Role and function of dance: Historical context (Part 2)
- Dr. Anonna Guha, Mumbai

December 8, 2012

(Excerpt from the Phd thesis ‘Dance in the urban culture’ under the guidance of Dr. Sharit Bhowmik.)

Indian context
The historical background of dance in India has to be understood and comprehended in its particular context. Since this research studies Indian dance and dancers in the urban scenario, an in-depth knowledge about Indian dances with their historical setting will be important in dealing with its current picture.

For the sake of clarity, I will divide the analysis of Indian dances into two categories.

1) presentational
2) participational (IED Vol 3, 1998: 455)

The first category would include the classical dances – dance as an art form - while the second would cover folk, tribal / ritual / traditional dances. The historical context, function and role of both may have to be understood distinctly though there would be overlapping areas. (The English word ‘classical’ is used primarily as a translation of the Sanskrit ‘sastriya’ (also called marga) and indicated that a dance tradition has a relatively highly developed technique and theory of movement that relate to theoretical texts of the earlier period known as sastras like the Natyashastra. The folk or rural category in Indian tradition is called desi, provincial or rural. (Ibid)

Going beyond the belief that the origin of Indian dance emanates from the gods Indra or Siva, the first actual pieces of evidence are a small limestone figure of a male dancer from Harappa in the Punjab and an even smaller bronze figure of a female dancer from Mohenjodaro in Sind.  These figurines dated to the Indus Valley civilization period are in markedly different styles but both datable to the 3rd millennium BC. References to dance can be found in many early texts of Indian literature including the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, the earliest detailed text on dance is the celebrated Natyashastra attributed to the sage Bharata. (Waterhouse 1998:2-3)

Reference to manuals for performers of dance, drama and music are dated back to 400 BCE in Panini’s Astadhyayi. The earliest work on the performing arts, however, can be traced back to approximately 200 CE. This text, the Natyashastra, is a monumental work by Bharata on the dramatic arts in thirty seven chapters and lays down the vocabulary and grammar of dance that constitute the framework for all later works on dance. The practice and the theory of classical dancing have evolved around Bharata’s pioneering work. In the later centuries, a number of treatises on dance and drama were written, which used the Natyashastra as their base. (Bose 2001: 2-7)

That Indian music and dance have a firm base in Hindu religion is common knowledge among Western as well as Indian connoisseurs of music and dance. Most Indian connoisseurs would ask rhetorically where our arts would be without Bhakti. But it is important to understand how this association with Bhakti came about.

This assumption of a close relation between the arts and Bhakti is understood in terms of visible symbols and well-known stories. This relation was a result of the Bhakti Movement from the 6th century onwards. Before this date, secular music in praise of kings, chieftains and patrons was the dominant pattern. Religious music occupied a fairly important but rather secondary phase. During this period of secular dominance in the performing arts, the political realm in India was quite strong and successive efforts were made to integrate politically through imperial conquests. By the 6th century however these efforts had exhausted themselves and the area was clear for attempts at cultural rather than political integration. The Bhakti movement of the south, the first and probably the most important factor, brought together religion and art closer and closer. But this relation was sustained in South India by a partial secularisation of religion by equating the temple with a palace and the temple duty with a king and this association was strengthened during the period of Muslim rule. (Subramaniam 1980:2-3)

The position with regard to dance is not very distinct. Dances are referred to in the Sangam literature without references to gods. But early post Sangam literature contains references both to secular as well as religious dancing. Thus Manimekhalai, a Buddhist epic, refers to dance not only as secular but as a sensuous art essentially anti Buddhist. In Silappadikaram however various dances are attributed to various gods “Kodukotty to Siva, Pandarangam to Vishnu and Pedi to Manmatha.” About the same period, Karaikkal Anmaiyar had already made dance a totally devotional occupation performed in praise of dancing Siva in her Moothathirupadigam. (Ibid)

There were 3 stages in the development of dance. The first stage is marked by the codification of dance by Bharata. He articulated the mythic origin and history of dance, laid down the philosophical and aesthetic ideas behind body movements and thereby developed a stylised system of movements. Thus emerged an art form that was recognised in the pan Indian Sanskritic tradition as the standard. He distinguished between two traditions of dance: Marga – those belonging to the great tradition, and Desi – those belonging to the regional varieties outside it. (Bose 2001:2-4)

In the second stage from about the 10th or 11th century until about 15th century, dance history began to record regional variations. It was at this time that Sarangadeva wrote his path breaking text on dance and music, the Sangitaratnakara. This text written in the 13th century became the major source for all authors who wrote on music and dance after his time. Both music and dance until then were treated as components of drama. Sarangadeva was the first author to separate the two arts from drama after which they developed independently. Another noteworthy feature of his work was making the regional dance styles part of the mainstream tradition of art. (Ibid)

The third stage in the development of classical dance styles was marked by yet another wave of new ideas that came from culture outside India. With the Mughal conquest of India, the Persian and Mughal influence on enriching Indian art was apparent. Indian music, painting, sculpture and dance were the beneficiaries of this enrichment. An entirely new dance style was added to the existing array that came to be known as Kathak. The first record of this new style appears in the Nartananirnaya, a text of vital importance in the history of dance texts. (Ibid)

This fusion and enrichment of dancing in India continued till the 18th century. By then the Mughal Empire’s hold started weakening and with the deepening political chaos, power came to be vested in the hands of the Europeans. The dwindling of religious life in particular took away the focus from the actual role and perception of dance. Dance, which was an art of worship by aesthetic means, started being looked at as an erotic pursuit. The patrons were mainly the princely courts and dance became merely an entertainment - mostly erotic - for rich men or an imitation of their lifestyle filtered down to street level as a vulgar contortion. (Ibid)

The antiquity of Indian dance thus dates to the period of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism and to prehistoric artifacts. However realistic substantial history can be looked at from the final compilation of the Natyashastra of Bharata probably composed between 2nd and 4th centuries CE. There is rich visual evidence of dance such as bas reliefs at Barhut and Sanchi from the first and second centuries BCE, at Amravati from the first to the third centuries CE. The early dances pictured in bas relief give evidence of significant changes after the third century CE and again after the fifth century. There were regional variations in form, style and choreography. But in the later medieval period, one sees a multiplicity of regional styles in art, including the pictorial representation of dance. This period saw the rise of vernacular literatures and the development of regional variations on shared materials taken largely from the epic works of Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as the later Puranas (collection of traditional tales). During the rule of the Vijayanagara emperors most of South Indian dance and drama flourished. The coming of Muslim rule continued the cultural influence on the arts in India especially from the 16th century to the 18th century.  (IED Vol 3 1998: 451- 460)

Two possible sources of Indian dance and drama are ritual performance and martial arts especially in South India. The religious rituals where several arts are combined are performed in propitiation of various deities and play a major role in temple festival celebrations. One of them is Tiyyatiyattam, ‘the drama of the Tiyyatis’ a high ranking caste belonging to temple dwelling service communities in Kerala. Their ceremonies usually occur in a cycle of as many as 41 nights of performance. It involves various rituals with an elaborate painting (rangoli) made on the ground decorated with flowers and leaves, lamps and food. Several musicians perform throughout the ritual describing the birth and exploits of Lord Ayyapan. An elaborate dance is performed in which the dancer becomes possessed by the deity and brings the ritual to climax by uttering oracles from god. The devotees present there also participate showing their devotion and belief in the Lord. In this ritual and many similar ones, the elements of dance and theatre are a vital functioning part. Traditional dances like Kathakali and Yakshagana are often included in temple ceremonies and festivals. Therefore it is likely that the more elaborately developed forms of dance grew from the performance of the rituals. In ritual forms such as Tiyyatiyattam, the martial art forms are clearly visible. The shaman carries a sword in honour of the deity who is both a warrior and a hunter. The Mayurbhanj Chhau and the Seraikella Chhau also incorporate military exercises including practice with sword and target, in the training of the dancers. (Ibid)

The Natyashastra states that Lord Brahma created it as ‘fifth Veda’ by taking elements from the four sacred Vedas - Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. Thus, the texts, which were specifically available to upper castes, became available through the medium of art to the masses. The thematic material for dance draws from Hindu myths and legends of gods apart from its pure dance form. Indian dancers commonly observe rituals of worship before lessons, rehearsals and performances incorporating dance or dance drama performance into a kind of ongoing self dedication. The figure of the god Siva as Nataraja is revered by dancers. He is a major deity who fulfills his function of creation and destruction through dance. Siva’s divine dance is said to represent his 5 major activities – creation, protection, destruction, giving rest and salvation. Apart from being closely related to religion, dance also has definite interrelationships with other arts of India. The Vishnudharmottara Purana (5th to 7th centuries) mentions about a king interested in learning the art of sculpture. A sage explains to him that the king must first learn the art of painting before which he must learn the art of dance. Before that he must learn instrumental music and before that vocal music. But first he must learn poetic composition and also the art of prose. (Ibid)

The themes for miming in Indian dances come largely from the epics and Puranas. The Natyashastra believed that myth and legend through the performing arts would give guidance to people in all their actions. The conscious purpose of traditional music and dance is not only to amaze and delight with technical and aesthetic virtuosity or to relate a moving or exciting story but also to bring alive traditional ethics and values. It is not what the artiste does, but the inspired manner in which he or she does it and the level of technical brilliance. The discipline of form is regarded as essential and the flowering of the mature actor dancer as master interpreter and subtle innovator often after the age of 50/60 is considered the quintessence of the performer’s art. (Ibid)

Another distinguishing aspect is the use of interpolation and improvisation whereby universally known plots and themes get a fresh lease during their portrayal. The use of gesture is one of the important facets of communication - angikaabhinaya. Different reasons are attributed for the prevalence of codified systems of gestures in Indian dance. One of them could be that due to the diversity in languages and dialects, gesture may have been understood when the spoken word wasn’t if a dance troupe was on tour far from home. The power of gesture was considered more potent than the word and therefore used as a mnemonic device in learning and reciting Vedas. This could have given rise gradually to the use of gestures for other purposes. (Ibid)

Actors in the form of ritual dancers or pantomime or entertainers might have been there during Indus Valley period. But one isn’t sure if there was a class of such professional artistes who were given the duty of performing dance or miming on special occasions or whether such rituals were performed by priests and priestesses. Commonly, the professional actresses were generally the wives of actors. Vatsyayan suggests that actresses generally chose their husbands from among actors so they could continue their profession even after marriage. With the amalgamation of Vedic and pre-Vedic beliefs there rose a class of women having knowledge of music, dance and acting. In the beginning, the female entertainer may have performed this duty but gradually at a later date a class of female ritual artistes known as devadasis emerged. They were given special training for that purpose and their art took the form of a classical one. It is quite possible that there were such artistes as dancers, musicians and others associated with pantomime in the Vedic age too. There are references in Kautilya’s Arthashastra about women practicing the art of music and dance who were given to a life of easy virtue.  Kautilya suggests that female performing artistes should be engaged in espionage like activities. (Iravati 2003: 67-77)

The dancers in the sculpture of Barhut, Sanchi, Totowa, Gumpha, Mathura and Ajanta seem to be professionals attached to some religious establishment that gradually gave rise to Devadasi system. It may also be that they were professional artistes who were invited or engaged to perform on festive occasions or at the time of worship. In ancient India, during such times professional artistes were engaged to perform such duties. (Ibid)

Deriving from the Ramayana, it seems that courtesans entertained the honoured guests during great sacrifices, because Vaisistha called nata, nartaka and courtesans together with other artistes and ordered them to be ready for the performance of the Aswamedha sacrifice by King Dasaratha. The courtesan was an accomplished artiste, her profession demanded skill in vocal and instrumental, dance and acting activity besides other fine arts. This expertise increased her demand. Indian literature from the Vedas also mentions Apsaras, the Indian celestial dancers. The role and function of the Apsaras and courtesans were quite similar. Descriptions in the Mahabharata refer to the Apsaras entertaining the different deities in their respective assembly halls by performing dance, music – vocal and instrumental, nataka (drama), kavya (poetry), katha (story) and hasya (comedies). In a similar vein, courtesans or ganikas were appointed by the state on a fixed salary obviously for entertainment. Besides entertaining deities in their sabhas, Apsaras are described as entertaining them individually too, a behaviour pattern similar to those of the courtesans. The principle and sense of dharma (business ethics) was exactly like that of a courtesan who entertains that person who books her first and for that day or period is her husband or master. (Iravati 2003:97-130)

Another common important function was to perform on the occasion of sacrifice performed by pious kings. That apart, they are mentioned as taking part in celebrations held on special occasions as childbirth, marriage and coronation. Apsaras also danced to show heavenly pleasure on pious deeds of human beings beneficial to both humanity and divinity. Taking the lead from literature and sculpture, Apsaras were also known to distract the penance of sages as a test of their self control. The similarity between the function of the courtesans and Apsaras thus suggest that the concept of Apsaras came into being on the basis of the contemporary theatre artistes, particularly courtesans. Gradually these two terms Apsaras and ganika became almost synonymous. In Rigveda, Vaisistha calls himself the son of an Apsara. In Mahabharata, he is depicted as born of a ganika. In Harivamsa, Apsaras are mentioned as entering into the body of the ganikas in Pindarika tirtha by the order of Sri Krishna himself. This indicates that Apsaras were the idealised concept of everything best in a ganika. Apsaras entering the bodies of the ganika refers to ganika excelling themselves in art and grace. (Ibid)

Female performing artistes in the form of Devadasis
The devadasi was the female servant of the gods - a girl dedicated to serve the presiding deity of the temple in various ways. This included the performance of dance and drama. For the worship though performing arts, she was thoroughly trained in ritual dance, drama and music. Though the devadasi system as an institution came into vogue after 700 AD, its origin may be traced to girls associated with rituals performing dance and music in literature, epigraphs and sculptures of earlier period. (Ibid)

Association of the theatrical arts with ritual is a very old Indian tradition. In some Vedic ceremonies, there were songs sung by married women, dance performed by maidens, dramatic dialogue between a harlot and a brahmacari and ritual copulation, having magico religious bearings. The last mentioned rite indicates the influence of pre-Aryan fertility cults on Vedic rituals. Varadapande says that later devadasis performed many of the functions performed by women in those specific ceremonies including dancing, singing, playing musical instruments and even ritual copulation in a temple under tantrik influence. (Ibid)

The Agnipurana says that devotees should arrange yatra in honour of deities, which should be full of dancing, singing and musical instruments. The Pasupata sect of Saivism includes singing, dancing, together with sringara i.e. showing oneself to be in love by means of amorous gestures - as if seeing a beautiful young woman was part of the vidhi or process to achieve final deliverance. The relation of Pasupata acaryas with courtesans was known during the later centuries. Varadapande says that it is possible that these acaryas needed dancers for their ritualistic Siva worship. This may have been the reason why later in medieval period, ascetics are depicted on the temple walls in the company of women which reminds one of Mahavrata ceremony (Vedic-Prevedic religious practice containing dance, music and dramatic dialogue with dance performance by maidens and singing by married women) which had dialogue between a brahmacari and a harlot and ritual copulation as part of the ritual. The ascetic - courtesan or ascetic - dancer combination may have grown into a devadasi - ascetic or a devadasi - chief priest combination. Thus the recognition of theatrical arts as ritual and woman as its performer gave rise to the belief that the best way to please gods was presenting dance, music and drama especially performed by women. This inclusion of theatre and women in religious rituals gradually gave rise to the devadasi system with some influence of secular sringara too, as suggested by Devangana Desai. There is yet another reason for the rise of devadasi system in India. Earlier, sacrifice was the norm of worship. This was replaced by temple worship, which now required a different type of ritual. In Vedic sacrifice, ritualistic dance was required only during the sacrifice. Female artistes whether in the form of professional entertainers hired for the ritual or as ritual dancers, were free after the sacrifice was over. But a temple was a permanent religious establishment with regular rituals. Therefore with the necessity of a permanent attendant to the presiding deity, the devadasi system was thus introduced. (Ibid)

One also sees similarities of the Indian devadasi system with other civilisations. The tradition of having temple girls was in vogue in the Greek and west Asian civilisations. Permanent appointment of temple girls as an institution was known not only to ancient Greece but to Western Asia and Egypt too. In Sumeria, it was considered honorable to dedicate beautiful girls to the temples. A festival was organised on the day of the dedication to celebrate the occasion. This system was known to Babylonians too. In large temples of Babylon, Sippar and Ur, there were several unmarried girls dedicated to the presiding deity. They received the same amount of money from their father as they would have received at marriage, had they been given in marriage. In Greece too, girls were dedicated to temples, especially to that of Aphrodite. In Egypt, the temples of Isis and Osiris were well known for their orgies and dancing of professional courtesans, which formed the main attraction of the great feast and festival of these shrines. During their westward migration and settlement in Bactria, the Kusanas who had their own tradition came into contact with Greek and West Asian cultures. They may have introduced the tradition of temple girls, permanently appointed in the temples, the result of a composite culture, as an institution to Indians. Thus, since India came into contact with them, directly or indirectly, impact of their cultures might be one of the factors responsible for the rise of the devadasi system as an institution. The first reference to devadasi is found in Kautilya’s Arthashastra who says that a devadasi retired from temple service may be employed in spinning work. Since Kautilya does not refer to the nature of her duty in the temple, it is not clear if the term devadasi is used here in the same sense in which it was used in the later century. (Ibid)

That music and dance had become a form of ritualistic worship during the second century BC is known from Patanjali too when there are mentions that the temples of Rama, Krsna, Kesava, Kubera, vibrated with the sound of the mrdanga, sankha and panava. The Arthashastra clearly indicates that the art of dance was taking a definite form and natyacaryas were given the responsibility of training the courtesans. Hence it is possible that the ritual dancer too underwent a proper training in the art as a discipline with some static postures and gestures that were suitable for temple ritual. The pattern of modern dance styles such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Manipuri and Kathak must have received contributions to their dance style from the temple rituals. This is believed since even now the enactment of lila of different gods form the most common and favourite subject of the abhinaya part of dance. Devotion (bhakti) continues to be its main subject. (Ibid)

There are not enough concrete evidences with regard to the dance style of those times. There is only one sculptural depiction of the performance of a ritual dancer (Rajgir plaque) which is quite poor in workmanship. This makes it difficult to form an idea about the style and standard of their art. However the closed eyes and rhythmic movement of the dancer of the Rajgir plaque are indicative of her mystic ecstasy, dedication and absorption in the ritual she is performing. (Ibid)

It is possible that the girl who served the goddess was a courtesan who was hired for the ritual. One reason to believe this is because it was customary to hire courtesans for such Vedic rituals where dramatic dialogue between a harlot and a brahmacari and ritual copulation were part of the magico religious ritual. That apart, it was also a fashion to hire courtesans to do the job of a part time devadasi during the later periods of Indian history though the term devadasi was not attached to them.

Though the term devadasi was known to ancient Indians, it is difficult to say if it was used in the same sense in which it was used later in India. Most probably it denoted a simple female attendant doing jobs other than ritual dance for which courtesans were hired. There are references about courtesans being hired for performing sangitaka in temples. From Kalidasa, one gauges that they also did other duties that were performed by later devadasis. As far as the style of performance of devadasis is concerned, it must have been more ceremonial and elaborate than the ordinary performance. In Rauravagam which relates to the construction, conservation and rituals of the temples, a list of protocols of Suddhanrtta is given a separate chapter. It states that ganika dancer (of the temple) should be hygienically clean and ritualistically purified by the acamaniya. She should be well versed in the art of music and dance. Suprabhedagama states that she should be physically fit and mentally calm. The artiste should dance at a fixed time in the mandapa, a circular area marked by the priest after invoking the presence of Nateswara there. All these references thereby reflect that the art of devadasi had become classical. Similarly it is possible that there was also a particular rule for the art, which she presented to the deity as a ritual. Since the devadasi art was associated with religion, they were accorded a respectable position and also enriched the art form. Since the association with religion was taken as any other religious ritual, this may have added to the popularity of the art of dance and music. This may have been the reason why the art of dance became more popular in the south than in the north, because devadasi system was more popular in south. The contribution of the dance of devadasis to theatrical art is evident by the bhakti element still being the main theme of many of the modern dance styles. Some of the dance styles, for example Odissi, is derived from that of the devadasis - from the dance of the Maharis (devadasis) of Orissa. They may have been the source of inspiration for the temple sculptures. (Ibid)

Presentational dance: Folk, ritual, tribal dances
The concept of folk dance originated in the identity of ‘the folk.’ Dancing has been an integral part of community festivities throughout history. However, it was not until the late 18th century and early 19th century that a certain strata of European society acquired the label ‘the folk.’ Folk culture then became an object of scholarly inquiry. In the second half of the 18th century, the cultural revitalisation movement in Germany led to intellectual developments throughout Europe. German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder advocated embracing native German language and culture, which had been neglected by the upper classes for centuries in favour of more fashionable foreign elements. Among Herder’s many influential ideas was the concept of das Volk (the folk): the embodiment of pure national culture in the common man, who had through the centuries, remained close to the national spirit and uncorrupted by artificial fads. Through the revelation of folk customs and traditions, Herder believed Germans would rediscover their national soul. These seeds gave birth to a general philosophy of nationalism that spread throughout Europe and became increasingly romanticised through the 19th century.  With the rise in romantic nationalism, scholarly studies focused on folk cultural forms and performance genres such as folk song, folk poetry and traditional crafts. Dance though was inconspicuous by its absence. It was generally mentioned only occasionally in reference to the performance of ballad and mostly as part of some seasonal festival. (IED1998 Vol 3: 29 -31)

In the1890s, dance started gathering more attention but the term folk dance was rarely used though every passing synonym like national dance, peasant dance, rustic dance, village dance, country dance, ritual dance were heard. Newer compound terms like folk culture, folk art, folklore, and folk life emerged and continued to be used.  Many scholars believed that folk dances were survivals from ritual and ceremonial customs derived from ancient primitive religious practice. It was also commonly held that authentic folk dances were composed communally and subject to standards of form and aesthetics mediated by the folk community at large. Hence folk dances were thought to be quintessential creations of the common people. (Ibid)

In order to assess the heritage of folk dance, one looked at the kind of function it performed i.e. the reason for it being created. The belief that folk dances were survivals of more primitive rituals suggested that the dances originally had some primitive  symbolic or ceremonial functions, such as to show devotion to a deity or to petition spirits for good luck. Scholars believed that primitive societies did not appreciate art for art’s sake. (Ibid)

Some folk dances continued with ceremonial functions. For example, while celebrating the return of spring, peasants danced while simultaneously plaiting the ribbons around a tall pole in the center of the dance circle.  This was the Maypole dance performed in many parts of Europe. Folk communities ascribed nothing more to the dance than a gesture to ensure good luck. In the evolutionary view of 19th century scholars however, the pole represented the ancient fertility symbol of a sacred tree and the dance’s original function was to supplicate pagan gods and spirits to oversee successful crops.  Many folk dances however seemed to have no apparent ceremonial elements. Scholars believed that group social dances functioned as a vehicle of communal expression. Similarly, couple dances were thought to function primarily as a means of courtship. (Ibid)
Dr. Anonna Guha, a Visharad in Kathak, is a scholar and researcher with a double doctorate - in Sociology and in Human Relations. She holds a post graduate diploma in personality development and psychology. Anonna has trained in the performing arts under her father Dr. Tushar Guha, the Founder-Managing Director of Nrityanjali - folk  dance, acting, singing, voice modulation, oratory, choreography and personality development. Anonna is a counsellor, a trainer in behavioural sciences and imparts Soft Skills training pertaining to Human Relations, Emotions, Communication, Personality Development, Stress Management to young students and adults. She is the Trustee and Jt. Managing Director of Nrityanjali. She has written the syllabus content for Masters degree in Sociology, Mumbai University. She has many articles, research papers and dissertations to her credit, one being her Phd thesis on ‘Dance in the urban culture.’

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