India's Dances: Their History, Technique and Repertoire

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Item Code: IDE557
Author: Reginald Massey
Publisher: Abhinav Publication
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 97881701743411
Pages: 315 (Color Illus: 48 , B & W Illus: 3)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.8"
Weight 600 gm
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Book Description


From the Jacket


The dances of India are among the oldest dance genres still widely practiced today. In recent years they have become increasingly known and appreciated all over the world. This book details the history of the several styles of Indian dance and gives an account of the cultural, religious, social and political factors which influenced their growth and development. There are fascinating side-lights on the etiquette and mores of Indian society. Many of the myths and legends which form the subject matter of the dances are recounted and theories suggested to explain their inspiration and sources.

This is a comprehensive survey of readers who want to relate the classical dances to the broader background of Indian culture. For students, Indian and non-Indian, it provides valuable historic and technical information; and for dance lovers it serves as a guide telling them what to look for in a performance. There is, in addition, an overview of India's many folk dances. The glossary of terms germane to the different styles is a useful adjunct as is the bibliography.

In the latter part of this book the achievements of leading Delhi-based dancers are recorded and, at the sametime, new talent is readily recognized.

Written by an acknowledged authority, India's Dances, is quite simply, a definitive volume on some of this country's most enduring contributions to world culture.


About the Author


Reginald Massey has studied South Asia's culture, religions, music, dance, film, history and politics for over fifty years. His books on Indian dance and music are standard works. He has written for leading international journals and has been a Dancing Times critic for over three decades. Leading reference works such as The Encyclopaedia of Dance and Ballet and Everyman's Encyclopaedia contain his rigorously researched entries.

He wrote and produced Bangladesh I Love You, a film starring the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Lament of a Lost Hero and Other Poems, a selection of his verse, chronicles and comments on various aspects of Indian society and politics since Independence.

In 2002, he was invited by the Edinburgh International Festival to deliver the keynote address to inaugurate the Indian dance season.

Born in Lahore, then in British India, he now lives in Wales. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.



Indian dance is now a widely recognised and respected art form throughout the world. Many young, and some not so young, people from non- Indian backgrounds are learning Indian dance with great interest and enthusiasm. This has not happened overnight and must not be taken for granted by those who practise Indian dance in India or abroad. It has been a difficult, uphill struggle covering a period of several decades and many have dedicated their lives to the cause of propagating Indian dance.

Just over a century ago Tagore founded Santiniketan with, it is germane to mention, assistance from the English educationist Leonard Elmhirst. In 1930, the Kerala poet Vallathol estabished the Kerala Kala Mandalam to fulfil his dream of reinstating Kathakali to its former glory. In Tamil Nadu the stigma of temple prostitution continued for a long time and it took years for crusaders like E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi to make Dasi Attam acceptable.

There were, however, a few western dancers who were captivated by Indian dance. The American Ruth St Denis toured the world with her 'Oriental' Radha Dance and when she and her husband Ted Shawn started their dance centre at Jacob's Pillow they welcomed Indian dancers there.

Martha Graham, who trained at Jacob's Pillow, had the highest regard for India's dance culture, and the exotic Mata Hari toured far and wide with her 'Oriental' temple dances. Inspired by the Krishna legend, Fokine and Cocteau created Le Dieu Bleu in which the god was danced by Nijinsky and Karsavina was Radha.

In the 1920s the great Pavlova toured India and the Far East. In Chennai her Indian hosts informed her that Indian dance had all but died out and what was left was not worth watching. But, ever a searcher, she persevered and visited temples where the devadasis still danced. It was Pavlova who advised Rukmini Devi to give up studying Russian ballet and to rediscover the dance heritage of her own country. Pavlova also inspired Menaka who became the first famous Kathak dancer who was not a bai or tavaif (courtesan). In 1924, Uday Shankar met Pavlova in London and danced with her for a year and a half. He then formed his own company and became an extraordinary Indian dance missionary.

The other genius who took Indian dance to the West was Ram Gopal who was trained and honed by gurus such as Kathakali's Kunju Kurup and Dasi Attam's Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. He first toured abroad with the American danseuse La Meri and later, on his own, took America by storm. In 1939, his London debut heralded a meteoric career; he was invited to meet Queen Mary and leading figures in the ballet world became his friends. Nijinsky himself came to see him dance. Later, Markova danced Radha to Ram Gopal's Krishna.

In the 1960s I worked with Ram Gopal for a short time and had the opportunity of studying him at close quarters. He believed that dancers transcend race, style and technique. To use his words, theirs is a "universal language of the body in any rhythm of the dance, be it Eastern or Western".

Indian dance is today taught in many cities, both in India and abroad, but it has to be accepted that Delhi has now attracted a very large number of practitioners representing a variety of styles from all over India. Hence it is appropriate and indeed necessary for me to make a few observations on India's chief city.

Delhi (also pronounced Dilli or even Dehli) on the banks of the Yamuna has been identified with Indraprastha which is mentioned in the Mahabharata. Raja Dillu gave his name to the city and it became the capital of the Rajput kings. In 1192, however, the valiant Prithviraj Chauhan was vanquished by the Afghan invader Shahab-ud-Din Ghuri and the city passed into Muslim hands. Sultans of various dynasties, Persians, Turks, Afghans and others, made Delhi their political and military headquarters before the Mughal adventurer Babur shattered in 1526, at Panipat just north of Delhi, the army of the then ruling Afghan sultan Ibrahim Lodi. Babur, it must be remembered, wrested the sultanate of Delhi from his Muslim co-religionists rather than from the Hindus. Later, for good measure, Babur dealt with the turbulent Hindu Rajputs in similar fashion. One of his distasteful legacies is, of course, the bleeding wound of the Ram temple-Babri mosque controversy.

It was, however, Babur's grandson Akbar who expanded and consolidated the Mughal empire and made the very word "Mughal" synonymous with magnificence, opulence, grandeur and greatness.

There was, in spite of the political and dynastic upheavals, much give and take between the Hindus of Hindustan and the Muslims from Central Asia and Persia. The adjustments found expression in many ways. The Bhagti movement, for instance, stressed the brotherhood of man irrespective of religion or social and caste background. It combined the most attractive features of both Hinduism and Islam and produced saints like Kabir (1440-1518) who, though born a Muslim, renounced formal Islam and became the generative source of great poetry and music. Bhagti encouraged mysticism as did Sufism, which was a pantheistic type of Islam, and both relied heavily on the use of music. It was the tremendous influence of Sufi thought throughout the Islamic world that led the later Muslim monarchs in India to encourage and even foster the Hindu arts. Many Muslims became great us tads , masters, of Hindustani music, that is, the classical music of north India. However, classical dance in every part of India was, and still is, taught and practised largely by Hindus.

It is significant that the classical Kathak dance of north India, a masterful blend of the best in Hindu and Islamic aesthetics, arrived at a recognisable point of excellence during Akbar's benign rule. The same happened with music. The emperor's favourite musician Miyan Tansen was made one of the Nine Gems of the empire. By virtue of his high status Tansen had immense influence in political, diplomatic, religious and financial matters. Before Tansen, however, there was Amir Khusro who served successive sultans in Delhi. He was born in 1234 and lived till the age of ninety. Although born in the Etah district in north India, his forbears were Turks and he thus called himself a Hindu Turk. He studied Indian music for many years and wrote: "Indian music, the fire that bums heart and soul, is superior to the music of any other country."

Khusro, however, enriched Hindustani music by introducing Arabic and Persian elements and thus endowed it with greater grace and elegance. He encouraged the qawwali, a form of Muslim religious singing still heard at the shrines of the Sufi saints. He was also the originator of the tarana style of music.

Akbar's reign was marked by tolerance and understanding and the promulgation of just laws. The jizya, poll tax on non-Muslims, was abolished and Hindus were appointed to the highest posts in the government as well as in the army. Philosophers and divines of every faith were invited to court. There was complete religious freedom in the emperor's domains at a time when, for instance, in England Roman Catholics and Protestants were burning each other at the stake.

The reigns of Akbar's son Jehangir (1605-1627) and grandson Shahjehan (1628-1658) were, in many ways, even more artistically productive. Music, dance, painting, poetry and architecture flourished. It is not without significance that the mothers of both these emperors were Hindu Rajput princesses.




Acknowledgements 7
Map of important dance centres 8
Introduction 9
1. Indian Classical Dance: The Background 25
2. Dasi Attam 41
3. A Dasi Attam Performance 53
4. The Devadasis 63
5. Kuchipudi 79
6. Bhagvata Mela Nataka 87
7. Kuravanji 95
8. Kathakali 101
9. Make-up, Costume, Head-dress and Jewellery of Kathakali 119
10. Mohini Attam 131
11. Ottan Tullal 135
12. Yakshagana 141
13. Kathak 143
14. A Kathak Performance 163
15. The Ras Lila of Braj 171
16. Manipuri Dance 177
17. Lai Haroba, Ras Lila and Other Dances 189
18. Sattra Dances of Assam 201
19. Odissi 207
20. Santiniketan 215
21. Uday Shankar 221
22. Chhau 227
23. Folk Dances 231
  India's Dancers 237
  Glossary 299
  Bibliography 305
  Index 309


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