Category Archives: Sacred Dance

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.

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.

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.

The Kathakali Dance

Many traditions in Hinduism include the use of dance as a form storytelling. Bharat Natyam (one of the more popular forms of Indian dance) (Courtney), Kuchipudi (from South-East India, composed of “graceful movements and [a] strong narrative”) (Courtney), and Manipuri (from North-East India, performed on religious occations) (Courtney) are just a few of many dances that are found in India. Kathakali Dance is one such form that conveys a story to its audience through theatrical display.  Kathakali Dance is thought to have originated in the seventeenth century and is defined by Caldwell in Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kali as “an operatic form of ritual theatre in Kerala” (Caldwell 286). The literal translation of the word Kathakali means “Story-Play” and has become a popular form of story-telling in India. As one source tells it, Kathakali came about when the Raja of the time had a dream where the Gods paid a visit and taught him a new type of dramatic dance (Barba 37). Over time the performances of Kathakali have changed slightly from their original form. In the beginning, masks were used on the actors, but later this changed to the use of makeup. The actors originally would carry out the two elements of the performance which was reciting the texts and acting them out. Now the actors take on a mime type role and are solely responsible for the acting portion of the performance and there are two accompanying singers with musicians that are responsible for the verbal telling of the story (Barba 37). It is expressed in one source that the alterations that Kathakali underwent (from the time it came to be, to the form that exists today) stopped its changes with the coming of the eighteenth century and it has remained the same from that time up until now (Barba 37).

The performance of Kathakali usual begins in the evening and lasts long into the night (Caldwell 72). It is themed around the Puranas (group of texts about ancient myths), the Ramayana (epic tales about the Prince Rama) and the Mahabharata (The Great [Story of the] Descendants of Bharata) (Courtney). Kathakali uses a lot of different forms of communication in order to convey the story being told. These forms are seen in costume use, elaborate makeup, music, song, dance and verbal noises that are not in any language but are used to project an emotion. The common themes in Kathakali are the interactions between good and evil gods; they are always an interpretation of grand events that took place with the gods (Barba 38).

The costumes used are very pronounced and designed with the inclusion of bright colours and intricate patterns, where the makeup is very striking with colours that are just as rich as those on the costume. The costumes are thought by some scholars to have a borrowed element from another type of Indian dance called mutiyettu [which, unlike Kathakali, is more of a ritual act involving becoming possessed by the gods (Caldwell 252)] (Caldwell 77). But some scholars also think that mutiyettu borrowed ideas in the ways of makeup from Kathakali (Caldwell 77). Both costumes and makeup are very important elements within Kathakali, they help in inform the audience of which character is which, especially since the actors do not talk.

In order for recognition to take place, colours are given a general designation to a particular character for representation. For instance, green is the colour used on “Satvik characters – gods, heroes, and noble kings.” (Devi 95). A white beard is designated to a higher class monkey being, while a black beard represents “forest hunters” such as Lord Siva (Devi 95). A red beard on a character is the symbol for the main Kathakali demon, and all characters have their face painted in a way that accentuates the facial features (i.e. the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth) so that facial movements that are an important part of the dance are easily viewed (Devi 95).

The roles of women are traditionally played by men. What informs the audience of gender is the use of a smooth non-blemishing base makeup colour (usually white) that helps enhance such feminine characteristics as the eyes, eyebrows and the lips (Devi 87). Another type of female that is portrayed is the demon goddess, who is much more radical, including fangs and protruding wooden breasts (Devi 96). Good and evil is a major factor in Kathakali performances and so it is crucial for the audience to be able to recognize the nature of the characters. Such an example is the meanings behind the colours in makeup used on a characters face, with green usually meaning good, red meaning anger and black meaning evil (Devi 90). The costumes worn also help in determining the type of character being portrayed. The male gods tend to have a wide circumference to the base of their outfits which are quite similar to dresses but do not go down to the floor allowing for the feet to still be seen (Courtney). The female characters tend to have more slimming dresses that reach closer to the floor, and the demon goddess character has a wider dress that looks a lot like the males outfits but involves more black and dark colours to convey the presence of evil (Courtney).

The story is narrated by individuals that do not take part in the acting. The story is told in a language called manipravalam, which is “an artificial courtly literary language combining Malayalam and Sanskrit” (Caldwell 17). The singers are also accompanied by a variety of instruments which largely consist of different percussion instruments. There are four main instruments, three being different styles of drums and the fourth being cymbals (Courtney). The other instruments include a conch shell, gong, and trumpet. (Devi 87) The actors add to the suspense of the story through the use of the beat, adding emphasis for a dramatic scene, and a build up of energy for a climatic rise.

Due to the fact that the actors have no vocal roles in Kathakali, they must convey the story through dance, hand gestures and facial expressions. Certain hand movements or swaying of the body or placing of the feet convey specific meanings. It could mean such things as a river, a cave or the growing of a lotus flower (Devi 104-105). The hands, and more particularly the fingers positions and movements are a type of sign language (mudras) used to express the alphabet in a type of Sanskrit language (Barba 38). The story is told not only in the movement of the limbs but also what is expressed on the face. The eyes have a very active role in the Kathakali and it is something that the actors have to be trained in, to be able to perform properly, for the eyes are to move with the arms and hands, with a lot of eye rolling and shaking, they are almost always moving (Nritta Drishti which means ‘dancing of the eyes’) (Devi 106). An example of the silent communication that takes place through the movement of the face can be seen in the expression of fear where the actor “raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs laterally and rapidly, his nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions.” (Barba 39-40). Although the actors have no lines to speak, they do include yells, screams, and cries to emphasize the events taking place in certain parts of the performance (Devi 106).

Kathakali dance has survived up to present day and are still performed. The stories told through the form of dance have the power to reach out and touch its audience without them having to be able to understand the language. With the aid of costumes and the actions of the interpretive actors, even if no means is conveyed the performance is still able to captivate.


Barba, Eugenio and Simonne Sanzenbach (1967) “The Kathakali Theatre” The Tuane Drama Review Vol. 11, No. 4. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Caldwell, Sarah (1999) Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Courtney, David and Chandrakantha (2010) “Kathakali” Music of India. Real Audio. (Thursday, March 11, 2010)

Devi, Regini (1990) Dance Dialects of India. 2nd Ed. Delhi: Jainendra Prakash Jain At Shri Jainendra Press.

Related Research Topics










Article written by: Christina Erickson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content

The Devadasi

Devadasi means god servant or slave. They are sometimes seen as the godking’s wives, or simply married to their temple, but since the Christian influence has come into South- East Asia, they have been also called prostitutes and have lost most of their high social ranking. The Devadasi are mostly young girls, given to the temple by their parents. There they are taught sacred dances and ceremonies pertaining to the God of the temple. At many of the temples they would perform these cultural acts naked or wearing very little (Sirhandi 44). This is one of the reasons the cult was seen as improper by other cultures. More recently there have been legal ramifications from the treatment of the Devadasi. This introduction into the Devadasi will attempt to explain the complex world in which the Devadasi play a pivotal role.

One of the greatest advantages of the Devadasis was that they could never be widowed (Orchard 2380). This allowed them a higher status than most other women, as being widowed can lead to losing everything. This may be one of the reasons that the Devadasi were seen as ranking higher than most other women in social status. They were sometimes seen as the development of the female Brahmin. Since women were no longer allowed to be priests, it can be said that the Devadasi took over the women’s portion of the ritual performances.

The Devadasi tradition can be traced back to the first century BCE (Jeffery 185). Although that date is unclear and some sources dispute that the tradition began between the third and sixth century CE (Orchard 5). At first Devadasis were simply seen as the wives of the god, or married to the temple. They performed sacred dances, sang and played instruments as a part of their relationship with the temple and its rituals. By the Chola Period, 850-1300 CE, (Orchard 6) they had become far more popular and were gaining much attention by their rituals. At this point many believe that their role as sexual beings became exploited. As wives of the temple they would be expected to perform sexual acts either for the temple to prosper or as part of their lives in the temple. In many cases, despite being married to the god of the temple, the women were still able to have children (Ashton, 798). The pressure for families to keep the temple prosperous may have led to increased pressure on sexual intercourse.

There is now a major problem with the Devadasis and their lives. From all the sources it is very hard to distinguish whether they were empowered wives of the god or victims of prostitution. Some sources say that they were simply dancers and entertainers and were not forced to have sexual intercourse with anyone that they do not approve of. Other sources say that they were sold by their families at very young ages and forced to perform sexual acts on anyone that will bring money to the corrupt Brahmans. Since Christianity came to India, the Devadasis have been under scrutiny. In times of British rule the Devadasis lost their social status.

In 1947 an act was passed for the protection of the Devadasis (Hubel 15). This act had become a very controversial and heated topic. Many felt it was necessary while others believed it infringed on their religious rights. According to Teresa Hubel, “the Madras legislature passed an act into law that would change forever the unique culture of the professional temple female dancers of South India (Hubel 15).” This topic is still controversial and has only passed in South India, although that is where most of the remaining Devadasi are. According to some of the sources this law has significantly reduced the amount of Devadasi that are used in the temples and their rituals. However one ethnographic study by Treena Orchard, notes that “between 1,000 and 10,000 girls are introduced into the Devadasi each year (Orchard 6).” It is difficult to tell what the proper figures are from most of the sources available. Either way, the law has had a significant effect on the treatment toward the Devadasi, now they are portrayed as prostitutes that are being protected. The ethnographic studies done on the Devadasi mostly depict them as sex-trade workers, but most studies ignore the fascinating history behind their rituals and traditions.

The Devadasi is a complex ritual and tradition. It has been a struggle for those still remaining in the ritual dancing to avoid being subject to calls of prostitution and becoming part of the corrupt nature of some of the temples. For most of those who have studied the Devadasi it was difficult to get anyone attached to the temples to openly discuss their roles (Ashton, 797). They are afraid of being viewed negatively as prostitutes, and the stigma that goes with their position within the temple rituals. Dancers are still used in many ceremonies and are called Devadasi but it is difficult to say what their positions are beyond entertaining at certain ceremonies. The ancient tradition of being married to a god and serving him for ones entire life is no longer found. The Devadasi way has changed along with the colonization and foreign influence in India.

The Devadasi are in a very difficult position in the caste system. They were once in a Brahman sub-caste but now they have been pushed out by outside cultures. They are seen as entertainers to gods and past kings, but modern-day prostitutes. Their position is very hard to place in Hindu society; it is unfortunate that their rituals seem so poorly understood by the sources.


Aston, Martha Bush (1987) Review of: Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri, by Frederique Apffel-Marglin. American Ethnologist, Volume 14; 4, 797-798 Malden:Blackwell Publishing

Hubel, Teresa (1994) Devadasi Defiance and the Man-Eater of Malgudi. Journal of Commonwealth Liturature, Volume 29; 15, 15-28 London, Canada.

Jeffery, Roger (1990) Review of: Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India, By Saskia C. Kersenboom-Story. The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 49; 1, 184-185ABI/INFORM Global.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) Girl, Woman, Lover, Mother: Towards a new understanding of child prostitution among young Devadasis in rural Karnataka, India. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 64, Issue 12, 2379-2390 Vancouver.

Orchard, Treena Rae (2007) In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India. Sexuality and Culture, Volume 11; 1, 3-27.

Sirhandi, Marcella C. (1999) Manipulating Cultural Idioms: In Contemporary Indian Art. Art Journal, Volume 58; 3, 40-47.

Related Readings

Apffel-Marglin, Frederique (1985) Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Priyadarshini, Vijaisri (2004) Recasting the Devadasi: Patterns of Sacred Prostitution in Colonial South India. Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.

Related Topics


Bombay Devadasi Protection Act







Related Websites

Written by Courtney Rode (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Devadasi literally means “maid servant of god” (Goswami xxiv). ‘Deva’ means god and ‘dasi’ means female servant. The Devadasis are women who (either voluntarily or given up) are married to a god and from then serve in that god’s temple. The earliest evidence of such women is found in a cavern just south of Banaras. The cave is carved with Prakrit writing from around the days of Ashoka and reads: “The excellent young man Devadinna the painter loved Utanuka, the slave-girl of the God” (Chakraborthy 18). The art of the Devadasis has continued to today.

The role of women in the Indian society has gone through changes up to the modern day. Some suspect that women were respected in ancient Indian culture since Manu stated that “where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes, but where they are not unhappy, the family ever prospers” (Chakraborthy 2). Men were aware of the importance of women as essential to marriage, family, and child bearing. For women’s protection the first real law on marriage for girls was the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Sarda Act) 1927, which stated that it was illegal for girls to marry below the age of 14 (Chakraborthy 9). However, women were not able to own property until the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act allowed them to own property jointly with their husbands (Chakraborthy 9). One of the most respectable ways a woman could serve her community was to become a servant of god. Women would dutifully marry a deity and serve in the temple for the rest of her life. It was originally a noble position to hold, but sadly, as history took its course, the role of the Devadasis became more and more degraded.

The origins of the Devadasis are a little obscure. An actual founder is still unknown (Chakraborthy 13). One speculation is that the gods were viewed as feudal lords and the virgin girls were offered for service to please the gods (Chakraborthy 16). Another theory, by Sir James Frazer, is that the girls were models of a Great Mother Goddess, who had many lovers, which coincides with the idea that the Devadasis were for “sacred prostitution” (Chakraborthy 15). Another more commonly held view of the derivation of the dancing girls is that because women needed to marry, and it was a great disgrace for a husband to die, marrying a deity would result in an eternal marriage. This gave the women immediate and lasting auspiciousness (Goswami xxiv). It was said that the “Devadasis who were married to deities were regarded with honour as celestial nymphs” (Goswami xxiv). When women leave their families to marry, their parents no longer have any rights to them; she is wholly her husband’s. For the parents’ sake, if their daughter was to marry a deity, she would be free to look after her parents in their old age (Chakraborthy 16). Once the tradition became established however, parents kept the custom alive. Women of the community often would request favours from the gods (usually to have a safe birth), and promised in return that they would give their daughters to the temple (Chakraborthy 16). Some families even led a tradition in which “a girl from each generation is compulsorily dedicated to God” (Chakraborthy 16).

Not all women were chosen equally to be a Devadasi. A woman needed to be attractive, smart, audacious, a hard worker, lively, skilled in dance, and have many other good qualities (Goswami xxv). A parent could offer a child from birth, but these qualifications were for women who gave themselves to the temple. There was a special type of marriage ceremony for women who were joining the Devadasis. The first part was a vow, which was made, in some cases, before the child was even born, and offered the girl as a gift to the deity (Chakraborthy 28). Following the marriage the Devadasi would be owned by the temple (Chakraborthy 28). The girl then applied oils and bathed, and went to the temple to give gifts to the custodian, who then stood as a proxy for the girl in a worship ceremony (Chakraborthy 29). The girl then receives a “sacred necklace of beads” and her parents celebrated by feeding the neighbourhood, exactly as a real marriage feast would be conducted (Chakraborthy 29). Once the girl had been officially brought into the marriage with the deity, and had fully become a Devadasis, she was trained in the arts of her profession. Sometimes when there were too many girls in a temple, some were allowed to deviate from dancing and singing, and do such activities as acting. These girls were known as Patradavaru (Chakraborthy 25). The duties of the Devadasis were to sing and dance in the morning and evening, attend marriages and other family gatherings, to bring auspiciousness to the family/couple (Chakraborthy 30, Goswami xxiv). In return for their work the girls received “money and a platform to present their art” (Soneji 30). The Devadasis did not live in the temples, but were given tax free land by the royal family (Goswami xxvii).

The central part of the Devadasis’ work was the dancing, which was set to music. Music, which is pleasant to the ears, also “contributes to the growth of mind and body” (Goswami xx). The music that the Devadasis dance to was originally played by instruments called ‘khols’ and ‘tals’, but were later replaced by a modern violin (Goswami xxvi). Many of the dances, and the songs came from the influential texts; such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas (Goswami xxi). The dances may also have association with gods, such a Siva (Goswami xxii). The importance of the dances were to entertain the gods and people, to earn money for the temples, and to help make the religion more widely accepted in the community (Goswami xxi).

The auspiciousness of the Devadasis was continuous so that these “servants of God” had superior status over the other women. A Devadasi did not become ritually impure even when she was menstruating. Therefore she could dance all month long. Nor was she made unclean by a death of someone near her (Soneji 42).

The Devadasis tradition began with the girls being wholesome brides of the gods, but through the generations their morality decayed. Since the girls had to be virgins when they married the deity, they would fulfil their “carnal appetites” with the “priests and aristocrats” (Goswami xxiv). Since the girls danced for the public, rich men were able to observe the beautiful girls, who were then easy prey for prostitution. In the early twentieth century, the younger generations for Devadasis expressed no problem in being paid for sexual favours (Soneji 39).

The Devadasis were once a respected part of the Hindu society, with very important religious responsibilities. Now, though there are hardly any left, the women are exploited for prostitution. The devoted girls who either dedicated themselves, or were given to the temple from birth, still hold important roles in the worship of the deities, but their status in the community has diminished. If the Devadasis could regain their reputation, they could again be the most respected women of Hindu societies.

Bibliography and Recommend Readings

Chakraborthy, Kakolee (2000) Women As Devadasis: Origin and Growth of the Devadasi

Profession. Rajouri Garden, ND: Deep & Deep Publications.

Goswami, Kali Prasad (2000) Devadasi: Dancing Damsel. Darya Ganj, ND: A.P Publishing


Orr, Leslie C. (2000) Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Soneji, Davesh (2004) Living History, Performing Memory: Devadasi Women in Telugu-

Speaking South India. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 36, Issue 2, p30-49.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Great Mother Goddess




The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

The Puranas




Ritual Purity

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Rebecca Bouchard (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Bharat Natyam: India’s Classical Dance

Religion in India has influenced many aspects of its culture throughout history. It has played a particularly significant role in shaping the arts in numerous ways. An example of religious inspirations within art can be seen in the dance tradition known as Bharat Natyam. Originally known as Dasi Attam, this dance was performed in temples and royal courts by devadasis. The devadasis were women who received extensive training in the dance form, which began in their youth (Gaston 26-60). This paper will examine Bharat Natyam in practice and theory from its origin as Dasi Attam to contemporary times. It will also explore the devadasi tradition and their roles in society. Finally it will examine the presence and significance of Hindu religious gods and goddesses within Bharat Natyam.

The term Bharat Natyam was introduced by E. Krishna Iyer in the nineteen thirties. Prior to this time, the dance was known as Dasi Attam and was associated with a long-standing tradition of extensively trained female dancers (Devi 49). These were the devadasis. Initially they were servants of the temple who were required to become well versed in Sanskrit and the art of Dasi Attam. Being dedicated or “married” to a temple well before puberty, the women led lives of celibacy and devotion to their religion. The purpose of the dance was to honour the gods and temples. Local kings invited devadasis to dance in royal courts; this gave birth to the rajadasi, a dancer who would perform for the purpose of entertainment (Kersenboom 90-111). As the devadasi surrendered to gods, the rajadasi would surrender to kings. After the eleventh century AD the devadasi tradition disappeared as many temples were invaded and destroyed. The fall of the tradition forced many devadasis into poverty and often prostitution (Gaston 38-44).

The colonial era brought about social movements relating to the devadasis. The Reformists and Abolitionists regarded the tradition as evil and every devadasi as a prostitute. Under the influence of Christian values, these movements urged the abolition of the entire practice. The Revivalists favored the ancient view of the devadasi as a sacred, chaste devotee and set out to revive the dance form of Dasi Attam as Bharat Natyam (Devi 45,58). This revival allowed a girl or woman to practice the art form without necessarily being involved in the historical cultural practices of the devadasi.

The myths of the initial arrival of dance in Indian religion involve the great gods of the cosmos. In one such myth, the ancient gods and goddesses pleaded with Lord Brahma to create a fifth Veda. This Veda would be one that would appeal to the common man. In response Brahma created the Natya Veda. He took words (pathya) from the Rg Veda, communicative movements (abhinaya) from the Yajur Veda, song (Gita) from them Sama Veda and sentiment (rasa) from the Atharva Veda to form the Natya Veda. He then commissioned the sage Bharatha to write it down as the Natya Shastra and perform it to Lord Siva. Bharatha then propagated the dance on earth (Gaston 206-220). From the spreading of the dance on earth, emerged many forms of dance that are still practiced in contemporary India such as, Odissi, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Mohini attam, and Bharat Natyam.

Another proposed mythical origin of the dance involves the Goddess Parvati and her daughter. It is said that Parvati taught the dance to Usha, her daughter with the demon Banasura. Usha then want on to teach the art of dance to the gopikas of the city in which Lord Krsna was born [The gopikas were milkmaids in Hindu mythology. They were young women who were enamored with Krsna and vied for his affection; Krsna often had romantic affairs with the gopikas.]. This version of the legend acknowledges Lord Siva as the Supreme Dancer, the universe being his divine dance. He dances with Parvati and together they teach the other gods and goddesses the art (Kramrisch 78). The heavenly dance gradually passed through into the human world and resulted in the forms of dance practiced in India today. Bharat Natyam, which originated in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu is one such form.

Just as the tradition of the devadasi underwent gradual change, so did the tradition of Bharat Natyam. Originally practiced in temples as a sacred form of devotion it is now a form of entertainment for many in India as well as other parts of the world. Many people study the dance as a hobby and some adopt it as a lifestyle and become professional dancers or teachers. Dancers devote a substantial amount of time studying purpose and theory of Bharat Natyam. There are several fundamental components of the dance that remain unchanged. These components usually include those involving facial and physical movements as well as their purpose. Divine figures such as gods and demons are still present in the dances just as they were in centuries past.

Bharat Natyam encompasses three elements. Nritta are repetitive rhythmical aspects; Natya is the combination of gestures and poses, which forms the dramatic element; Nritya is the combination of the two. Throughout training, a dancer is taught various body movements involving the feet, legs, arms, hands, fingers, torso and neck. They are also taught several facial expressions and dramatic gestures (Bhagyalekshmi 7,8). The combination of all of these elements creates the many traditional dances that one performs. While some dances are performed in devotion to the gods others are stories depicting the gods themselves in which dancers characterize the gods.

The first dance learned by a student is Pushpanjali or Alarippu. These dances are based on pure rhythm. They incorporate movements of each and every body part. Dancers often regard them as efficient warm up dances. Traditionally, they were performed in order to greet the gods in the temples and later on to greet the audiences in recitals. The next dance is known as the Jatiswaram, which involves a complex set of dance steps. The Shabda is a dance that is performed in praise of the Lord Krsna. It is in this dance that Abhinaya or Drama is introduced; the dancer depicts the childhood and adolescence of Krsna. The presence of Krsna is quite significant in the dances along with his relationships with Radha and gopikas of the city. The next two items, Varnam and Padam are pieces involving an abundance of dramatic art. The dances typically employ themes of betrayal, love and heroism. The item that is the main devotional piece to Lord Krsna is the Ashtapadi. The dance is performed in twelve cantons, which contain twenty-four songs sung by Krsna or his lover Radha; the songs are derived from famous poetry compositions. The final two dances are the most complicated with respect to physical movement as well as dramatic ability. They are known as the Devaranama and Tillana. The final traditional piece studied by a student of Bharat Natyam is the Mangala; it involves a salutation to the gods, gurus and the audience (Massey 11-16).

The appearance of divine characters in dance pieces is quite apparent. Many dances depict stories of Krsna, Radha, Rama, Sita, Visnu and Brahma among others. Perhaps one of the most significant figures in Bharat Natyam is Lord Siva. It is said that Siva assumed the form of Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), one of his many images and danced the Tandava. In the legend, Siva noticed that the sages had grown corrupt and indulgent so he set out to humble them. The sages responded violently and vainly attempted to destroy Siva. It was then that he began the Tandava, crushing his challengers beneath his feet. The purpose of his dance was to lift the illusory veil from the sages’ perception (Gaston 134-135, 315-319).

Bharat Natyam can be seen as involving three distinct components that are observable to an audience. These are footwork (adavus), hand gestures (hasthas) and facial gestures (abhinaya). Footwork typically follows a set rhythm that may change several times during a dance (Kothari 52). The musical element of the dance usually rests in the dancers foot movement. Hand gestures are the main feature responsible for the story telling component; the gestures are reinforced with facial expressions, which increases dramatic effect. Each of the twenty-eight hand gestures is representational of characters and events in the mythical stories told in the dance pieces. The gestures may depict animals or elements of nature associated with specific gods such as the tortoise, fish or serpent. Other symbolic gestures include the Siva linga, which is a phallic symbol associated with Siva or the trisula, the trident which is also exemplifies Siva (Kramrisch 36).

Religion inspires many areas of life. From daily schedules to annual celebrations to education and art. Art is an outlet for religious myth to be portrayed to a vast audience. Forms of this art are seen in the dance and drama. Bharat Natyam combines the two in a manner that results in elaborate and intricate pieces if dance that convey religious myth for the purpose of entertainment. This was not always its purpose; as an ancient form of dance known as Dasi Attam, it was an art form that allowed individuals to devote themselves to their religion and values. Regardless of its evolution from temples to royal courts and eventually to theaters, it has remained the oldest extant form of dance in the world today (Gaston 345-350).


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Related Topics for Further Investigations

Devadasi Tradition



Mohini Attam




Indian Folk Dance

Indian Theater




Siva in Dance

Krsna in Dance

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Article written by Jessica Sita Naidu (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.