HISTORY OF DANCE
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.