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Dance: An integral part of human existence
- Sudha Sridhar

September 24, 2016

(This article was published in a special edition 2015 book released by Nrityanjali Cultural Organisation, Hyderabad, on the occasion of World Dance Day, ‘Nrityanjali - A Tribute to Dance.’ Reproduced here with permission.)

Dance and music has always been an integral part of existence of human life right from time immemorial, probably suggesting that it has descended along with human beings right from the source itself.

It is quite true for all life forms too, namely a bird chirping in the woods, a peacock dancing, the nimble footed movements of some of the animals akin to rhythmic dance, the swaying of the plants and trees to the breeze, the perennial splashing of the waves of the seas, sound of river flowing, the thunder and the accompanying rains are all but a small simile of the endless dimensions through which nature expresses itself in sound and motion in a captivating manner.

Influenced both by the surroundings and also responding to the natural instinct, it is all but natural that the human being who is supposed to be pinnacle of nature’s creation in this planet called Earth too have found dance, music or together more often as an automatic choice for expression of joy in particular and the varied myriad emotions that humans are capable of emoting like happiness, pain, grief, fear, hope, etc. It is often heard and seen that dance and music is not limited to any particular creed or strata, it moves both the mass and class of the society in its own way since it is basically an expression born out of the inner core of one’s existence.

This leads to the very natural corollary that the evolution of dance which has seen at least a couple of millennia of documented history has been very carefully, painstakingly, preserved, protected  and propagated earnestly to be handed over to the present generation with a moral responsibility to pass it on to future generations in the same unalloyed way. This is not a small task but requiring penance like efforts from all the stake holders of the art form right from the artists, art lovers / patrons, etc. It is in this backdrop, that one needs to see the history, the continuing contribution of Indian classical dance forms to the evolution of the art, artists as well as the society in which the art and artists flourish.

In our country, like how all intentions, capabilities, activities have been centered around the primary goal of human evolution to realize, integrate or merge with the divine aspect of life, dance too evolved more for the purpose of disseminating the message of gods, found through the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva) to reach the entire population and is thus called as the Natyavedam / Panchamavedam. Through the medium of dance the messages of the Vedas, Puranas, epics reached out and spread to common people too with a view to make them understand the concept of god and the all pervading divinity. 

Dance depicts and teaches what is dharma and righteousness, the need to adhere to it steadfastly as against the doomed path of the vicious and adharmic practices, so to say the total orientation continues to be showcasing dharma rather than justice through the human journey empowering to achieve everything. Through dance, divine and natural laws were taught in an unrestrained manner and the classical dance forms of our country continue to do so, maintaining tradition to educate, entertain and enlighten through the medium of dance. The gurus of the immediate past have carried the mantel of being torch bearers of the art form and taught us the ways and means to keep the tradition alive, come what may, by setting leading examples through their dance journey.

Dancers who became legends in their own right or even adroit at dance form to a higher scale always have known to have been inspired at some stage looking at dance at a very young impressionable age with innocence and without their knowledge got connected to the essence of the art form as projected unalloyed by the artist at some sort of performance and took the major decision to excel in dance. It is a major ‘yagna’ to keep the childlike innocence approach to dance to uphold the traditions as enumerated through various texts like Bharata Muni’s ‘Natya Sastra’, Nandikesava’s ‘Abinaya Darpan’ to name a few against all odds up to the last breadth.

What started off as a medium to depict and educate about god did get influenced during various times to the prevalent social milieu and leaned towards more as a medium of entertainment. The art form reached the courtyards of the royal and the affluent and the approach to dance from ‘bhakti’ came to be considered as any other ‘profession and entertainment.’ The moment the human element becomes predominant in any art form, both the medium and the holder of the medium, i.e., the art and artist, gets into unnecessary inevitable tangles. This necessitated the emergence of dancing communities / groups / Gurukulam who did go beyond their best in protecting and propagating dance in its pristine form and took upon themselves the onerous task as a divine pursuit from the bottom of their hearts not compromising on the traditions that was handed over to them.

A deeper analysis of how, each of the art forms weathered the various cultural invasions, challenges to uphold traditions, are beyond the scope of this article since it entails a detailed independent research. But it will be appropriate here to mention that the past couple of centuries has witnessed quite a dramatic turn of events to bring almost to the brink the efforts to maintain purity and eschew consciously dilution and misrepresentation. The Nattuvamelam tradition gave way to popularity of Natyamelam. Dances which were essentially performed at temples, religious occasions and with spiritual fervor being part of the rituals got replaced with increased patronage by royalty, art lovers and the ensuing dilution of traditions and compromising on the aesthetic aspects of dance form.

Generally any change has both pros and cons when it comes to influencing ideas and concepts. Any evolutionary path absorbs the desirable and rejects the undesirable over a period of time. It is primary responsibility of each one of the stakeholders of dance to ensure that the reverse does not happen at any cost and not to be a passive or active party to degradation, misinterpretation or drift from the basic essence of the dance form. Be it mudras, adavus, jathis, abhinaya, narration, choreography, etc., one should not cross the major boundaries of the dance form. To follow a particular methodology in its original form is only called as ‘tradition’; if for the sake of innovation certain things are introduced in each aspect of dance, such creations should follow the sastras and the traditional aspects of the dance as per the original purport. Any developmental activity within the broad framework without changing the theory and practice is to be ensured before even the aforesaid innovation within the boundary is attempted.

It is in this respect that the ancient form of dissemination of knowledge through the Gurukul system makes a lot of meaning and difference. It was always in first person and at very close quarters under the direct watchful eyes of the teacher / guru and the art form was actually in a way transmitted to the aspirant, the earnest pursuer of dance. Accordingly, the student retransmitted the art form after attaining Guru position in their own right. The major shift seen in the present times from Gurukul to institutionalized style of teaching depriving the dancer of organic growth needs to be redressed and addressed as per the contemporary social circumstances.

With the changes witnessed since Independence of our country taking both the positive and negative aspects in its stride dance has given more opportunities and space for a larger section of the populace. More and more dancers from the distaff side came into limelight even in dance forms where traditionally male dancers learned and performed. Solos have come to stay to such an extent that a large chunk of the present generation of dancers think dance is all about only solos and the nuances of Kalapams, Yakshaganams, etc are fading to the twilight very sadly. Solos are just one aspect of dance; if in a living body just one part alone grows does it not tantamount to abnormal growth and resultant ‘out of control’ situation leading to unimaginable consequences and disaster. Similarly just one aspect of a dance form alone flourishing due to undesirable experiments would ultimately be the death knell of the art form itself.

On the flip side, positive aspect of the changes has given different dimension with a plethora of opportunities / avenues opening up both as an amateur and professional way namely literature, music, sculptures, photo journalism, historians, anthropology, art journalism, new breed of art organizers, authors, magazines, websites, social and cultural NGOs, governmental agencies, craftsmen, stage technicians, etc., based on the individual talent and agenda, one can partake in various activities associated with any dance form.

Why this clamor for purity, upholding the rich cultural heritage and traditions, trepidation of further degradation or dilution of dance forms? This could be one of the questions posed or stirred after reading the article thus far.
Dance is an ‘amruth’ – nectar - in essence that divinity has provided to humans for further refinement to reach the source. It is the hidden language of the soul with the form (artist) seeking to merge with the formless, action seeking to merge with the stillness and the dancer becomes one with the external universe thereby becoming merged and engulfed securely with the Cosmic Energy itself experiencing blissful state of the heart.

Dance is a divine art form having in it something for each one of us. For the children it is an inspiration to learn and perform something new, for the youth it provides an opportunity / outlet to express themselves and for an adult – Grishasta – it is to re-live his experiences in life through dance.

Dance brings out the inner, deeper, refined meaning of literature aided with music and aesthetic movements of the limbs, expressions becomes a visual treat and rightly called as a ‘drishya kavya.’

Dance teaches to treat all creations with respect and see the divinity in them, right from salutation, pose, gestures, movements imbibed with an attitude of gratitude and surrender to the omnipresent divinity.

It is very important to remember that dance as an art cannot be spoilt by a few individuals and also at the same time a few individuals alone cannot monitor or wish the best for the dance form; it is a collective understanding and approach to dance. Let us remember that when an artist flounders or deviates from the basic principles it is the art form that suffers most, than the erring artist itself.

In this direction character development and refinement on spiritual lines is very important as one grows as a dancer, because the inner character and outer behavior of the dancer on stage and off stage is influencing a larger chunk of people. With such an immense value imbibed art form, flippant approach to it to portray it otherwise would tantamount to outright blasphemy and profane disregard to the need to take dance as a penance and yagna of a lifetime. Dance is an elixir of life to the vulnerable and confused mortals which stimulates and stirs the inner self to find the elusive answer to the meaning of life from deep within through the sadhana of dance. There is an urgent need for the all the stakeholders to work in tandem and ensure that dance which is an integral part of human life is passed on to the next generation in its original pristine form, glory and its purpose.

Sudha Sridhar, a double graduate in Law & Dance is a cultural activist working on advocacy efforts to preserve, promote and propagate art forms and for the cultural rights and welfare measures for artists. Currently her main focus is on Kuchipudi heritage village and promotion of all the three streams of South Indian Yakshagana - Karnataka Yakshagana, Kuchipudi Yakshaganam and Melattur Bhagavathamela.

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