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Introduction to Indian Dance

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In India dance is considered to be divine in origin. The gods and goddesses not only take great delight in dance, drama and mime but many are great dancers themselves. Shiva's cosmic dance, Tandava, is believed to encompass creation, preservation, and destruction and this idea has been embedded in Hindu thought and ritual since the dawn of civilization. The dances of Kali, the dark and fierce Goddess of destruction, are very significant. Krishna is one of the most popular dancing divinities of the Hindus. There is mention in the mythological texts of Apsaras, the celestial courtesans of Indra's court who can change their shapes at will. Urvasi, Meneka, Rambha and Tilottama are the most famous among Apsaras who are well versed in the art of music and dancing.

The common root of all classical dance forms can be traced to Bharata's Natyasastra, which is a great, comprehensive work on the science and technique of Indian drama, dance and music. It contains deliberations on the different kind of postures, the mudras, and their meanings, the kind of emotions and their categorization, besides the kind of attires, the stage, the ornaments and the audience. According to the Natyashastra, Brahma, the creator and the first of the Hindu Triad, was asked to create a past time by the gods. As such, Brahma had created drama. He then took pathya (words) form the Rigveda, abhinaya (gesture) from the Yajurveda, geet (music and chant) from Samaveda and rasa (sentiment and emotional element) from Atharvaveda to form the fifth Veda, Natyaveda.

More realistically, dance was a part of the art of dramatic theatre in ancient India, particularly in non-Aryan, primarily Dravidan societies. There are ample evidences of the popularity of dance in the Indian society right from the Mesolithic period. The first and the oldest of evidences to date are the discovery of the bronze figurine of a dancer from the Indus Valley Civilization excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Dancing figures are also commonly seen in many primitive cave paintings and sculptures at temples and stupas.

In India, dance and music pervade all aspects of life and bring colour, joy and gaiety to a number of festivals and ceremonies. Dance is a form of communication that brings out the innermost feelings and at the same time depicts the cultural aspects of a civilization. Indian classical dances are dances of the mind and soul and are extremely traditional. Indian dance is very sensuous but the experience of ananda (bliss) it evokes is very spiritual. Rasa (mood or flavour) as the cause of ananda (bliss) is considered fundamental essence of beauty and harmony in Indian aesthetics. Vbhava (cause of emotion), anubhava (effect of emotion) and sanchari or vyavhichari bhava (subordinate emotions) constitute the state of rasa.

These in their respective order change the sthayi bhava (primary emotion) into rasa or bliss. All dance forms are thus structured around the nine rasas or emotions, hasya (happiness), krodha (anger), bhibasta (disgust), bhaya (fear), shoka (sorrow), viram (courage), karuna (compassion), adbhuta (wonder) and shanta (serenity). All dance forms follow the same hand gestures or hasta mudras for each of these rasas. The dances differ where the local genius has adapted it to local demands and needs.

Indian dance is divided into nritta - the rhythmic elements, nritya - the combination of rhythm with expression and natya - the dramatic element. Nritya is usually expressed through the eyes, hands and facial movements. Nritya combined with nritta makes up the usual dance programmes. Later, as the art evolved, other distinctions were described, including the male (tandava) or powerful, strong, firm aspect, and the female (lasya), soft, flowing and subtle. All this presented as a unified package aimed at creating rasa or the enjoyment of watching an aesthetic performance.

There are four strong elements of the classical dance form: shastra, sculpture, folk tradition and ancient literature. These traditions were kept alive by a long and distinguished line of "Gurus" who dedicated their lives to perfecting the art form and handing it down to the next generation. The Gurus kept the dance traditions alive through the ancient method of teaching, the Guru-Shishya Parampara. In this tradition, serious and devoted students lived with their master as in a family, perfecting their dance training over a number of years. In return, they looked after and cared for their Guru. They grew vegetables and fruits on the land, cooked, cleaned and earned an income through dance recitals.

Most Indian dances take their themes from India's rich mythology and folk legends. Hindu gods and goddesses like Vishnu and Lakshmi, Rama and Sita, Krishna and Radha are all depicted in classical Indian dances. Each dance form also draws inspiration from stories depicting the life, ethics and beliefs of the Indian people. For centuries, dances were performed on a regular basis at temples before the deity as a devotional exercise. This gave rise to the Devadasis, the dancing girls of the temples who were held in great respect and reverence in the early days. They offered their dances and songs as prayer and oblation at the feet of the temple deity. Since dance is an expression of devotional life, every dance still begins with a prayer. It is stated in Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeshvara that 'those who are versed in the Science of Dance say that dancing is vulgar in which the actress does not begin with a prayer'.

After being born and bred in the temples for several centuries, the Indian classical dance reached the royal courts. Dance concerts or public performance of dances is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Nowadays, the Indian classical and modern dances have becoming immensely popular all over the world and carved out a niche for themselves.



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