KRISHNA is a favourite in Indian Classical Dance

  • Know about the importance of Sri Krishna in various dance forms namely Manipuri, Odissi and Mohiniattam (Kerala).

Indian classical dances are spiritually deep rooted. A variety of stories from Hindu traditions are interpreted in all the eight types of classical dances, whether it is Bharata Natyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali or Kathak. All classical dances portray the philosophy of reaching out to the Supreme, through the dramatization and enaction of stories. In other words it is the inter-relationship between the jeevatma (human soul) and parmatma (Supreme Being) that is established in classical dance.


According to the Bhagvata Purana, Sri Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, possibly the most favourite god to be represented in all the classical dance styles of India. Commencing with his birth to the finale of Geetoupedesham in the battle of Kurukshetra, where he propagates and promotes the philosophy of dharma, fighting against adharma in order to maintain righteousness, peace and prosperity amidst people.


The complete charitram (story) of Sri Krishna is depicted based on songs, composed and written by several scholars and lyricists for centuries together. Before I refer to different classical dance styles, I would like to quote a beautiful Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavata Purana, in praise of Lord Vishnu, who forms the trinity of Indian classical dance, along with Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma.


Shantakaram Bhujagashayanam, Padbanabham Suresham, Viswadharam, Gagana shadrishyam. Meghavarnam Shubhangam, Lakshmikantam, Kamalanayanam, Yogibrildhyan Gamyam, Vande Visnhu Bhava bhaya Haram, Sarva Lokaika Natham


Translated as, “Obeisance to Vishnu, the dispeller of the fear of rebirths, the one Lord of all the regions, possessed of a tranquil form, lying on a bed of snake (shesh naag), from whose navel has sprung the lotus, the Lord of all celestials, the support of the universe, similar to the sky, possessed of the colour of the cloud and possessed of handsome limbs, the Lord of Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), having lotus like eyes realized by Yogis in, meditation.”

Shesh Naag form of Vishnu at Chiang Ma restaurant, Thailand. 2009. 

Jayadeva’s Geet Govind in Odissi

Odissi was danced primarily by the Maharis (women dancers dedicated to the lord) in the temple of Jagannath at Puri. They would dance only to instrumental music. It is believed that the tradition of vocal accompaniment to dance started with the Geeta Govinda of Jayadev. He wrote and composed this lyrical epic in the precincts of the temple at Puri, in the 12th century.


Geeta Govinda is a hymn to Sri Krishna, which was to be sung and danced only for the Lord in the temple, not for the favor of any royal patron. Thus the theme of Krishna came into Odissi dance through the Geeta Govinda. It is noteworthy that the entire work was written and composed only for dance, and from his time till today, it is a favourite with Odissi dancers.

Happy to see Lord Vitthal. Artist Jhelum Paranjpee. 

Accomplished Odissi exponent Jhelum Paranjape says, “Geeta Govind concentrates on Krishna’s love with and for Radha. Intense earthly passion is the example Jayadeva uses, to express the complexities of divine and human love through the interpretation of varied astapadis (lyrical verses).” 


As described in Geet Govind and other texts, Krishna's love is for everyone, including all the Gopis but Radha is the most intimate, as Krishna spends most of the time with Radha. She symbolises human love and Krishna is the divine love, their love is inseparable and unique, thereby Krishna is eternally remembered and worshipped as Radhe Krishna.

Sri Krishna with Gopis. Manipuri Rasleela dance. Sangai Festival 2014. 

It is interesting to note that some of the ashtapadis describe that Krishna is depressed and feeling lonely, due to the absence of Radha, which is rarely depicted or observed in classical dance. Normally it is heroines who are always suffering from the pangs of separation (viraha tapam). Abhinaya entered the dance of the Maharis with Geeta Govind. This dance of the Maharis (devadasis) combined with the dance of the Gotipuas later came to be called Odissi.


Odissi dance enriched itself further in abhinaya with the theme of Radha and Krishna with this class of dancers known as Gotipuas-young boy dancers dressed in female attire. When the dance of the Maharis slowly declined due to various reasons, this class of boy dancers was created to carry on the tradition. During this period Vaishnav poets wrote and composed innumerable lyrics in dedication to Sri Krishna, describing his valor and his dalliance with Radha etc. The Vaishnavs chose this dance of the Gotipuas as a medium to popularize of their philosophy. 

Krishna and Radha.  

The Krishna theme has become the core of the abhinaya portrayed in Odissi dance. Beginning from the time of Geeta Govinda and the Odiya songs till date, where now the Krishna theme peeps into Odissi dance, through various other languages. The Odiya songs are written by a large number of Vaishnav poets.


The three that dominate the Odissi dance scene are Kavisurya Baladev Rath, Gopalkrishna Pattanaik and Banamali Das. The Odiya songs of these poets are nothing but the regional language counter parts of the Geeta Govinda. Mind you, these are translations…it’s the same thought and philosophy that’s underlined.


Also read Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda and About Jayadeva


Narayaneeyam by Narayana Bhattiripad

Narayaneeyam by Narayana Bhattiripad is a 16th century Sanskrit classic that describes the complete life story of Sri Krishna as Guruvayurappan.


It is interesting to narrate here that Narayana Bhattiripad was a great devotee of Sri Krishna and would sing praises of the Lord. It was his great desire to interpret the verses in a poetic format. Suffering from rheumatism he could hardly move or write but his ardent devotion induced him to write the complete story of Sri Krishna. Surprisingly, slowly and steadily all his illness disappeared after he completed the immortal classic Narayaneeyam. Renonwed Mohiniattam exponent Dr Geeta Radhakrishna has choreographed Narayaneeyam in Mohiniattam and has rendered several shows in India and abroad.

Krishna holding the flute. Performance by Mythili Anoop.  

Young and brilliant Mohiniattam exponent Mythili Anoop says “There has been a tradition of singing astapadis from Gita Govinda in the Sopanam style, by a musician, in many temples of Kerala, who also played the edakka. The rendition is in the Keralite Sopana Sampradayaam. This singing can be heard in many temples even today such as Guruvayoor Temple.”


Swathi Thirunal's kritis which are part of the traditional Mohiniyattam repertoire, refer to Krishna. The famous varnam, Sumasaayaka, is an address by the sakhi to Madhava, telling him to pay heed to her friend's languishing state in his absence. Tha padam, Karuna Cheyvaan enthu... (“Why the delay in showing mercy” composed by Irayimman Thambi is also part of the Mohiniyattam repertoire. There are several dancers who have composed the Bhajans of Swathi Thirunal such as Chaliye Kunjanamo, Aaj Aaye Shyam Mohan and Jamuna Kinare. The kathakali Padam, Ajitha Hare Jaya Madhava has also been composed in Mohiniyattam in which the episode of Krishna's revelation of his true form to Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield is enacted.


Just as in the other classical dance forms, the ashtapadis have also been composed in Mohiniyattam. Further, contemporary poetry on Krishna has been composed by artists such as Padmasri Kalamandalam Kshemavathy and SNA Awardee, Gopika Varma. Guru Nirmala Panikker has written and composed a varnam on Krishna, bringing in the Dashavataaras as well in Geetamodhiya Govindan. Kalamandalam Kshemavathy has a new varnam in her repertoire based on the story of Manjula, the devotee of Krishna at the Guruvayoor temple in Saramati Raagam, Guru pavanapure.”


Sadanam Balakrishnan, The SNA Awardee and Kathakali maestro has written, choreographed and presented Radha Madhavam which is based on the idea of the eternal and transcendental love between Radha and Krishna. The production has been presented as a jugalbandhi between Kathakali and Mohiniyattam on many stages.


Thus, Sri Krishna worship in the form of dance is seen in states of Manipur, Odisha (east India) and Kerala (south India) amongst others. Various stories of Krishna are portrayed in Kathakali too with dramatic exposition of the story.


In order to experience divine bliss or anandam, one should surrender completely to the lotus feet of the Almighty, with complete devotion and reverence to achieve moksham or enlightenment.


Guru Vijay Shanker is a professional Kuchipudi, Kathakali exponent, dance teacher, choreographer, actor and arts critic for over four decades, contributing for national and international publications. He is particularly credited for his lecture-demonstrations on Indian classical dancing which is a fine combination of both education and entertainment.


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Also read

1. Odissi is an elegant Indian Dance Form

2. Mohiniattam – dance of the Enchantress

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