Dance and its significance

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By Shreelata Suresh

Dance in India (like all other traditions and beliefs) has a mythological beginning as well. Centuries ago when the world was steeped in anger and jealousy, greed and desire, pleasure and pain the people went to Brahma to seek an end to this misery. It is said that Brahma created the Natya Veda, the fifth scripture to save humanity from deterioration from moral values. He created this Veda by taking elements from the other four Vedas. He took Speech from the Rig-Veda, Abhinaya (the entire gamut of speech, body, dress and facial expressions) from the Yajur Veda, and music from the Sama Veda and aesthetic experiences from the Atharva Veda. He revealed this Veda to Sage Bharata. The Sage went to Lord Shiva to learn and add dance movements to the  drama he had created according to the Veda. And thus dance and drama were created. Sage Bharata’s Natya Shastra is the most exhaustive text on theatre art. It is the easily the oldest in the world and is the common basis for the Indian classical tradition of music, dance, drama and iconography.

Shiva, the Lord of Dance is said to have created the Universe with his Ananda Tandavam, or the dance of joy. It is He we see dancing in the rise and the fall of the waves in the oceans, in the volcanoes and the earthquakes, in the rotation of the planets and the stars. In the lighting and the thunder. All movements within this cosmos is said to be His dance.

Apart from these divine beginnings of dance, we have evidence to show that classical dance in India is at least 2000 years old. Various cave paintings, engravings, sculptures from the Mohenjo Daro civilization and other literary works show the beginnings of a very ancient dance form. The numerous sculptures in the different temples of India (from Kashmir to Kanyakumari) show that dance was a rich and vibrant dance form even in the early AD’S.

The different classical dance styles were practiced and perfected in the different parts of the country even through social and political upheavals. Family traditions grew within styles. In most places dance was performed in the temples as the highest form of worship to God. They were danced by young girls called Devadasis (servants of God) who were dedicated to a particular temple and a particular God. It was a sacred art form. Unfortunately, the British rulers did not see the arts as a form of education or moral tradition and started to alienate it from the people. They put a ban on temple dance and slowly the art started to die. Apparently by the 20th century we were left with only a shadow of what had been and existed.

A recent and renewed interest in our dance forms in the last 50 years or so has helped to develop the current styles. A lot of the glories of the past traditions have been uncovered. The styles of today are the recreations of these discoveries. So they are ancient at the same time being contemporary. They are performed outside the traditional milieu but at the same time trying to recreate the past. New themes are infused within the technique of the old styles and sometimes the ancient themes are presented in a new form and technique.

Kathak from North India, Manipuri from the North Eastern corner, Odissi from Orissa, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu and Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala are some of the present day classical dance styles of India. The techniques of most of these forms can be traced back to the rules laid down in the Natya Shastra. Seeing the beauty, grace and the seemingly different styles of today one can only imagine how magnificent the dance of the bygone times would have been!

If political upheavals had threatened the art years ago, it is the idea of dance being a form of mere entertainment that is killing it today. A mere recreation of the ancient art in the physical plane is not enough. The declining audiences, the competition from popular cinema and TV and the influence of western culture only emphasizes the lost sacredness of the dance. Tracing through the centuries of Indian dance, one can only see it as being sacred or devotional. The gods themselves were supreme dancers. Sage Bharata has noted in his colossal work that “Natya teaches duty to those who go against it, love to those who desire it, chastises those who are ill-bred or unruly, promotes self-restraint in those who are undisciplined, gives courage to the cowards, enthusiasm to the valorous, enlightenment to those of poor intellect and gives wisdom to the learned. It gives diversion to the kings, solace to those with a sorrowful mind, wealth to those desirous of it and composure to a mind of conflicts.”

Dance is a sacred movement of the various limbs with deep divine feeling. The songs are purely devotional love songs with the dancer being the devotee and God being her beloved. The heroine longing for her lover is not a male chauvinistic theme as considered today but is the Jeevatma (Individual Self) longing for the union with the Paramatma (Divine Self). When the dancer believes in this, she not only transports herself to a higher plane of consciousness but also takes her audience with her. Her audience walks out of the performance feeling exactly like what Sage Bharata said.

Today when moral values are declining and violence is increasing, it is the duty of the dancer to create an atmosphere of peace through her dance and the deep spiritual dedication that accompanies any performer of the classical dance style. After all, Brahma created this audio-visual art form to check the moral deterioration in the world.

Indian classical dances

India has thousands of year old tradition of fine arts and classical and folk music and dances. Some of the world-famous dance forms that originated and evolved in India are Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and Odissi. All these dance forms use basically the same mudras or signs of hand as a common language of expression and were originally performed in the temples to entertain various gods and goddesses. They were also effective in carrying forward the various mythological stories from generation to generation while entertaining the audiences. It eventually became a part of Natya Shashtra, as propounded by Sage Bharata to compile and forge some rules and regulations of entertaining arts.

With time, the classical dances evolved to include the expressions and themes from social life and experiences. Lord Shiva is said to be the “Nataraja” meaning “King of All Dances,” who is said to perform the Cosmic Dance that delicately balances life and death and all that is happening in the Universe in harmonious cycles. Bharatnatyam, popular in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, is said to be revealed by Lord Brahma to Bharata. Kathak is the art to tell a story and is a form of North Indian classical dance. Later, it became courtly entertainment.

Kathakali from Kerala makes use of colorful masks and costumes and belongs to Kerala. Kuchipudi is the dance drama of Andhra Pradesh that combines Natya, Nritta and Nritya. Manipuri, as the name suggests, is from Manipur, the Northeastern state of India, and is a combination of many dances prevalent in the region. Mohiniattam from Kerala is a solo female dance and is known for its rhythmic and unbroken flow of the body movements. Odissi from Orissa is a dance of love, joy and intense passion.

Bharatnatyam

Bharatnatyam is one
of the most popular classical Indian dances. Bharatnatyam is more popular in South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Bharatnatyam dance is almost 2,000 years old. It is believed that Bharatnatyam was revealed by Lord Brahma to Bharata, a famous sage who then codified this sacred dance in a Sanskrit text called the Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra is one of the fundamental treatises on Indian drama and aesthetics.

Kathak

Kathak is one of the most important classical dances of India. Kathak is said to be derived from the word katha, meaning “the art of storytelling.” The Kathak dance form originated in north India and was very similar to the Bharatnatyam dance form. In ancient India, there were Kathakars or bards, who used to recite religious and mythological tales to the accompaniment music, mime and dance.

Kathakali

Kathakali is the classical dance form of Kerala. The word Kathakali literally means “Story-Play.” Kathakali is known for its heavy, elaborate makeup and costumes. In fact, the colorful and fascinating costumes of Kathakali have become the most recognized icon of Kerala. Kathakali is considered as one of the most magnificent theatres of imagination and creativity. Kathakali dance presents themes derived from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics, mythologies and legends.

Kuchipudi

Kuchipudi is one of the classical dance forms of the South India. Kuchipudi derives its name from the Kuchipudi village of Andhra Pradesh. In the seventeenth century the Kuchipudi village was presented to the Brahmins, who were experts in staging dance and drama. Kuchipudi exhibits scenes from the Hindu epics, legends and mythological tales through a combination of music, dance and acting. Like other classical dances, Kuchipudi also comprises pure dance, mime and histrionics but it is the use of speech that distinguishes Kuchipudi’s presentation as dance drama.

Manipuri

Manipuri is one of the six major classical dances of India. Manipuri dance is indigenous to Manipur, the North eastern state of India. The Manipuri dance style is inextricably woven into the life pattern of Manipuri people. The most striking part of Manipur dance is its colorful decoration, lightness of dancing foot, delicacy of abhinaya (drama), lilting music and poetic charm. The Manipuri dance form is mostly ritualistic and draws heavily from the rich culture of the state of Manipur.

Mohiniattam

Mohiniattam is a classical dance form of Kerala. Mohiniattam is derived from the words “Mohini” (meaning beautiful women) and “attam” (meaning dance). Thus, Mohiniattam dance form is a beautiful feminine style with surging flow of body movements. Mohiniattam dance in Kerala developed in the tradition of Devadasi system, which later grew and developed a classical status.

Odissi

Odissi is one of the famous classical Indian dances from Orissa state. The history of Odissi dance is almost 2,000 years old. Odissi is a highly inspired, passionate, ecstatic and sensuous form of dance. Like most of the South Indian classical dances of India Odissi too had its origin in the Devadasi tradition. The state of Orissa has a great cultural history.

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