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Indian Performing Arts


Indian music and dance represent the product of complex millenarian evolution. They are mainly modes of worship and a joyous celebration of life, and their incredibly multifaceted tradition is really stunning. The dances are based on ancient texts that codify the gesture and the body movement that the dancer has to use in order to express certain emotions and to tell a certain story.

Each state and each region have its own traditions and classical dance forms, while classical music can be divided into two main traditions, Hindustani, specific to the North; and Carnatic, that originated in the South.

Keep reading to find out more about the beauty of Indian performing arts.


  • Carnatic and Hindustani music are the two main traditions of the Indian classical music
  • Raga and tala are the two fundamental elements of each musical composition
  • There is a wide variety of Indian classical dance, and each kind relies upon gestures and body movements to tell a story
  • Bollywood music-and-dance acts greatly contributed to popularizing Indian pop music all over the world
  • When in India, don’t miss one of the many grand productions to be found in every big city

India classical music

The classical music of the Indian subcontinent is basically formed by two traditions – the one in the North and the one in the South – which, until the 16th century, were not considered separate.

The classical music in the North is called Hindustani, while the one in the South is called Carnatic. Indian classical music is open to new ideas and innovations, as well as to foreign influences.

Carnatic music

It can be said that the Carnatic music was born with Purandara Dasa (1484 – 1564), a composer and a musicologist the systematized classical Indian music theory.

His exercises are still used today. Thanks to his work, Carnatic music is usually more intensive and structured than its counterpart from the North, and accompanists play a fundamental role.

Hindustani music

Hindustani music – that probably started to differentiate from Carnatic music around the 15th century – reached its peak during the reign of Akbar.

Tansen, who performed at the Muslim court, is considered to be the founder of this kind of music. His style and innovations inspired hundreds of composers.

The modern form of Hindustani music is called “khyal”, that means “imagination”. Improvisation is extremely important, and each school tradition developed its own techniques.

The two fundamental elements: the raga and the tala

Raga is one of the most important concepts of Indian music. It can be roughly described as a musical entity that includes intonation, duration, and order of the notes. Sometimes its rules are mandatory; sometimes it is up to the musician to decide. The raga is flexible, and the artist has to use it to convey a message, each time with a different mood.

Even if a raga has a given set of tone on a scale ordered in melodies with musical motifs, a raga is not a tune (each one can yield many different tunes), nor it is a scale because many ragas can be based on the same scale. The concept of raga is similar to that of mode: the goal of a raga is to create a feeling, an atmosphere.

A tala, on the other hand, measures musical time, and its hierarchical disposition depends on how the piece is supposed to be performed. The tala forms a metrical structure that repeats itself in a cyclical harmony, from the beginning to the end of a song, and its accents can be decided by the shape of the musical phrase.

Main instruments

There is a wide array of instruments used in classical Indian music, and some of them are particular to one kind or the other. For example, some of the instrument used in Hindustani music is the sitar, sarod, veena, tanpura, violin, and santoor.

Instead, some of the most common instruments used in Carnatic music are veena, venu, gottuvadyam, harmonium, ghatam, and kanjira.

The rhythm is kept by the musician playing the tabla (a kind of drum). Another instrument used this way is the stringed tanpura, that is played throughout the performance of a raga and provides a point of reference to the musicians and a background for the whole composition. The tanpura is tuned according to the raga.

India classical dance

The Natya Shastra – the treatise written around the 5th century BC that codifies the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the body postures of Indian classical dance – is considered to be the “language” of any Indian classical dance form. A performance is considered successful if it evokes an emotion among the audience, and always following the rules codified in the said treatise.

In India, classical dance has developed a type of dance-drama that is a sort of total theater. The dancer, through his/her movements, tells a story, often taken from Hindu mythology or sacred literature.


Kathak (that means “story” in Sanskrit) is the traditional dance of the Kathakars, the travelling bards of ancient norther India. The dance evolved incorporating stories of Krishna and integrated the Persian arts to meet the taste of the Mughal court.

There are 3 distinct forms of this dance: Jaipur, Benares, and Lucknow. Each dance emphasizes rhythmic foot movements, with the legs and the torso kept straight. The story is told by vocabulary, based on the gestures of arms, upper body, and facial expressions.


Kuchipudi originated in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is connected to the travelling bards and spiritual beliefs. Historically, its dancers have always been males, typically Brahmins (but today there also female dancers).

Each performance includes a pure dance and an expressive part, where rhythmic gestures mime the play. The main artist is accompanied by vocalists and musicians.


This dance originated in the Hindu temples of Odisha, located in the east of India. Odissi was originally performed only by women and used to express solely religious stories.

The artist and the musicians play out a mythical story or a devotional poem drew out of the Hindu texts, using symbolic costumes and body movements set out in ancient Sanskrit literature.

Bharat Natyam

Bharat Natyam is a millenarian dance from the South of India, nowadays practiced mostly by women. The dance is usually accompanied by Carnatic music and is a major genre of classical dance that originated inside the Hindu temples.

Bharat Natyam has always been a solo dance that expresses Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism. Even if this kind of dance has been mocked during the colonial British Raj era, in the post-colonial period has become the most popular of all the Indian classical dances.


This dance (also known as Jagoi) is particularly known for its Vaishnavism themes, for being a team performance, and for its unique costumes, such as the kumil (a barrel-shaped skirt). A manipuri dance is marked by a graceful and fluid performance that puts great emphasis on the hands and the upper body.

Folk and tribal dance

Folk and tribal dances are still important in India since they are the expression of the daily work and rituals of the various villages. Every state has its own folk dance forms, while tribal dances are inspired by the folklore, and each ethnic group has its own combination of myths, legends, provers, ballads, etc.

These forms of dance depict the life of the tribes, their social relationships, and religious affiliation. The intricate movement of the body is meant to represent their culture and customs.

The instrument played are mostly locally made, and the music produced can range from calm and soothing to strong and intense.

Bollywood music and dance—Hindi movies

Bollywood sons (also known as “Hindi film songs”, or “filmi songs”) are songs derived from song-and-dance routines common in Indian films. They are a predominant component of Indian pop music, and the music-and-song aspect is an integral feature of the genre – they don’t have to be considered as “musical”, in the Western sense.

These sequences usually are duets between the hero and the heroine or spectacular performances with dozens of dancers. The dance is usually a synthesis of formal and folk dance traditions. Originally, they were meant to represent the dances of the common people, although they became increasingly complex in their choreography.

Bollywood music contributed also to popularize disco music during the 80s, when Nazia Hassan, working with Biddu (an Indian producer) released a few hits. Biddu himself released some hits also popular in the Western world, as for example “Kung Fu Fighting”.

It can be easily said that the music present in Bollywood films greatly helped spread all over Indian society and to reach also foreign countries. For example, in Britain, it is possible to hear Hindi film songs in restaurants and on radio channels; while in other countries like France, Nigeria, and Greece many artists used Bollywood influences to create their own unique music style.

Watch a cultural show in India

If you are in India and you want to watch a cultural show, we strongly recommend you to visit one of the following places: the Ghungroos Theater in Delhi; the Kindgom of Hearts, located in Gurgaon; or Agra, with its amazing show about the Taj Mahal.

Ghungroo Theater in Central Delhi

Spend a night watching a dance musical that narrates the story of Delhi and of its glorious past. The dance act is followed by a delicious Indian barbecue at Angare, that will offer you a journey into Indian gastronomy.

If you are visiting India, remember that the Ghungroo Theater operates only from October until April.

Kingdom of Dreams located in Gurgaon

Every day, the Kingdom of Dreams offers you the world’s biggest Bollywood long-playing musical show. There are normally two shows: the Zangoora and the Jhumroo, each one with different schedule and timings.

Inside the location, you will find a street with plenty of restaurants serving authentic Indian cuisine – beside dozens of shops selling Indian art and crafts.

Mohabbatein Taj Show in Agra

The show tells the history of the Taj Mahal, with creative dances, dramatic lighting and a 12’x12’ replica of the famous mausoleum.

The show tells the history of the Taj Mahal, with creative dances, dramatic lighting and a 12’x12’ replica of the famous mausoleum.

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Explore India with Asia Highlights

We know you cannot wait any longer to further explore the marvelous Indian performing arts. Start planning your next trip to India now: our team will help you craft the perfect itinerary for you and your family, making sure that you will not miss the best show that the country has to offer you.