India, a country known for Art, Culture and Classical Dancing, this land has seen many legends.
Name a classical form and you will witness the abundance of talent it has produced and how we are so proud of it.
They are the legends who are known not only for their grace, poise and hard work but also for promoting their respective classical dance forms in the international platform captivating western audiences and increasing their interest in exploring the roots of these forms.
Let us take look at the top famous Indian classical dancers of all times
1. Rukmini Devi Arundale – Bharatnatyam
Born on 29th February 1904, Rukmini Devi Arundale was a theosophist, dancer and choreographer of Bharatnatyam. She changed the face of Bharatnatyam by reviving it and bringing back its due recognition. Not only did she work on re-embellishment of Bharatanatyam but also worked on the re-embellishment of the traditional Indian arts and crafts.
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She defended the art of Bharatnatyam which was called and considered as a ‘vulgar’ art. She removed the eroticism of Sadhir and made it prominent as an art form for Victoria British and Indian upper caste elites.
Rukmini Devi was featured in India Today’s list of ‘100 People Who Shaped India’. She was awarded with ‘Padma Bhushan’ in the year 1956 and the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship’ in 1967.
2. Pandit Birju Maharaj- Kathak
Brijmohan Mishra popularly known as ‘Pandit Birju Maharaj’ as was born on 4th February 1938 in the family of Kathak dancers which includes both his uncles ‘Shambhu Maharaj’ and ‘Lachhu Maharaj’, and his father and guru ‘Acchan Maharaj’. He brought a lot of fame to the classical dance form of Kathak not only nationally but even globally.
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Maharaj started teaching the dance form at a young age of 13 at Sangeet Bharti in New Delhi. After teaching at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra and at the Kathak Kendra where he was the director, he opened his own dance school named ‘Kalashram’ in New Delhi as soon as he retired.
He even choreographed famous song ‘Kahe Chhed Mohe’ from the movie Devdas and ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ from Bajirao Mastani.
He was awarded with ‘Padma Bhushan’ in the year 1986.
3. Uday Shankar – Fusion
Born in a Bengali family in Jaipur on 8th December 1880, was the known dancer and choreographer ‘Uday Shankar’ who was best known for creating fusion art by adapting European theatrical techniques to Indian Classical Dance combined with Indian folk and tribal dance which he popularised in India, Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.
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Even after not having any formal training in any of the Indian classical dance forms, what made him stand out were his creative presentations. From a young age, been exposed to both Indian classical dance and folk dance, as well as to ballet during his stay in Europe, is when he decided to bring elements of both the styles together to create a new fusion form of dance which he called ‘Hi-dance’.
Known as the pioneer of ‘Modern Dance’, he opened his own academy known as the ‘Uday Shankar Centre for Dance’ in 1965 after settling down in Ballygunge, Kolkata.
He received ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship’ in 1962 for his lifetime contribution to ‘Indian Dance’ and ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 1971.
4. Kelucharan Mohapatra – Odissi
Born on 8th January 1926 in Puri, Odisha, ‘Kelucharan Mohapatra’ is a well known and legendary Indian Classical Dancer, Guru and the man behind reviving the classical dance form of Odissi in the 20th century.
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He was not only an exceptional dancer but also an expert at playing Percussion instruments – Mridangam, Pakhavaj and Tabla and was also skilled in traditional ‘Pattachitra’ painting.
He received a lot of recognition and multiple highly honoured awards starting from ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in 1966, ‘Padma Shri’ in 1974, ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 1988, ‘ Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship’ in 1991 and ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 2000 where he was the first one to receive it from Odisha.
5. Guru Bipin Singh – Manipuri
‘Guru Bipin Singh’ was born on 23 August 1918 and was a director, choreographer and teacher of Manipuri dance. He mesmerised many audiences with his expressions, poise and grace.
He began training in his childhood itself while studying singing and dancing before focusing on Manipuri dance completely especially under Guru Amudon Sharma, with the support of Manipur’s king.Even though he earned a living as a film choreographer, he did not lose his focus to expand knowledge of the traditional dance form of Manipuri.
As a part of that, he created the ‘Govindji Nartanalaya’ dance school for women in Imphal and, in 1972, the ‘Manipuri Nartanalaya’ dance school in Calcutta.
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He received ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in the year 1966.
6. Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam- Kuchipudi
If we ever think of how ‘Kuchipudi’ dance form found the global limelight then the legend behind this success has to be the Guru of Kuchipudi dance form ‘Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam’.
Born on 15th October, 1929 in Kuchipudi, Andhra Pradesh, he systemised Kuchipudi and bought the dance form more close to the standards of ‘Natya Shastra’ with introduction of elements such as ‘Chari’ which is basically the leg movements which were different previously.
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Known as the ‘rustic’ folk form of dance previously, he was the reason who revived Kuchipudi which later made it in the list of Indian Classical Dance Forms.
He started his own ‘Kuchipudi Dance Academy’ in Chennai with 150 groups and 15 solo dance dramas crafted and choreographed by him. These all were not only staged all over India but across the world.
He received ‘Padma Bhushan’ in the year 1998.
7. Padma Subrahmanyam – Bharatnatyam
Born on 4th February 1943 in Madras, ‘Padma Subrahmanyam’ is not only a well-known Bharatnatyam dancer but is an expert in various fields including a research scholar, choreographer, musician (masters in Carnatic Music), teacher, ideologist and author.
She wanted to delve much deeper in the art form Bharatnatyam which she has been learning from a very young age and which eventually led to researching about it. She learned that there is a gap between the history, theory and the actual dance. She even invented and created a new style known as ‘Bharatanrytam’.
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Her PhD was based on the ‘81 Karanas’ depicting Bharatanatyam movements. She is the author of many articles, research papers and books and has even served as a non- official member of the Indo-Sub-commission for education and culture.
She received ‘Padma Shri’ in 1981 and ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 2003. In her entire dance career she has received over 100 awards for her contribution to Indian Classical dance form of Bharatnatyam.
8. Shovana Narayan – Kathak
Born on 2nd September, 1950 in West Bengal, Kathak Maestro ‘Shovana Narayan’ needs no introduction. Student of ‘Pandit Birju Maharaj, she is a renowned Kathak dancer but also served as an officer with Indian Audit and Accounts Services.
She is even a ‘Choreographer-Performer’ and has produced international collaborative works with leading dancers of Western Classical Ballet, Spanish Flamenco, Tap dance, Buddhist chants with Buddhist Monks as well as to the compositions of western Classical composers. She even organises annual festivals which are focussed on classical performing arts.
She has even researched and discovered 8 Kathak villages near Gaya with documentary and official records. With over 80 articles with in-depth research have been published in several national newspapers and recognised journals and she has even authored 9 books based on Kathak and performing arts.
She received ‘Padma Shri’ in the year 1992 and ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in the year 1999-2000.
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9. Sonal Mansingh-Bharatnatyam & Odissi
Sonal Mansingh was born on 30th April, 1944 in Bombay and is an Indian classical dancer and Guru of both Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancing style.
Her dancing career started in 1962 and after her ‘arangetram’ in Mumbai, she founded, Centre for Indian Classical Dances (CICD) in New Delhi in 1977.
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Her dance performances have taken her all over the world and brought her many awards which includes the ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 1992, ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in 1987 and the ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 2003; making her the second woman dancer in India to receive such an honour after ‘Balasaraswati’.
She has even authored three books which are largely based on Indian Classical dance Styles. She was nominated by President of India to become a Member of Parliament, ‘Rajya Sabha’.
10. Srimanta Sankardev – Sattriya
Srimanta Sankardev was an Assamese Polymath, saint-scholar, poet, playwright, social-religious reformer and an important figure in the cultural and religious aspect in the history of Assam in the 15-16 century.
He is widely credited for introducing new forms of music, theatrical performance, language and the ‘Sattriya’ Dance.
Sattriya comes under the Classical Dance Forms of India, conceived and developed by Sankardev and preserved by ‘Sattras’ for all these decades.
In the recent times, Sattriya has seen major developments in terms of choreography, costumes and stage presentation but the roots remain authentic and the concept too.
11. Mrinalini Sarabhai – Bharatnatyam & Kathakali
Mrinalini Vikram Sarabhai was born on 11th May 1918 and was an Indian classical dancer, choreographer and instructor.
She was the founder and director of the ‘Darpana Academy of Performing Arts’ an institute which focuses and trains the students in dance, drama, music and puppetry in the city of Ahemdabad.
She has received many accolades, awards and citations in recognition of her contribution to art and she has trained over 18,000 students in Bharatnatyam and Kathakali.
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She has choreographed more than 300 hundred dance-dramas and has also written many novels, poetry and stories for children. She was even the chairperson of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation Ltd.
She received ‘Padma Shri’ in the year 1965 and ‘Padma Bhushan’ in the year 1992. She was awarded the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship’ in the year 1994.
On 11th May 2018, Google Doodle commemorated her 100th birthday.
12. Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma – Mohiniyattam
Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma (1915-1999) was an Indian Classical Dancer and is the reason making Mohiniyattam dance form – a mainstream Indian Classical dance from when the dance form was on the verge of near-extinct.
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She is known to create the formal structure and ornamentation of the Mohiniyattam dance form and has also presented two books of which she authored – “Mohiniyattam – History and Dance Structure” which was an elaboration and authentic documentation of Mohiniyattam.
She has won both Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy and Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi awards and has also been honoured with Kalidasa Samman in 1997-1998.
13. Yamini Krishnamurthy – Kuchipudi & Bharatnatyam
Born on December 20, 1940 in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, Yamini Krishnamurthy is one of the notable Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and turned out to be a prominent name and eminent personality ruling in the Indian dance world for many decades.
She began her training in Bharatanatyam as a child at Rukmini Devi Arundale’s ‘Kalashetra’. She rose to prominence and her rise to fame started after her first performance in 1957 in Madras.
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She began studying ‘Kuchipudi’ after her teacher urged her to which is comparably a more fast movement dance. She has also been trained in Carnatic vocal music and Veena.
In 1990, she opened her own dance studio ‘Yamini School of Dance’ in Delhi. She has been awarded with Padma Shree in 1968, Padma Bhushan in 2001 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016.
14. V.Satyanarayana Sarma- Kuchipudi
V. Satyanarayana Sarma known as ‘Satyam’ was an Indian classical dancer and also a choreographer, being an exponent of the Kuchipudi dance form.
He was born on 9 September 1935 in Andhra Pradesh and has been popularly known to portray female characters such as Usha (Usha Parinayam), Satyabhama (Bhama Kalapam), Deva Devi (Vipra Narayana) etc.
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He started his training in Kuchipudi under his elder brother Vedantam Prahalada Sarma at the age of 5 and later went on to learn under known exponents. He made his debut at the age of 14, performing in two melams, Harischandra and Ramanatakam and did his first major performance at the age of 19 where he portrayed the role of ‘Parvati’ in ‘Usha Parinayam’ at Sapru House in Delhi.
He went on to perform as female characters in many melams and has performed in over 10,000 stages.
He was awarded with Padma Shri in 1970 for his contributions in the field of Kuchipudi dance.
15. Tanjore Balasaraswati- Bharatnatyam
Tanjore Balasaraswati also known as Balasaraswati was born on May 13, 1918 in Madras. She was a celebrated dancer who had bought Bharatanatyam as a well known dancing style not only in India but also in many parts of the world.
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She made her debut in 1925 and the first performer outside of South India performing her traditional dance style in Calcutta in 1934. She went on to have a global career that attracted the attention of many renowned artists. She established a dance school in association with Music Academy in Madras where she trained new dancers in Bharatanatyam as per her vision.
She was awarded with Padma Bhushan in 1957, Padma Vibhushan in 1977 and Sangita Kalanidhi from Madras Music academy in 1973.
Bengali film director Satyajit Ray made a documentary named ‘Bala’ on Balasaraswati in 1976.
16. Kumari Kamala- Kathak
Kumari Kamala was born on 16 June, 1934 and is an Indian Classical Dancer. She has appeared in more than 100 films as a child dancer in Tamil, Kannada, Telegu and Hindi languages.
She started learning Kathak from Lachhu Maharaj in Bombay and also learned Hindustani Classical Music from Shankar Rao Vyas. Though she landed a major role with the Tamil film ‘Jagathalaprathapan’ but made an impact with her film ‘Nam Iruvar’.
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In the year 1953, she was called to perform for Queen Elizabeth’s II coronation festivities and i the 1950s she toured in Japan and China. She even took classes for two terms at Colgate University after she awarded with Branta Professorship in 1975.
She was awarded with Padma Bhushan in 1970.
17. Alarmel Velli -Bharatnatyam
Born on 14 September 1956 in Chennai, Alarmel Velli is a leading classical dancer who explored and popularised the ‘Pandanallur Style’ in Bharatanatyam. She made her debut at age of 9 ½ at the Indian Institute of Fine Arts in Madras and later was awarded with Natya Kala Bhushan Award.
Over the years through her in-depth research in Tamil Literature and Sangam Poetry which resulted in repertoire of dance poems, she has created her own distinct style within the framework of classical Bharatanatyam. She has also trained in Odissi under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and also his disciple in Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena.
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She has performed in many festivals and is the first Indian Classical Dancer to perform at Salzburg Festival in 2015.
She has been awarded with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2004. She even was awarded with the ‘Chevalier of Arts and Letters award’ from the Government of France in 2004.
Also read Indian classical dance forms