A Preamble

This is the preamble to a series of articles which Drishti is planning to publish on the various styles of Indian classical dance that are prevalent today.

Indian classical dance has had an enormous impact upon all the other arts of India like sculpture, literature and painting. This is proven by the tremendous mass of material existing today dating from about the 2nd century BC to about the 19th century AD. One recollects in this context the figurine of the dancing girl from Mohenjodaro and the broken torso of a dancer from the Harappan period. Our ancient Vedas abound with beautiful and colorful metaphors and similes which describe the various dancing gods and goddesses. In those days, dancing seems to have been both a profession and a part of social activity. Sree Krishna of course was the Supreme Dancer. Rama and Arjuna were expert dancers and even the demon king Ravana was excellent at dancing! The Natya Sastra, which even today is the lexicon of all dancers, is proof positive of the fact that dance was an integral part of ancient life.

Dance historians have roughly divided the history of Indian dance into two periods: (1) from the 2nd century BC to the 9th century AD (2) from the 10th or 11th century AD to the 18th century AD.

Art historians point out that during the first period, Sanskrit and “its rich literature endowed the development of all arts in the country with unity and continuity” and that, however, in the second period, regional languages developed, and with that regional styles of dance began to grow. They also affirm that in the first period, the Natya Sastra and its tenets were strictly adhered to, and that dance, drama and music existed together as the word ‘natya‘ indicates. The sculptor, the poet and the dramatist were well versed in the intricacies of dance as defined in the Natya Sastra. This is to be clearly seen not only in the sculptures of Sanchi, Mathura, Amaravati and Ellora, to mention a few, but also in the kavyas and natakas of Kalidasa, and other dramatists and poets of the classical period of Sanskrit literature. (To give an instance, Sanskrit drama is a combination of Angika, Vachika, Aharya and Satvika – the four varieties of Abhinayam). However, by the 8th century AD, the traditions of the Natya Sastra in drama were weakening though they continued in literature beyond the 10th century AD.

The famous play (in Sanskrit) Karpura Manjari by Rajashekara of this period clearly indicates the rise of the musical play or opera, which seems to have led to the growth and development of regional dance-drama forms in the various languages of the medieval period.

After the Natya Sastar, came the Abhinaya Darpana, an elaboration on certain sections of the Natya Sastra. Sculpted illustrations of the ‘karanas’ (basic elements of dance) began to appear in temples after about the 11th century AD. The Brihadeeswara temple of Tanjore, the Chidambaram temple, the Orissan temples of Lord Vittala and the Khajuraho temples are magnificent examples of sculptures of dance poses and movements which illustrate the dance texts of these periods.

The chapter on dance in Sarangadeva’s Sangitaratnakara, though it is based on the Natya Sastra and the Abhinaya Darpana, indicates very clearly that there have been changes and modifications in dance; for example, pure dance is referred to as Shuddha and regional variations as Desastha which incidentally later on developed into regional classical styles. Naturally this led to the writing of books on dance, which though based on the Natya Sastra, developed an individual dance vocabulary describing the various regional styles that were springing up all over and which ultimately led to the formulation of the different classical styles in India. These, namely, Bharatanatya, Kathakali, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Manipuri and Odissi can be traced back roughly to the period from 1300 to 1800 AD.

Further, regional literary traditions and changes in religious beliefs also influenced the content and the theme of dance. For instance, from the 13th century AD onwards, Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda, began to have a profound influence on all Indian styles of dancing. The Shaivite tradition, which hitherto had dominated dance, gave way with the appearance of the Geeta Govinda, to Vaishnavite themes and beliefs, with its special emphasis on Lord Krishna, the most beloved incarnation of Vishnu.

Musical plays, keertanas and bhajans, padas and harikathas flourished and were interpreted through gestures, expression and rhythmic movements. The Vishnavite tradition sone permeated all the styles of dance and in these the story of Krishna was presented in a variety of ways.

Thus the different styles of classical Indian dance were practiced and perfected by creative artists in different regions. The sampradaya or family tradition flourished in these styles, with the masters carefully preserving them through ‘oral tradition’, though the gurus themselves were not very educated or well versed in dance theory or Sanskrit.

We all know how during the British regime our arts were looked down upon, and how the younger generations of Indians were trained in British-run Indian schools with the result that they ceased to be aware of our rich cultural heritage. The arts would have perished if it had not been for the masters and the devadasis who, though banished from the temples, hitherto the focal points of our culture, nurtured them in the privacy of their villages.

The arts had almost died by the 20th century, but there was a tremendous revival heralded by patriots like Rabindranath Tagore, Menaka Shokey and E. Krishna Iyer, which helped in no mean measure in the subsequent development and popularity of the various dance styles of our country.

All our classical styles are based on the Natya Sastranatya itself being a combination of drama, dance and music. Hence one has to be acquainted with the generic terms pertaining to classical dance and drama, of which dance is an integral part. These are natya (drama), nritya (dance and expression combined) nritha (pure dance) and abhinaya (mimetic representation of four kinds:  angika (pertaining to the limbs), vachika (concerned with words and the theme), aharya (decoration and make-up) and satvika (concerned with emotions). Then there are the lokadharmi (realistic) and the natyadharmi styles (stylized modes) the desi and the margi, which are more or less the same, tandava (virile powerful dancing) and the lasya (feminine dancing), to mention a few important terms.

In the 10th chapter of the Natya Sastra, the charis (movements) are described in detail and in the 4th chapter are described, the karanas, which are 108 in number followed by the angaharas (combinations of karanas), the mandalas (combinations of leg movements), the pindibhandes (groups of movements) and so on. These will be referred to in detail in the subsequent articles on the classical styles of dance being practiced today, starting with Bharatanatya which is perhaps the oldest amongst the contemporary classical styles of Indian dance.