The Origin of Dance

The highly descriptive expression, “moved to the core of one’s being”, is applicable either to the results of certain experiences in life or to the powerful effects of one or the other forms of art on the human mind. It is only when one listens to soul-stirring music, or when one witnesses a dance that truly seems to be movement in sculpture, or perhaps when one gazes upon a painting or a sculpture that seems larger than life, or when one reads poetry that gives a deeper insight into life, that one truly experiences this feeling of having been moved to the very core of one’s being.

God is the Supreme Artist. His masterpieces are to be seen everywhere and at all times. His genius is Infinite and many-sided. He has painted for us landscapes of unsurpassable beauty, sculptured exquisite shapes which are marred by no imperfection, and he has created human beings, “living portraits, ranging from the peerlessly beautiful to the incredibly ugly”. He has given us music in the roar of thunder, the song of birds, the cry of animals, the tinkle of raid, the murmur of the wavers, and, last but not the least, in the melody of the human voice. As for dancing, life itself is a dance and every living creature dances, moves in rhythm, which is the basis of all dancing and the pulse of life.

It is the awareness of this beauty, this spirit – that the artist, be he a painter, a musician or a dancer, captures for a moment and tries to express through his chosen art.

How did art come into being in this world of ours? Let us give free rein to our imagination and start from the very beginning. Science being the strongest influence on our lives these days, it is but natural that we are taking for granted the scientific theory of evolution that so shocked our forefathers. Let us visualize then the gradual evolution of man from the quadruped, the monkey, into the biped, the first man.

Primitive man having climbed down to the earth from his airy perch, is too busy satisfying the base instincts like hunger for a while to bother about anything else. As his evolution progresses, he has more leisure now having reduced the mechanics of living to a matter of habit. He is filled with a vague restlessness, an inexplicable desire for something that he cannot describe. The lower being in him is put in its place and slowly, very slowly, his higher consciousness awakens. He looks around him, and he likes what he sees. Admired ardently by his woman and those around him, he is filled with a sense of power, an overwhelming happiness that cries for expression, and so! He gets up and dances spontaneously – the first dance that the world has seen. His wild whoops of joy are the first indication of music. With feeling comes thought and with thought, speech, and then follows writing. He builds himself a shelter to keep out the sun and the rain. Suddenly one day, feeling the need for decoration, in a moment of idleness, he covers his walls with crude drawings of all that he sees around him, and colours them with pigments discovered in the soil. These are the first paintings… One can go on with this fascinating game of reconstruction, but we are solely concerned here with the probable origin of dance in our country.

How then did our present dance forms originate, the polished and classical style of Bharatanatyam, the unparalleled art of Kathakali, or the courtly Kathak of northern India? It is a well-known fact that dance was the first art to be created by man- dance is the supreme expression of love and religion and is “as old as the hills and as eternal as the stars”.

We Indians have always believed that it is through dance that we participate in the cosmic processes of life; hence all our dances are intimately connected with religion, spiritual love and imitations of the Divya Kriya or divine actions. Dance, we believe, is a means of enlightening and improving the mind of man.

It is believed that Nritya, or dance, is the outcome of the five activities of God: creation, preservation, destruction, illusion and salvation. The dancing image of Nataraja, which has a universal aesthetic appeal, is a symbolic representation of this Supreme Truth. We also believe that the universe itself is a result of the ecstatic dance of the Creator and that dance is at the root of all processes leading towards the attainment of salvation.

Coming down to earth, one discovers, that dance arose from the desire in man to express feelings and thoughts, awakened in him by the dynamic forces of life, through spontaneous movements and expressions. Another interesting feature is, that Rhythm which is the cardinal principle of all dancing is woven into the very texture of life, be it the rhythm of a dancer’s feet, the musical thoughts of a poet, or the movements of a peasant threshing wheat. Every action of life seems to have its own peculiar rhythm. There is rhythm everywhere and we are perpetually dancing without being aware of it. However it is clear, that dancing in our country is nothing if not religious.

With our rich stores of tradition and legend to draw upon, it is not surprising that there is a beautiful legend about the origin of dance as well. In the Natya Sastra, an elaborate treatise on the drama, an interesting story is told about the origin of the three arts of singing, dancing and drama, an interesting story is told about the origin of the three arts of singing, dancing and drama. With the passing of the Golden Age and the end of the reign of Manu and the beginning of the Treta Yuga, people became addicted to sensual pleasures and evil thoughts, to the dismay of the Gods who, under the leadership of Indra, the king of the Gods, appealed to Brahma the Creator, for help and asked him to create another Veda which “could be seen as well as heard”.

“I shall grant you your wish,” said He and, having sent them all away withdrew himself into Yoga or intense concentration of the mind and created the fifth Veda, the Natya Veda, out of the four other Vedas taking speech (Paathya) from the Rig Veda, expression (Abhinaya) from the Yajur Veda, song (Geeta) from the Sama Veda and emotion (Rasa) from the Atharvana Veda, which would “bring to its devotees generosity, aspiration, prosperity and salvation”.

Having created the Natya Veda, Brahma then summoned Indra and requested him to enact Natya according to the rules and regulations contained in the new Veda. Realising that the Gods were unwilling to do this, he summoned the sage Bharatha with his hundred sons and entrusted the new science to them. Bharatha having made a thorough study of the Veda, and being desirous of staging a performance by his pupils discovered that he could not carry out his intention without the help of women dancers. It was then, that Brahma created the Apsaras, the celestial nymphs, well-versed in the dramatic arts. Finally the first play, full of acting, dancing and music was put on boards in celebration of the Banner Festival – the Victory of Indra over the demons. This in brief is the story of the origin of Natya.

According to another legend, the Sandhya Tandava or the “Evening Dance” of Nataraja danced at dusk, one evening, in his celestial abode, Kailasa, suitably accompanied and watched by the Gods and Goddesses, was the primal dance out of which arose all the other dances which have now come down to us in their present forms.

Whether we believe in legends or not, the fact remains that dance is as old as creation or, rather, as old as man and his emotions.

Whatever its origin, dance has been to most human beings a source of exquisite pleasure and has, in its purest form, inspired and elevated mankind. What our age is going to do with dance is hard to predict and remains to be seen: whether we will merely continue the traditions handed down to us, partly mutilated and slightly worn down; whether we will breathe new life into them and correlate them to modern thought and life; or whether we will destroy them altogether, labouring under the delusion that we are effecting improvements. But the one thing that we should and could do is to banish from dance vulgarity masquerading under the guise of popularity and learn to discriminate between real dancing and ‘false’ dancing. That will be a service which posterity will be ever grateful to us.