the earth (Rangacharya 4). Upon seeing all of this, the gods, with Indra as their leader, were concerned and approached the creator God, Brahma. They asked him to come up with a way to allow humans to revert to the golden age. They requested him to give the people a toy (kridaniyaka); one which could not only be seen, but also heard. They had hoped that it would become a diversion so that people gave up their bad ways (Rangacharya 4). This did not sit well with Brahma, as he was the one who created all beings and the Vedas. If humans were being uncivilized and behaving in such bad ways, then surely it would mean that they were not following the Vedas and of all its knowledge. Indra then explained to him that although the Vedas were available to many, they were not available to all. Sudras, the lowest caste, did not have access to the Vedas – they were not allowed to learn, read, or even listen to the Vedas. Indra specified that the means should be a fifth Vedic text, an addition to the four main texts of Indian (Vedic) philosophy (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). It was to be captivating, pleasing, instructive, and above all, accessible.

Brahma listened to Indra’s request and created a Natyaveda. He immersed himself in meditation and came up with natya, drama, which he asked Indra and the gods to implement (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). In the Natya Sastra, the creator god, Brahma, is cited as stating that the purpose of the Natya Sastra is to reveal to humankind the technology by which one can come to understand the nature of the world through its dramatic re-presentation (Lidke 126-127). Indra carried the book with him and read it to the other gods, but believed that none of them were capable of understanding. He then proposed to Brahma that a search for the correct person be made among the many sages. Sages were often regarded as studious, hardworking, intellectual people. Indra believed that a sage would be the proper person for this task. Thus, it was that the final choice fell on Bharata, who was asked to take charge of the work (Rangacharya 5). Bharata condensed the work so that all mortals would be able to understand and use it. Bharata then went ahead and taught all of the knowledge that he obtained from Brahma to his hundred sons, who were thus the very first actors.

The Natya Sastra is a great work that describes all of the aspects of drama in detail. This Sanskrit Hindu text contains close to 6,000 verses that deal with many topics. The diverse range of topics go from the ideal size of a theatre to directions for blessing the stage. The Natya Sastra defines hand gestures and meaningful combinations of foot steps, for example, those used to mime “riding in a sky chariot” (Delmonico 520-521). It describes elaborately proper dresses for male and female characters, not only according to the part of the country and age of the character, but also according to the status (social) of the character; even different locales would mean a change in dress (Rangacharya 37). No detail is considered too small in this treatise. The Natya Sastra describes thirty-six different eye motions and matches different things, such as colors and musical instruments to distinct moods. Slight variations in vocal pitches are analyzed and discussed to determine appropriateness for stage whispers. It outlines the ideal arrangement of the numerous elements of the plot, as well as the construction of the play. It includes diverse topics like dramatic premise, characters, auditorium, poetics, acting, language, dance, song, instruments, costumes, the religious ceremony to be performed before opening of the act, different types of drama, poetics, style and abilities required of different characters like the stage manager, comedian, courtesan, lead actor and actress (Joshi 36).

The Natya Sastra lists the ten forms of stage-representations: dasa rupakas, as nataka, prakarana, anka, vyayoga,bhana, samavakara,vithi, prashasana, dima, and ihamrga. Traditionally, dramas are formed and shaped according to the hero and the rasa. The word rasa means “essence” and refers to the nature of aesthetic sentiment. It is the emotional theme of a work of art or the overall feeling that the viewer experiences after watching or reading such a work. A rasa depends on not only the type of story, but also on the hero. Together, the elements of hero (neta), story (vastu), and rasa (artistic enjoyment) constitute the three essential ingredients of a drama (Rangacharya 56). Each of the ten forms are able to be examined with these three characteristics in mind. For example, in a nataka, the story is quite well-known with a royal sage as the hero. The rasa is usually either srngara (love) or vrna (heroic), and it is five to seven acts in length. In a prakaranam, the story is made up by the writer with a Brahmana or minister as the hero. The main rasa is srngara (love) and it is five to ten acts in length. An anka could either be a well-known story with an ordinary man as the hero, the rasa being pathos done in only one act. These can be compared to, say, a prahasana, which is just an imaginary story.

In addition to theatre aesthetics, the Natya Sastra is also notable for its aesthetic Rasa Theory. Chapter six of this treatise contains the roots of the theory of rasa. According to Bharata, a dramatist uses all available means – words, plots, gestures, songs, dance, costumes, etc. – to enrapture sensitive viewers (Delmonico 521). A great example to help understand rasa is one of a meal that contains many different dishes, all with a variety of tastes such as sweet, hot, sour, etc. While each dish is being eaten, a different taste is being enjoyed. Just like the food, the audience ‘tastes’ different states of experience, namely, love, joy, sorrow, anger, virility, terror, disgust, and wonder. Some later writers on Sanskrit poetics add one more rasa to this number, santa (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2001:103). This ninth rasa is one with a “peaceful” flavor. Like the taste of food, rasa is something which can be relished.  Typically, a single rasa will dominate a play or poem, however each will be slightly unique as there are many different factors that can be taken into account.

Chapter seven of the Natya Sastra examines forty-nine mental states (bhavas) out of which rasa is created. A bhava is nothing but what expresses a reaction, be it by bodily gestures or by words. (Rangacharya 77). Rasa is the result of and from the bhavas, but not vice versa. Eight of them are long lasting sthayi-bhavas, while another eight are involuntary physical responses (sattvika-bhavas) like blushing or trembling. The other thirty-three emotions are fleeting ones, vyabhicari-bhavas, powerful enough to fuel a moment or to affect the flavor of a stronger emotion, but not powerful enough to reign over a whole aesthetic experience (Delmonico 521).

The Natya Sastra is a voluminous work that many view as a masterpiece. It has been an important resource for Hindu theatre and has provided many individuals with information regarding the role of arts in both one’s social and personal lives. Many different forms of art have been heavily influenced by this major treatise. One of the most notable being the Nataraja temple in Cidamaram. Carved into this temple are the one hundred eight karanas (postures) that are denoted in the Natya Sastra (McCutchen 450). The movements of dance and expression described in the Natya Sastra can be found carved into the pillars, walls and gateways of some Hindu temples. It is evident that this treatise on dramatics is the most comprehensive study on performance arts and one of the most influential.





Dace, Wallace (1963) “The Concept of “Rasa” in Sanskrit Dramatic Theory.” Educational Theatre Journal 15, no. 3: 249-54. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.2307/3204783.


Delmonico, Elizabeth Otten (2000) “Rasa in Arun Kolatkr’s “Jejuri”: An Application of Classical Indian Aesthetics.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 83, no. 3/4: 519-42. Accessed February 3, 2017.


Joshi, Dinkar, and Yogesh Patel (2005) Glimpses of Indian Culture. New Delhi: Start Pubns Pvt Ltd.


Lidke, Jeffrey 2011. “Tabla, spirituality, and the arts” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary Rodrigues, 118-130. London: Routledge, 2011.


McCutchen, Brenda Pugh (2006) Teaching Dance as Art in Education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2001) Approaches to Acting: Past and Present (Continuum Studies in Drama). London: Continuum.


Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2005) Theatre and Consciousness: Explanatory Scope and Future Potential. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books.


Raghavan, V. (1967) “Sanskrit Drama: Theory and Performance.” Comparative Drama 1, no. 1: 36-48. Accessed February 3, 2017.


Rangacharya, Adya (1998) Introduction to Bharata’s Natyasastra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publ.



Related Topics for Further Investigation

Dance in India




Rasa Theory


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by: Kristine Villaluna (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Rasa Theory

Rasa [the academic study is referred to as rasa theory], is an ancient concept of aesthetics discussed in the text, the Natyasastra, which dates to approximately the 4th or 5th century CE (Gnoli XIV). “Sastra” in Hindu philosophy refers to the first text or treatise written on any subject (Scheherazaad 337); the person generally credited for the Natyasastra is the legendary, Bharata Muni (Higgins 44). Many philosophers have contributed ideas to the theories in aesthetics including Dandin, Bhatta Lollata, Sanuka, and Bhatta Nayaka. The ideas of all these philosophers have been passed down through the writings of the philosopher Abhinavagupta (Gnoli XXXV).

Abhinavagupta was born in the latter half of the 10th century in Kashmir (Gnoli XXXV), and he produced two well-known texts. He wrote the Abhinavabharati (commentary on the Natyasastra), and a commentary on the Dhvanyaloka (a text written by 9th century, Anandavardhana) (Gnoli XXXV). The Dhvanyaloka is translated to “Light of Resonance,” which discusses the metaphorical powers of language (Gnoli XXVII). Anandavardhana discusses the difference between everyday language and poetic language; suggesting the worth in poetic words—they lose their meaning when interchanged with other words (Gnoli XXIX). The Sanskrit word, dhvani, synonymous with “resonance” in this context (Gnoli XXIX), is also often referred to as “suggestion” in reference to rasa (Higgins 47). In Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Dhvanyaloka, he suggests that “admitting that a sentence can have several meanings is thus a fallacy.” However, he conveys that poetics is in a different realm where once a person has realized the words, they become an “object of aesthetic experience” and it is unnecessary to apply the regular conditions of understanding everyday language (Gnoli XXVIII).

By looking at earlier philosophers like Bhatta Lollata of the 9th century, we see some contradictions to what Bharata describes about rasa in the Natyasastra. Lollata was most likely a Saivite (worshipper of Siva) mystic, who felt rasa was something experienced by both the character and the actor playing the role (Gnoli XVIII). Using the Ramayana, he describes that the character of Rama first feels the rasa and then subsequently any actor who plays the character of Rama also feels the rasa (Arjunwadkar 83). Lollata described that rasa is a “permanent mental state” (a sthayin) that exists at its most extreme form; used with Determinants, Consequents, and Transitory Mental States (Gnoli XVIII). Following Lollata, the philosopher Sanuka had highly controversial ideas of rasa compared to Abhinavagupta. Sanuka proposed an imitation theory: within a performance, rasa involved an actor emulating a specific mental emotion. He suggested that the audience did not make a distinction amongst the character being played and the actor; therefore, they always remained naïve to this artificiality (Gnoli XIX).

Another very important theorist in the conception of rasa theory is Bhatta Nayaka, who is also Kashmiri, from the 10th century (Gnoli XX). Nayaka is recognized as forming two ideas: bhavakatva and bhojakatva. Bhavakatva is the idea of “generalization” (sadharanikarana) that essentially rids the spectator from the consciousness of their individuality and universalizes the experiences of the character in the play or in spoken poetry (Arjunwadkar 87). The bhojakatva is the experience of the audience savouring the generalized rasa in a mind frame that is entirely separate from the regular cognitive processes and one that leads to pure joy (Arjunwadkar 87). Nayaka describes how certain experiences of everyday life have a way of impacting us that brings us grief and sorrow. However, in the theatre domain the ability to see them in the generalized form allows one to take pleasure in feeling these emotions (Gnoli XXII- XXIII). When Bharata talks about this concept of generalization, he suggests that one experiences a suspension of their ego in the process (Chaudhury 149). Nayaka suggests that a rasa is a “fruition” (bhoga), where one evades their consciousness and enters the realm of pure bliss that is associated with Brahman (Gnoli XXIV). Nayaka makes the correlation between religious schools of thought and rasa, suggesting they both come from the same foundation: a person can be released from their thoughts of everyday life (Gnoli XXVI). It is noted, by Abhinavagupta, that rasa is something that exists only in the world of drama, while the permanent emotions (sthayins) occur in real life. These emotional states exist instinctually, but become the experience of rasa once the permanent emotion undergoes a transformation into the universalized form separate from oneself or their counterparts (Arjunwadkar 90).

The Natyasastra is a detailed text that examines the workings of theatre, and discusses how different mental states translate into the artistic plane (Gnoli XIV). From the text, rasa arises, which literally means “taste” (Chaudhury 147) which develops into an idea of how an audience experiences these dramatic works.  The Natyasastra can be compared to Western concepts of aesthetics by comparing it to the work of Aristotle in his text, Poetics (Higgins 44). Both have a focus on action: Aristotle is concerned with the actions of the character in the play, whereas Bharata is concerned with the actions of the person who is playing the character. Bharata focuses on gestures and body movements that align with one of the four religious goals in Hinduism, dharma (Higgins 44). Both Aristotle and Bharata focus on the unity of the audience and actor, but Aristotle discusses the unity in connection to the plot line, while Bharata confers over a unity with establishing an emotion in the audience (Higgins 44).

The discussion of rasa is complex, in that many other terms are used to explain it. There are eight emotional states called bhavas or sthayibhavas, these states exist instinctually in every person either from experience or “inherited instincts” (Gnoli XVI).  Sthayibhavas are more fundamental emotions of a piece, as opposed to bhavas that can be viewed as a general way to describe emotions within aesthetics (Rangacharya 55 as cited in Scheherazaad 338). The eight bhavas are as follows: “Delight (rati), Laughter (hasa), Sorrow (soka), Anger (krodha), Heroism (utsaha), Fear (bhaya), Disgust (jugupsa), and Wonder (vismaya)” (Gnoli XV). Bharata acknowledges that there are many other emotional states that exist in association with these permanent ones; he suggests thirty-six impermanent states (Gnoli XVI). Paired up with these bhavas or sthayibhavas are the eight rasas, that are not experienced in real life but are exposed by an actor or a poet (Gnoli XVI). The rasas are as follows: “the Erotic (srngara), the Comic (hasya), the Pathetic (karuna), the Furious (raudra), the Heroic (vira), the Terrible (bhayanaka), the Odious (bibhatsa), and the Marvellous[sic] (adbhuta)” (Gnoli XVI). A ninth rasa, the Quietistic (santa) and paired bhava, Serenity (sama), were later added to the list, not without some controversy amongst other thinkers though (Gnoli XVI).  Once an actor has experienced an emotion, their goal is to facilitate the translation of this bhava into a rasa, through their performance.

When a dramatist portrays these rasas on the stage and not in real life they are categorized in three ways, which are essentially sub-emotions used during the performance: vibhava, anubhava, and vyabicaribhava. Vibhavas or “Determinants”, are the actual contextual causes for the emotion, these stimuli can be an object or a situation (Higgins 45). The anubhavas, meaning the “Consequents,” are any of the ways the character represents these states through gesture and action, or involuntary bodily functions, like sweating (Higgins 45). Finally, the vyabicaribhava, translated to “Transitory Mental States,” are fleeting emotional states that lead to an underlying atmosphere in the play (Higgins 45). The suitable combination of these sub-emotions within the play leads to rasa (Scheherazaad 338). When these rasas appear onstage, the audience (rasikas) (see Arjunwadkar 81) have an experience of enjoyment. Bharata uses a metaphor to compare people who can appreciate and savour the many spices and ingredients of a dish to the process of people experiencing rasa. He likens this savouring of the dish to an actor depicting the various bhavas with use of their body movements, variation in voice, spontaneous reactions, and the achievement of pleasure (Higgins 46).  In the Natyasastra, Bharata does make a point to distinguish a long list of stipulations for which type of spectators can experience rasa. Amongst the list, there is a high importance on class and status, and a well-versed knowledge of cultural and artistic practices, with an ability to analyze (Higgins 46). Along with these requirements, many who have interpreted Bharata’s work say that it is crucial for the rasika to have a high empathetic capability to experience the rasas (Higgins 47). He reiterates that rasa occurs cognitively as “a perception without obstacles and consisting in a relish” (Gnoli 62).

Within the text of the Natyasastra, Bharata gives ways an actor will go about this entire process, by listing the various phases that accompany a certain rasa. He uses the example of the ways a woman on stage, through erotic love, produces insanity: “one should sometime[sic] look with a steadfast gaze, sometimes heave a deep sigh, sometimes be absorbed with oneself and sometimes weep at the [usual] time for recreation” (N.S., XXVII.50-58 523 as cited in Higgins 47). Abhinavagupta, in concurrence with Anandavardhana, emphasizes the importance of the use of dhvani or “suggestion” for communicating rasa through emotional meaning (Higgins 47). He also describes how a spectator will have remnants in their memories of emotions that will allow them to experience the rasa, using the example (Higgins 48) of a grandparent’s ability to remember their own childhood, allowing them to be empathetic with their grandchild’s emotional experiences. This idea, touched on previously, is the idea of generalization that facilitates rasa. The ninth rasa added later in history, as Abhinavagupta and some others may agree with, is the suggested end goal for the other eight rasas. Abhinavagupta advocates that the experience of tranquility is equivalent with moksa. This religious idea can be traced back to his Saivite roots, with the concept of “seeing one’s individual consciousness as a play of the universal consciousness” (Higgins 50). This discussion around the ninth rasa led to some debate on which sthayibhava would correspond with it; Abhinavagupta said “Knowledge of the Self” would be the associated sthayibhava. However, Abhinavagupta was careful to make the distinction that moksa is a constant experience while santarasa is an aesthetic expression that ends when the performance does (Higgins 50). Other scholars, Susan L. Schwartz for example, have considered that to fully understand rasa, one must be aware of the religious context of Indian classical art forms, as the spiritual aspect exists in all of them (Scheherazaad 341).

Rasa exists in many art sectors of Indian classical traditions, including dance. Those in the classical dance world, Aziz Esmail for instance, have attested that spirituality is embodied in the culture that lends itself to the production of rasa in dance and those who experience it; ritual practice is built into every step of the dance-making process (Scheherazaad 342). The training and practice involved with Indian classical dance, Odissi abhinaya dance for example, is very complex and in depth. The dancer must learn the philosophical literature of the poems, along with physical mastery over their body to be able to convey story, energy, and meaning appropriately (Scheherazaad 344). The demonstration of rasa within the performance realm in India has experienced a shift. Some scholars make an argument using modern Bollywood dance as an example to suggest that globalization throughout the years has led to a shift from a commonly displayed sringara (rasa of erotic desire) to a focus on material consumption (Chakravorty 223).  Rasa theory is about the union of the audience with the actor on stage; through this traditional interaction, a relationship between the two parties was meant to form with emotions being shared. With this occurring change, new films and dances are being cycled through media platforms for purpose of commodity, and “repeat value” (Chakravorty 218). It has been suggested that not all, but many, dance studios within urban centres in India have a detached sense of embodiment as the industry becomes more commercialized; the bodies are no longer rooted in a cultural artistic form but only represent the newly expressed commodity focused society (Chakravorty 222).



Arjunwadkar, K. S. (1984) “The Rasa Theory and The Darsanas.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 65 no.1: 81-100. Accessed February 5, 2017.

Chakravorty, Pallabi (2009) “Moved to Dance: Remix, Rasa, and a New India.” Visual Anthropology 22 no.2-3: 211-28. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi: 10.1080/08949460902748113.

Chaudhury, Pravas J. (1952) “The Theory of Rasa.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 11 no. 2: 147-50. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.2307/426040.

Scheherazaad, Cooper (2013) “The Alchemy of Rasa in the Performer-Spectator Interaction.” NTQ – New Theatre Quarterly 29 no. 4: 336-48. Accessed February 3, 2017.

Gnoli, Raniero (1985) The Aesthetic Experience According to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Higgins, Kathleen M. (2007) “An Alchemy of Emotion: Rasa and Aesthetic Breakthroughs.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 no.1: 43-54. Accessed February 3, 2017.




Dace, Wallace (1963) “The Concept of ‘Rasa’ in Sanskrit Dramatic Theory.” Educational Theatre Journal 115 no.2: 249-54. Accessed February 5, 2017.

Patankar, R. B. (1980) “Does the ‘Rasa’ Theory Have Any Modern Relevance?” Philosophy East and West 30 no.3: 293-303. Accessed February 26, 2017. doi:10.2307/1399189.

Sundararajan, Louise (2010) “Two Flavors of Aesthetic Tasting: Rasa and Savoring A Cross-Cultural Study with Implications for Psychology of Emotion.” Review of General Psychology 14 no. 1: 22-30. Accessed February 26, 2017. doi:10.1037/a0018122.

Sundaram, Dheepa (2014) “Aesthetics as Resistance: Rasa, Dhvani, and Empire in Tamil ‘Protest’ Theater.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. [need an Interlibrary Loan Request]

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2007) “Metaphor, Rasa, and Dhvani: Suggested Meaning in Tantric Esotericism.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 19 no. 1-2:134-62. Accessed February 23, 2017. doi:10.1163/157006807X224404.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Bhatta Lollata


Bhatta Nayaka

Bharata Natyam (classical Indian dance)



Odissi (classical Indian dance)

Bharata Muni

Dhvani (Vyanjana)


Related Websites to Rasa Theory


This article was written by: Sydney Murdoch (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Art of Odissi Dance

The ancient art of odissi dancing finds its origins in the eastern state of Orissa on the Indian subcontinent. Commonly called orissi, the intricate dances are performed at many religious Hindu ceremonies and milestones in life (see Anne-Marie Gatson 81-82). It is thought that this art form has dated back to antiquity based on the findings of carved reliefs in caves throughout the foothills of Udaygiri in the province of Orissa (see Kyriakidis 155). Although typically performed by a devadasi (a servant or “wife” of a deity) there emerged three separate sectors of the dance, one of which included young men: mahari (nachuni) the temple dancers, nartaki (bahar gauni) the dancers of the royal court, and gotipua the acrobatic dance where young men portray the role of women (see Vankataraman 69). Mahari dancers, also known as the devadasi, are the temple dancers.

Odissi is a dance founded around a Vaishnavite frame of mind, so typically one would worship Lord Visnu or one of his reincarnations or the Lord Jagannath [Lord of the Universe] (see Anne-Marie Gatson 80-81). If one is to be considered a devadasi they are initiated into the lifestyle with the tying of a strip of cloth from the Jagannath idol around their head. From this point on they are considered to be a wife of the Lord; they are not to indulge in home cooked food and are forbidden to look at an audience while performing because of the sakta and tantric approach portrayed within the dance. A devadasi represented ultimate sakti and procreation (see Venkataraman 68). The nartaki style of the dance is usually performed as a theatre dance or outside of the temple for various festivals and celebrations usually pertaining to the Lord Visnu or Krsna. Gotipua is the style in which young men dress as women to portray roles of a story, usually centered around Krsna. An important characteristic of this style is the acrobatics incorporated into the piece along with the traditional musical score and steps [soon altered by Guru Debaprasad Das, who changed the melody of the song into a poetic meter making it easier for men to follow (see Venkataraman 75)] (see Venkataraman 69).

Holding a strong sense of cultural pride this stylistic art held as a strong tradition throughout Orissa up until the 17th century when invasions from various Mughal emperors as well as the British imperialistic movement into India, caused the art form to deteriorate into almost complete disuse (see Venkataraman 69) female dancers were now considered little more than courtly mistresses to the British generals and army men. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the art of odissi finally began to flourish once again into a strong revival thanks Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta, and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra in the early 1940s (see Venkataraman 69). Its blossoming and acceptance into everyday Orissa culture was a slow process but by the 1960’s, after the finalization of the fundamental aspects of the dance, it was a strong part of everyday activity for many young men and women drawn to the use of traditional song and dance (see Venkataraman 69-70).

Usually beginning with a floral offering to Lord Jagannath, as well as either Bhumidevi [Krsna’s mother] or Visnu, the performance follows a very strict movement vocabulary and rhythmic syllable format (see Venkataraman 70). The purpose of this dance is to usually portray a story, many based around the life of Krsna and Radha, so the pallavi [thematic line of a song: “pa” coming from the sanskrit word padam meaning word or phrase, “lla” coming from layam meaning poetry or rhythm, and “vi” vinyasam meaning imagination (Subishka Subramani] is vital to the dance. Melodies of verses for the devadisi to perform to are usually sang by four men who read from the Gita Govind [written by the great poet Jayadeva, whom is said to be the husband of princess Rajasundari, who within her dowry was accompanied by dancers and musicians which were the foundation of the temple ritual we know as odissi today (see Venkataraman 64:50], a book which portrays the events of Lord Krsna and more notably his relationship with a particular gopi named Radha, his lover (see Rodrigues 80-81). Mentioned earlier as first being discovered in ancient reliefs throughout Orissa, the dancers have been described as portraying such stances throughout their dance as though they were preparing to be placed upon the walls; for many Indians these stances reflect pure femininity and womanhood (see Rodrigues 80; Venkataraman 67). One of the most characteristic stances of odissi is the tribhanga posture which separates the body into three sections: the head, torso, and lower half of the body [note that there are no sharp hip movements, but rather torso isolations that give the perception of hip work (see Venkataraman 69)]. Another integral aspect of the stances throughout the dance is the use of mudras, commonly seen as only hand gestures, which each stand for or symbolise a certain aspect of life or object that one might use, such as Krsna and his flute. Mudra literally means “stamp” or “seal” as to bring together and finish a certain step and complete the story which is being portrayed, even the tribhanga could be considered a mudra seeing as they can involve the whole body or just separate aspects such as the hands, feet, or eyes (see Venkataraman 60-80, margin notes).

Throughout its initial presence in history and its revitalization the tradition of odissi dancing has been influenced or altered due to other aspects of Hindustani music and classical dance, as well as some influences from Buddhist traditions such as chanting within the music and some postures which are taken throughout a scene (see Venkataraman 64). Although the odissi dance we have come to know today is but a revitalization attempt, and not the original art form it was centuries ago, many natives to the state of Orissa are quite picky and staunch as to how far they believe one can alter the way odissi is performed. The most accepted and practiced version of the dance is the style that was created by Guru Pankajcharan which is famous for the delicacy and liberated approach to women although it was Guru Kelucharan and Guru Bhubaneswar who set the framework for the styles to build upon (see Vankataraman 69-70). Although originating in India, this dance has not stayed within its borders, Guru Debaprasad Das is known for putting odissi dancing on the international map, as well as for altering some aspects such as the tempo and speed of the music, gaining some inspiration from tribal and non-classical Orissan art and groups, as well as adding a strong gotipua aspect (see Venkataraman 75) which has inevitably allowed a love and large student body for the dance to develop in the modern century.

Although odissi dancing is thought for many to be nothing but a national identity or temple practice, many of those who perform the ancient dance have noted that it is more than just a tradition used for temple worshiping; it is more than just a dance for an audience and a god, but it brings stories to life, is the expression of ultimate and fulfilling devotion, as well as an act which brings Indian philosophy to life and liberation of the spirit (see Anne-Marie Gatson 82).



Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Kyriakidis, Evangelos (2007) The Archaeology of Ritual. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute Publications.

Venkartaraman, Leela (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in Transition. New Delhi: Lustre Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Temple Rituals

Temple Dances




Gita Govind

Classical Indian Dance

Orissan Culture

Revival and Reinvention of Classical Dance

Hindu Rituals




Mohini Attam




Anti-Nautch Campaigns


Class/Caste Structure in Hindu Societies

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Shelby Zuback (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindustani Classical Music and Spirituality

Music is an integral part of Hinduism as it reflects the sruti of the gods while acting as a conduit for worshipers to engage with for spiritual growth. Hymns performed in this style have strong roots in the Vedas and Hindu mythology. The core components of raga, tala and swar strive for a balance of the song in a similar manner to the concept of dharma. Northern India’s Hindustani genre has evolved over time since its origins in the Vedas, it has remained a fundamental part of Hindu society throughout Perisan, Arabic and British influences. This music has capitalized on the new technology of film and audio recording to spread not only more thoroughly in India, but globally.

Classical Hindustani music represents traditional Vedic texts where songs and verses have been passed down in written and oral form for centuries and are still used today for worship. The four Vedas consisting of the Rg Veda, Artharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda are all used as sources for songs and hymns. The Rg Veda contains the hymns to the deities, the Artharva Veda has the incantations, the Sama Veda includes the words spoken in the hymns and the Yujur Veda includes a guide to sacrifices. The Sama Veda is among the most central texts for converting the divine words of the gods to human beings as it contains many songs of worship. The hymns are a vessel for revealing the origins of all creation as shown through sruti (Johnson 55-6). The concept of sruti reflects the idea that works of the Vedas originate from divine sources, this opposes smrti which is a term for religious texts that originate from mortals. There are two genres of music that are spread throughout India, Hindustani Classical in the North and Carnatic in the South. Hindustani Classical music is an oral portrayal of the Vedas which was most likely brought into India with the Aryan people. This hymn-based style evolved into a new form of music which has been influenced by Persian and Arabic cultures; it was embodied in the sub-genre called Qawwali which is a popular form of worship music for the Sufi tradition (Gafoor 2). Many other forms of music have branched off from this including Khyal which includes similar ragas to Hindustani Music. North Indian music has roots in the Vedas but has since been influenced by other cultures, however the essence of spirituality through the Vedas remains.

There are many elements to North Indian music including tala, raga, thaat, swar and gharana. A raga is a mode in music which Hindustani music incorporates not only a melodic scale but also as a colour and emotional state. While there are many ragas there are six main modes which can be split into 126 raginis or wives and putras or sons. Each raga is correlated to a certain time of day, season or to a specific deity and should be played when its requirements are met (Saxena 442). These six main ragas are the hindole, deepaka, bhairava, sri, malkounsa and megha. The hindole raga is meant to be played in spring or dawn and represents love of all things. The deepaka raga is meant to be played during the summer or the evening and represents compassion. The bhairava raga is for autumn or the morning and represents courage. The sri raga is for autumn or twilight and represents love between two people and deep emotions (Leante 189). The malkounsa raga is for winter or midnight and represents valour. The megha raga is meant for the afternoon or a rainy day and represents courage (Ramakrishna 114). The tala is a succession of beats which remains consistent throughout the song, it allows the musicians to improvise while still remaining within the bounds of the raga. The individual components of Hindustani music follow within the margins of dharma showing a balance of karma. One of the most notable parts of a hymn is the swar or voice that is a human’s natural instrument which can be used with great effect to convey tone, inflection and mood. Hindustani Classical music employs the vocals of a singer much like that of Western music in that there are seven notes in an octave and seven swars in an octave. Western notes are known as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti and do while Hindustani swars are shadaj, rishabh, gandhar, madhyama, pancham, dhaivat and nishad or written as sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni (Sharma 7). It is important to be mindful of these swar when composing a raga because as Lalita Ramakrishna states “swara is that which is revealed after the penultimate sruti, that which is smoothly pleasant, that which has resonance, that which by itself delights the listeners” (Ramakrishna 32).

In Hindu belief, the first musicians were divine in nature consisting of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Visnu and Siva who were known as the creator, the preserver and the destroyer respectively (Jagdish 832). Brahma used cymbals, Vishnu played a drum and Siva was the dancer. Krsna is the human form of Visnu and is often depicted playing a flute and Saraswati who is the companion of Brahma is shown playing a vina instrument (Ramakrishna 211). As music is represented in not only the Hindu Trinity but also lesser gods and goddesses it is sensible that Hindustani music has flourished as a form of spirituality. To worship the gods using their instruments and singing hymns of their words can be seen as a pinnacle form of devotion. Johnson describes Vedic hymns as revered to the extent that the word Om (or Aum) is a gayatri or mantra itself. He argues that Om is the “holiest hymn in the Veda” (Johnson 57). This mantra can be seen as the essence of all words and therefore all songs and hymns which reflects the absolute reality and are depicted through it. The medium of song is a useful tool for worship; written words are static and non changing, oral works can be dynamic and reflective of new and changing ideas (Ramakrishna 17). This allows an individual to stay within their belief system and yet display their own uniqueness. Laura Leante gives evidence to this idea when she writes “different meanings are attributed by individual listeners while at the same time, at a deeper level, all of these meanings are grounded in the embodiment of the music” (Leante 188). A comparison can be drawn to the phrasing of music under a raga with the musician improvising yet remaining within the bounds of the tala. This ability to add a distinct inimitability to a song makes Hindustani music a spiritual action as the musician or listener are participating in a dynamic sense.

Hindustani music has gone through a few changes since its conception centering around the hymns of the Vedas to the merging of Persian and Arabic cultures. It was transmitted throughout the population within a gharana, which is a term applied to a family or lineage of musicians. A long-established gharana family would pass down their musical traditions from the elderly to the young and by doing so create a reputation of rich music that could garnish royal patronage (Sharma 24-25). A Gharana would focus on one form of raga or tala, perfecting them to the extent that the listener could identify the family just by the music played. This system was not to last as the British laid claim to India in the 18th century and many ways of life were altered including the gharana system (Beck 28). In its place evolved a one on one guru-shishya system. Modern Hindustani music has once again changed with the Western interest of the hippie movement in the 1960’s. This is best exemplified by the integration of the popular Rock group The Beatles and traditional Hindustani musician Ravi Shankar. Quandros and Dorstewitz summarize this merging of two cultures into a new genre for mass audience consumption in this quote: “Music can thus act as a symbol for the spontaneous creation of a community through participation in a shared practice” (Quandros 65). This modern form of music has capitalized on new technology allowing Indian music not only to reach Indian royalty but the common Indian as well; it has also expanded its influence globally reaching Europe and North America. While Bollywood is in Southern India it has still been influenced by Northern Hindustani music; this vast film production hub has far reaching influences in the East which has spread Indian music across many countries.

Hindustani music draws on the inspiration of the Vedas and the Hindu Trinity’s musical representation to engage and entertain the worshiper. It continues to develop from its inception to modern times altering with the advancement of new technologies and cultural influences but at its root it still remains a balance of raga, tala and swar for spiritual growth and personal immersion in Hinduism.



Beck, Guy L (2007) “Hindu music, now and into the future.” Hinduism Today, vol. 29, no. 4: 28-31. Hinduism Today: Himalayan Academy.

Gafoor, S (2012) “Sufi Sama/ Music/ Qawwali.” Indian Streams Research, vol. 2, no. 9: 1-5.

Jagdish, Chavda (2010) An Iconology of Shiva and Vishnu Images at Kailasanatha Mandir, Ellora, Maharastra, India. Scarborough: National Association of African American Studies & Affiliates.

Johnson, Kurt A (2011) “‘Lisping Tongues’ and ‘Sanscrit Songs’: William Jones’ Hymns to Hindu Deities.” Translation and Literature, vol. 20, no. 1: 48-60.

Leante, Laura (2009) The Lotus and the King: Imagery, gesture and Meaning in Hindustani Rag, p. 285-206. Ethnomusicology Forum: Taylor & Francis.

Quadros, A., & Dorstewitz, P (2011) “Community, communication, social change: Music in dispossessed Indian communities.” International Journal of Community Music vol. 4, no. 1: 59-70.

Ramakrishna, Lalita (2003) Musical heritage of India. New Delhi: Shubhi Publication.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2003) Spirituality and the Music of India. New Delhi: The CrossRoad Publishing Company.

Sharma, Manorma (2006) Tradition of Hindustani Music. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.


Related Readings

Jauhari, Shruti (2011) Elements of Hindustani classical music. New Delhi: DK Printworld.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar (2009) Hindustani music and aesthetics today: a selective study. New Delhi: Hope India Publications.

Swarup, Rai Bahadur Bishan (2008) Theory of Indian music. Varanasi: Pilgrims Publishing.


Related Topics

Hymns of the Sama Veda

Khyal and Qawwali


South India’s Carnatic music


Related Websites


Article written by Scott Pewar who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kutiyattam/Koodiyattam Sacred Dance Tradition

The Kutiyattam/Koodiyattam Sacred Dance Tradition

Kutiyattam is a sacred dance tradition practiced in Hindu temples in India, specifically in the Kerala region, and it is the oldest living theatre tradition as it is believed to be over two thousand years old (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). “In 2001, Koodiyattam was officially recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). The performance of this tradition includes elaborate costuming and make-up, chanting, exaggerated facial expressions, and hand gestures. Kutiyattam is not only a mixture of the sacred and the traditional, but also of improvisations from the actors during the performances, which can last up to several days or even weeks (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia). The lengthiness of these performances led to Kutiyattam no longer being performed as a whole in the modern world; instead it is split up into multiple acts, which are taken as separate entities in and of themselves (Pfaff 135). “A Kutiyattam performance can be separated into four parts: pre-play activities (purvaranga), descriptions of the past in flashbacks (nirvahanam), the performance and elaboration of the text itself, and the final rituals (mutiyakitta). Each of these parts also consists of several different sequences” (Pfaff 135).

In the performance of Kutiyattam, everything has meaning; nothing is done on a whim or without intention. Therefore, it makes sense that even the construction of the kuttambalam, sacred theatres on the grounds of Hindu temples in Kerala where the Kutiyattam is performed, would have spiritual significance. The assembly of a kuttambalam is linked to the concept of vastupurusamandala, which is a combination of three words: vastu, Purusa, and mandala (see Richmond 52). Vastu is a concept associated with the boundaries of existence and, in this case, relates to the boundaries of the temple and the kuttambalam as representations of the “Divine Cosmic Essence (Purusa)” (Richmond 52). With Purusa being the sacrificial god, the building of a temple and a kuttambalam, as well as the performance of Kutiyattam are seen as sacrifices. “The mandala is a ritual diagram or plan which guides the form or existence of a sacred place. [It] is not an architect’s blueprint […] it is the space which reflects the Hindu world view and conception of the universe” (Richmond 52-53). Furthermore, Hindu concepts of time are also represented in the construction of a kuttambalam: layers making up the altar correspond to the number of seasons and the number of bricks used correspond to the number of days in a year, for example (Richmond 53). This careful and meaningful construction of the temples and the kuttambalam display the spirituality inherent in the tradition of the Kutiyattam.

Further demonstration of the meaning and spirituality intrinsic to all aspects of Kutiyattam is the rite an actor goes through in order to transcend this world, as they are believed to do, and successfully enter into the sacred world of Kutiyattam and the way in which actors are said to lose themselves in the roles of their characters. The importance of the actor in Kutiyattam performances is paramount, though not all scholars agree as to whether or not the actors fully lose themselves in their roles. In the opinion of some scholars, such as Mundoli Narayanan, the actor never truly loses himself in the role and it is never forgotten that he is indeed simply an actor playing a role (Narayanan 140). Performing Kutiyattam is said to be akin to entering a sacred space and therefore, all of the rules regarding ritual pollution and purity apply. The rite an actor undergoes is believed to protect both him and the sacred space from pollution. Moreover, in the opinion of some scholars, when the actor completes the rite, he is believed to be preparing himself for transcendence in being as well. In other words, it is believed that he loses his own personality and prepares to immerse himself in the personality of his character (Richmond 55). The process of an actor losing oneself so fully in a role is especially apparent in the trance dancing in West Java. In these performances, it is believed that not only do the actors lose themselves in their roles, but it goes beyond that to the belief that the actors lose themselves in an altered state of existence whereupon they become the hosts for another being (Foley 28). In this state, the belief is that the actor does not merely become someone else temporarily, but is literally replaced by someone or something else for the interim of the performance.

The performance of Kutiyattam is imbued with meaning and is taken seriously because it is serious and it is important. Kutiyattam is spiritual, sacred and has strong ties to religion and ideals of sacrifice. The actors are meant to be representing cosmic beings and mythical characters, so they wear elaborate costumes and intricately detailed make-up. They do not look like normal, everyday Indians because they are not supposed to be normal, everyday Indians (Richmond 56). The performance of Kutiyattam has preserved traditions and belief structures from over two thousand years ago as outlined in the Natyasastra (Sullivan 98). The performances are not merely for entertainment, they are seen as sacrifices, devotional offerings, et cetera. An example of the traditions preserved by Kutiyattam can be found in the rituals that take place prior to a performance, which serve to “consecrate the stage, making it pure and auspicious for the performance to follow, much as a sacrificial site or temple would be consecrated before being used” (Sullivan 99). This consecration is important because, as previously stated, the kuttambalam and the Kutiyattam are both seen as sacred spaces and as such, they must be protected from ritual pollution.

The religious aspects of Kutiyattam are apparent to some scholars such as Bruce M. Sullivan in that they are “very much in the Vaisnava tradition; they invoke Visnu in the prologue and closing benediction and feature praise of Visnu, Krsna and/or Rama,” though Kutiyattam is not exclusively performed in Visnu temples. Ergo, one deity may be venerated in a temple devoted to another deity (Sullivan 100). The religious facets of Kutiyattam are believed to be further exhibited by the audiences that typically attend the performances, which are generally made up of Brahmins, royalty, temple servants, or other devout Hindus. Furthermore, Kutiyattam is most often performed in relation to religious festivals (Sullivan 100). In the opinion of some scholars, Kutiyattam is meant to be entertaining as well as providing a religious experience that is pleasing both to the audience and to the deities, which are also believed to be in attendance. This overall experience is defined in the contested theory of rasa, wherein the audience is said to become active participants in the religious aspects of Kutiyattam and not merely passive observers (Sullivan 101). Not all scholars agree about the importance of rasa; some, such as Mundoli Narayanan, argue that this theory was developed long after the establishment of Kutiyattam itself and therefore was not an original intention in the creation and performance of Kutiyattam (Narayanan 140).

The theorized religious experience is thought to be even more intense for the actors in Kutiyattam performances because, as previously stated, the actors are believed–by some–to be transcending to a higher plane where they are portraying Gods or those that are God-like. “Master performer Ammannur Madhava Cakyar described his acting as a sacred religious duty (dharma), comparable to doing yoga or saying a prayer” [in an interview with Bruce Sullivan (1992); quoted Sullivan 103].

Some important features of Kutiyattam besides the characteristics of rasa are features which come from outside of the text such as the implementations of nirvahanam, the language of gesture, and the repetition of lines. Nirvahanam is the background of a character as created and demonstrated by the actor, which reveals a character’s history and motivation and which, in and of itself, may take several days to complete (Sullivan 105). This language of gesture element pertains to elaborate hand movements and exaggerated eye and facial movements that the actor utilizes during the performance. These gestures and movements all have specific meanings and are meant to elaborate on the text and, in the opinion of some scholars, aid in the development of rasa (Sullivan 106). The repetition of lines is a feature seen as being employed in order to promote understanding, as Kutiyattam is performed in either “Sanskrit or a dialect of Prakrit” and only a scholarly few speak these languages, and to cultivate an appreciation of the poetry and emotions that are involved (Sullivan 107). Each line is repeated three times in order to accomplish this goal.

In order to make Kutiyattam more accessible to the masses and keep the tradition alive by increasing its popularity, in the recent past and in the modern world today, there is a revolution occurring within the practice of Kutiyattam, though some argue whether this is indeed necessary (Sullivan 107). One change that is argued to be important in making Kutiyattam more accessible is the endeavour to shorten the performances by, for example, removing the repetition and “extensive pantomime” (Sullivan 107). Moreover, in some incarnations, the actors or producers are removing the nirvahanam altogether as they see it as unnecessary [G. Venu in his production of Sakuntala as referenced by DuComb 101].

Kutiyattam was originally performed exclusively by men of the Cakyar caste and women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste and, until the 1950s, these performances were confined to the kuttambalam. However, in 1955, Kutiyattam master Mani Madhava Cakyar began to perform outside of these temples because he was concerned about the preservation of the tradition. Mani Madhava Cakyar’s troupe performed all over India and Kutiyattam began to grow in popularity as Mani Madhava Cakyar made changes such as performing in the more widely-spoken Malayalam language, as opposed to Sanskrit, and not only performing plays based on the Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, but performing secular plays as well. The “classical art form” of Kathakali, which emphasizes music and dance over precise and practiced acting, grew out of this revolutionized Kutiyattam (“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia).

References and Further Recommended Reading

DuComb, Christian (2007) “Present-Day Kutiyattam: G. Venu’s Radical and Reactionary Sanskrit Theatre.TDR: The Drama Review 51:3 (T195) Fall 2007. ©2007 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Foley, Kathy (1985) “The Dancer and the Danced: Trance Dance and Theatrical Performance in West.Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 28-49: University of Hawai’i Press.

“Koodiyattam.” New World Encyclopedia. 12 Jul 2008, 13:38 UTC. 9 March 2012, 17:38 <>.

Narayanan, Mundoli (2006) “Over-Ritualization of Performance: Western Discourses on Kutiyattam.” TDR: The Drama Review (1988-), Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 136-153: The MIT Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Pfaff, Walter (1997) “The Ant and the Stone: Learning Kutiyattam.” TDR: The Drama Review (1988-), Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 133-162: The MIT Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Richmond, Farley and Yasmin Richmond (1985) “The Multiple Dimensions of Time and Space in Kūṭiyāṭṭam, the Sanskrit Theatre of Kerala.Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 50-60: University of Hawai’i Press. University of Hawai’i Press.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) “Temple Rites and Temple Servants: Religion’s Role in the Survival of Kerala’s Kūṭiyāṭṭam Drama Tradition.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Apr., 1997), pp. 97-115: Springer. University of Hawai’i Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Trance dancing in West Java

Cakyar caste

Nambiar caste


The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

Mani Madhava Cakyar












Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Belinda Dunford (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Odissi Dance



Odissi is a solo form of Indian dance that combines music, song, and its specific style, which includes mudra (hand gestures) and pantomimic movement to convey complex stories of love, personal sacrifice, and humanity’s relationship with the various gods (Jenkins and Watson 67). This dance form has not had a smooth or unchanging history for the last 2200 years, and much of its development has been either sketchy or unknown (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). After going through pressures, and a reconstruction in the 1940s/1950s, Odissi has undergone a restoration which makes it what it is today (Lopez 155).

The first piece of evidence for dance in India was found in rock-cut caves of Udayagiri near Bhubaneswar, where there is an edict of the Jain emperor Kharavela. He refers to himself as Gandharva-Veda-Buddha, who is an expert in dance, drama and music (Venkataram 62). Apart from these caves, there is also extensive evidence of Indian dance in temples that hold sculptures and carvings that depict figures dancing [for more on India’s early dance history, refer to Venkataram (2002)]. One of the oldest forms of Indian dance, Odissi has archeological evidence that traces its origins back to ancient times. This dance style dates back to the first century BC, with it being first seen in the rock-cut caves of Udayagiri as well (Lopez 155). What is specific to this style of dance though, is that its origins begin in Orissa, an Indian state that lies on the East coast, along the Bay of Bengal.

Manuscripts pertaining to the rituals of Lord Jagannath are the first record of dance in Orissa, where the dance was performed at his world famous temple in Puri. At this temple, the dance was performed extensively as on ongoing ritual by devadasis, or female temple dancers, who performed the dance for the pleasure of the Lord. Dancing as a ritual for Lord Jagannath is mentioned in the Agni Purana, Vishnu Purana, and Srimad Bhagavatam, which suggests that dancing as a daily ritual (seva) for the Lord is been indispensible and very important for centuries (Lopez 156). Lord Jagannath is an Oriyan manifestation of Krsna, whose great wooden murti or image resides at his temple in Puri, where the devadasis (literally, “servants of God”) sang and dance for him (Schechner 1041).

The devadasis that performed these rituals were also known as Maharis (the devadasis were the equivalent of the Maharis in the South), who were maidens of the gods, and in this case, married to Lord Jagannath, who was the presiding deity in the temple. After they were ritually married to the god, they thereafter served as wife and handmaiden to the deity, and danced in ritual worships and ceremonies (Sehgal 863). These women were initiated into the temple community with a piece of cloth (from the Jagannath idol) being tied around their head, which identified them as being married to the Lord, and thereafter they could no longer eat home-cooked food (Venkataram 68). Because these women were wed to the god, they were held in high respect, due to them being characterized by the deity’s divinity. Those that were chosen to be Maharis were only those women that were seen as extraordinarily talented and beautiful. The institution in which these women participated was highly evolved and sanctioned by society, as they were seen as the epitome of female beauty and grace (Sehgal 863-864).

With the passage of time, there were soon intermittent attacks by rulers on these rituals that were performed by the Maharis, which disrupted the temple ritual. By the mid-eighteenth century, under the rule of Maratha, the temple dancer had become associated with concubinage (Venkataram 69). In 1947 in Southern India, devadasis were banned from the temples, because they were perceived to be associated with prostitution. In Puri, the Maharis continued to perform their seva (service) in the temple until the 1960s, because the same stigma was eventually attached to them as well. The practice of performing the ritual then died of its own accord under enormous political, economic, and social changes in India. There was also the added pressure of the maharis to discontinue their seva (Lopez 167-168).

A way that the maharis temporarily surmounted the pressures (for a short time) and helped with the preservation of their ritual dances was to teach odissi to the young gotipuas (Schechner and Zarrilli 128). Gotipuas were employed in the temples, and worked alongside the Maharis. These were young, handsome boys that dressed in costumes to look like girls so they could sing and dance both in temples and in public ceremonies with the Maharis (Sehgal 865). These boys, through the maharis teaching them the various odissi dances, still possessed and preserved the basic vocabulary of movement and rhythm for Odissi in its new Gotipua manifestation (Venkataram 69).

Odissi is said to embody both the Mahari and the Gotipua forms, but contemporary Odissi had its real beginnings in Orissa Theatres in the crucial period of the 1940s, where the first stirrings of a new dance in Orissa was set in motion. Then, in 1957, in a joint effort between gurus and scholars, an oath was made to collectively rebuild the dance (Venkataram 70). Through this restructuring, Odissi has become the dance form that it is today.

As for its survival in post-colonial India, it hinges on it being deemed a classical dance (which it has). With this “classical” designation, the dance form receives high social and cultural status, which makes it more likely to receive official patronage and the support of state cultural institutions (Coorlawala 270). Since it has received such patronage and support, the dance form has become very popular and acquired a large following in not only all major Indian cities, but around the world (Venataram 78).


Odissi is a combination of Lasya and Tandava styles of classical dance. The dancer quickly changes from one style to the other according to the expressional needs of the number. This dance style is characterized by the stomping of the dancing foot. There is also a bhanga, which involves bending, bowing, or stretching out of the body that reflects the “threebend” shape of Indian sculpture. These bhangas are used to their advantage to show different aspects of the story and the moods, therefore, they are charged with great emotional expression (Sehgal 867-868).

The central posture that Odissi revolves around is the Tribhanga, where the head, torso, and lower half of the body are deflections, with each part bent in opposition to the part above, which creates a three-bend figure. This along with the square half-seated Chauka (which has the feet kept apart and the knees flexed sideways) forms the core stylistic posture. There is also a constant change of levels that is demanded by Odissi, which would look very choppy and odd if shown by ‘unfinished’ performers. A last important feature of this dance form is pirouettes (brahmaris), which are executed both clockwise and counter-clockwise with the dancer maintaining a half-seated position (Venkataram 72).

There is a rigidity that has emerged in the Odissi circle, where original works should stay original, and dancers should not experiment with the dances or change them. This stiffness is probably brought on by fears of losing all the hard work that brought this ancient dance form back to life. Gurus are depending on the future generations to carry this dance forward, so it is not lost again.  But because the dance already had to change once due to pressures from the outside, and seeing what has been accomplished with the dance in the last half a century, there is no doubt that Odissi will change with the times (Venkataram 81).

Current Performers/Dancers

One of the most famous and influential Odissi performers is Sanjukta Panigrahi. She “was born in Orissa into a Brahmin family, and defied the prejudice of her caste as the first girl to pursue Odissi dance as a career.” She began studying at the age of five under her guru, Kelucharan Mahapatra. Sanjukta is considered as one of the rediscoverers of Odissi dance, and was an outstanding exponent of the dance (Varley, 249). She co-founded the International School of Theatre Anthropology in 1979, which holds sessions that showcase many traditional dances from around the world for the entertainment and education of spectators (Varley, 252). Sanjukta passed in June of 1997 after succumbing to cancer. (Varley, 249)

Gargi Banergee is an Indian immigrant who came to Canada with her mother in 1987 after her father had passed from cancer. She learned Orissi from Ratna Roy, who taught in Seattle, at the age of ten. Gargi learned the dance style quickly, and was winning both national and international competitions at fifteen years old. At eighteen, she was a dancer, teacher, and a full-time student at Simon Fraser University. Now, being 32, she is considered as being the one who helped revive Orissi dance and bringing it not only to Vancouver, but also to Canada (Pande, np).


Coorlawala, Uttara (1993) The Classical Traditions of Odissi and Manipuri. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

Jenkins, Ron and Watson, Ian (2002) Odissi and the ISTA dance: an interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi. New York: Manchester University.

Lopez y Royo, Alessandra (2007) The Reinvention of Odissi Classical Dance as a Temple Ritual. Los Angeles: University of California.


Pande, Suniti (1998) Orissi Dance…ancient tradition revived in Vancouver. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, Vol. 32, Issue 1.


Schechner, Richard (1986) Given to Dance (Film Review). Hoboken: Blackwell (on behalf of the American Anthropological Society).

Schechner, Richard and Zarrilli, Phillip (1988) Collaborating on Odissi: An Interview with Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kelucharan Mahapatra, and Raghunath Panigrahi. The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sehgal, Sunil (1999) Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons.

Varley, Julia (1998) Sanjukta Panigrahi: Dancer for the Gods. New Theatre Quarterly 55, Volume 14. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Venkataram, Leela (2002) Indian classical dance : tradition in transition. New Delhi: Lustre.

Related Research Topics


Gotipuas                                                         Lasya                                                  Tandava

Puri                                                                 Lord Jagannath                                 Devadasis



Related Websites

Article written by Sara Crozier (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.