According to Hindu Folklore, dance is believed to be a creation of Brahma. It is said that Lord Brahma inspired the sage Bharat Muni to write the Natyashastra – a Sanskrit treatise on performing arts. Its first complete compilation was written between 200 BCE (Before Common Era) and 200 CE (Common Era). The text covers topics such as stage design, body movement, postures and emotions, makeup, musical scales, merging music with art performance and so on. The text also explains the various kinds of emotions that go in performance art and their classifications. The Natyashastra, therefore, acts as one of the foundation stones of all forms of Indian classical dances. Dance is a popular motif in Hindu mythology as well, as seen through Shiva’s cosmic dance – Tandava, Kali’s dance of creation and destruction, Krishna’s dance with the Gopikas and the Raas-Leela.
The historic legacy of classical dance is preserved by these veterans, whiteout their mention, Indian classical dance has no charm.
Uday Shankar is known as the Father of Modern Dance in India. And rightly so! He initiated a revival movement of classical Indian dances in 1930. Although he had no formal training in dance, it was his creativity and innovative techniques that brought him widespread fame. He travelled widely across the globe and integrated his global learning into Indian classical dance. He started his own dance school in 1938, where he invited notable dancers and performers from various parts of the country to teach their respective dance forms.
Pandit Birju Maharaj is the direct descendant of Ishwari Prasad, who is said to be the first known Kathak teacher. Considered to be a child prodigy, he was invited to teach Kathak at Sangeet Bharati in Delhi at the young age of 13. He’s known for his experiments with dance-drama and Kathak, infusing the two in unique and previously unseen ways. His innovative efforts with Kathak have not only made Kathak a widely known dance form, but also taken it to new heights in India today.
Mrinalini Sarabhai is remembered as India’s cultural icon. Mrinalini Sarabhai is credited with bringing Bharatanatyam out of its Devdaasi shadows. She’s the pioneer of making Bharatanatyam not only an acceptable dance form outside temples, but also a very respectable one. Along with her husband, the legendary Vikram Sarabhai, she started the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, and has contributed immensely to Gujarat’s classical dance scene.
No piece about pioneers of Indian classical dance is complete without a worthy mention of Mallika Sarabhai. Mallika Sarabhai is a celebrated Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer. Daughter of dance stalwart Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika showed signs of immense talent early on. She started performing in her teenage years itself, and has created a unique style of contemporary dance forms. She took over the reins of Darpana, and later also launched ‘Darpana for Development’ – an initiative focusing on performance art as a language for change.
Rukmini Arundale is one of the pioneers of the renaissance of Indian classical music. She’s also a trained ballerina, after having met the legendary Anna Pavlova on a ship. It was on Anna’s behest that Rukmini Devi turned her attention to classical Indian dances, which were then being marred by infamy. Although coming from an upper-caste family, Rukmini Devi advocated Bharatanatyam, and had a huge role to play in the upliftment of the dance form.
Sonal Mansingh is one of the most celebrated exponents of Odissi and Bharatanatyam. She founded the Centre for Indian Classical Dances (CICD) in New Delhi in 1977, and since then has influenced many dancers who have further gone on to win critical acclaim and accolades. She’s also trained in Chhau and Indian music, and uses her talent to shed light on contemporary issues concerning the welfare of women and the environment.
Singhajit Singh is one of the most illustrious Manipuri dancers. He has played a crucial role in popularising the Manipuri dance among the youth, several of whom have gone on to garner international acclaim. He founded his own dance institution called the Manipuri Nrityashram in 1998, in order to make traditional dance forms more accessible. He’s known for incorporating innovative techniques as well as other Manipuri dance forms such as Thang-ta, Nata-sankirtana, Lai-haraoba and Rasleela into the traditional Manipuri framework.
Balasaraswati started training in Bharatanatyam at the age of four. She was the first ever performer to perform Bharatanatyam outside of South India. She has travelled and showcased Bharatanatyam across the globe, therefore putting Indian classical dance on the global map. Her performances have won the appreciation of dance maestros from around the world including Shambhu Maharaj, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Martha Graham, among others. She is also the only non-Western dancer to have made it into the Dance Heritage Coalition’s list of “America’s Irreplaceable Treasures: The First 100”.
Classical dance in India wouldn’t have been in its present day glory if it wasn’t for these brilliant stalwarts