Hindus consider Dance the purest manifestation of rhythm, and rhythm has been a concept
basic to the development of Hindu thought. The sources of Hindu mythology and the roots
of India's dance forms are found in the sacred texts that comprise the revealed wisdom
of Hinduism. These are principally the four Vedas and the two great epics: the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It was the benevolence of the gods to mankind at a moment
of great need that brought to earth the gift of dance and the dramatic art. The Natya
Sastra (Treatise on Dramatic Art) by the sage Bharata Muni is the oldest known work on
dramaturgy as far back as in 200 BC. It is a consolidated and codified presentation of
mime, drama, dance and movement along with an exposition of acting, direction,
stagecraft, costume, make-up, music and a theory of aesthetics.
In addition to describing the appropriate musical instruments for accompanying the
dance, and the costume and jewellery for the dancer, the Natya Sastra prescribes the
physical characteristics of the dancer. The dancer must have a perfect figure, including
large eyes, even teeth, thick hair, a long graceful neck, full breasts but not
pendulous, slender waist, round hips, thighs like' the trunk of an elephant'; medium
build, medium complexion. She should exude charm and have agility, steadiness,
endurance, confidence, and a good memory. She should be witty, agreeable and fully
devoted to the art. She should feel at ease when performing and should know exactly when
to begin and when to stop dancing.
According to some legends, Natya Shastra was revealed to Bharata Muni by the god during
an era when people on earth had become addicted to sensual pleasure. Since the wisdom of
the Vedas could be entrusted to the priestly Brahmins alone, the king of gods, Indra,
requested Brahma to devise a method of instruction, which could be accessible to all.
Brahma went into meditation and thought of a solution. Taking an essence from each of
the Vedas, he extracted their elements of speech, song, mime and sentiment to create a
fifth Veda, the Natya Sastra. Brahma then instructed Indra to communicate this treatise
to those of the gods 'who are skilled, learned, free from stage fear and are given to
hard work'. Indra suggested that perhaps only the sages who had meditated on the
mysteries of all the Vedas were competent to take up the practice of the dramatic art.
Therefore, Brahma summoned Bharata Muni and taught him the art of dramaturgy. Bharata
Muni, in turn, trained his one hundred sons.
Bharata Muni, having mastered drama, staged a special performance at Shiva's personal
heaven on Mount Kailash which so delighted the god that he offered his own dance for the
enrichment of the art. As Bharata Muni was untrained in dance, Shiva appointed his first
student Nandikeswara, to instruct the sage, and provided a detailed treatment of pure
dance in his Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror of Gesture). An abridgement was made necessary for
quicker memorization when the gods were called to prepare at short notice for a dance
competition with asuras.
Lord Shiva became the first and greatest of the dancers. As Nataraja, Lord of the Dance,
he represents the five-fold activity of creation, protection, destruction, refuge and
blessing. Nataraja is shown in a statue of the god Shiva in his Nataraja avatar, dancing
on a small figure and usually shown within an are, which is outlined with tongues of
flame. The figure has four hands, one holds the damaru, a kind of drum, which stands for
creation. One of the right hand raises a flat palm upward, in a gesture of reassurance
or promise of protection (some say victory). The upper left hand holds a flame,
signifying destruction, the obverse of the creation on the right; together they
represent the cycle of life. The other left, posed like an elephant's trunk, extends
across the body and points to the raised foot, showing the way to peace and contentment,
or to the crushed figure of evil, which is perhaps the same thing. That raised (left)
foot stands for the release of the soul from bondage to the wheel of Karma. It
demonstrates that man can raise himself up and become enlightened. Finally, the dwarf
upon which the right foot is placed stand for ignorance and evil, from which the foot
itself represents salvation. Unconquered, the dwarf would prevent us from recognizing
the divine within us.
The figure's face is serene; despite the turbulence of the world, the inner self can be
serene and meditative. The unmatched earrings mean that he encompasses both the
masculine and the feminine in creation. His flowing locks speak to some as the source of
the river Ganga; water moves along it to the sea but the rivers itself remains and thus
represents eternity. Some people believe that his locks represent the life force.
Shiva first revealed his own dance on earth in the mythical forest of Taragan after an
encounter with a multitude of ascetics who had strayed into heresy. A second aspect of
Shiva's dance is described in some ancient texts as the Tandava, performed by him in
cemeteries and cremation grounds, symbols of purification by holy fire. Then there is
his dance of calm and tranquility, the Sandhya Nritya, the Evening Dance. On Mount
Kailash, as evening falls, Shiva places Parvati, his consort, on a golden throne and the
gods gather around. He begins to dance, accompanied by Indra playing the flute, Brahma
the cymbals and Vishnu the drum. Goddesses come to play the veena and to sing, while the
beings of the three worlds assemble to witness the celestial dance and hear the music of
the divine choir at the hour of twilight'.
Thus, the gods and goddesses of Hinduism dance their way through thee legends into the
minds and hearts of their worshippers. For generation their dance has inspired devotion
through the sculpture and imagery of India on the walls of temples, carved on stone
and manifested in paintings. On the banks of the sacred Jamuna river, Lord Krishna
dances on the serpent Kaliya to destroy evil and then he dances with his beloved
milkmaids, the Gopis, in a timeless allegory of divine love reflected in human longing.
Apart from these legends, dance perhaps emerged as the ritual of worship. The image of
the god was placed in the innermost recess of the temple where the oil lamp alone could
illumine the dancer's prayer and invocation. The lighting of the lamp became an
essential ritual with the ceremony of the temple bell, as the devotee must announce
himself to the Divine. Each gesture became symbolic of an act of worship. Thus started I
temples, dance was nurtured within its walls for countless centuries until it left the
temple precincts perhaps never to return.
Thus originated the word Devadasis which means 'servants of god' and has almost from
prehistory been used to denote girls dedicated to serve the god in a particular temple
by activities ranging from housekeeping to dancing. Later, the term was used to refer
exclusively to those occupied with music and dancing. Kalidasa, the great fifth century
dramatist, made enough references to dancing in his works to establish its presence and
acceptability. In the North, most of the great temples were furnished with dancing girls
and musicians. Devadasi, or a temple dancer, was originally an honourable profession. It
is said that almost 900 years ago Queen Santala danced in the great Hoysala temples of
Halebid and Belur and that she is depicted in some of the sculptures there. A princess
from Orissa became a mahari, as devadasis were known in that state. Queen Padmavati is
believed to have received an award for her services as a dancer in the Temple of
Jagannath at Puri. Royal princesses were often tutored in the art in special practice
rooms in the palace. They performed only for their family members and rarely reached the
degree of skill of the devadasis. Mostly the tutors were males.
After some time, dancing moved out of the inner sanctum and into the temple courtyard on
platforms erected for the purpose. It then became inevitable that worshippers and, in
fact, the general public, should be able to see the performance, as a temple was not
merely a religious site. Major ones acted as both patron and repository of fine arts and
literature. Pilgrims stayed in the temple precincts. In this way, several other
developments followed. As a 'bride' of the god of the temple, the devadasi had been
available to the priest who were considered as stand-in for the god. In some parts of
India, it was the ruler who was regarded as the representative of god, and the may have
been a first step towards state patronage. With the move into the courtyard, prosperous
spectators began to bid for the dancer's favour, a move encouraged by the priests and
gurns, who shared in her profits. Gestures were affected, as the watching men crowded
around the dancer in smaller and smaller circle so that the strong movements of limbs
fully extended became abbreviated and held closer to the body. The temptation to use her
skill to attract a wealthy patron led to a decline in the spiritual content of the
dance, as it became more provocative.
The love scenes intended to portray the longing of the soul for union with the Divine
began to portray instead a more carnal desire. As a result, the words 'debased' and
'degenerate' began to be applied to the art of the devadasis in the last few centuries.
This is vividly described in Ambrose's port of a performance by the famous twentieth
century devadasi, Balasaraswati. She danced and taught in the US as well as in India. An
annual award given by the American Dance Festival is named in her honour. She was known
as the 'Queen of Abhinaya', or communication of emotions through gesture and facial
expression. In fact, it is the focus on sensual quality, which created a public outcry.
It was distinct from the purity and spirituality of the performance. In the former case,
it is perversion because it uses the dance and its symbolism to convey a distorted
message. Brahmins declared it 'outrageous'. The words, 'exposure' and 'exhibition', were
used to convey their resentment. Such devadasis from the 1920s are shown in photographs
with bare heads and with flowers calling attention to their hair and with saris raised
to mid-calf. This is in sharp contrast to other women of the time in purdah wearing
saris to their feet and using the pallu to cover their head.
The Natya Sastra is the basic reference and sets the standards for most styles of Indian
classical dance of which there are seven major varieties: Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudhi,
Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohini Attam and Manipuri. Although all of them are related
to the Natya Sastra, each f them evolved variation based on the version of the original
which they followed and even more on the differing local or regional cultures within
which they developed.
The origins of Manipuri dance are obscure but are connected with the people's legends of
their own origins. Kathakali, originated in the villages of Kerala, where it was
presented as an all night performance on the village maidan (open ground) or in the
temple courtyard. Accordingly, it uses the broad gestures and exaggerated make-up which
are characteristic of open-air theatre anywhere. Moreover, Nairs, who were warriors,
performed it, they use vigorous movements that are descended from the martial arts.
Kuchipudi, began in a village called Kuchipudi which is Krishna district in Andhra
Pradesh, then in the princely state of Vijayanagaram. The Golconda Sultan, Abdul Hassan
Tana Shah, was so impressed with it that in 1675 he gave the village of Kuchipudi to the
troupe on condition that the dance drama should be maintained there. Though it was
originally performed by groups of Brahmins, it is now best known for the women who
perform this dance. A dramatic elaboration of Kuchipudi involves dancing on a round
metal platter or with a pot of water, or stack of pots, on the head.
Kathak, is a form of dance greatly influenced by the Muslims. When the Mughals
established themselves as Emperors of India, they had a taste for beauty, for colour,
and for music. Therefore, they took to the Indian style of dance. Classical dances were
based on Hindu mythology and often constituted prayers to Hindu gods or goddesses.
Therefore, those which were favoured at the Mughal courts, were the dances which could
be interpreted in human terms. This is one reason for the degeneration of classical
dancing, at it became more amatory and provocative at the time of the decline of Mughal
power and the consequent necessity to attract rich patrons elsewhere. In its most erotic
form, it came to be known as 'Nautch' and the dancers as nautch girls. The Mughals
emphasised on yet another aspect. It was rhythm, which has become one of the chief
qualities of Kathak dancing. With the decline of the Mughals, Kathak was increasingly
influenced by Hindu tradition. It was reverted to Hindu mythology. It is now most
frequently based on stories of Krishna or Krishna and Radha.
Odissi, is believed to be the purest of classical styles, judging by the temple
sculptures, especially at Bhubaneshwar and Puri. Odissi is considered something of an
eclectic style. Mohini Attam is based on the movements of a seductive woman, slow,
graceful, and voluptuous. The name 'Mohini' refers to the shape of an exquisitely
beautiful woman that was once assumed by Vishnu to lure the demons away from the elixir
of life, for which they were contending. As this dance does not necessarily communicate
devotion to a divinity, it can be danced anywhere and is often included in private
celebrations. All its qualities made it attractive as a medium for dancers whose
devotion was less to the art than to its popularity with a male audience. It was banned
for some time. The ban was revoke in 1950.
Some people regard classical dance as the earliest religious expression, the need to
believe in something beyond the known world, something that extends life. Others find
the origin of dancing in the need to express emotion. According to this theory, early
man raised his hands in supplication or joy, cowered in fear or despair, leaped with joy
at success. These movements gradually became stylized in ways that we now call
classical. Still others regard it as the result of physical gestures of work and see in
folk dance the sanctification of the routines of everyday life: sowing and harvesting,
cooking and tending the animals, getting on with one's neighbours.
To most people in the Western world, Bharatanatyam and Indian classical dance are
synonymous. Earlier, Dasi Attam or dance of the devadasis was perhaps the most common.
It is considered, as a Southern style of dance and is primarily associated with Tamil
Nadu. The form seems to have been developed independently there. The tradition of
classical dance in Tamil Nadu came to be known as Bharatam, from which the Bharatanatyam
is derived. This name became common only during the first half of the twentieth century.
With the current interest in reviving the classical tradition in dance, temple
sculptures are studied to help authenticate the classic poses.
In India, most folk dancing is done in a circle, a significant symbol because each part
is connected to the rest and is an essential component of the whole. Facing inwards,
each participant must pay attention not only to the others in the circle-the wholeness-
but also to the centre as the core around which the rest move. In some folk dances a
lighted pot is placed in the centre, symbolizing the womb, the centre of the earth.
Mrinalini Sarabhai believes that this symbolism stood as a forerunner for Krishna in the
lovely story of that god dancing with Gopis.
When the Gopis heard Krishna playing on his flute they were irresistibly attracted. No
earthly concern could detain them. Finding him in the forest, they joined hands and
danced in a circle around him and such was their ecstasy that everything else was shut
out from their consciousness. Each of the Gopis believed that she was there alone with
Krishna. In Hindu Art, the scene is often pictured with Krishna in the centre of the
circle but having cloned himself so that each gopi also has Krishna for a partner. In
this way, Krishna became the focus of a large part of the classical dance repertoire.
Thus, classical dance in India is one of he most ancient forms of dance known at
present. Many believe that it existed as long ago as three thousand years. The earlier
foreign invasions and other influences, which took dance out of the temple of North
India and into the Moghul courts, took dance to South India, where invaders scarcely
penetrated. With the advent of the British Empire and Christian missionaries in India,
the traditional patronage of dance by courts and temples dwindled even in South India.
Dancers came to be viewed as prostitutes. A vigorous campaign was launched. An English
Woman, Miss Tenant, came from England to lead a crusade in Chennai. Gradually, a few
enlightened people countered the prejudice. In 1917, Rabindranath Tagore introduced
dance into the curriculum of his culture centre, Shantiniketan. In 1926, E. Krishna
Iyer, a lawyer of Chennai, dressed as a traditional devadasi dancer, undertook to study
Bharatanatyam himself and presented it before respectable groups. Anna Pavlova came to
India in 1929 questioning Indians on the classical dance traditions. Some of her works,
based on Indian themes, such as her 'Radha Krishna' ballet, and the success of Uday
Shankar, her one-time partner, helped in reviving Indian dance. All India Music
Conference in Benaras in 1934, Rukmani Devi's intensive study in Bharatnatyam, one of
the first students outside devadasi caste, helped in introducing dance as classical
When Rukmini Devi gave her first public performance at the annual meeting of the
Theosophical Society in Chennai, the Brahmin Community there was so outraged at this
indecency that some of the leaders vowed never to watch again any dance programme.
Despite this, Rukmini Devi went ahead with her resolve and founded Kalakshetra, the
first school of classical dance, which was not for devadasis, temple dancers. Her dances
were all spiritual and love was an abstraction in her presentations. It now remains one
of the leading dancing institutions in the country. The situation has considerably
changed now. In 1942, when Mrinalini Swaminadhan, also a Brahmin from Chennai, married
Vikram Sarabhai of Ahmedabad friends of the groom's father commiserated with him as his
son had married a dancer. She performed the sensuous glances and gestures but carefully
avoided directing them to any particular individual in the audience. The only way love
could be portrayed, she reasoned, was as human love. But when performing a kiss, for
instance, she never looked at any one person but glanced all around the audience before
blowing it above their heads. After demonstrating love, she tried to suggest that if
this is love for a person, how much greater must be love for god, raising the
performance to a spiritual level.
As a result of the efforts made by Rukmini Devi, Mrinalini Swaminathan and other, today,
when girls in Ahmedabad plan their wedding festivities, it is not unusual for the
groom's mother to specify an evening when the bride will present a dance recital. In
Andhra Pradesh, at a time Rukmini Devi was making history in Chennai, little Uma Reddy
announced to her family that She wanted to be a dancer. Her grandmother became furious
at this. It was considered disgraceful to the family. That child made a vow, if ever she
had a daughter, the girl should have the opportunity to dance. Her daughter, Anuradha
Nehru, later became a famous dancer and teacher of Kuchipudi in USA.
After India's Independence in 1947, music and dance received the state's patronage and
dance was viewed as an important ingredient for cultural dissemination. The setting up
of Sangit Natak Akademi and Indian Council for cultural Relations together with the
holding of festivals of India in various countries facilitated further promotion of this
art genre within and outside the country. All such efforts have paved the way for the
support an encouragement of a large number of adept dancers and dance gurus known for
their creative talents. This book, Eminent Indians: Dancers, is a study of the lives and
achievement of ten such dancers and dance gurus who devoted themselves to the pursuit of
dancing as their passion and kept this traditional art alive by ushering in further
improvements to sustain the interest of the audiences.
I my attempt to study and present to the readers the works of dances and dance gurus I
have consulted numerous sources. While it is difficult to keep track of each one of
them, I am grateful to the library staff of Sangit Natak Akademi, a repository of such
an information, for making books accessible to me. Rupa & Co. deserves my thanks for
undertaking publication of this book. My wife, Asha Ahuja, cooperated with me to a great
extent by allowing me to concentrate on my study after my office hours. Writing in just
my hobby and not my full-time profession. But it indeed involves a strenuous work of
extracting information and putting it together. Nonetheless, the prospects of sharing
the information at large can be a source of joy. Towards this end in view, if I can
achieve it at some time or the other, I should feel happy.
Dance or abhinaya, the means to cultural communion, is considered to be the benevolence
of the gods to mankind. Described as the language by which a dancer holds a conversation
with the audience primarily through the use of the head, neck and the whole body, Natya
Shastra, the first codified version of this performing art, is believed to have been
revealed to sage Bharata Muni by the gods.
For generations, the dances of Hindu Gods and goddesses have inspired devotion through
sculpture and imagery of India. Led by the pioneering efforts of Ragini Devi, an
American woman married to an Indian freedom fighter, who observed that Indian dance was
an act of worship and not for entertainment, Rukmani Devi and Mrinalini Sarabhai,
dancing in India has paved the way for several creative artistes of international
This book, Eminent Indians: Dancers while describing the developments in this performing
art through the ages, brings to focus the success stories of men and women who braved
through great challenges to sustain this art genre in its multifarious form and as an
avocation for respectable people. The essays included in this book are not biographies
in the conventional sense, they are intended to bring to the readers the spirit of
sincerity, hardwork, dedication and perseverance the essential ingredients required to
achieve success in life.
Recipient of the Janseva Sadbhavana Award, M.L. Ahuja, M.A., DLL, DCS, is the author of
over twenty books now. He is associated with book publishing and distribution of books
and journals. He has traveled extensively both within and outside India. He has
presented a number of papers at several national and international seminars. He has also
contributed a number of articles, which are mostly on publishing and marketing of books
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