In keeping with the title of my blog, I am diverting from wildlife (the only wildlife I can see during this lockdown are birds and deer) and addressing the “life” portion of the blog. Today’s topic? Classical dances of India.
I began studying Indian classical dance under the tutelage of Guru Nandini Mandal at the tender age of 13, although many girls are enrolled in dance lessons from a far younger age. Initially, I was hardly the ideal dance student; I had no penchant for makeup or beautiful costumes, a barely-present sense of rhythm, and my arms and legs seemed too long to move as gracefully as those of other dancers. But eventually, classical dance grew on me, and I found myself developing into a better artist as my knowledge deepened and I spent more hours practicing my basics. Currently, during this lockdown, Bharatanatyam has kept me sane, giving me the will to exercise each day and engaging my creative side at the same time.
From the lofty Himalayan peaks to the lush green river valleys and fertile plains, to the rocky Deccan plateau to the remote edges of the Northeast, perhaps no other country harbours as much ecological and cultural diversity as India. Crowded cities welcome people of all caste, creed, and language, while colourful villages preserve local lore and values that carry India forward through the 21st Century. Amidst this backdrop of colour and sound are India’s eight classical dance forms, each hailing from different parts of the country and bringing a rich heritage to the forefront.
The oldest of the Indian classical dance forms is Bharatanatyam, hailing from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The name “Bharatanatyam” has two possible origins: first, it takes its name from Bharat, the sage-scholar who is said to have written the first comprehensive literary work on music, dance, and theatre, the Natya Shastra; and second, the word Bharata can be split into three parts – Bha (bhava = emotion), Ra (raga = music), and Ta (tala = rhythmic beat). This dance form was also known by the names of Sadir and Dasiattam, and it originated as a form of worship by temple dancers. Indeed, the oldest sculptures of Bharatanatyam can be found in the Chidambaram Temple, where the 108 karanas, or transitional poses, are captured in wall carvings. The dance form and repertoire as it is known today can be attributed to various artists, especially to the Tanjore quartet – Chinayya, Ponayya, Shivanandam, and Vadivelu – who were scholars, musicians, and exponents of Bharatanatyam, who brought it to life as a performing art in the truest sense. Like all classical dance forms of India, Bharatanatyam consists of three parts – nritta (pure dance), nritya (dance and acting), and natya (acting).
Here is a wonderful excerpt of Bharatanatyam by Guru Shri Pavitra Bhat, Mumbai:
Hailing from the village of Kuchelapuram/Kuchilapuri in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Kuchipudi also traces its roots to the Natya Shastra, originating around the 3rd century BCE. Originally, Kuchipudi evolved around traditions of traveling troups performing dance dramas to the Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, but the dance in its modern form is attributed to Tirtha Narayanayati, a 17th century Telugu saint, and his disciple Sidhyendra Yogi. Narayanayati resided in Thanjavur district and presented a dance drama of his own creation at the Thanjavur temple, famed for its patronage of the classical arts. The dance form is set to Carnatic music with verses in Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. Originally a group dance, solo performances are now common, and while traditional performers were all men, women have made great advances in the art form. While many of the basic elements of Kuchipudi resemble those of Bharatanatyam, the two dance forms mainly differ in that Bharatanatyam evolved as a temple tradition while Kuchipudi evolved as a festival traditional.
The wandering bards (kathakars) of northern India communicated stories of ancient Indian mythology using song, dance, and lore. Thus was born this dance form – Kathak – native to Uttar Pradesh and nurtured in the courts of north Indian kings. Kathak evolved during the Bhakti movement in three distinct schools of tradition, or gharanas, named after the places they evolved – Jaipur, Banaras, and Lucknow. The Jaipur gharana focuses more on foot movements, whereas the Banaras and Lucknow gharanas focus more on abhinaya (facial expressions) and hand movements. Kathak is known for its graceful hand gestures and intricate footwork, enacting stories of Radha and Krishna more often than not. Footwork is emphasized by strings of tiny bells, called ghungroos. Kathak is well-known for its chakras, or quick spins, that require immense balance and concentration, a mark of a true Kathakar. As is the case with other classical dance forms, Kathak too borrows its basics from the Natya Shastra and Abhinayadarpan. Through its long history, Kathak has evolved multiple times and incorporated the flavours of the different courts that acted as its patron, especially the Mughal courts. Much like Bharatanatyam, it too underwent a period of disrepute when the British Raj conquered and ruled India. However, it was later restored and deemed a global performing art. A Kathak performance has three sections – the invocation, one pure nritta (abstract dance) piece, and an abhinaya (acting) piece. The stage is typically bare, and it is not uncommon for the dancer to take to the microphone and interact with the audience during a performance, following the traditions of the original bards.
Originating in the eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), this classical dance form fluorished under the patronage of various rulers, including Emperor Ashoka. Odissi takes on the form of narrative dance, much like Bharatanatyam, but utilizes an entirely different sense of form. In Odissi, the upper torso is utilized as an independent unit, swaying from side to side as the dancer executes various steps. The main posture is the tribhanga (thrice-bent) pose, reminding the viewer of a creeper swaying gently in the breeze. Most basic dance steps are learnt in either the tribhanga or the chowka (square-sitting) postures. Modern interpretations of Odissi date back to 1959, where the repertoire was formed using elements of various regional art traditions including Chhau, Patha, Geeti Natya, Ras Lila, among others. The accompanying music is highly traditional and local to the state, and many of the ragas and talas are unique to the dance form.
One of the two dance forms from God’s Own Country, Kerala, Kathakali takes on the “story-play” form of expressive art. This dance form is different from the other classical dances due to its colourful costumes, vivid masks, and dramatic makeup. Traditionally performed by all-male dance troups, Kathakali incorporates movements from ancient Indian martial arts and athletic traditions. The dance form is thought to be over 1500 years old, and is likely a direct descendant of the dance form of Krishnanattam, a dance-drama art form that evolved in Calicut around the late 1500s. However, unlike Krishnanattam, it evolved in theatres and feativals, not within the temple walls.
Kathakali is structured around Attakathas (plays) written in a format that emphasizes action versus dialogues. These plays are written in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, with a Sanskrit flavour (Manipravalam). Traditionally, a Kathakali performance begins at dusk and continues throughout the night, ending at dawn. Performances are generally conducted outdoors in an amphitheatre-like setup outside a temple. The costumes and makeup are the most intricate aspects of Kathakali, with seven different makeup styles to represent different characters and aspects (for example, green is used to depict noble characters and red is used to depict an evil streak in a character).
Named for the enchantress Mohini, the form that Lord Vishnu took to distribute the nectar of immortality amongst the devas and asuras during the churning of the celestial ocean, Mohiniyattam is the second classical dance form that developed in Kerala. The word “Mohiniyattam” literally means “dance of the enchantress.” It is traditionally performed by women in the laasya (graceful, feminine) form of dance described in the Natya Shastra. The earliest evidence of the dance form lies in temple sculptures, such as those in the Vishnu temple at Trikodithanam, and the Kidangur Subramanya temple, both in Kerala. The first scholarly reference to the dance form is in the 16th century text Vyavaharamala by Nambootiri. The dance form was sponsored and raised to a public forum in the 18th and 19th centuries by Hindu king, poet, and composer Swati Thirunal Rama Varma, who was responsible for the growth of Mohiniyattam in its modern form.
A Mohiniyattam performance typically includes nritta (pure dance) and nritya (dance with expressions) portions. The basic posture of the dance form is feet apart and thighs bent in a half-seated position, knees bent outwards, torso erect, and gently figure-eight movements of the torso and hips. There are four groups of atavus (basic steps): Taganam, Jaganam, Dhaganam and Sammisram. The repertoire is similar to that of Bharatanatyam. The most distinctive aspect of a Mohiniyattam performance is the attire of the dancer; the dancer wears a cream-coloured or off-white sari costume with gold edging, a golden belt, and golden fan pleats. This is accompanied by simple gold jewellry and a bun worn on the left side of the head and adorned with a simple garland of white flowers.
Also known as Jagoi, Manipuri hails from the northeastern state of Manipur. The dance form is known for its portrayal of the exquisite love of Radha and Krishna through their divine play, the Ras-Lila, and its tones of Vaishnavism. Ancient texts hail the people of Manipur as the heavenly musicians, the Gandharvas, hinting at an ancient tradition of dance and music in the region. The dance is religious by nature and fluorished until the British Raj; it was revived through the efforts of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who invited eminent Manipuri dancers to teach the dance form at his cultural learning centre Shantiniketan.
Unlike other classical dance forms, Manipuri dancers do not wear ankle bells, and movements are sinuous and graceful, not heavy-footed. Males and females alike dip and sway to the beat of the cymbals (manjira) and double-headed drum (pung, or mridangam). The repertoire and movements change based on the season and festival; while enacting the Ras-Lila, the movements incorporate spins, jumps, and squats in addition to the typical swaying. The costumes are unique; women are dressed like a Manipuri bride in the kumil, a barrel-shaped long skirt stiffened at the bottom and top. The kumil is thought to be an adaptation of the phanek, a sarong-like skirt used in more vigorous dances. Female dancers wear a tight bodice and a translucent veil to symbolize elusiveness.
One of Northeast India’s two classical dance forms, Sattriya, or Sattriya Nritya, hails from the state of Assam. The dance originated in the Krishna-centered Vaishnava monastaries as dance-drama performances, spearheaded by the 15th century Bhakt and scholar Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev. The name of the art form is derived from the term for the monasteries in which it was performed – Sattra. Once performed solely by male monks (bhokots), it is now widely performed by men and women alike, and has been accepted on the global stage in 2000 as an official classical dance of India.
The basic foundational dance unit of Sattriya is the Mati Akhara, much like the adavus of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Many elements of this dance style are found in Manipuri, the traditional dance of the neighbouring state of Manipur. A typical performance integrates the masculine (Paurashik Bhangi) and feminine (Stri Bhangi or Laasya) styles of motion. The plays performed by Sattriya artists are derived from ancient Hindu epics and Assamese traditional compositions, and the most common theme is that of the love shared by Radha and Krishna.
I hope this post helped provide an introduction to the eight classical dances of India. Each dance style is unique and complex, and this post cannot hope to do justice to all of them, but I hope that those of you with interest in these styles will carry that interest forward and learn more about our rich cultural and artistic heritage.
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