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Dance: The Living Spirit of Indian Arts

Article of the Month - April 2006
Viewed 63856 times since 2nd Oct, 2008
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.






Continued in Page 2

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  • Bharatanatya is a recent dance form from Tamil Nadu: dance of temple prostitues now misnomered Bharatanatya. It is totally wrong to project it as an ancient dance form.
    by Ragu on 24th Jul 2012
    by RAMAN LAL RANIGA on 15th Jun 2010
  • Is it necessary to claim one's place by denigrating other faiths/ customs / cultures? Indian / Hindu heritage can not be enriched if the process of sharing mocks at others or speaks in a doctrinal form. Plurality is the functional basis with a Trinity and many Gods & Godesses clearly pointing to tolerance. Whenever it was undermined in whatever name it resulted in destruction and disgrace. I hope the learned essayists keep this request in mind.
    by viswanatham on 5th Jan 2008
  • Western are you referring to England ? who conqored India ? And as far as the Jewish faith is concerned, it was always noted with singing and dancing and praising of Yahweh. The calf you mention was an idol in which the Egyptians worshiped and was indeed outlawed by Yahweh for it was not of Him they worshiped. My thought on your statement is this, if you are going to make a statement :you should at least understand what you are talking about. And I am of Jewish decent tho not Jewish, and where did it every say that singing and dancing before Ones own God was forbidden. If you take a closer look at who forbid King David to dance, that would of been King Saul the one who was trying to kill David as not to take the throne which had been given to Him at the age of sixteen. Superiority ? if it works so well, then why is that there is no money, or food, or rights within India ? And they are coming to the united States in order to get what they don't have in India ? If it don't work why would one believe ? Informative article, on that which seems to be a prevailing belief system.
    by Sheri ( on 16th May 2007

    by RAMAN LAL RANIGA ( on 17th Nov 2006
  • What a superb article? Scholarly, lucid and so comprehensive. What a contrast to the contemporary Bollywood dances and the mimicking of "Western dance" by the middle and upper class Indians?
    by Mukunda Rao on 17th May 2006
  • Another great hit ! Thanks for all the wonderful information and colorful images !


    The India Saijiki
    by Gabi Greve on 1st May 2006
  • Thank you for an excellent article about indian dancing.
    when i first was introduced to the truth about the dancing of shiva, which of course only showed the superiority of the sages, wismen and gurues of India, when they in the Shiva figure just showed the cosmic movement of the atoms, when the univers was created.
    Thank you again for the interesting article.

    Loving Sai Ram

    Sonja Engman Wilson

    by sonja engman wilson on 24th Apr 2006
  • Great article and info.on all subjts.and the beautifull display of Arts.
    by Catherine. on 20th Apr 2006
  • It was blissful experience to read the article. Thank you
    very much for enlisting me on your email list.
    by Sara on 19th Apr 2006
  • Excellent article. Particularly pertinent is the observation that Indian dance has experienced a dramatic decline as a result of Western invasion and occupation of India.

    Islam, of course, is not the only Western religion to suppress dancing. Christianity has traditionally barely tolerated dancing and, like Islam, has never produced any form of choreographic expression of its own.

    No doubt, this misguided and excessive sobriety is rooted in the Jewish tradition, the parent of all Western (Abrahamic) faiths, where the priests rebuked King David for dancing in front of God's altar and Moses himself ordered the slaying of thousands of men, women and children for dancing around a gold calf.

    How different the situation in Hinduism where numerous forms of devotional dance have been allowed to flourish down the centuries! This in itself suffices to demonstrate the repressive nature of Western religion and the superiority of the Hindu faith. It is about time that we Hindus reclaim our ancient heritage and restore it to its original glory.

    by Ravi Chakravarti on 19th Apr 2006


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