Some historical snippets of BN – Part 18 – Male Dance costume

This post is a continuation of the previous posts about Bharatanatyam costumes (Part 16 and Part 17), excluding jewellery aspect of Aaharya, with some interesting tidbits. This is the third part of a sub-series within the historical snippets series.

For previous parts on the historical snippets, click on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 13a, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, and Part 17.

In continuation of the previous post on costumes (Part 16 and Part 17), we will see some the costumes by Male Bharatanatyam dancers. This is the final post on the dance costume series.

Using the same chronologically format, we will see the various costumes changes for male dancers. Three male dancers that I have not covered in this post are Nataraja, Nartana Ganapathi, Nartana Krishna, who are frequently depicted in sculpture and paintings. I am not belittling the art depicting Nataraja or Ganesha or Krishna, but there are excellent books/sources on iconography of divine dancers that is beyond the scope of this post! See here for dance iconography on Nataraja.

In the Natyasastra

In the pages 427-29 of the Manmohan Ghosh’s edition, the translation describes what costume types can be worn by men. Basically, Bharata suggested three colors to be used in different situations. White, Red and Varigated or multi-colored [1]. Although, the style of dress for a character is mentioned, it does not explicitly say how the costume is worn. Refer to reference 1, for more details.

2nd to 3rd Century AD

Among the earliest dancing sculptures of men, we see a group of men dancing and others playing musical instruments in the Nagarjunakonda panels. These are now currently in Indian Museum, Kolkata [2]. The scene in the panel depicts people celebrating Buddha’s descent from heaven.


The three dancers are in different poses, wearing the dhoti that is see flowing. Also, they are wearing waist cloth with ample materials that flow with the movement. The men are also having head gear and sport minimal jewelry. The other beings, smaller in size are ganas or celestial beings that are seen in a celebratory mood. The full panel can be seen here:

6th Century AD

The earliest painting we find of a male dancer is in the Bagh caves, Madhya Pradesh. These murals are stylistically similar to the ones in Ajanta. According to scholars, the scenes in Bagh caves depict the story of Buddha and his younger brother Nanda, and is based on the epic Saundarananda of Asvaghosa [3].

There are other Jataka stories depicted as well. Click here for more details. [4]

To come back to the male dancers in Bagh cave, let us see the mural in discussion. There are two groups of Indra’s apsaras who surround with one male in the centre. In the first group;

bagh_001 bagh_005

we see a male dancing with seven damsels surrounding him. The images are reproduced from the book “The Buddhist cave paintings of Bagh” by Anupa Pande. The top figure is the current state of the mural, while the second on a touched up and thus shows more clearly the mural in discussion. Anupa Pande describes the male dancer as: [3]

He wears a cream-colored tunic with a small circles and a broad, flat collar, striped blue and cream svasthana [waistband] and has a crimped blue and gold scarf around his head

Click here to see the same mural as seen today. The second male in the group is Nanda, brother of Buddha, who is also surrounded by six women. He is visiting Indra’s paradise and compares the merriment to the suffering back on earth.

bagh_003 bagh_006In contrast the first two images, the latter two also shows the male wearing a cream colored tunic with a triangular collar. Both are wearing long sleeved kurta type costume, with close fitting trousers. This can be compared to present day tight pyjamas worn by male dancers in Kathak. As G. S Ghuyre suggests that it could be the chudidara pyjamas. [5]

Kapila Vatsyayan writes [2]

He stands in the middle with both crossed hands at the level of the waist. His head is bent on one side. Although the lower limbs are not fully visible, it is clear that he is captured in movement of the dancer.

For both men, the women who surround them have drums, cymbals and sticks in their hands. There are two possibilities of the use of sticks; either they were used to keep time and rhythm or these murals are indicative of a primitive type of current day dandya raas. See here for more details. [6]

For more details on how to reach Bagh caves. Click here. [7]

7th century AD

In the Kapileshwar Temple, Bhubhaneswar an existing window relief shows three men dancing. The relief has three panels, the middle one [2]

three men dance with their lower limbs showing knees bent in an ardhamandali pose, but with a clear deflection of the hip.

orissa_001Their face are not human-like and it is possible that they are celestial beings. All three are wearing similar costumes: tight fitting shorts reaching till the knees, and waist cloth that fall over their thighs. For the upper garment, they have a smaller angavastram that are shown flowing with their movements. Notice that all three wear it differently. While, there is no indication of anklets, they wear bangles, huge earrings and elaborate crowns. [5]

8th to 14th century AD

Among the collection of American Academy of Benares, there is a male dancing figure, dating to 8th to 14th century. As seen in the image below, the dancer is wearing a dhoti/veshti with the waist cloth. He does not wear any upper garment, except for a single necklace. However, he wears a crown/turban of headgear and looks like he sports a mustache and beard. This image is reproduced with permission from the photo archive of American Institute of Asian Studies. [8]


10th century AD

Among the frescoes in the Big Temple/Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, there is a group of celestial beings dancing. With two female dancers, the male celestial being is seen below.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

He dancing in synchronous with other dancers and is sporting jewelry. While, his headgear is elaborate and sports a yagnopavitham (sacred thread), the lower garments are not very clear, as the fresco has obliterated [2].

See the full fresco below

17th century AD

In this Boondi miniature painting, the male dancer is dancing in celebration of spring [9]. The costume is inspired by the mughal-style. Here, as well we see that two females are playing the dafli and the damaru to accompanying him.


The dancer is wearing a criss-crossed long sleeved upper garment with a shawl accompanying it. The waist cloth is worn in a way to have the ends free. The lower garment is free flowing and covers much of the feet as well. Due to mughal influence, the turban is also appropriately of the style seen in other mughal paintings.

19th century AD

In the following gouache painting, there is an ambiguity about whether the person dressed in red is a dancer or a reciter. This is dated 1850 from Thanjavur area. While there is a person with cymbals that are exactly like the talam used today, the other two instruments gives us an idea that the person could probably be a fortune teller (like the gudugudupandi) or a folk artist. Image is reproduced with permission from Victoria and Albert Museum. [10]

A male dancer or reciter Tanjore 1850

In another painting, from the same period, it shows a male dancer without any accompanists.  Image is reproduced with permission from Victoria and Albert Museum.  [11]

A male dancer1850

This painting is also a gouache painting on mica (also called as company paintings) from present day Trichy. He is wearing a dress that is similar to the above male dancer, in addition he is sporting gold bangles, earrings and jewelry; indicating a well to-do male dancer. He is wearing two angavastrams that are differently colored and worn in a way to bring the ends of it in the front. Notice that this is the same style the previous male dancer is also wearing. This is similar to the female dancers bringing the pallu to the front. The dancer is most probably from the Maratha court, as he is wearing the turban that is identical to the ones worn in the Maratha court. He is sporting a lush mustache and huge earrings.

Uday Shankar

Among the archival photographs available of Shri. Uday Shankar, his inspirations are undoubtedly the sculptures of Shiva dancing. For example, in these photographs; [12]

Image Courtesy: Marg

Image Courtesy: Marg

his cotumes, jewelry, and the prop snakes are identical to Nataraja’s and other celestial being’s sculptures in temples. In the photo (right) he has a prop snake and is wearing a translucent lower garment. In the other photo (left), a full length dhoti with the waist cloth that is fastened on one side of the hip is definitely inspired by sculptures. In both photographs, his headgear and huge earrings make the costume more convincing.

Ram Gopal

The other dancer, who was also inspired by sculptures was Shri. Ram Gopal. He had designed costumes according to the character he would perform/dance to. In his auto-biography he says [13]

I was never satisfied with the crudely-made jewels and ornaments that are used in the traditional dances of today in the four main schools. After a minute observation and detailed search of the bronzes, sculptures and paintings, in the temples scattered all over India, and the cave paintings of Ajanta and Sigiriya in Ceylon, I sought to capture the fine and brilliantly coloured robes, ornaments, and jewellery depicted in these most authentic references that were, beyond doubt, far superior to what most of the actor dancers wear in the four styles of the Indian Dance today.

The big library in the park, accessible to all students. And there I went day after day, week after week. I got hold of a big book, with actual photographic studies and details of hand mudras and jewels. And I noticed its author’s name was Gangoly. I met him years later and told him how his book had guided me in the choice of my first costumes. “You couldn’t have chosen better, Ram. After all, they’ve been made and fashioned by the greatest artists of their day, and anything you have duplicated and copied from those bronze images, sculptures and the frescoe paintings that abound in South India and other parts, too, must be the most accurate.”

In the photograph below, we can see him in a white dhoti with the jewelry around the waist designed as seen in sculptures.
Ram_gopal_1For one of his dances, he had designed a headgear that was quite elaborate and colorful. By clicking on the video link that takes one to British Pathe, you can see Ram Gopal dancing with the headgear [14, 15]. See the image below the video link for the colorful headgear. 

Image Courtesy: VADS

Image Courtesy: VADS

It would be an understatement to say that headgears for male dancers (Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, US Krishna Rao, and Bhaskar Roy Chowdury) was an in-thing in the pre- and post-independence dance history. A compilation of headgears from various sources [12, 14, 16, 17, 18]

US Krishna Rao

Shri. U S Krishna Rao danced with Shri. Ram Gopal and was a pioneer in spreading the art form in Karnataka. He wore stitched pyjama style costume as seen in the photograph below. [17]

Image Courtesy: Narthaki Dance History Column

Nala Najan

The costume worn by Nala Najan is quite different from his contemporaries. Two photographs are representative of his fashion sense. [19]

Image Courtesy: Narthaki Dance History Column

The lower dhoti is very much like the pyjama costume with the single front pleats. He is wearing a elbow length shirt-like top that is stitched. A flower-like brooch adds a unique edge to the costume.
Nala_Najan_2In this screenshot from “Dances of India” video [20], Nala Najan is sporting a flashy dhoti without the pleats. But, he is wearing a full length top with borders forming the cuffs. Also, in the video he is wearing chunky neck jewelry, like the one seen in the screenshot.

Kalakshetra-style male dancers’ costume

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Image Courtesy: ICM 2010

The current male dance costume of wearing the dhoti/veshti for practice and for performance was probably made popular by Kalakshetra male dancers [21, 22]. Not only was the unstitched draping comfortable for the dancer, it is quite easy to wear as well. Stitched versions of this dhoti/veshti costume are available. At the same time, other variations of male dance costumes are abound with dance costume tailors. Click here to see the various styles that K R Dresses, Adyar has available for his costumers. [23]

New innovations needed(?)

Every now and then, one could hear someone say that the male dance costume needs some change. Recently, Sruti had posted this in their blog [24].

Times have changed and these customs need to be given a relook. It would not be a bad idea to think of elegant costumes for male dancers which will reflect the tastes of contemporary audiences, and shed the plebian image.

Wondering what type of changes would “reflect tastes of contemporary audiences”!


  1. Bharata’s Natyasastra, Manmohan Ghosh Pg 427-29 (
  2. Incredible India series. Arrested Movement: Sculpture and Painting. Kapila Vatsyayan 2007 Wisdom Tree. (
  3. Bagh painting
  5. Bharatanatya and its costume 1958 by G. S. Ghurye
  6. Folk Dances of Chambā by Kamal Prashad Sharma Indus Publishing, Jan 1, 2004
  9. Theatre in India, Balwant Gargi, 1962, New York, Theatre Arts Books
  13. Rhythm in the heavens: an autobiography. Ram Gopal. Secker and Warburg, 1957

3 responses to “Some historical snippets of BN – Part 18 – Male Dance costume

  1. A lovely closing post to the costumes segment! Those headdresses are breathtaking when put in perspective like this. I also didn’t realize until now just how unique Nala Najan’s long-sleeved shirt was, and I quite like it–he looks regal and as though he’s wearing his finest for the performance.
    A variation of the dhoti/veshti costume with the addition of a small semi-circle fan can be seen in this film dance of VP Dhananjayan: I like the way in more recent pictures he chose to wear a sash down both sides of the chest, which I suppose has the benefit of being more flattering to the aging and sagging body. 🙂

  2. This is wonderful documentation of the look of bharatanatyam. So I am wondering if male dancers wearing the angavastsrams as in your Thanjavur/Maratha image, had to bother with ardhamandi (bent knee stance) since their legs were so covered up? It is almost a mismatch between costume and technique?

  3. Thank You, Prof. Coorlawala! Your words are encouraging to do more dance research.

    Coming to the Thanjavur image. I am remembering my guru’s words that if one sits in a proper araimandi, it reveals even in a costume that hides the legs. In other words, she would say that one cannot fake it. I guess this must have been the case. However, recalling the “Maharanee of Baroda” devadasi video, I was bit disappointed with the lack of araimandi in them.

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