About the Author:
Mandakranta Bose is Director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, where she also teaches in the Department of Near Eastern, Classical and Religious Studies. She began her Sanskrit studies in Calcutta and continued with them for her doctorate in Oxford. Her research covers the classical performing arts of India, Sanskrit literature, and the representation of women and the arts and literatures of India. Among her many publications are Movement and Mimesis, (1991), The Dance Vocabulary of Classical India (1995), and an edited volume, Faces of the feminine in Classical, Medieval and Modern India (2000).
About the Book:
Indian classical dance is a 'high art'. In ancient India, it was even venerated as a 'sacred' act. Ever since Bharata wrote his seminal Natyasastra (c. 200 CE), it has been one of the central elements of scholarly discourse, generating a whole host of learned treatises. Mandakranta Bose here takes s close look at this vast Sanskritic textual corpus attempting not only to reconstruct India's two-millennia-long dance tradition, but also to dispel the historical and aesthetic misconceptions woven around it.
With a fresh, critical appraisal of the key concepts surfacing from the Natyasastra of Bharata Muni and some of the other landmark treatises, like Abhinayadarpana, Sangitaratnakara, and Nartanairnaya, the book tries to highlight how these time-honoured writings have contributed to the evolution of classical dancing in India. And, yet more significantly perhaps, the author ventures into a comparatively uncharted terrain seeking to explore the status of performing arts (including dance) in early Jaina tradition. Focussing on the position of dancing in the contemporary cultural life of India, Mandakranta Bose shows how classical dance in India today of tradition and modernity, leading to a vigorous revival of a great heritage, a part of the larger effort towards 'nationalist rediscovery'.
Supporting the text with visual material to correlate the theory and practice of dancing in India, the book offers perceptions that will appeal to everyone involved with performing arts.
IN the first decade of the twenty first century, it is unthinkable that the place
of classical dancing as one of the cornerstones of the civilization of India
should ever have been questioned. It is recognised today as an aesthetic
resource equally for connoisseurs of art and lay spectators both in India and
abroad. It is also an art whose antiquity is adduced as a sure proof of India's
pre-eminence in the cultural history of humankind. Yet this high status of the
dance in India is a relatively recent matter of cultural and political recovery.
Venerated as a sacred art in ancient times and energetically cultivated till the
beginning of the eighteenth century, dance fell into a decline thereafter.
While the ancient traditions of sacred and dramatic dance did not actually
die out, they took refuge in temple precincts, shut away from the common
view. As far as the general public could see, it was performed by courtesans
and street entertainers and for that reason seen as an erotic art that was not
only vulgar but solely meant for seduction. Especially under the puritanical
eye of British officialdom through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
dance came to be viewed as a debased form of entertainment associated in
the public mind with licentiousness. Judged by the moral and aesthetic
canons of an uncomprehending West, Indian dancing seemed to the British
and to Indians acculturated into self-abasement yet one more sign of a
decadent culture along with erotic temple sculpture and Vaisnava poetry.
From that low point in its history to the present high, the dance in India has
come a long way indeed.
This progress is not simply the happy result of changing cultural taste but
part of a much wider change in the self-perception of Indians and a significant
element in the construction of their political identity. The dance traditions of
India were demonstrably nursed into rejuvenation by a handful of individuals
who were as much attracted by the sheer beauty of dance as motivated by the
nationalist need to reclaim India's cultural capital. To project cultural forms
like dance as a 'classical' and enduring high art was to assert India's right to
cultural parity with the West and by implication to self-determination. The
antiquity of dance was a necessary part of the nationalist argument, for it
legitimised India as a highly evolved civilization.
Almost a hundred years after the resuscitation of dance in India, the force
of that argument remains unabated as a continuing validation of India's
eminence. The stigma once attached to dancing has been erased and today
dance enjoys both prestige and popularity among varied audiences, and
receives government and corporate support. Its progress is marked even
more strikingly by the academic attention i~ has begun to receive in recent
years. Slight though dance research is as yet, it is a remarkable advance, for
when I began my research in the evolution of classical dancing at Oxford forty
years ago, my former professors in Calcutta were puzzled that I should have
turned away from proper scholarly subjects such as philology or Smrti to a
matter of mere entertainment.
The recognition of dance as a worthwhile field of academic study is
gratifying for purely scholarly reasons but also on historical and social
grounds. From almost the beginning of recorded history in India, the theory
and practice of dance, music and drama became central elements of scholarly
discourse, engendering an extraordinarily rich array of learned treatises in
Sanskrit beginning with the seminal Natyasastra of Bharata Muni, which offer
explications of the aesthetic of the dance and systematised descriptions of its
technique in the minutest detail It is only fitting that an intellectual tradition
born over two thousand years ago should be revived today. At the same time,
the dance in India is proving to be the cultural site of one of the most
important issues of modern times as a mode of women's self-expression.
Although classical Indian dancing is by no means exclusively a feminine art,
most of its practitioners have been and continue to be women, so much so that
in the dark days of its decline it was condemned as part of women's alluring
wiles to enslave men. This sexualisation of dance has led a number of dancers
and dance scholars in recent times to view dancing not only as an assertion
of the feminine identity but also as an integral part of the enquiry into gender
relations in particular and the feminist critique of society in general Given
these historical and social implications of dancing, it is necessary to India's
contemporary project of self-definition that the history of dance should be
accuratey understood on the basis of meticulous research rather than
uninformed pride in India's past.
The need for a systematic reconstruction of the dance tradition of India is
particularly important to clarify the often confused views of cultural heritage.
For instance, the common impression that contemporary classical dances
have evolved directly from the Natyasastra turns out to be erroneous when we
compare their technical details with the description of dances given in the
text. Quite to the contrary, when we follow the evolution of dance styles
through the many Sanskrit treatises on dancing written from the time of the
NatyaSastra till the beginning of the eighteenth century, we see that in
technique as well as aesthetic intent today's dances owe far more to the
regional and popular dances that Bharata explicitly left out from his account.
The studies in the present volume are attempts to lend precisely the
evidentiary authority that may set right such historical and aesthetic
misconceptions by means of close examinations of the Sanskritic textual
tradition. While this collection is not claimed to offer a full history of the
classical dances of India, it does address some key questions in their
evolution and the implications of these questions for the theory and practice
of the dance in India today.
In addition to serving the historiography of the classical dances of India,
these essays will, I hope, help to identify the many research problems and
areas that remain to be explored. My own work over the past several decades
has opened many such areas to me. The present studies represent my
findirgs in them and what they suggest to me both about the principles and
the practice of the art. Most of these essays began as lectures or papers at
scholarly gatherings in various parts of the world but have evolved into
fuller discussions, while some altogether new findings have also been
incluied in this collection. These studies do not pretend to say the last word
on the nature and evolution of the dance in India, nor on its place in the
contemporary world; they are the necessary steps I have been able to take so
far .n understanding the renaissance of classical Indian dancing as an
aesthetic and social phenomenon.
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