The Bandha Dance: A study in Origin and Growth


Bandha is an acrobatic dance performed by an individual or group to achieve difficult and intricate configurations through body contortion of the individual or through collective convolution. It would seem to have commenced as nritya (representational dance) but has survived largely as nrita (non-representational dance). Today it is largely extinct, glimmering but rarely in the performances of the gotipuas in Orissa. It appears to have originated in South India and was widely practised for about 350 years in Karnataka, Andhra and Tamil Nadu.

It has become fashionable in contemporary cultural studies in India to seek security and comfort in antiquity. It is natural for any vigorous cultural – especially physical – expression to be weaned in course of time from content and to emerge as a form in its own autonomy. This has happened many times in many cultures in the past and is true of bandha also. However, if one is impelled to seek an antiquity for the origin of bandha, one may trace its distant (and thin) roots in the pindibandha, which is prescribed by Bharatamuni (Natyashastra 4.256 – 264) to be performed in connection with the asarita and in the arabhati vrtti, which Sharngadeva defines (Sangitaratnakara 7.1118) as replete with indrajala (acrobatics). There is much evidence pointing to the prevalence of acrobatic dance in India in the centuries just preceding and following the Christ, and to its propagation in greater India. For example, acrobatic dance, originally migrating from India, is still called magic in China.

In ancient India, nrtta was classified into vishama, vikata and laghu (op. cit. 7.31). Bandha may be accomodated under vishama because the latter involved acrobatic feats such as revolving with, or around, a rope. However, vishama came to connote in later days a form of bandha employing an odd number of performers.

The word bandha has many meanings which include combination, tying together, (and by semantic extension) rope or fetter of any kind, arrangement, body configuration, construction or formation and is therefore quite appropriate to this dance. The use of rope in bandha nrtta will be mentioned presently.

Bhanda in Andhra

The earliest known textual reference to bandha is by Pedakomati Vemabhupala, the Reddi king of Kondavidu in Andhra in c.1400 A.D. in his Sangitachintamani (unpublished). Much of this information is extracted by Ramakrishna Kavi in his Bharatakosha (which is documented here by page numbers given in brackets). Vemabupala has listed the following 24 bandha varieties (598) and described them: i. Sari (722) ii. Sari chandrakala (722) iii. Bandhasara (415) iv. Murudi (499) v. Hamsalila (784) vi. Rangabharana (521) vii. Chaturmukha (199) viii. Rangalakshmi (521) ix. Narayanapriya (328) x. Gajalila (165) xi. Turangalila (253) xii. Avaghada chakra (37), xiii. Padmabandha (354) xiv. Nagabandha (313) xv. Sarvatobhadra (713) xvi. Kurmabandha (145) xvii. Rathanga (524) xviii. Dakshinavarta (266) xix. Chaturashra Bhramara (198) xx. Vichitra (606) xxi. Lata (565) xxii. Langala (572) xxiii. Panchajanya (362) xxiv. Sudarshana (730).

Vema describes bandha as configurational dance performed by eight, sixteen, thirty-two or sixty-four patras: the one performed by sixteen is acclaimed as excellent. If performed by an even number of patras, the bandha is sama; if by odd numbered patrasvishama (598). Each bandha variety is mostly composed of four rows of dancers. If they move in straight lines it is called ora(17); if they move horizontally as in sari it is called bandhasara. If the movement involves figures of squares (or rectangles or quadrilaterals), it is said to be sari.

Ramakrishna Kavi also extracts a passage anonymously, which may be traced to Chatura Damodara and his son Veda. This relates to bandhanaparyaya. According to this, malika, mohana, etc. which were well known in contemporary dance practice were synonymous with bandha and performed in the vadyaprabandha (percussive instrumental composition) called tuduka. They were also part of the dharu composition rendered in alapa, svarapatti and with well-formed words.

Andhra had other forms of bandha also, as shown by Chatura Damodara in the early 17th century A.D. These were borrowed from Karnataka and are described in detail by Pandarika Vitthala in his Nartananirnaya. They were also practiced in Tamil Nadu and are detailed in his Sangitamakaranda by Veda who also borrows them at second hand from Chatura Damodara.

Bhanda in Karnataka

Numerous literary references in Kannada (the regional language of Karnataka) testify to the wide prevalence of various bandha forms in Karnataka from at least the 15th century A.D. These were collimated and codified by Pandarika Vitthala in the late 16th century A.D. in his Nartananirnaya which he wrote at the request of Akbar, the Mughal emperor.

Pandarika Vitthala views bandha in a wide perspective. He classifies all nrtta into bandha and anibhanda (Nartananirnaya 4.2.423). Bandha is defined as nrtta strictly conforming to prescribed rule gati,  et cetera. Et cetera (‘adi’) here means other elements of choreography – kinesic (e.g. karana, chari, angahara), postural (e.g. saushthava, sthanaka), figurative (e.g. padma-, naga-, vrksha- and similar formations) and dispositions of anga, pratyanga and upanga of the human body. In other words, bandha is performed according to an explicit, exact and articulated prescription which is derived from convention and tradition. It does not mean acrobatic / gymnastic dance exclusively, though it does include many acrobatic forms under its name. In fact, the bulk of its Nrtta-adhikarana is devoted to the delineation of bandha. Nartananirnaya describes the following items of bandha (reference to numbers in the following documentation is to shloka numbers in the Nrttadhikarana of its Nartakaprakarana):

  1. Mukhachali (427-464); apropos which nine gatis are described in accordance with tradition: i. Mayuri ii. Bhanavi iii. Maini iv. Hayalila v. Mrgi vi. Hamsi vii. Kukkuti viii. Khanjani ix. Gajagamini (465-480, including Kamala Vartanika andMakara Vartanika).
  2. Urupa (480-522): i. Shuddha neri ii. Karana neri iii. Bitra iv. Chitra v. Natra vi. Adrshthaprshtha tullam vii. Kuvada viii. Siluka ix. Tullam x. Prasara xi. Kartari xii. Hoylu.
    Among these, Kuvada has five bandha subvarieties, namely, Chakrabandha, Ravichakra, Padmabandha, Nagabandha and Vrkshabandha (499-513).
  3. Dhvada (522-538): i. Kalavinka vinoda ii. Tarkshyapaksha-vilasita iii. Vidyudvilasita iv. Bahyavartita v. Ravisanchara vi. Nartanabharana vii. Tiryak-tandava viii. Rangabhushana ix. Vadishagaja-bherunda x. Rolambavilasita xi. Pakshishardula xii. Simhapluta.
  4. Bidu-laga (539-555): i. Adalu ii. Rayarangalu iii. Nishanka iv. Hormayi v. Datu vi. Adantara vii. Rayapakshisaluva viii. Dindu ix. Alaga x. Dhenki xi. Bisu xii. Mungarana xiii. Hingarana xiv. Kartari-dindu xv. Alaga-dindu.
  5. Bhramari (539-555) with five subvarieties, namely, Bahya-, Antartiripachatra-Charka-bhramari
  6. Shabda *560-565).
  7. Svara – abhinaya (566-576) for the seven musical notes shadja etc.
  8. Svaramantha (577-581)
  9. Gita (582-587)
  10. Chindu (588-602) including seven subvarieties, namely Shuddha -, Vidu-, Tiruvani-, Mala-, Kolachari-, Kattana- and Gitamudra chindu.
  11. Gharghara (603-611) including six subvarieties, namely, Padivata Shiripidi Apadava Alagapata Shirihara and Khuluhula.
  12. Dharu(612-636) including Kattane dharu and Mukta dharu.

Most of the names in (2) and (3) are purely of Kannada origin and thus reveal the existence of a parallel professional parlance for bandha in Karnataka. Further, each of the bidu-lagas(4) involves acrobatic skill in using a rope and may be called rope dance. Thus the meaning of bandha as rope is appropriate.

Chatura Damodara on Bhandha

Chatura Damodara (alias Haribhatta), hailing from ndhra, composed the Sangitadarpanam in about 1620 A.D., presumably in the court of Jehangir, some two or three generations after Pandarika Vitthala. He has recorded in it the contemporary practice of dance in the region of Andhra and has repeated Pandarika Vitthala’s account of bandha with minor changes and omissions. Thus the seventh chapter of the Sangatidarpanam contains descriptions of mukhachali, including abhinya for shloka (40-52), seven gatis(112-123) omitting mayuri and kukkuti, yati prabandha (131-134), shabdachali (135-144), the twelve urupas, namely i. Neri (including the subvarieties Karana-, Nada-, Shuddha-, Salanga-, Sankirma-,); ii. Bhinna iii. Chitra iv. Natra, v. Khulla vi. Jaramana vii. Muru viii. Hullam ix. Lavani x. Kartari xi. Tullam xii. Prasaram (144-162); Dhvada (162-164), Laga (165-175) including ten subvarieties viz. i. Rayarangalu ii. Adala iii. Nishanka iv. Hurumayi v. Langhika-Janghika vi. Adantara vii. Dindu viii. Dhenki ix. Bisa x. Pakshi-Shardula; Shabdasuda (176-188), Vivartana (189, 190), Chamatkara (191-195), Shabda (199-200), Gita (201-203), Svaramantha (204-217, including Svara-abhinaya, 205-212), Salagasuda (218-234), Chindu(235-240), Dharu(254-259) and Vaipota (260, 261).

Damodara describes bandha nrtta as performed by two patras who generate three, four or five beautiful figures with their collective shoulders, feet and hands, by using karanas. Women dominate the bandha danc (262-264). As already mentioned, there is close agreement between  Nartana-nirnaya and Sangita-darpanam on bandha.

Veda on Bandha

Anantha alias Veda, son of Chatura Damodara wrote the Sangitamakaranda (a treatise on dancing) and dedicated it to his patron Shahaji who ruled Tanjore from 1684 to 1712 A.D. He acknowledges his debt to his father’s work. He depicts the practice of dance prevailing in the Tamilnad for his days.

Sangitamakaranda does not mention the word bandha explicitly as a category of dance but describes many items of bandha. Besides the nine gatis, mayuri, etc. it describes in the context of mukhachali, two others, namely, lavaki and tittiri; it also prescribes laharichakra additionally as a movement towards the end of the mukhachali. Similarly, it adds a seventh neri, namely, hastaneri to the six neris under urupas; it gives all the twelve urupas. Kuvada is here called tala-udupa; its varieties are assigned specific talas (which are defined); one more urupa, namely, hulla is given besides hoylu. Three more urupas, namely, lavana, chullaka and muru are also depicted. This work uniquely delineates dhvadha-kuvadas, namely, Ramabana, Arjuna bana, Harabandha, Chakrabandha, Muruganda, Sarvaganda, Nagabandha, Vrikshabandha, Gomutrika and Patalasuchi. In addition to the bidulagas rayarangalu, etc., it gives two more, namely, Dhusi and Matsyaputa. It recognizes two classes of bidulagas, namely, sulu-dhvada and sthala-dhvada. Sangitamakaranda then proceeds to describe other bandhars, namely, Shabdachali, Svaramantha (and Svara-Abhinaya), Chindu, Gita, Gharghara, Dharu, Kattara and Dhruvapada.

The prevalence of the above and other bandhas in Tamilnad is corroborated by other dance treatises such as Devendra’s Sangitamuktavali which gives an account of Mukhachali, Yati, Shuddha Yati, Dhvadas, Urupas, Shabdachali, Suladi Shabda, Shabda, Kvada, Suda Gita Prabandha, miscellaneous Gitas, Dharu, Kattara and Dhruvapada.

………………….. to be continued in the next issue