'Dance as ritual in negotiations of 'inner' and 'outer' space:
insights from south Indian prehistory into present day'
- Sharada Srinivasan, Bangalore
e-mail: sharadasrinivasa@yahoo.com


October 10, 2006

Paper by Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, for the International Conference on 'Change and Stability in Rituals,' 11-14th Oct 2006 organised by Heidelberg University and Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi

This paper attempts to explore some aspects of the nexus between dance and ritual and especially the ramifications for explorations of 'space,' both 'interior' and 'exterior,' sacred and secular, which can be seen to some extent to reflect age old Indian pre-occupations, while this paper also attempts to touch upon the changing dynamics of such negotiations or explorations. Here I deliberately allude to the metaphors of interior and exterior landscape used by A K Ramanujan in his commentaries on Tamil Sangam poetry of the 3rd c. BC-AD.

The role of dance in rituals and rites has ancient roots going back to prehistoric times, including war dances, ceremonial dances and courtship rituals, while the link between classical Indian dance and ritual worship is well known. Fascinating evidence comes from the region of Kupgal in Karnataka in southern India, where as documented by the speaker through video, the local doleritic rocks were themselves being used as sonoliths to produce musical notes tonalities through man-made depressions and surrounded by rock art including dancing figures, conjuring up ancient dance arenas set to 'rock' music. Although it cannot be confirmed if the stone pillars at the 14th century Vittala temple complex, Hampi, were intentionally musical, a similar sensibility may have prevailed of dance as ritual in a primordial lithic space, while the 11th-12th century Hoysala temples had clearly demarcated dance halls.

The 10th-century Chola metal icon of the dancing Hindu god Siva as Nataraja is a famed symbol of Indian art. Notwithstanding other interpretations concerning this icon, it is shown how this image did to some extent incorporate the metaphor of the 'cosmic dance' through scientific and astro-archaeological studies undertaken by the speaker and insights on Chola bronzes and related Saiva Siddhantic rituals. In the ritual worship of Nataraja at Chidambaram, there are elements of attempting to reconcile 'cosmic space' with the interior mindscape.

Despite the changing dynamics, whereby classical dance has traversed from the domain of devadasis or temple dancers, with all its baggage, into a more secularised proscenium stage, and whereby the folk dance idiom has often been cannibalised within the stylised vocabulary of Indian popular cinema, elements of ritual nevertheless prevail whether in the ‘coming of age' ritual of the arangetram of first performance, or the elaborate 'courtship rituals' that pass off in the name of Bollywood.