Dance in India has a rich and vital tradition dating back to ancient times. Excavations, inscriptions, chronicles, genealogies of kings and artists, literary sources, sculpture, and painting of different periods provide extensive evidence on dance. Myths and legends also support the view that dance had a significant place in the religious and social life of the Indian people. However, it is not easy to trace the precise history and evolution of the various dances known as the ‘art’ or ‘classical forms popular today.
Source of information
In literature, the first references come from the Vedas where dance and music have their roots. A more consistent history of dance can be reconstructed from the epics, the several Puranas, and the rich body of dramatic and poetic literature known as the nataka and the kavya in Sanskrit. A related development was the evolution of classical Sanskrit drama which was an amalgam of the spoken word, gestures, and mime, choreography, stylized movement, and music. From the 12th century to the 19th century there were many regional forms called the musical play or sangeet-nataka. Contemporary classical dance forms are known to have evolved out of these musical plays.
Excavations have brought to light a bronze statuette from Mohenjodaro and a broken torso from Harappa (dating back to 2500-1500 B.C.E.) These are suggestive of dance poses. The latter has been identified as the precursor of the Nataraja pose commonly identified with dancing Siva.
The earliest treatise on dance available to us is Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra, the sourcebook of the art of drama, dance, and music. It is generally accepted that the date of the work is between the 2nd-century B.C.E- 2nd century C.E. The Natyashastra is also known as the fifth Veda. According to the author, he has evolved this Veda by taking words from the Rigveda, music from the Samaveda, gestures from the Yajurveda, and emotions from the Atharvaveda. There is also a legend that Brahma himself wrote the Natyaveda, which has over 36,000 verses.
In terms of the classical tradition formulated in the Natyashastra, dance and music are an inextricable part of the drama. The art of natya carries in it all these constituents and the actor is himself the dancer and the singer, the performer combined all the three functions. With the passage of time, the status of an independent and specialized art marked the beginning of the ‘art’ dance in India.
Three major branches of Indian Fine Arts
Vocal music, instrumental music, and the dancing style—these are three major branches of Indian Fine Arts, is perhaps most widely and deeply practiced and appreciated. According to the old traditions of India, vocal recitals of songs, instrumental music, and dancing—a well-knit combination of these three has been broadly termed as “Sangita“.
Three aspects of Dance
As per the ancient treatises, dance is considered as having three aspects: natya, nritya and nritta.
- Natya highlights the dramatic element and most dance forms do not give emphasis to this aspect today with the exception of dance-drama forms like Kathakali.
- Nrityais essentially expressional, performed specifically to convey the meaning of a theme or idea.
- Nritta on the other hand, is pure dance where body movements do not express any mood (bhava), nor do they convey any meaning.
To present nritya and natya effectively, a dancer should be trained to communicate the navarasas. These are: love (shringaara), mirth (haasya), compassion (karuna), valour(veera), anger (roudra), fear (bhayanak), disgust (bibhatsa), wonder (adbhuta) and peace (shaanta).
Dancing (nrtya) and acting (natya)
Like music, Indian dancing has changed little with the centuries, and the best modem Indian dancers, such as Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal, danced according to the rules of the Bharata Natyasastra.
Dancing (nrtya) was closely connected with acting (Natya); in fact, both are forms of the same word, the latter being a Prakritism, and aspects of a single art, abhinaya, the portrayal of the eight emotions. The drama employed chiefly word and gesture, the dance chiefly music and gesture. As in most other civilizations, there is little doubt that the Indian drama, which we consider in the following chapter, developed from ritual miming song and dance.
Indian dancing is not merely a thing of legs and arms alone, but of the whole body. Every movement of the little finger or the eye-brow is significant and must be fully controlled. The poses and gestures are classified in detail, even as early as the Bharata Natya- sastra, which mentions thirteen poses of the head, thirty-six of the eyes, nine of the neck, thirty-seven of the hand, and ten postures of the body. Later texts classify many more poses and gestures, every one of which depicts a specific emotion or object. With so many possible combinations the dancer can tell a whole story, easily comprehensible to the observer who knows the convention.
The most striking feature of the Indian dance is undoubtedly the hand gesture (mudra). By a beautiful and complicated code, the hand alone is capable of portraying not only a wide range of emotions but gods, animals, men, natural scenery, actions, and so on. Some hundreds of mudras are classified in later textbooks, and they are used not only in the dance but, as we have seen, in religious worship and iconography.
This highly developed dance style demanded years of training and was probably always chiefly performed by professionals, though there are references in literature to princes and their ladies dancing in their palaces. Ancient India was rich in folk dances, which were performed at festivals. In later years only low caste people would think of dancing in public, but there seems to have been no social taboo on the art in ancient times, except perhaps for practicing brahmans.
This Nrtya Kala can be divided into two groups, the Anatya, and the Natya. According to Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra, the Abhinaya Kala or the dramatic art is included in this group of Nrtya Kala. Though Vatsyayana does not say so explicitly, yet it can be assumed as there is no separate mention of Natya Kala. The division into Natya and Anatya is suggested by Yasodhara who must have followed the tradition of Kamasutra. The first part of the third chapter of Kamasutra by Stsyayana and Yasodhara’s commentary may be referred to in this connection.
Of the two varieties of Nrtya, the Anatya and Natya, the act of imitating all sorts of doings and activities of the residents of Tribhuvan, the three worlds, i.e. the heaven, the earth, and the netherworld is known as Natya Nrtya and the dance of professional artistes and dancers is known as Anatya Nrtya. Yasodhara says—”svarge va martyaloke va patale va nivasinam krtanukaranam natyam anatyam nartaka-sritam”. So, Natya Nrtya is identical with the dramatic art which we shall discuss under the next head.
At present, we confine our attention to Anatya Nrtya which happens to be of two varieties, the Tandava and the Lasya. Nrtya, Nrtta, Nartana are generally used as different terms to denote the dance style. Nandikesvara, however, draws a clear line of distinction between Nrtya and Nrtta. According to him, any rhythmic movement can be called Nrtta, while the term Nrtya applies to rhythmic movements suggesting some deep sentiment (Abhinaya-darpana-verses 15, 16). The dances of the male artists are called Tandava Nrtya, whereas the dance of female artists is Lasya Nrtya. It is said that Lord Siva was originally the planner of Tandava Nrtya, and therefore he is often called the Nataraja or Natanatha. In different forms of temple architecture available throughout India and also in many types of sculptures, innumerable forms or images of Siva as Nataraja or the Dancing Siva can be found even today. Lord Siva first gave the lessons of Dancing to his most favorite disciple, Nandin. Another name of Nandin is “Tandu”. Since the most favorite disciple of Lord Siva, Nandin or “Tandu” introduced the technique of the art of dancing to the people of the world, this dance style has been named after him as “Tandava”. Parvati or Gauri devised the technique of dancing to be practiced by the womenfolk, and that was the “Lasya” type of dancing.
Two main divisions of Dance
There are two main divisions of dancing, one is called the “Karana” and the other is “Angahara“. To place or fix up the hands and feet in different poses and postures while dancing is known as “Nrtya Karana” or more popularly as “Karana”. In the Natya Sastra of Bharata, we get details of 108 forms of “Karanas” or “Nartya Karanas”. In the most Celebrated Nataraja temple of Chidambaram in South India, there is two “Gopurams” oil the eastern and western sides of the temple and upon the most beautifully decorated reliefs and walls of these two “Gopurams” all these one hundred and eight forms or postures of “Karana” or “Nrtya Karana” have been engraved in stone and underneath the engraving of each “Karasna” the details about the character and style of that particular “Karana” form have also been recorded according to the definitions of the Natya Sastra. Unfortunately of the one hundred and eight different engraved forms, only ninety-three are now found in proper condition. The rest have been spoilt due to the invasion of ages.
The movements and different postures of other parts of the body besides the hands and the feet are known as “Angahara” or ” Angaviksepa”. Two or more than two “Karanas” may be coupled up with one “Angahara”, as the “Karana” and the “Anga- tiara” being combined together would give the correct form of “Nitya“, i.e. create the proper dancing style. There are thirty-two varieties of “Angahara”. Details regarding character, Style, expression, forms, and definitions of all these thirty-two varieties of “Angahara” have been given in the Natya Sastra.
Tandava and Lasya
An ancient classification followed in all styles is of Tandava and Lasya. Tandava the masculine, is heroic bold and vigorous. Lasya the feminine is soft, lyrical, and graceful. Abhinaya, broadly means expression. This is achieved through angika, the body and limbs, vachikasong and speech and aharya, costume and adornment; and satvika, moods and emotions.
Bharata and Nandikesvara, the main authorities conceive of dance as an art that uses the human body as a vehicle of expression. The major human units of the body (anga) are identified as the head, torso, upper and lower limbs and the minor human parts (upangas), as all parts of the face ranging from the eyebrow to the chin and the minor joints.
Aspects of Natya
Two further aspects of Natya are the modes of presentation and the style. There are two modes of presentation, namely the Natyadharmi, which is the formalized presentation of theatre, and the Lokadharmi sometimes translated as folk, realistic, naturalistic or regional. The style or vrittis are classified into Kaishiki, the deft lyrical more suited to convey the lasya aspects, the Arbati, the energetic masculine the Satvati often used while depicting the rasas and the Bharati, the literary content.
Classical Dance of India
Nurtured for centuries, dance in India has evolved in different parts of the country its own distinct style taking on the culture of that particular region, each acquiring its own flavor. Consequently, a number of major styles of ‘art’ dance are known to us today, like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Manipuri, Odissi and Sattriya. Then, there are regional variations, the dances of rural and tribal areas, which range from simple, joyous celebrations of the seasons, harvest or birth of a child to dances for the propitiation of demons or for invoking spirits. Today there is also a whole new body of modern experimental dance.