The history of Indian classical dance is no longer a matter of conjecture; it is a fact and reality which pervades all parts of India and extends from the earliest levels of civilisation to the present day

By: Diksha Sharma

Posted on: 18/11/2020 View : 212


The history of Indian classical dance is no longer a matter of conjecture; it is a fact and reality which pervades all parts of India and extends from the earliest levels of civilisation to the present day. This mass and volume of material is so extensive that it has been impossible for scholars to bring it together in one single totality. Besides, the art has permeated all others ranging from poetry and literature to architecture, sculpture and painting and naturally music and theatre. The antiquity, vastness and the multiple facets of the art make it impossible to make a total conclusive statement. Nevertheless, through the single distinctive traditions in different parts of India, we can have a glimpse of the rich, strong and vibrant traditions ofthe art from the earliest tunes. India’s prehistory and proto-history also provide sufficient evidence ofthis fact. For example, there is the dancing girl from Mohenjodaro, and the broken torso 01 the Harappan period suggestive ofa dance pose. There are beautiful metaphors and similies in the Vedas based on the art of dance. The most beautiful ofthese are the description of Ushcis, the Dawn. Epithets of dance have been used for the Gods: Indra, Marut, the Asvins, and the Apsaras, all have been spoken of as well-initiated in the Art. Dance, as a profession and as a social activity, has been associated with all significant moments ofthe life cycle. In the epics and purancis, the princes are taught the art of dancing; both Rama and Arjuna were adept in it and, of course, Krishna is the Supreme Dancer. Only a flourishing tradition of performance could have enabled the writer of the Natyasastra, to codify the theatrical art in his monumental work. i—* Roughly speaking, we can divide the history of dance into three or four periods. The first is prehistoric and proto-historic.

This period comprises the evidence found in the cave paintings, engravings, the evidence of Mohenjodaro and the Harappan civilization and the literary evidence which can be had from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Brahmanas and the epics. The second period may be considered from the second century B.C. to the ninth century A.D. This includes the monuments of the Buddhist stupas such as those of Bharhut, Sanchi, Bhaja, Amravati, Nagaijunakonda, and the caves of Ellora and the temples in different parts of India from Kashmir to Orissa, specially the early Gupta temples and those ofBhuvaneswara. The third period may be considered  from the tenth or eleventh to the eighteenth century A.D. This includes early medieval and late medieval monuments. While there are no literary records of the prehistoric period, in the later half of the first period (Vedic India) and in the second period, Sanskrit exercised outstanding influence on the intellectual and artistic life of the people and its rich literature manifested the all-round development of the arts in the country. This may be considered as a period of unity along with the emergence of some regional styles. In the third period, there was a marked development ofregional architectural, sculptural, pictorial, music and dance styles along with the development of regional literature. One might even add to this a fourth period which may be considered as the period from the late eighteenth or the nineteenth century to contemporary India. This was a period of great political turmoil and at the same time a period in which the arts were resurrected from fragments to make a new artistic whole. It was in the second period that there was the first articulation of a selfconscious understanding of this art.

Had it not been so widely prevalent and popular, it is inconceivable that a monumental treatise like the Natyasastra could be compiled. In the very nature of things, the formulas, the sastras tradition followed the practice and not preceded it They or their masters sought to depict some ofthe poses and movements codified in the Natyasastra especially those identified as the stancis and chciri in the Natyasastra. The motifs in the sculptural tradition were those ofthe tree and woman, the Yaksha and the Yakshini and many others; all these finally crystalised into the dance of Siva and that of Krishna. During this second period, we find that there was an effort at stylisation although none of the monuments and the sculptural relief show that they had arrived at a stereotyped convention merely to be followed or repeated. In Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura and elsewhere, there are innumerable Yakshas and Yakshinis who stand against tree or pillar, hold branches or birds, stand on dwarfs or animal vehicles i.e. the vahanas. Each of these men and women are seen in a dance pose. Along side are dance scenes with full orchestra. There are many such scenes in the reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi, Amravati, Nagarjunakonda, Ellora, Pavavrya in Gwalior and other Gupta sites. This is also the period of the emergence of the sculptural figures of gods and goddesses especially Shiva, Durga, Saraswati and Ganesha; each has a dance aspect popularly called the nrittamurti. From this sculptural evidence of the second period, we realise that the dance must have been central to the culture for the sculptor to have been inspired to arrest it in stone repeatedly. Alongside is the evidence of dance in mural paintings ranging from the famous dance scene ofBagh caves to others in Ajanta, Ellora. Sitanavasal and Panamalai. This impression of the pervasive popularity of the dance motif is further reinforced by the evidence available in Sanskrit literature of the classical period especially the Kavya and the Natcikci.

In the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharcita, many dance performances are prescribed. In the works of the poets Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bharavi and others, until the time of Harslia, we encoimter many precise descriptions of dancers and dance recitals. From all this, one can gather that the poet and the dramatist were equally well-versed in the technical intricacies of dance. They appreciated the aesthetic beauty and drew upon this art to structure their poetic or dramatic edifice. As is now recognised, none ofthe plays of Kalidasa or his successors had been conceived of a drama dependent on the spoken word alone. The communication systems employed by the writer take into account not only the verbal communication but also communication through gestures, costumes, decor and above all, the inner states ofbeing which are reflected in involuntary expressions. This tradition of looking at drama not only as the written or the spoken word, but as a configuration of different types of communication techniques was established in India many centuries prior to the writing of the plays of Bhasa or kalidasa. This is evident from the codification ofthese communication techniques in the first treatise on dramaturgy i.e. the Natyasastra. Creative writers and poets were perhaps keenly sensitive to the relationship of the word and the gesture, the gesture and the design, and the system of correspondence, signs and symbols which was prescribed in Brahminical rituals. In course of time, this was taken over by the arts and used as a systematised methodology in the writing of drama to be presented on the stage. Kalidasa and his successors specially Bhavabhuti and Harsha all follow these techniques in writing their dramas. The presentation of Sanskrit plays on the stage is possible only if it is taken into account that movement constitutes an integral part of the communication methodologies. The perfect balance between the verbal called the vachika, the kinetic or gesture called the angika, costume and decor called the aharikci and the involuntary state called the satvikci make a harmonious whole. Later, some dramatists preferred to use only the verbal as the chief instrument of communication. Others depended more on music and song. Yet others relied on movement and there was a flowering out in different branchas or in different directions dependent on the dominant tool of communication. From the Sanskrit ncitaka developed a new genre called the Uprupakas. Judging from texts like the Dasarupakas, it would appear that a distinct form had emerged. In this there was a predominant role of music—vocal and instnunental and movement. Indeed, the beginnings ofthis can be traced to the writings of Kalidasa himself.

The fourth Act of Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvashi cannot be presented on the stage unless movement is considered integral to the verbal. The tradition continues in the plays of Bhavabhuti, Harsha and culminates in the work of Rajasekhara. It is evident that by the time of the writing of the play Karpuramanjari, the dramatic form chiefly utilising the verbal had given place to the musical play. Many examples ofthis could be cited from the dramatic works of the tenth century A. D. Karpuramanjari has been called a Shataka, a theatrical form mentioned in the inscriptions of Bharhut., but ofwhich not many literary examples seem to have survived although they may still be available in manuscripts. From this evidence, it is clear that the musical play, was an important genre in the Sanskrit tradition. However, its full and vigorous flowering took place only in the early and the late medieval period. This is further supported by references to such dramatic musical recitals in the chronicle works also belonging to the ninth century A.D. and continuing until the eleventh and twelvth century.  Apart from the evidence which can be gathered from archaeological remains, sculptural reliefs, mural painting, extant works of Sanskrit literature and chronicle sources, there is the rich source of textual material normally called the manuals or treatises. It would appear that soon after the writing of the Natyasastra, works on aesthetic concerned themselves mainly with discussion on the nature of the aesthetic experience and the literary form. By about the sixth century A.D., two distinct types of texts appear, the first were purely theoretical works which discussed the nature ofaesthetic experience, the artistic, work and the evocation of an analogous aesthetic experience in the spectator, reader or participator. The second group of treatises concentrate on the techniques of communication. Understandably, therefore, several texts appear each concerning itselfwith either the word or sound, music, vocal or instrumental, and movement.

All the Puranas, particularly the earlypuranas, namely the Agni Purana, Vishnudharmottara Purana, contain valuable sections on poetry, music, dance, painting and drama. Alongside appear the special texts which devote themselves only to either music or dance or poetry. Amongst the most outstanding of these texts in the field of dance is Abhinaya Daipana by Nandikeshvara, a text solely devoted to dance. In the ninth and tenth century was also written the commentary on the Natyasastra byAbhinavagupta. He comments on all sections of the major fundamental text Natyasastra both from the point of view of philosophy as also form and technique ofthe arts. It is significant that this text written somewhere in Kashmir travelled to all parts of India. The commentary of Abhinavagupta began a newr phase of the evolution of different theories of aesthetic and artistic creation. To this second period (i.e. 2nd to 10th century) also belonged the construction ofstupas and temples. The railings and the gates ofstupas, the outer and inner wralls ofthe temples present a multitude oflife comprehending many aspects of the terrestrial world. Amongst these is the motifofthe dancer, the dance recital as also the dancing aspect of god and goddesses. Most important wras the selfconscious attemptto arrestin plastic form certain cadence ofmovement described in the fourth chapter ofthe Natyasastra.These are the phases of movement called theKaranas. Although earlycave sculpture such asthe caves ofAurangabad and Ellora clearly exhibited the sculptor’s technical knowledge ofthe dance, in the Brihadeshvara temple in Tanjore built in the eleventh century A.D., the first self-conscious attemptto presentserially these cadences ofmovement wras made. Popularly called the karanas, these reliefs by the sculptor attempt to capture either the initial or the intermediary or the final moment of a whole cadence of movement. This attempt at carving, sculpturing reliefbased on descriptions and performance wras repeated in other sites both in South India and in North India. In Tamil Nadu, three other major attempts were made to present the Karanas. The temples at Sarangpani, Eastern and Northern Gopuram of Chidambaram and the Gopuram of Tiruvannamallai all belong to the 12th, 13th and 14th century. All depict a series of reliefs with inscriptions of the names of the karanas. In North India, an attempt wTas made in Chittor. In the Kirti Stambha of Chittor, again a series of movements have been carved. Elsewhere also, the sculptor was inspired by the movements ofthe dance both as an impressionistic recreation and as a technical reconstruction. The Orissan temples ofBhuvanesvara and even earlier the stupas of Ratnagiri tell us of the preoccupation of the sculptor with the image of the dance. Men and women deities, gods and goddesses peep out ofinner recesses, stand out in the sunlight on thewalls ofthese temples.

Each ofthese figures, singly and collectively, makes for an overpowering orchestration of movement The temples of Raja Rani of Parasuramesvara and of Lingraja all reverberate with music and dance. Innumerable figures entwined with trees or pillars, holding birds, standing on animals or dwarfs smiling or more serious, are depicted in panel after panel on the outer walls ofthese temples. Looked at closely, one is impressed by the fact that the sculptor was not only a keen observer ofmovement, but was also a selfconscious illustrator ofthe basic positions i.e. the sthanas and the fundamental movements called the charis described in the Natyasastra. The monuments of Central India especially those ofKhajuraho built by the Chandelas, Udyeshwar of the Parmaras belonging to the 11th and 12th centuries also present a wide array ofmovement patterns from solo standing figures to figures in demipile or ardhamandali to groups and finally to the most impressive series of flying figures. The movement ofthe dance envelops these temples. As in Orissa, here also the dancing figure reaches out to the spectator from the lowermost panels to the highest lintels, from the ground to ceiling. Each is self-contained and yet each is part ofthe total orchestration ofthe sculptured figure as if it is a choreography of dance. This orchestration of choreography leaves a staggering impression of the popularity ofdance. Innumerable scenes of dance fill the pillars and toranas ofstupas, the walls ofmedieval temples ranging from Rajasthan and Saurashtra to Orissa, from Kashmir to Karnataka and Kerala, and the large Gopmams of South Indian temples, the platforms of the monuments of Vijayanagaram, of Hampi and of the Hazararam temple. All bear testimony to the sculptors’ and the painters’ innate fascination of movement. These sculptors and paintersrecord in stone and in painting, through line and colour what no chronicle could record in words. None ofthis would have been possible or could have achieved such a level of excellence had the experience of the dance not been the inner resource. The sculptor and the painter give form and shape to this deep perception of movement. Indeed, even after the tradition ofsculpturing reliefs on temple walls and painting on walls and ceilings waned, it continues in miniature paintings. Now the motif of the dance finds another expression, in the varied schools of Indian miniature painting. Some are inspired by Buddhist texts, others by Jaina themes, and yet others by Hindu Puranic myth and legend. However, in all these ranging from the illustrations of the Prajnaparmita of the Buddhists, the Kalpasutm ofthe .Jainas, to, of course, the Mrigavati, Akbamama, Bhagavata Puranci and Gita Govinda, there is prolific depiction ofdance. Sometimes, there are solos as in the case ofTiishila dance in the Kalpasutm. At other tunes, there are groups as in the case ofthe Dasmaskandha ofthe Bhagavata Purana.

At the level oftechnique, occasionally, it is only the painters’ expressionistic recreation of dance. At other tunes, it is a highly technical act ofnotation as in the ease of the marginal figures ofthe several Jaina Kalpasutras. This second period and the first half ofthe third period, is most important for a dance historian. During this period, the temples and the courts maintained a large number of dancers and dance was part of the ritual or the seva to the deity. The inscriptions on the temple walls of Brihadeshvara or elsewhere, the chronicles ranging from Rajatarangani to those ofMadala Panaji in Orissa tell us ofthe tradition of the maintenance of the temple dancers and the care and the thought which was given to support these traditions as part of the temple complex. The sculpture and the painting inscriptions records are only one source for reconstructing the history of dance during this period. Besides this, there is a body of critical writing and a sizeable volume of creative writing which reveals that the art was not only widely practised and given an important place in society both within the temple and without, but that there was a highly sophisticated critical appreciation of this art at the level of both theory and practice. Sangitaratnakara, Sarangadeva’s monumental treatise on music had set the new tone of musical practice. It also includes an exhaustive chapter on the dance. This chapter is ofvital importance for imderstanding the traditions of the dance as they were followed and as they developed in different parts of India. By and large, the writer follows the Natyasastra and occasionally the Abhinaya Daipana. However, he provides significant evidence pointing to the fact that, while the Natyasastra tradition was generally accepted, there were departures and modifications. Among the many new concepts, he introduces, is the concept ofstyle (paddhati) and the movements. He speaks of basic move¬ ments under two categories, viz., the pure (suddha) and the regional variants (desastha). Once again, he speaks ofthe purely classical or the academic form under the label of suddha, and the regional variants under the head of desi paddhatis. While Sarangadeva was not the first to introduce this concept, he was certainly the first to give it an authoritative sanction. Bhoja in his Sringaraprakasa and Somesvara in Manasollasa had already spoken of these concepts and had accepted regional styles. The recognition ofregional styles contributed greately to the further development of the individual, distinctive, classical styles ofthe various regions.

From the 13th century onwards, one can find manuals on dance from practically every region of the country. There is the Nrittaratnavali ofJaya Senapati from Andhra Pradesh, Sangitopanishat Sarodhara by Yachanacharya Sudhakalasa of Gujarat. Hastamuktavali ofAssam, Govinda Sangita Lila Vilasa from Manipur, Abhinaya Chandrika ofMahesvaraMahapatra from Orissa, Sangita Damodara of Raghunath from Bengal,AdiBharatam, Bharatamava andNrittaAdhyaya ofthe Sangitamakaranda, from Tamil Nadu, Balarama Bharatam and Hastalakshana  Dipika from Kerala, the Nrityaratnakosa by Kumbhakarana from Rajasthan and the Sangitamallika ofMoliammad Shah from North India. The listis notcomplete. In fact, it merely gives examples from the various regions of India. Even a superficial study ofthese manuals emphasizes two broad facts; first, that despite regional variations, all schools subscribed to the basic principles ofthe Natyasastra tradition. The dance continued to be divided into Natya and Niitta on the one hand and into Tandava and Lasya on the other. The second is that, although theycontinued to followthesebroadprinciples, manydistinctive regional styles evolved and each region ultimately developed a distinctive vocabulary. This second fact led to the formulation of different classical styles in India. The beginning of the contemporary classical styles be it Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Orissi or Kathak--can be traced back to developments in the medieval period, roughly dating from 1300 A.D. to 1800 A.D. In content and theme, dance was conditioned by the growth ofregional literary traditions which in turn were influenced by shifts in religious emphasis. Both the Gita Govinda and the Sangitaratnakara travelled to all parts of India. While the Sangitaratnakara reflects changes in the technique ofdance, Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda reflects the popularity of the theme in all parts of India.

Between the 11th and the 12tli Century A.D., there appearsto be a very sharp turn towards Vishnu and Krishna. Musical plays, for which Kaipuramanjari had already prepared the ground, were common; they were written in large numbers and were acted in temples and courtyards. Vidyapati wrote a musical play known as the Goraksha Vijaya which waswidelyperformed. Practically in all parts ofIndia, kirtans, bhajans, padas and harikathas wrere widely held wliich provided an immense scope for interpreting the musical wrord through gestures. As embodied in the songs ofthe saint-poets from all over India, the Vaishnavite tradition provided die various styles ofdance with an essential unity. Thematically many dance styles revolved round the Krishna’s lovestory especially as narrated in the tenth chapter of the Srimadbhagavata. In all parts of India, the literary type of musical composition was not merely an accompaniment The wrord wras important, because it wras what wTas being interpreted through mime. In the abstract portions, different talas mid different patterns of stylized movement evolved. The particular type ofstylized movement gave each style a distinguishing character. The different styles of classical Indian dance wrere practised and perfected by creative artistes in different regions even during periods of political upheaval and lack of social patronage. Family traditions, called the sampradayas, grewT within these styles; the masters wrere the repositories of an invaluable oral tradition, and as such preserved and nurtured it. They frequently contributed to its growlh in spite of the lack of basic education or academic knowledge of unfamiliarity with the Sanskrit language. The British system of education did not recognise the "aids" as a subject of educational curricula.

The generation which went to the schools and colleges, foimded by the British in India in the 19th Century, was thus isolated from the ail traditions ofthe country. Temple dancing was forbidden, but the devotees of the art continued to practise it in the seclusion of their homes. Apparently, the art had died by the 20th century and what could be seen of it was only a diluted, almost degenerated form ofwhat was known as the nautch in the North, and the sadir in the South. It was like a shadow ofbygone reality. The recent revival of interest in dance, developed as a sign of national pride in the glories ofindigenous art and culture, helped the development and popularity of our various dance styles. The storehouse was so rich and the layer of dust so vreak that the sincere artiste had only to dig a little to discover its essential luminosity. During the past five decades, many layers of past artistic glory have been uncovered. The digging continues and each time one delves deeper, a greater treasure is discovered. The classical dance styles of contemporary India are largely reconstructions of these fragments of antiquity. On one level, they have great antiquity wdiich links them writh the past, on another they are contemporary and recent, performed outside the traditional milieu and context, each tune recreating the past, but are not the past. Sometimes the content is old, but the form and technique newr; at others, nevT content is infused into an older format It is a subtle eclectic approach seemingly ancient but in fact an expression of modem sensibility. 

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The origin of Shiva Ratri, the night of Lord Shiva, is related in a fable. In ancient times near the City of Light, Varanasi, there lived a violent and cruel hunter. Whilst hunting in the woods one day, he killed so many birds that he had trouble carrying them all home. He grew tired from the weight of his catch and was frequently forced to stop and rest. Know More

Get Rid Of Your Bad Habits

Your health and weight is decided by your eating habits.If you ask individuals what's the significance of habit, many will give bad habits the difficult press, and say they're negative processes that individuals do again and again, like smoking, gambling, over eating, and procrastination. Know More


Yoga means union of man with his Higher Self. It is an ancient discipline that can be traced back as far as the third century B.C., when the forest dwelling ascetics broke away from the traditional material values of society, and sought to free them selves from the chains of karma. Know More

Towards Mental Purity

There are a number of simple rites the performance of which will free you from inner impurities. From generation to generation our forefathers performed them and earned happiness and contentment. We must follow in their footsteps. We do not have to go in search of any new way of life, any new doctrine or belief. Know More

Making all Creatures Happy

In the past, apart from these, our ancestors did puja to the gods, fed guests and performed vaisvadeva which rite is meant for all creatures. You must have some idea of these rites even if you do not perform them. I will speak to you about vaisvadeva. Know More


Every family must perform puja to Isvara. Those who find it convenient to do so may conduct elaborate types of puja after receiving proper initiation into them. Others need perform only a brief puja, not lasting more than ten minutes or so. Office goers must offer at least this brief worship. The sacred bell must ring in every home. Know More


Truthfulness means mind and speech being well integrated. The wise say that speech being at variance with the mind is untruthfulness. Know More


A MILK-MAID used to supply milk to a Brahmin priest living on the other side of a river. Owing to the irregularities of the boat service, she could not supply him milk punctually every day. Once, being rebuked for her coming late, the poor woman said, "What can I do ? I start early from my house, but have to wait for a long time at the riverbank for the boatman and the passengers. Know More


The River Ganges, more than all other rivers, has inspired the hearts of the Indian population through the Ages. The uncounted millions who have prayed on her banks and bathed in her waters from the source to the sea, tell the colourful story of India’s spiritual quest. Know More

How to Control the Mind

What is the obstacle to one-pointed meditation.The answer is the unstill mind. All problems are caused by the mind, by the desires arising in it. It is not easy to control the mind and keep it away effectively from desire. If we ask the mind to think of an object, it seems to obey us for a moment, but soon it takes its own course, wandering off. When I speak to you about meditation and tranquillity, for a moment your mind will perhaps become still and you will be happy. Know More

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