Expression in Indian classical dance is one of its foremost characteristics, and one of the most prominent themes depicted by the classical forms is that of nature. The forms of Kathak, Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, and Satriya all originated with some form of their ancient roots in nature.

Kathak, which literally means storytelling, is an amalgamation of dance, drama and music. This mesmerizing Indian classical dance takes a lot of inspiration from nature to portray stories and epics. The various “hast mudras”, or hand gestures have been influenced by the wonders of nature around us. For example, the “Mrigashirsha” portrays a deer, and the “Mayura” portrays a peacock. Different mudras are used to portray birds flying away, wind blowing and so on.

 

Kathak dancers

 

Additionally, the footwork is often inspired by the sounds of nature. “Bols” include words like “jhan-jhan”, which conveys the sound of a river or water. Kathak dancers wear “ghungroo” around both their legs, which generate pleasant sounds synonymous with the harmony and synchrony of Mother Nature. One can also see many “tukdas” or pieces being about different aspects of nature as well—for instance, the ‘parmelu’, which synthesises various sounds of nature like the cuckoo bird and the sound of thunder.

Ghungroos worn in Kathak dance

 

Kathak is a dance form with very smooth moves, where steps segue from one to another, and the eyes express every emotion. At the same time, it includes extensive and fast footwork. This in itself symbolizes nature as nature has two sides: the caring side, and the destructive one.

Odissi, widely considered the oldest dance of India, is based on emulating the sculptures and the forms in the ancient temples of Odisha. The dance form also constitutes a heavy connection to the ground and the Earth itself, with grounded movements such as chowka. Numerous ‘pallavis’, or pure nritta compositions set to raagas, depict themes such as rain, peacocks dancing, the composition of trees and forests, the gait of animals, and likewise, which are enmeshed with ancient legends in classical dance.

 

Sculptures in temples in Odisha that Odissi emulates
Odissi dancers practice at one of India’s foremost institutions, Nrityagram

 

Bharatnatyam’s abhinaya is also quite renowned for narrating themes of nature, with extensive use of hasta mudras to depict the same. From the Simhamukha mudra depicting a lion, or sometimes a deer, to Kapittha, Kapota, and Ardhachnadra used to show the moon— these mudras require expressive storytelling skills for a solo dancer to portray an entire story of nature singlehandedly on the stage.

Bharatanatyam dancers
Mudras in Bharatanatyam

 

Taking a broader view, the Indian classical dances collectively are sometimes also believed to be a representation of the five elements of nature when regarded together. Kuchipudi and Odissi are believed to be Earth and Water respectively, with Mohiniyattam being Air, Bharatnatyam being Fire, and Kathakali the Sky. The movements themselves give a nod to these representations— with Odissi’s sensual and graceful nature like the rippling of rivers, Bharatnatyam’s sharp and swift extended movements like those of flames, and Mohiniyattam’s feminine and agile nature reminding the viewer of gusts of wind.

A Mohiniyattam dancer

 

When looking at performing arts, the costumes and jewellery of these dances can never be left out of the discussion owing to their intricacy, which heavily contributes to the perception of the performance as much as the dance itself. From the earthy colours of green, orange, and brown often being seen in Odissi’s saris, to the white gajras present in almost every dance form, and the red alta worn in the hands and feet, a coulour which in Hindu customs represents the fertile soil and therefore, purity and fertility; the entire process of a dancer preparing for a performance is intimately intertwined with patterns seen in Nature as well.

 

 

Earth-toned saris in Odissi

 

– Aliyah Banerjee and Ishita Gupta

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