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Indian Culture in Canada: Indian Classical Dance & Music

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Indian culture has become a part of many people’s lives here in Canada. The arts have played a massive role in many Canadian South Asian’s lives. From helping isolated kids born in Canada to build a community and reconnect with their culture to making immigrants children’s lives more comfortable as they are transitioning into a new society. Most importantly, it gives South Asian students an escape from the racism they face daily. Growing up, I used classical Indian dance and music to express myself in a way only other students of the arts would understand.

Indian classical dance, also known as Shastra Nritya, is a term for various performance arts rooted in religious Hindu musical styles. You can trace the theory, origin, and practice of classical dance can be traced back to Sanskrit text. There are about eight recognized classical dances; however, depending on the source and scholar, this could vary. Most people that practice classical Indian dance recognize the following eight Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu, Kathak from Uttar Pradesh, Kathakali from Kerala, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Odissi from Odisha, Pattaya from Assam, Manipur, from Manipur, and Mohiniyattam, from Kerala. As you can see, the dances are traditionally regional, and all of them include specific music and recitation in the local language or Sanskrit. They all represent the unity of core ideas in a diversity of styles and expressions.

Indian classical music is the major type of music from the Indian subcontinent. It has two major divisions: The North Indian style of classical music called Hindustani and the South Indian style of music is called Carnatic. These styles did not become distinct until about the 16th century, during the period of Islamic rule in India. The styles of music became more distinct and separated after this time period. Hindustani music is known to emphasize the improvisation of all aspects of raga, which is the central concept of Indian music. While Carnatic music tends to be short and based on compositions, both styles have more features in common than differences.

The practice of the Indian classical arts has helped many people cope with their differences here in Canada. Personally, dance and music have both enabled people in my family to feel more comfortable here in a new country. Indian classical music and dance have helped many Canadian South Asians to embrace their culture and make an easier transition into a modern society.

Origin of Indian Classical Dance

Natya Shastra, the Sanskrit text on performing arts, expressed the foundations of classical dance in India. The book can be attributed to Bharata Muni, ancient Indian musicologists, according to Harold Schramm’s Musical Theatre in India. The most well-known version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about six thousand verses structured into thirty-six chapters. The document describes the theory of bhava, expression, gestures, acting techniques, necessary steps, and standing postures, all of which play a huge role in Indian classical dance. According to Mirror of Gesture, written by Ananda Coomaraswamy and Gopala Kristnayya Duggirala, ‘dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, is a form of expression if spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.’

Though the Natya Shastra is the revered ancient text in the Hindu religion, many other ancient Sankrit texts relate to dance. They further discuss the classical performance arts, such as the Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaya Bharati, Natya Darpana, Bhava Prakasa, and many others, which are seen in Mandakrants Bose’s Movement and Mimesis: The Idea of Dance in the Sanskrit Tradition. Indian classical dances are traditionally performed as an expressive form of religious performance related to the pan-Hindu Epics and Vedic literature or even a folksy entertainment that includes storytelling from Sanskrit or regional language plays. They are either performed inside Hindu temples or near it as a religious art form. It can also be performed as entertainment at weddings, in royal courts, and even at festivals, as mentioned before, there are about eight types of Indian classical dance. However, there are specifically six types that are seen performed in Canada today; these beautiful dances are typically what we see.

  • Bharatanatyam is a dance from Tamil Nadu, which is the southern part of India. This is initially a temple dance for women. It is used to express Hindu religious stories and devotions. This style is often known for its fixed upper torso and Armandi, legs bent or flexed., combined with spectacular footwork.
  • Kathak is a northern dance Indian, more specifically from Uttar Pradesh. This is often known as a dance of love. It is performed by both men and women, and the movements include intricate footwork. It is accented by bells worn around the ankles and stylized by gestures adapted from ordinary body language. 
  • Kathakali comes from form southwestern India, more specifically the state of Kerala. Like Bharatanatyam, this is also a religious dance. It draws inspiration from the great Hindu epic Ramayana. Opposite to Bharatanatyam, it is traditionally performed by boys and men.
  • Kuchipudi, originating from Andra Pradesh in the southeastern part of India, is unlike the other styles mentioned, it requires talent in both dancing and singing. It is highly ritualized, with a song and dance introduction, a sprinkling of holy water, and the burning of incense, along with indications of goddesses.
  • Odissi is indigenous is Orissa in eastern India and is predominantly a dance for women. This dance form is believed to be the oldest of the surviving classical Indian dances based on archaeological findings. It is also known to be a very complex and expressive dance.
  • Manipuri comes from Manipur of northeastern India. It has its roots that come from the state’s folk traditions and rituals and often depicts scenes from the life of the god Krishna. Unlike the other more rhythmed dances, this is characterized by smooth and graceful movements.

Origin of Indian Classical Music

The roots of classical music in India are mostly found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism. It can also be found in Natya Shastra, similar to traditional Indian dance. According to Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from antiquity to the Present, the 13th century Sanskrit text Sangrita-Ratnakara of Sarangadeva is regarded as the definitive text by both Hindustani music and the Carnatic Music styles. Two foundational elements are found in Indian classical music, raga, and tala. The raga forms the fabric of a melodic structure, while the tala measures the time cycle. An artist can build melody from sounds using raga and tala provides them with a creative framework for improvisation. In Indian classic, the space between the notes is often more important than the notes themselves, and it does not follow western artistic concepts like harmony, counterpoint, chords, or modulation. There are two major divisions in Indian classical music.

  • Carnatic music originates from South India and tends to be more rhythmically intensive and structured compared to Hindustani music. Carnatic raga elaborations are generally much faster in tempo and shorter than their equivalents. Its accompanists have a much more significant role in concerts.
  • The Hindustani music style is mainly seen in North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It exists in four major forms; Dhrupad and Khyal. Khyal is the modern form of Hindustani music, and the term literally means ‘imagination.’ Dhrupad, the ancient form described in the Hindu text Natya Shastra is one of the core forms of classical music.


Here in Canada, many South Asians continue to practice both art forms. Bharatanatyam in specific is something we see here in Canada through teachers who have traveled from India to come to teach here and spread the culture. The same goes for Carnatic music; I have taken classes since I was in first grade. The classes let me embrace my culture and helped me want to learn more about my culture, which is why I decided to take this class. Classical Indian dance and music have deep roots within South Asia. With its connection to the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, its roots in the Sanskrit language, and its link to the Vedic texts, it has appeared in everything we have seen in our class. The arts have helped me and many other South Asians embrace their culture. 

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Indian culture in Canada: Indian Classical Dance & Music. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 26, 2022, from
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