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Dance: The Living Spirit of Indian Arts

Article of the Month - April 2006
Viewed 73091 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

...Continued from Page 1

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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.


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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  • 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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