Dance is an ancient art form in India and is traditionally linked to mythology and classi­cal literature. Dance can basically be divided into two main forms: classical and folk.

Classical dance is essentially based on well-defined traditional disciplines. They include Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Kathak, Manipuri, Kuchipudi and Odissi.

Bharata Natyam (also spelt F3harata­natyam) originated from the southern state of Tamil Nadu but has been widely em­braced throughout India. Kathakali, which has its roots in Kerala, is sometimes re­ferred to as ‘dance’ but essentially is not – see the boxed text ‘Kathakali’ in the Kerala chapter for more details.

Kathak, which has Hindu and Islamic in­Fluences, was particularly popular with the Mughals, and dancers still wear costumes that hark back to the 17th century. Kathak suffered a period of notoriety when it moved from the courts into houses where nautch (dancing) girls tantalised audiences with renditions of the Krishna and Radha love story. It was restored as a serious art form in the early 20th century.

Manipuri, which has a delicate, lyrical flavour, hails from Manipur. It attracted a wider audience in the 1920s when the Ben­gali poet Rabindranath 7agore invited one of its most revered exponents to teach at Shantiniketan, near Kolkata.

Kuchipudi is a 17th-century dance-drama that originated in an Andhra Pradesh village from which it takes its name. The story cen­tres on the envious wife of Krishna.

Odissi, claimed to be India’s oldest clas­sical dance form, was originally a temple art, and was later also performed at royal courts.

India’s second major dance form, folk, is widespread and varied. It ranges from the high-spirited bhangra dance of Punjab, to the theatrical dummy horse dances of Kar­nataka and Tamil Nadu and the graceful fishers’ dance of Orissa.

Pioneers of modern dance forms in India include Uday Shankar (older brother of sitar master Ravi ) who once partnered Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Rabindranath Tagore was another innovator; in 1901 he set up a school at Shantiniketan (near Kolkata) that promoted the arts. Tagore brought gurus from all over India to Shantiniketan, where a dis­tinctive dance style evolved. Although some criticised this style for its lack of technical precision, it’s claimed that the real achieve­ment of the experiment lay in stimulating in­terest in dance within the wider public.


Classical music in India traces its roots back to Vedic times, when religious poems chanted by priests were first collated in an anthology called the Rig-Veda. Over the millennia classical music has been shaped by many influences, and the legacy today is Carnatic (characteristic of South India ) and Hindustani (the classical style of North India ). With common origins, both share a number of features. Both use the raga (the melodic shape of the music) and tala (the rhythmic meter characterised by the number of beats); Iintal for example, has a tala of 16 beats. The audience follows the tala by clap­ping at the appropriate beat, which in tintal is at beats one, five and 13. There is no clap at the beat of nine; that is the khali (empty section), which is indicated by a wave of the hand. Both the raga and the taln are used as a basis for composition and improvisation.

Both Carnatic and Hindustani music are performed by small ensembles generally comprising from about three to six musi­cians and both have many instruments in common. Neither style uses a change of key or harmonies. There is no fixed pitch, but there are differences. Hindustani has been more heavily influenced by Persian musical conventions (a result of Mughal rule); Car­natic music, as it developed in South India, cleaves more closely to theory. The most striking difference, at least for those unfa­miliar with India’s classical forms, is Car­natic’s greater use of voice.

One of the best-known Indian instru­ments is the sitar (a large stringed instru­ment) with which the soloist plays the raga. Other stringed instruments include the sarod (which is plucked) and the sarangi (which is played with a bow). Also popular is the tabla (a twin drum) which provides the tala. The drone, which runs on two basic notes, is provided by the oboe-like ahehnai or the tampura. The hand-pumped key­board harmonium is used as a secondary melody instrument for vocal music.

Regional music is widespread and varied in India. Wandering musicians, magicians, snake charmers and storytellers often use song to entertain their audiences; the story­teller usually sings the tales from the great epics. Radio, TV and cinema have played a major role in broadcasting popular music, especially the latest Bollywood scores, to even the remotest corners of India. Satellite TV channels such as MTV India and Chan­nel V broadcast everything from bhangra (rhythmic Punjabi pop) to Western techno. Fusion music – an evocative mix of Eastern and Western influences – is becoming in­creasingly popular in India and abroad.


India has a long tradition of Sanskrit litera­ture, although works in the vernacular have contributed to a particularly rich legacy. In fact, it’s claimed that there are as many liter­ary traditions as there are written languages.

For a list of recommended reading, see Novels under Books in the Facts for the Visitor chapter. See the boxed text ‘Ra­bindranath Tagore’ in the West Bengal chap­ter for information about India’s renowned Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.


Although none of the wooden (sometimes brick) temples built in early times have sur­vived the vagaries of climate, by the advent of the Guptas (4th to 6th centuries AD) of North India, sacred structures of a new type were being built, and these set the standard for temples for several hundred years.

One of the main distinguishing features between temples in the north and south is the sikhara or vimana. In the north, the sikhara is curvilinear and topped with a grooved disk, on which sits a pot-shaped finial, and in the south the vimana is stepped with the grooved disk being replaced with a solid dome. The gopUram is a soaring pyra­midal gateway tower of a Dravidian temple. Kerala’s temple styles vary in deference to its climate — marked by heavy rainfall – and typically have steeply sloping roofs of stone that effectively drain the water away.

The Muslim invaders contributed their own architectural conventions; arched clois­ters and domes were among them. The Gol­gumbaz tomb in Bijapur, Karnataka, is one of the largest domes in existence. Under the Mughals, Persian, Indian and provincial styles were successfully melded to create works of great refinement and quality. They include the Persian-influenced tomb of Hu­mayun in Delhi, the great fort at Agra and the city of Fatehpur Sikri. But it’s Shah Jahan (r. 1627-58) who has probably made the most enduring mark on architectural his­tory. He built the Red Fort in Delhi, but is better remembered for the Tai Mahal, the tomb for his queen Mumtaz Mahal.

Europeans left their mark in the churches of Goa (eg, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, completed in 1605), in the neoclassical­style buildings built by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries (and of course the parliament complex of New Delhi ), and in attempts to meld neo-Gothic and neo­Saracenic (Islamic) styles with local archi­tectural traditions. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed the entire city of Chandigarh in the capital of Punjab and Haryana in the early 1950s.


Some 1500 years ago artists covered the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta caves in western India with scenes from Buddha’s life, lotus flowers, animals and birds. The figures are endowed with an unusual free­dom and grace and contrast with the next major style that emerged from this part of India in the 1 lth century. To attain spiritual merit, the Jain lay community – which flourished thanks to its stake in trade and local rulers being sympathetic to the large community of Svetambara monks living in Gujarat – poured their money into lavish displays of temple building. However, after the Muslim conquest of Gujarat in 1299 they turned their attention to illustrated manuscripts, which could be hidden away and preserved. These manuscripts are the only form of Indian painting that survived the Muslim conquest of North India. At first artists painted on palm leaves, but the avail­ability of paper from the late 14th century allowed larger and more elaborate works, with gold-leaf script and lavish borders in blue, gold and red (complex designs and luxurious materials testified to the wealth of the patron). Unlike the flowing Ajanta paintings, the Jain style is angular, with deities and mortals depicted in profile, the eye projecting beyond the face.

The Indo-Persian style developed from Muslim royals, although the depiction of the elongated eye is one convention that seems to have been retained from indige­nous sources. The Persian influence flour­ished when artisans fled to India following the 1507 Uzbek attack on Herat (in present­day Afghanistan), and with trade and gift­swapping between the Persian city of Shiraz, an established centre for miniature pro­duction, and Indian provincial sultans.

The 1526 victory by Babur at the Battle of Panipat ushered in the era of the Mughals in India. Although Babur and his son Hu­mayun were both patrons of the arts, it is Humayun’s son Akbar who is generally credited with developing the characteristi­cally Mughal style. Akbar recruited artists from far and wide to create an atelier (stu­dio or workshop) that was, initially anyway, under the control of Persian artists. Artistic endeavour at first centred on the production of illustrated manuscripts (topics varied from history to romance, myth and legend), but later broadened into portraiture and the glorification of everyday events.

Akbar took a personal interest in the artists’ work, rewarding those who pleased him. Within the atelier there emerged a high division of labor, which meant more work could be turned out in less time. Skilled de­signers sketched the outlines of the work. Colourists applied layers of pigment, bur­nishing each to achieve an enamel-like fin­ish. Painters used squirrel- or camel-hair brushes to create the finest of lines. Artists of extraordinary talent were allowed to do their own paintings and hence display their mas­tery. European paintings influenced some artists, and occasionally reveal themselves in experiments with motifs and perspective.

Akbar’s son Jehangir also patronised painting, but his tastes and interests were dif­ferent. He preferred portraiture, and his fas­cination with natural science resulted in a rich legacy of paintings of birds, flowers and animals. Style also took a distinctive turn; despite its richness, there is nothing frivolous or wasteful about the paintings turned out by Jehangir’s atelier. The more formal ordering of figures reflects a penchant for strict eti­quette in court life. Jehangir saw portraiture as a useful tool for sizing up foreign rivals; he desired paintings to reveal personality and requested them so that he might judge the subject’s characteristics. Under Jehangir’s son Shah Jahan, the Mughal style became less fluid, and although the colouring was bright and eye-catching, the paintings lacked the life and vigour of before. It was a trend that continued, hastened by the disintegra­tion of the Mughal court in the 18th century. Mughal painting as such ended with the reign of Shah Alam 11 (1759-1806).

By the 19th century, painting in North India was heavily influenced by Western styles (especially English watercolours), giving rise to what’s been dubbed the Com­pany School, which had its centre in Delhi.

In Rajasthan, distinctive styles developed that were influenced by Mughal tastes and conventions, in part because local Rajput rulers were required to spend time at the Mughal court. But Rajasthani painting had its own characteristics, marked by a poetic imagery evident in such popular themes as the ragamala, a depiction of musical modes, and the ncvakanavikabheda, a classification of ideal types of lovers. The romanticism and eroticism are in stark contrast to the strict morality that pervaded Rajput society. Por­traiture was influenced by Mughal-trained artists recruited by Rajput rulers. Rather than the revealing pictures favoured by Jehangir, these portraits lean more towards ideal rep­resentations of individuals, whose weak­nesses are well and truly disguised.

In the Himalayan foothills of northwest India a distinctive style of painting, dubbed Pahari, developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. This relatively small area (roughly between Jammu and Garhwal) was divided into 35 kingdoms. Pahari painting can be di­vided into two main schools; the Basholi school preceded the Kangra, which eclipsed it in the late 18th century. Basholi art is ro­bust, bold and colourful. Kangra art is more subdued and fluid, probably testament to the influence of Mughal court painters migrating into the area at the time. The Kangra school survived until the late 19th century, but its best works are usually dated to around the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


For about 1500 years after the demise of the Indus Valley civilisation, sculpture in India seems to have vanished as an art form. Then suddenly, in the 3rd century BC, it reap­peared in a new, technically accomplished style that flourished under the Maurya rulers of central India.

It’s a phenomenon that still puzzles schol­ars and art historians; some say Mauryan sculpture must have had its genesis abroad, possibly in Persia, but this has never been proven. The legacy of the Mauryan artists includes the burnished, sandstone columns erected by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, the most famous of which, the lion-topped column at Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), has be­come the state emblem of modem India.

Midway through the 2nd century BC a new format emerged, evident in the stupa railing of Bharut, Madhya Pradesh. Here can be seen the style and motifs that have since become an integral part of Indian sculpture. The ornamentation is symbolic of abundance (beauty and abundance are closely linked in Indian sculpture); the pot overflowing with flowers, the lotus, the trees, the elephants and the mythical makara (a protective crocodile-like crea­ture). Here, too, are the yakshas and yak­shis, male and female deities associated with ancient fertility cults and whose im­ages provided the basis for Buddhist, Jain and Hindu iconography.

Following an early reluctance to represent the Buddha in more than symbolic form, vaksha figures gradually became Buddha­like in the succeeding centuries, albeit de­void of elaborate dress and ornamentation (deemed inappropriate in the light of Bud­dhism’s monastic traditions). The Sarnath Buddha, for example, has a robe characteris­tically thrown over the left shoulder, the right hand raised in a mudra (gesture) signifying freedom from fear, the left resting on the waist, but empty handed. By the Gupta pe­riod in North India (4th to 6th centuries AD) the earthy and robust yaksha-style Buddha icons had been transformed into models of serene contemplation, eyes lowered, as be­fitting the compassionate Master of the Law.

Hindu and Jain iconography also began to evolve their distinctive forms at this time. Images sprouted multiple arms and heads (distinguishing them from mere mortals). and eventually adopted the serene expres­sions that have become associated with calm contemplation.

From the 10th century, sculpture and ar­chitecture were generally inseparable; tem­ples were lavishly decorated with religious sculpture designed to impress and instruct. The fantastic animal forms and towering gopurams of the great temple complexes of South India (eg, Meenakshi in Madurai, Tamil Nadu) took ornamentation and mon­umentalism to new levels.

Most, but not all, sculpture has left its legacy in stone. From South India comes a brilliant series of bronzes, created during the Chola dynasty of the 9th and I Oth cen­turies. The lost-wax technique that artisans used to produce images of the most popular deities are still found in Tamil Nadu, but the brilliance of the Chola period has never quite been recaptured.


The oldest form ofclassical theatre in India, Sanskrit theatre, shares a common ancestry with dance. Details of both were laid down in the Not va Shastra in ancient times. San­skrit theatre, like dance, was divided into performances for the gods and those ren­dered for people’s pleasure, and was further classified into naturalistic and stylised pro­ductions, notions reflected in the folk trad­itions of later times. This type of theatre thrived until about AD 1000 when it was eclipsed by folk theatre. Today it lives only in the kudiYattam Sanskrit theatrical style of Kerala.

The many regions and languages of India provided fertile ground for folk theatre, which employs a few Sanskrit theatrical conventions such as the opening prayer and the nidushuka (clown) – the hero’s comic alter ego and the audience’s ally. Folk the­atre draws heavily from the Vedic epics (see Religion later) but will also canvass current political and social issues. Performances al­ways take place outdoors and actors are in­variably from castes where the art is passed from father to son; in rare cases women may also act. Troupes may tour for several months at a time and the more popular the­atrical forms (secular rather than religious in nature) have a very healthy following.

Puppetry has also enjoyed a good fol­lowing in India, although most people are only familiar with Rajasthani puppets (kathputlis): wooden creations, dressed in colorful costumes and manipulated by the puppeteers (always male) using strings. Less well known are the leather stick pup­pets of Andhra Pradesh (similar to the tirayang kulit puppets of Indonesia ) and the glove puppets of Kerala. Puppetry is losing its audience to competing attractions such as cinema and television and because pup­peteers arc reluctant to challenge the epic­based repertoire.

Modern Indian theatre had its inception in Bengal in the 18th century. Exposed to Western theatrical and literary conventions earlier than most, Bengali artists combined Western staging techniques with folk and Sanskrit conventions. Their plays became vehicles for social and political comment and opposition to British rule. The touring Bombay Parsi theatre companies that developed in the north and west of India in the 19th century also used Western, classical and folk con­ventions to bring dramatic, lively entertain­ment in Hindi and Urdu to a wide audience.