Dance: The Living Spirit of Indian Arts

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Dance: The Living Spirit of Indian Arts

A wind pierced across the twigs of a banyan tree leaving its leaves in rhythm. A sparrow skipped from its one babe to the other with its feathers fluttering in blissfulness. A lily unfolded its petals gently and slowly and grace and beauty were born. The woods surged and a chorus burst. The mountain peak melted and the rivulet - twisting, curving and echoing distant horizons, danced down onto the earth. And, the moon mounted the zenith and a translucent mass of silver - bright and soothing, poured covering the entire creation from the hilltop to the vale, meadows, fields, lakes, ponds, rivers and everything. The overwhelmed man witnessed the moment and his feet moved - forward and backward, right and left and in circles, and, in them revealed rhythm, grace and beauty, and unveiled the mystery of existence for his mortal frame had dissolved and conscience had merged into the cosmic conscience. He was now the being beyond him, and in him the cosmos sought to reveal itself. This divine magnification of an act of body - the body melting into the act and in the act the cosmic conscience transpiring, was the ever first dance on the earth.

In Indian tradition dance was thus a divine dimension of the man\'s act. Unlike other arts, the dance was an unearthly thing - something born in the mortal frame but possessed of divine bearing. The dancer, in the process of dance, sublimated his own self - body, soul and all faculties, as did a \'tantrika\', and united with the supreme Self - ultimate goal of both - dance and \'tantra\'. It was a position different from other arts. The dancer, himself being the instrument, medium and diction of dance, was more intimate with his theme than was a painter, sculptor or architect who employed extraneous means and himself only partially. Besides, dance was a thing beyond the form in which it revealed, as also beyond what it revealed. It revealed anger, destruction, or a violent mind, but it was neither. It revealed love, love\'s longing, or infatuation, but it was not dragged away by them. The anatomy of the dancer wherein dance manifested was not the anatomy of dance. The dance did not inseparably merge into its medium, as did mediums and themes in other arts. The dance was more or less an abstract vision - a form which was as much formless, an appearance, as much a \'non-appearance\', something of a spiritual experience which a materially manifesting vision inspired.

Dance as the Ancient Mind Viewed It

Egyptian prince Rehotep and his wife Nefert
Egyptian prince Rehotep and his wife Nefert

 

The ancient Indian mind hence had unique reverence for dance - so much that it conceived its gods as dancers discovering in dance the accomplishment of their assigned functions, ranging from creation to annihilation, and the divine grace - an essential attribute of gods. Such reverence for dance - for its unearthly divine fervor, mysticism, stoical bearing, aesthetics, and strength to influence and inspire, was not seen in art, culture and religious thought of other early civilizations. Whatever the perspective it was conceived with, the art of the early Egypt sculpted a figure as static and formal - a mummy-type accurate anatomy minus blood in veins. The sculptures of the Egyptian prince Rehotep and his wife Nefert, in Egyptian Museum, Cairo, hardly reveal a feeling of intimacy.

Greek sculptures of the corresponding era revealed a lot of physicality and dramatic gestures but the sensuous modeling, which in Indian art a dance-mode inspired, was completely missing. Roman sculptures were endowed with some degree of emotionality and sensuousness, but their flat and graphically rendered gestures and body-curves revealed theatrical prosaicness, not dance-like plasticity and modeling. Even the Greco-Roman phase of Indian art - Gandhara art and art of Kushanas in particular, lacked in sensuous modeling which dance infused into the art of other Indian schools.

Dance in Shaivite Perception

Shiva’s Awesome Dance
Shiva’s Awesome Dance

 

The Shaivite tradition perceives the origin of dance in Shiva. In the beginning were roaring horizons, tempestuous winds, turbulent oceans, rocking mountains and moving earths. But, then emerged Shiva - the proto cosmic being, with his little drum. He played on it and danced and in the beats of his drum and moves of his feet re-cast unruly skies and violent waters, and all their cries and commotion. The unruly sounds were set to syllabic discipline, and cosmic disorder, to ordered movement. In the process were evolved rhythm, melody and word - the steps still held in great reverence by all forms of Indian classical dances. The tradition hence acclaims Shiva as both, the first exponent of dance and the first linguist.

Shiva – The Adi-Nratya Guru
Shiva – The Adi-Nratya Guru

 

The Shaivite cult abounds in numerous myths of Shiva and his consort Devi performing dance in their various manifestations. Unlike Vishnu, Shiva is seen almost as a regular dancer performing for accomplishing an objective as also for pure aesthetic delight of his consort and devotees. The tradition hence reveres him as both, \'Adi-nratya-guru\' - the first teacher of dance, and Natesh or Nataraja - the king of dance.

The Inseparable Couple
The Inseparable Couple

 

In him revealed both faces of dance - \'lasya\' and \'tandava\', of which all subsequent dance forms were offshoots. \'Lasya\', the dance of aesthetic delight revealed beauty, grace, love and all tender aspects of existence. \'Lasya\' is the mode that defined many of Shiva\'s iconographic forms - Kalyana-Sundara, Vrashavahana, Yogeshvara, Katyavalambita, Sukhasanamurti, Vyakhyanamurti, Chinamudra, Anugrahamurti, and Chandrashekhara.

Cosmic Form of Dancing Shiva
Cosmic Form of Dancing Shiva

 

\'Tandava\' - or \'anandatandava\', was the dance of absolute bliss, as after the Great Age ended and dissolution became imperative, the Great Shiva, Who alone remained to effect the \'re-birth\' of life, danced in absolute bliss over the head of dissolution. In visual arts dissolution is represented as Apasmarapurusha, the demon of darkness, which prevailed after dissolution.

 

Tripurantaka Shiva
Tripurantaka Shiva

 

Sound, which vibrated the space - the first of the five elements that announced creation, fire, the symbol of final conflagration as also of the re-birth of energy - main source of life, and gestures of re-assurance, fearlessness, release and liberation accompanied \'anandatandava\' as its organs. It was in \'anandatandava\' that the fivefold activity - creating, maintaining, veiling, unveiling, and destroying, and the six celestial \'bhavas\': \'shrishti\' - creation; \'sanhara\' - dissolution; \'vidya\' - knowledge; \'avidya\' - ignorance; \'gati\' - motion; and \'agati\' - inertness, revealed. \'Anandatandava\', thus, encompassed entire cosmos and its phenomenal existence. Shiva resorted to a dance similar to \'anandatandava\' when destroying Tripura - three cities of demons, elephant demon Gaya, demon Andhaka and when accomplishing Trailokyavijaya - victory of three worlds.

 

Kali and the Arrested Moment
Kali and the Arrested Moment

 

Devi, Shiva\'s variously named consort, is alluded to have performed dance in her manifestations as Kali - Mahakali or Shamshana-Kali, and Bhairavi. Devi had many other forms, each representing a particular \'bhava\'. So did ten Mahavidyas and \'Saptamatrikas\'. Each of such forms was modeled using the dance-mode in which its characteristic \'bhava\' transpired. Thus, in modeling Devi\'s other forms, too, a similar dance-iconography was used.

Vaishnava Myths

Trivikrama: Vishnu in His Incarnation as Vamana
Trivikrama: Vishnu in His Incarnation as Vamana

 

Vishnu or his incarnations resorted to dance only on a few occasions, but despite, he is revered as the \'Adi-nratya-guru\' along with Shiva and Kali. Vishnu resorted to dance once in his incarnation as Vamana, when in mere two strides he spanned three worlds and won for himself Trivikrama - conqueror of three worlds, or Vishnukrant epithet. As the tradition goes, the mighty demon-chief Mahabali, the grandson of the legendary Prahlad, after ousting gods from Indraloka, was performing \'Vishvajit yajna\' for conquering rest of the three worlds. On a petition from gods Vishnu incarnated as Vamana - a dwarf Brahmin, reached where Mahabali was performing \'yajna\' and prayed to him for giving him a piece of land measuring just three strides. \'How much a dwarf could cover in three strides?\' thought Mahabali and granted the prayer. But, then Vamana expanded his form, raised his left leg and in two strides spanned all three worlds pushing with the third Mahabali to the nether world.

The Dance of Victory
The Dance of Victory


Vishnu as Krishna danced once to subdue venomous serpent chief Kaliya

Rasamandala with a Difference
Rasamandala with a Difference

 

and many times for delighting \'gopis\' - Radha in particular.

 

Vishwamitra - the Hermit
Vishwamitra - the Hermit

Vishnu as also his incarnation Rama or even Parashurama, and his consort Lakshmi or Rama\'s consort Sita, were conceived with a monarchical frame to which dance was alien except for a divine objective. It was the same with Vaishnavite Indra, king of gods. Indra, too, did not resort to dance, though unlike Vishnu, he had at \'Indrasabha\' - his court, numerous dancing nymphs - Urvashi, Menaka being better known. Besides dancing, these nymphs were used for seducing opponents. The legend of Menaka seducing sage Vishvamitra and corrupting his fifty thousand years long penance is well known.

 

Jain and Buddhist Lines

Ten-Armed Dancing Avalokiteshvara
Ten-Armed Dancing Avalokiteshvara

Though dance was an aspect of worship with devotees and attendants represented as dancing - both in the self-denying Jainism and the middle-path-pursuing Buddhism, dance was not allowed to infuse into the iconography of either the Buddha or the Jain \'Tirthankaras\'. In contrast to \'Tirthankara\' images, Buddha\'s were conceived with \'lavanya\' - aesthetic beauty coupled with a celestial \'bhava\', but beyond \'lavanya\', they revealed nothing of dance. Subsequently evolved in these religious orders subordinate deity forms, some of which were conceived as resorting to dance and others, with a form in which revealed a dance-mode, manifestations of Jain deities Saraswati and Amba, and of Buddhist Tara and Samhara - the Bhairavi-type goddess of annihilation, being the main. By now, dance was the core of the entire body of divine art, portrayal of celestial \'bhava\', spiritualism, \'lavanya\', elegance, and grace being in main focus. Now the spirit of dance permeated, besides various Jain and Buddhist deities - Lokeshvara and other Bodhisattvas in particular,

 

 

Mayadevi - Mother of Buddha
Mayadevi - Mother of Buddha

 

also the figures of Maya and Trishala, the mothers of Buddha and Mahavira.

 

Dance in Pre-Historic Days

Line Drawing of Dancer with Bow and Arrow from Bhimbetka
Line Drawing of Dancer with Bow and Arrow from Bhimbetka

 

In India, rock-shelter drawings reveal the earliest examples of dance. Figure E-19 at the Bhim-Betka rock-shelters, drawing of \'urddhakeshin\' Shiva at Nawda Todo, forms of monkeys at Gupteshvara and a number of human figures at Pahadgarh, Tikla and Abachand present evidence of dance being in prevalence those days.

 

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Female Deity from Mohenjo-daro (Indus Valley) with Exposed Genitals
Female Deity from Mohenjo-daro (Indus Valley) with Exposed Genitals

 

These drawings belong to the period from 5000 to 2000 B. C. As reveal the stone statuette of male dancer from Harappa and the bronze figurine of dancing girl from Mohenjodaro, the Indus Valley civilization had a well-evolved dance culture stretching in all probabilities from its real life to its artefacts. Now the dance was both, a theme of art seeking to portray dancers' professional likenesses, as suggest the aforementioned statuette and figurine, and also a means of aesthetic modeling as reveals in Mother-goddess terracottas and various animal forms. These figurines and forms have not been cast in a regular dance posture but the dance reveals in the beauty of their form and gracious modeling. 

Dance in Canonical Literature

The NATYASASTRA (English Translation with Critical Notes) by Adya Rangacharya
The NATYASASTRA (English Translation with Critical Notes) by Adya Rangacharya

The first millennium B. C. has been the era of canonical texts seeking to set the rules of social management, private life, linguistic discipline, public finance, state policy, poetics, dramatics .. In the matter of dance, Bharata's 'Natyashashtra' is the earliest available text.

Though its main theme was drama, it dealt with dance also at a considerable length. On one hand, it elaborated various gestures of hands, which a dance comprised, and on the other, classified such gestures and movements as graceful and more vigorous; the former, defining the 'lalita' form of dance - 'lasya'; and the latter, its vigorous form 'tandava'. Dance has been classified under four categories and into four regional varieties. It named these categories as secular; ritual; abstract; and, interpretive. Bharata's regional geography has completely changed and is hardly identifiable, and so his regional varieties except one - 'Odra Magadhi', which after decades long debate, has been identified as present day Mithila-Orissa region and the dance form, as Odissi. 'Odra Magadhi' region is further significant as it provides earliest epigraphic evidence of the prevalence of dance in the region much before the Common Era and of the fact that even princes practiced it. In his rock-edict in Udaigiri caves, near Bhuvaneshwara - circa second century B. C., the Jain king Kharavela not only mentioned himself as 'Gandharva-Veda-Buddha' - 'the one who has full knowledge of arts', but also that he prided in practicing dance. Maybe, Bharata's 'Odra Magadhi' and the dance-form, which king Kharavela and his people practiced, was one and the same.

Dance-styles many times died and as many times revived and so did Bharata's perception. But, despite, in his interpretive dance the distant roots of the present day 'Kathaka' might be traced; so those of 'Bharatanatyam' and Odissi, in his ritual dance; and, of 'Mohini Attam' and 'Kuchipudi', in his secular dance. Abstractness is now the feature of almost all dance forms.

Dance in Early Sculptures

The period from the fourth to the third century B. C., marked the transition from the Mother Goddess terracotta figurines - still rendered pursuing Indus models, to the large size sculptures - mostly votive statues of 'Yakshas' and 'Yakshis', though the well formulated and widespread religions - Vedic, Buddhist and Jain, were eliminating such 'Yaksha' deities too, along with other local gods and beliefs. Initially, none of these religions encouraged anthropomorphic representations of their divinities, but image-worship was not barred also. Hence, the emergence of these new religions did not adversely affect 'Yaksha' sculptures. Even converts to Buddhism and Jainism continued to worship 'Yaksha' images. Being votive, neither the 'Yaksha' statues nor Mother goddess figurines revealed an apparent dance posture, but in plasticity, modeling, body gestures and emotional bearing, the dance was their life-blood. The model of female deity that the Mother goddess figurines represented did not vanish but only transformed into the lotus carrying female deity - as in Sanchi and Bharhut 'stupas', now identified as Lakshmi. Their elaborate headdresses and heavy breasts and hips had been inherited from Mother goddess models but a dance-posture and sensuousness, infused into its figure, were the new elements that better defined its feminineness.

Yaksha Figure from Patna 2nd Century B.C.
Yaksha Figure from Patna 2nd Century B.C.

 

'Yakshas', the gods of auspiciousness bestowing good and prosperity, so dominated the common-man's mind that both Buddhism and Jainism were obliged to admit them into their pantheons as subordinate deities attending on Buddha and 'Tirthankaras'. In this new role, 'Yaksha' sculptures, different from their earlier votive images, revealed greater plasticity, finer modeling and vigorous postures of dance. It was the same with 'Nagas', 'Gandharvas' and 'Kinnaras' as also 'Apsaras', 'Matsyakanyas', 'Nagakanyas' and others. Now, these celestial beings comprised part of the themes of the majority of sculptures and paintings and more so of temple architecture. In temple architecture, their figures - isolated or in groups, defined its various members - columns, door-jams, lintels, brackets, and other spaces on exteriors and interiors. They also served as garland, 'chowri' and standard bearers, 'dwarpals', 'bharasadhakas'- porters, and other, and in all these roles, they were invariably in a posture of dance and revealed a celestial 'bhava'.

 

Maiden from the Caves of Ajanta
Maiden from the Caves of Ajanta

Inspired and characterized by Buddhism, there emerged, during the third century B. C. itself, a widespread art activity. The Mauryana emperor Ashoka had carried far and wide Buddha's message and art. The debut was massive but with a common ethos guiding it its stylistic and thematic unity, despite regional variations, did not break. Initially, Buddha's iconic representations were prohibited, but it did not bar Buddhism from developing its own art perception requiring rhythmic vitality, fluidity of lines, and pleasant curves and twists in art motifs, and in human and animal figures, gracefulness, a feeling of intimacy, emotionality and even sensuousness. Flat and prosaic figures or motifs were hardly liked. These features - essential attributes of a dance-form, powerfully reflected in the sculptures at Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and other Buddhist centers. Not merely human figures but also decorative art-motifs appeared as if dancing. It was the same with painting. Ajanta's imagery - representing a queen or maid, male attendant or female chowri-bearer, was endowed with unique plasticity, sensuous modeling and lyricism as also with such dance-modes as even today prevail. Within a few centuries, this was the perception of the entire body of religious art - Jain or Brahmanical.

Dance, The Essential Idiom of Indian Arts

Nagakanya Door Knob
Nagakanya Door Knob

 

India's art imagery and sacred architecture found, thus, in dance its most natural and intimate idiom. Dancing figures of goddess Ganga and Yamuna, Matsyakanyas, Nagakanyas, or entwined Nagas defined doorjambs of the sanctum sanctorum, and the lintel sought its form not in the central deity but in the dancing figures of chowri or garland bearers or queuing devotees.

Carvings on Temple Walls
Carvings on Temple Walls

Not stone-cubes, rhythm - interplay of horizontals and verticals, projected and recessed parts and areas of light and shade - all aspects of dance, carried the temple from the plinth to the 'shikhara'-height, and the 'shikhara' from its base to finial, vibrating with life-vigor spaces occurring in between. With the emergence of sculpted temple cult and spread of 'tantra', evolved a wide variety of imagery - divine and human, and a huge range of emotions, mainly the different aspects of love. The temple walls and friezes were now inhabited by gods, goddesses, celestial beings, mythical creatures, kings, queens, and common men engaged in love and other acts - mothers fondling or feeding children, riders, devotees, battling warriors, bathing, dressing, and, adorning maids, loving couples seated close-by, embracing, or in union, porters, musicians and hundreds others. If anything defined the idiom of these images - their intrinsic being and anatomy, as perhaps also the concurrent real life, it was only dance.

Dances Of India - Kathak
Dances Of India - Kathak

 

Treatises have classified dances and explored their regional varieties and other aspects. However, the anatomy of dance - body-gestures, forms, facial demeanors as revealed when a dance was actually performed those days, is not known. What is known is only a form as it reveals in visual arts - sculptures in particular. There is, however, a wide gap between what these texts specify as the character of dance in a particular region and what its visual arts represent. Though in iconographic perception they are different, the sculptures of Konark and Khajuraho are almost identical in modeling body gestures, postures, positions of love-making, and aspects in which a dance form revealed. 'Kathak' - one of India's main classical dances, developed pursuing the dance idiom of the north, Oudh and Brij in particular, is universally identified as the dance of northern region including Rajasthan.

 

Dances of India - Bharat Natyam
Dances of India - Bharat Natyam

 

It is a dance of upright stance with body held absolutely erect without knees deflecting. But, contrarily, Rajasthan's early sculptures reveal a half-seated position with outward turned knees - a characteristic posture of Bharatanatyam - the dance of the South.

Thus, visual arts might not be treated as chroniclers of dance, but only that the ties between them are unbreakable - dance being living spirit of visual arts, and visual arts, manifest body of dance.

Dance in Feudal Frame

In early days, for gods or men, dance was a temple-related activity. Outside the temple a dance was performed only on rare occasions - as when a king defeated another. Conquerors - kings and their forces, danced in the battlefield itself, and sometimes around the body of the slain king defeated in war. From around the eighth century or before, temples began having regular dancers for dance-rituals. It became customary - particularly in the South, that kings, after their conquest, offered to the temple some of the girls captured in war to serve the deity, and others, they kept in harem to serve them, and in both cases dance was their prime job. Later, temple dancers became known as 'devadasis' and those in harem, as 'rajadasis'. The face of dance began deteriorating with this blend of feudalism with ritualism. Mere war-booties, not endowed even with status of a professional, these dancing girls - 'devadasis' or 'rajadasis', were subjected to even sexual exploitation. The dance, thus, lost its prestige and spiritual inspiration. At Bharata's 'Odra Magadhi' where king Kharavela prided in being himself a dancer, now the commonplace was: 'Those with some sense of shame play musical instruments, and those with none sing. As for the utterly shameless, they take to dancing.'

Mujra - The Dance
Mujra - The Dance

With the influx of Islam, the prestige of dance, both in real life and art, further deteriorated. Figural modeling did not change every now and then. Hence, dance-modes continued to influence the modeling of stone and even metal cast, but with lost vigor and strength. Painting, which was the prime creative thrust of the period, was indifferent to dance except when dance itself comprised a painting's theme or when dance appeared as part of an established tradition - as in illustrations to Jain and Buddhist texts. The twelfth century, however, with the birth of Jaideva - the poet, singer and dancer, brought about a renaissance. Jaideva, by his poem 'Gita-Govind', discovered unique dimensions of Bhagavata Bhakti cult with dance being its essence. He conceived love as the highest kind of devotion and dance as the supreme expression of love. In Jaideva's world, if 'gopis' danced to Krishna, Krishna also danced to 'gopis' - the dance being the sole dialogue between the soul and the Supreme Soul. Jaideva's renaissance gave fresh impetus and divine sanction to dance. In hundreds of miniatures not only Krishna, Radha or 'gopis' but also Shiva and Shaivite deities appeared as dancing. Thus, in devotional paintings, dance re-emerged as their theme and perception but not encompassing rulers, who even when performing a devotional rite, kept away from dance. To them, the dance, in a painting or at court, was still a courtesan's thing - something for senses not for devotional mind.

Dancers from Mandu Perform Before Akbar (From the Akbarnama)
Dancers from Mandu Perform Before Akbar (From the Akbarnama)

 

Islamic art of Sultans, whatever its theme - even love or romance, rigorously scanned elements of dance and emotionality and preferred static and formal figures. Mughal emperor Akbar respected music and dance at his court and in personal life but in his court painting - even in Akbarnama illustrations, dance as its theme rarely figures, and whenever it does, its context is hardly respectable.

 

Nautch Girl
Nautch Girl

Whatever the refinement of lines and maturity of style, figures in Mughal paintings are formal and their gestures, dramatized. Dance at the court and in the art of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah reflected only the deteriorating phase of both Mughal power and art. During the reign of the last Mughals and Nawabs of Oudh dance fell down to the status of 'nautch', an unethical sensuous thing of courtesans.

Later, linking dance with immoral trafficking and prostitution, British rule prohibited public performance of dance. Many disapproved it. Indian national freedom movement worked primarily on the political agenda of securing India's freedom, but as much in its focus was the revival of her past glory and great heritage. Around 1927-28, some bold statesmen and intellectuals moved repeated resolutions in national sessions of Congress - the leading forum of the freedom movement, demanding the revival of Indian dances and the British ban to be lifted. Initially, some indifference surfaced but finally the demand became part of the national agenda. In 1947, India won her freedom and for dance an ambience where it could regain its glorious paradise. Classical forms and regional distinctions were re-discovered, ethnic specialties were honored and by synthesizing them with the individual talents of the masters in the line and fresh innovations emerged dance with a new face but with classicism of a great glorious past.

Bibliography:

1. Natyashashtra by Bharata Muni
2. Alankar 5000 Years of Indian Art, 1994, Mapin
3. Aspects of the Performing Arts, Marg, Vol XXXIV No. 3
4. Masterpieces from the National Museum Collection, 1985
5. Buddhist Art of India, Ed. Dr. K. K. Chakravarty, Catalogue of Exhibition at Seoul
6. Dancing to the Flute, Ed. Pratapditya Pal, 1997
7. P. Banerji : Dance of India, Allahabad, 1942
8. Leela Venkataraman & Avnish Pasricha : Indian Classical Dance, New Delhi, 2002
9. Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain : Monuments of India, Vol I, New Delhi, 2002
10. Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain : Khajuraho, New Delhi, 2001
11. Kapila Vatsyayan : The Squares and the Circles in the Indian Arts, New Delhi 1997


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