10 Influential Classical Dancers of India that Every Indian Must Know

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Indian Classical dance is a renowned art form not only in India but also across the world. The grace, technique, charm, expressions, and years of relentless practice and passion make the Indian classical dances one of the most respected and recognized forms of elevated arts. We will be talking about 10 Indian Classical dancers of India.

Dance in a universal or generalized sense is often casually referred to as ‘shaking a leg’. Only the true exponents of the art know that it goes far beyond that. When it comes to Indian classical dances, there is almost a sense of reverence and spirituality attached to the dances. Those are soaked heavily in tradition and culture. Each classical dance has its origin and growth graph, traversing through history and time and along the way touching the lives of many.

Indian Classical Dances

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The origin of the Indian classical dances is the Natya Shastra written by the great scholar Bharata Muni. It forms the foundation of classical dances. However, the Sangeet Natak Academy has recognized eight dances that are categorized as Indian Classical dances. These include Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Kathakali, Odissi, Manipuri, Sattriya, and Mohiniyattam.

Each of these dances forms the crux of the exalted and revered status of classical dance art. Parents take pride in their children learning and practicing these traditional dance forms. Teachers and gurus are treated with utmost respect and connoisseurs of performing arts. They know the true caliber and artistic expression that these dance forms merit.

Suggested Read – Exploring the Folk Dance Forms of North India

However, there are many influential and popular dancers of the classical dances that have excelled in their art. These are the true flag bearers, taking the dance forms forward and making them globally recognizable and loved. Though a huge number of people learn classical dances. There are the legends and renowned stalwarts who have kept the art and dance alive with their scintillating performances.

Here we take a look at the 10 most influential and acclaimed artists whose love and dedication for dance have made them shining examples of artistic excellence.

1. Rukmini Devi Arundale

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Rukmini Devi is regarded as one of the most distinguished artists of Bharatanatyam. Her role as an artist was not limited to expounding the art alone. But she was instrumental in modifying the dance form to give it the form we know it today. Bharatanatyam was known as sadhir, considered a vulgar dance form, and was in fact, an extension of the Devadasi dance. Rukmini Devi changed the dance by removing the erotic elements and introducing instruments. Such as the violin, and bringing in creative costumes and accessories inspired by temple designs and sculptures. Bharatanatyam, as we know it today, owes in huge amounts to Rukmini Devi and her teacher E Krishna Iyer. Her collaborations with distinguished scholars and artists led to the making of dance dramas. They were based on epics, such as Ramayana and Gita Govinda.

Suggested Read – Traditional Costumes of Indian Classical Dances

She was a dancer, choreographer, and theosophist who made Bharatanatyam an acceptable art for the then British and Indian upper class and caste. In 1956 she was awarded the Padma Bhushan and she was the first woman in India to be nominated in the upper house or Rajya Sabha.

Rukmini Devi broke several stereotypes. She married Dr. George Arundale British theosophist in 1920 causing shock waves in a conservative society. Devi was also interested in animal welfare and integral in the legislation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. She was nominated for President of India by Morarji Desai in 1977 but she turned it down.

Devi passed away in 1986 leaving behind a legacy that is hard to replace.

2. Uday Shankar

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An internationally acclaimed artist Uday Shankar is often credited for blending Indian classical and western dances. He had no formal training in classical dance but with his creative insight was able to create an integrated dance form. Also called the pioneer of modern dance Uday Shankar was exposed to folk dances and classical dances. In Europe he understood ballet and it was then that he thought of bringing it all together. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan and in 1965 the Uday Shankar Center for Dance was established in Kolkata.

3. Pandit Birju Maharaj

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Brijmohan Mishra was trained under the tutelage of his uncles Shambhu Maharaja, Lachhu Maharaj, and father Acchan Maharaj. From a very young age, he started teaching Kathak and was head of the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. However, in 1998 he opened his dance school called Kalashram. He highlighted Kathak globally as an acclaimed dance form and continues to build his legacy. He has also choreographed songs for a few movies, such as Devdas.

4. Guru Bipin Singh

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An exponent of Manipuri dance, Guru Bipin Singh was a choreographer, director, and teacher of the dance form. With the support of the King of Manipur, he learned Manipuri dance under Guru Amudon Sharma. He is often called the Father of Manipuri Dance and has choreographed various songs for films. Yet he did not lose touch with the traditional form of dance. He opened Govindji Nartanalaya dance school in Imphal for women and Manipuri Nartanalaya in Kolkata. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academi Award in 1966 and passed away in 2000.

5. Kelucharan Mohapatra

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One of the most important figures who were responsible for the revival of the Odissi dance was Kelucharan Mohapatra. He was a great dancer, but also excelled at musical instruments, such as the mridangam, tabla, and pakhawaj. As a young boy, he performed Gotipua, a traditional dance of Odisha. His research in Gotipua and Mahari dance led him to contribute considerably to Odissi dance. He was a versatile artist and excelled at the Pattachitra paintings. The first person from Odisha to be awarded the Padma Vibhushan he passed away in 2004.

6. Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam

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Often referred to as the Guru of Kuchipudi, Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam is credited for the global recognition and spread of Kuchipudi. He played a huge role in streamlining the dance form and basing it on the classical dance forms from Natya Shastra. He also started the Kuchipudi Art Academy in 1963. It has been instrumental in creating many solo and dance dramas that have been staged abroad and in India. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan and various other awards for his exemplary contribution to the dance form.

7. Mrinalini Sarabhai

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Mrinalini Sarabhai was one of the finest dancers in both Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. She was the first woman to learn and perform the male dancing style of Kathakali. Besides, she also played a role in bringing Bharatanatyam outside temples and making it a respectable dance in other artistic circles. She was the director and founder of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. The institute has trained thousands in dance, music, drama, and puppetry. She was married to renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika Sarabhai is an extremely well-known and talented dancer herself.

Mallika Sarabhai is a classical dancer distinguished in Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi. She continues to manage the Darpana Academy and is a strong advocate for women’s empowerment and a prominent social activist too.

8. Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma

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Mohiniyattam owes a lot to Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma. Born in Kerala she worked relentlessly to revive this classical dance form that was almost extinct and all forgotten. She helped give it a formal structure and has also authored books on Mohiniyattam. Her book Mohiniyattam- History and Dance Structure is probably the only authentic documentation on the dance form. Her disciples include Mrinalini Sarabhai, as well as her daughters Sreedevi Rajan and Kala Vijayan.

Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma was married to Kathakali artist Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. She was also responsible for spreading Mohiniyattam to places outside India, including Russia.

9. Shovana Narayan

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The disciple of Birju Maharaj, Shovana Narayan is an acclaimed Kathak dancer. Both as a performer and choreographer, Shovana Narayan is widely known for bringing in a range of expressions and various dimensions. She experiments fearlessly and has been mesmerizing audiences for decades. With her depth and dedication, she has also collaborated with many international artists and dancers. Shovana Narayan has also written many books on dance and performing arts. She has been awarded the Padma Shri and continues to organize various classical dance festivals each year.

10. Yamini Krishnamurthy

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A distinguished Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dance artist, Yamini Krishnamurthy began her training at Rukmini Devi’s Kalashetra. Also trained in Carnatic music and the Veena, she is also referred to as the torchbearer of Kuchipudi. She has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan and teaches aspiring dancers at her dance school.

Many other wonderful classical dancers have etched their mark, including Sonal Mansingh, V. Satyanarayana Sarma, Padma Subrahmanyam, Tanjore Balasaraswati, Kumari Kamala, Alarmel Velli, and many more.

One can only say, classical dance is devotion and divinity in itself. And those that reach their highest pinnacles are often an extension of that. 

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