Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
I’ll answer this in two parts, as the question demands.
What is folk culture?
- Culture represents a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices and which manifests itself in almost all economic, social and other activities.
- Folk culture is the localized form of a culture – refers to the identity of a ‘folk group’
- A ‘folk group’ is any group of people who share at least one common factor be it a language, caste or occupation, etc. For example, the people of a certain district in a state/ a royal family/ adherents of a particular religious sect/ people belonging to a particular occupation like snake-charmers, fishermen folk, traditional healers, jewellery makers, handicraft sellers, etc.
- Folk culture is essentially imbued with a sense of place
What are some classic examples of it?
In India, you get to see folk culture of every imaginable variety, what with so much diversity all around. Although there are many ways of viewing them, their song and dance routines are my favorites. Each folk culture is so distinct and so beautifully represented through their art forms.
Every state of India has many different art forms and it would not be in the scope of this answer to talk about each and every one of them. So I’ll just mention some of the art forms that I know a little about…some of them I have been fortunate enough to have seen being performed live and some I have watched on TV or read about them. I am aware that there are more important and famous ones than the ones I’m about to mention. But I wanted to talk about the relatively lesser known forms.
Theyyam other wise known as Kaliyattam, is one of the most outstanding folk arts of Kerala. Just as the name Kaliyattam indicates, it is a sacred ritual dance performed to glorify the goddess Kaali. The term ‘Theyyam’ is supposed to be the corrupt form of the Malayalam word ‘Daivam’, meaning ‘God’. It earned the name Thirayattam as every thira or village performed this ritualistic art at the village temple known as kaavu.
Duffmuttu (also known as Aravanmuttu or Arbanamuttu) is a dance form particular to the Muslim community of Kerala. The origin of Duffmutt can be traced back to the Arabs. It is still accompanied by Arabic music.
Marggamkali is a very ancient and the most popular artistic performance prevalent among the Syrian Christians of Kerala. Margamkali is performed mainly by women on festive occasions, especially during the time of marriage.
Chavittu Nadakam is a highly colorful Latin Christian classical art form that originated in Cochin. It is noted for its attractive make-up of characters, their elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the rhythmic playback music and complementary percussion. This art form highly resembles European Opera. Chavittu Nadakam is believed to be originated during the 16th century AD. This form of play is prevalent among the Latin Christian community in the districts of Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur of Kerala.
Koodiyattam is the earliest classical dramatic art form of Kerala. Evidence show that this dance form was in vogue in all major temples from ninth century, and it became a full-fledged dramatic presentation before the fifteenth century. Koodiyattam literally means “acting together”. Koodiyattam is a temple art and probably the only surviving form of the traditional presentation of Sanskrit drama.
Folk dance of Tamil country, the villagers perform this dance in praise of the rain goddess “Mari Amman”. In this dance, the performers balance the water pot on their head very beautifully. Traditionally, this dance is performed in two types – Aatta Karagam is danced with decorated pots on the head and symbolizes joy and happiness, while the Sakthi Karagam is performed only in temples and is mainly danced for entertainment. Earlier it was performed only with the accompaniment of the Naiyandi Melam, but now it also includes songs. Most expert artistes are from the regions of Thanjavur, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Madurai, Tirunelveli, and Pattukottai and Salem.
In the Karagam dance intricate steps and body/arm movements decides the skill of performer. This dance can be performed individually or in pairs, by both the sexes. Some of the steps that are widely used are similar to the circus acts; dancing on a rolling block of wood, up and down a ladder, threading a needle while bending backwards and many more. Today, the pots have transformed from mud pots to bronze ware and even stainless steel. The pots are decorated in many ways with the help of attractive flower arrangements, topped by a moving paper parrot. The parrot rotates as the dancer takes swings along these looks beautiful. When men perform this dance, they balance the pots filled with uncooked rice, surrounded by a tall conical bamboo frame decorated with colourful flowers. Drums and long pipes form the musical instruments that add vigor to the dance. Also they dance standing over a plate i.e. rim of the plate, filled with water, without spilling water out of the plate while balancing the pot on their head.
The womenfolk of Tamil Nadu have three closely related dances, which can be performed at any time but are seen at their best during festivities. The simplest of these is the Kummi, in which the dancers gather in a circle and clap their hands as they dance. As an extension to this is the Kolattam, where instead of clapping, the participants hold small wooden rods in their hands and strike these in rhythm as they dance.
Poikal Kudirai Attam
Poikal attam refers to the dance of “false legs”. Here dancers are attached to a dummy horse at the waist. Instead of 4 legs of a horse only 2 legs of the person with the prop on his body is present. The image is similar to a rider on a horse (albeit a two legged horse and thus the name Poikal attam). This is a popular folklore dance with themes often on “Raja Desingu” – a once popular Rajput ruler called Tej Singh who invaded areas all the way up until Tamil Nadu.
This is a group dance named after the dollu used in its performance, and performed by the men of the Kuruba community. The group consists of 16 dancers, each wearing a drum and playing different rhythms while dancing. The beat is directed by a leader with cymbals in the center. Slow and fast rhythms alternate, and the group weaves a varied pattern. Costumes are simple; the upper part of the body is usually left bare, while the a black sheet is tied on the lower body over the dhoti.
Kolattam or “the stick dance”, is a dance narrative of Andhra Pradesh. It is also called as Kolannalu or Kolkolannalu. It is a rural art usually performed during village festivals. It is a combination of rhythmic movements, songs and music. The Kolatam group comprises dancers ranging from 8 to 40 where they are grouped in pairs. The sticks provides the main rhythm. The dancers are led by the leader and move about in two circles. The inner circle receive the strikes on their sticks from the artists in the outer circle that deliver them. Kolattam is also called Kolanna in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh state.
Dhalo is a popular rural folk dance performed by women only in the ritual courtyard Mandd. The women dance in two parallel rows, facing each other. They sway, bend, move forward and backward crossing each other, singing songs on social and spiritual issues. The Dhalo is performed on the moonlit nights of Hindu ‘Pausha’ month in honour of the Earth Mother, lasting a week. It is a relatively slow rhythmic dance, compared to the faster fugdi dance, another women-only dance. The dancers form a link within themselves with an arm-around-the-back arrangement, and sing in harmony.
Tamasha is a form of theatre, which came into existence in the early 16th century in Maharashtra, which includes the love songs i.e. `Lavanis` due to which, this folk art, was very popular among the common people. Tamasha is one of the most awaited folk performances in Maharashtra. Tamasha includes songs and dance along with the musical instruments. Tamasha is associated and performed with two of the communities of Maharashtra, i.e. Kolhati and Mahar. 
Chau dance is originated and performed in the Mayurbhanj District and Nilagi region of Baleswar district of Odisha. It has its base in the martial arts tradition. The dance is a stylized mock battle in which two groups of dancers armed with swords and shields, alternatively attack and defend themselves with vigorous movements and elegant stances. Especially notable is the accompanying music, noted for its rhythmic complexities and vigorous percussion. The instruments include ‘Mahuri’ – a double reeded instrument, ‘Dhola’ – a barrel shaped two-sided drum, ‘Dhumsa’ – a hemispherical drum and ‘Chadchadi’ – a short cylindrical drum.
On wedding occasions, the countryside women of Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh perform the ‘Matki’ dance with an earthen pot balanced on the head, the Matki is mostly danced solo. Sometimes just for merriment a couple of women join the main dancer who usually dances with a veil on her face. The two other variations of the Matki are the Aada and Khada Nach.
The Tippani Dance originated from the Chorwad region of Saurashtra. Labourer women take a wooden rod, sometimes tipped with iron at one end, to beat the floor.
Kalbelia dance is performed by Naachato Rajasthan the women’s group of the Kalbelia community of Rajasthan. The main occupation of the community is catching snakes and trading snake venom. Hence, the dance movements and the costumes bear resemblance to that of the serpents. Dancers attired in traditional black swirling skirts sway sinuously to the plaintive notes of the ‘been’ — the wooden instrument of the snake charmers
This is the most spectacular dance performance from Uttar Pradesh. It is widely performed in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh. In the performance of Charkula, veiled women with balancing a large multi-tiered circular wooden pyramid on their heads, dance in various steps. The wooden pyramid is lighted with 108 oil lamps. The women dance on the `rasiya` songs of Lord Krishna.
Charkula dance is especially performed on the third day after the Holi festival- on Dooj. On this day, Radha, a concert of Krishna was born. According to a famous legend, Radha`s grandmother ran out of the house with keeping the charkula on her head to announce the birth of Radha. This was to show the pleasure & joy of her grandmother since then, Charkula has formed as a popular dance form of Brajbhoomi. It is performed during many various festivals. ()
Jhijhiya Dance of Bihar is religious dance to please Indra (God of Rain) for good rain.
The Santhal dance is considered to be one of the best tribal folk dances of India, which offers immense vibrancy and cheerfulness. This dance is supposed to be a replica of the folk dance of Madhya Pradesh. Santhal dance is generally performed by both the men and women of the Santhali tribe. It often covers issues related to gender and land rights.
Bardo Chham is a folk dance of Sherdukpens, a small community of West Kameng District of Arunachal Pradesh, Bardo Chham is based on the stories of good and evil. According to the local beliefs, there are both good and evil in mankind. The Sherdukpens mask themselves representing the different animals and dance to show an act of fighting the evil forces.
The Bihu dance is a folk dance from the Indian state of Assam related to the Bihu festival. This joyous dance is performed by both young men and women, and is characterized by brisk dance steps,and rapid hand movement. Dancers wear traditionally colorful Assamese clothing.
Though the origins of the Bihu dance is unknown, the first official endorsement is cited to be when Ahom king Rudra Singha invited Bihu dancers to perform at the Ranghar fields around 1694 on the occasion of Rongali Bihu.
Cheraw dance is a ritual dance performed in Mizoram, consisting of four people holding two crossed pairs of bamboo staves. It is one of the most famous dances in Mizoram, and a center of attraction during festive occasions. Similar dances are found in the Far East and in the Philippines, where it is known as Tinikling. It is believed that the Cheraw dance originated as early as the 1st century AD. Long bamboo staves are used for this dance, therefore many people call it “Bamboo Dance”.
Chang Lo dance is performed by Chang tribe of Nagaland. They perform it to celebrate their victory against enemies. It is a three-day festival where drama is also performed.
This traditional dance is specially performed by the young girls who are married. The dance is performed to the beats of the musical instruments such as dholak and thali. In some parts of the state, Jhumar dance is also popularly known as the ‘Hariyanvi Gidda’. ()
Sammi is a traditional dance form originating from the tribal communities of Punjab. It is the dance of Punjabi women. The dance is popular in the Sandalbar area of Punjab (now in Pakistan). The dance is performed by women of Baazigar, Rai, Lobana and Sansi tribes
Legend has it that this dance was originally performed by Princess Sammi of Marwad to show excessive emotion at her separation from Rajkumar Suchkumar of Rajasthan.
The Namgen dance is performed in September to celebrate the autumnal hues. The costumes are largely woolen and richly studded ornaments of silver are worn by women. The most picturesque amongst these are dances of Gaddis. All regions of Himachal Pradesh have their own dances. Mostly men and women dance together, close to each other in the formation.
Jammu & Kashmir
The Kud dance, which is performed by the local people of Jammu’s middle mountain ranges, is basically a ritual to honour the Lok Devatas or the Gods of the people.()
Besides these, there are many many more that I have been forced to leave out not because they are unimportant, but because I knew I couldn’t do full justice to them all even if I tried. This subject deserves to be a book in itself!
Dance write up courtesy: Wikipedia (unless otherwise mentioned)