SongSoptok | 4/15/2017 |

“Khantaanyat Lambayat Geetam
Hastana Artha Pradakshayat
Chakshubhyam Darshayat Bhavom
Padabhyam Tala Acherait” – Natyashastra

(Keep the song in your throat
Let your hands bring out the meaning
Your glance should be full of expression
While your feet maintain the rhythm)

Dance is a natural expression - moving the body to a rhythm is part of our basic instincts. In fact, not dancing (or singing or painting) is a learned behavior stemming from misplaced social conditioning. The pre-historic cave paintings of Hoggar Mountains in the Sahara region dating back to 10,000 BC, the cave paintings of Magura in Europe dating to about 8000 years BC and paintings on caves found in Southern India dating back to 3000 BC, depict men and women dancing together. They may have been dancing to the simple rhythms of clapping hands or to the strains of the flute like instruments that have been excavated and dated between being 42,000 and 43,000 years old. In essence, each painting perhaps represents the human’s primal drive to be one with a Universal rhythm.

Before the era of the defined grammar of classical music and the creative experimentation of contemporary forms there was the music of the people, or what is known as folk culture. In the Indian sub-continent, the beats of folk music is indigenous and dates back to the pre - Aryan invasion of the region. India has approximately 255 indigenous groups and most have their specific folk articulations. From the drum beats of the Santhali of Eastern India and the Dhimsa of the South, to the music, costumes and dance of the Lotha Naga tribes, Indian folk is similar to the rhythms of the indigenous music across world. It speaks to the universal language of music, tracing back to the time when the continents were all joined together as one world. As the continents separated, humans drew boundaries which separated civilizations. But in their hearts, the people carried with them their music which forever formed a universal bond of love. One variation which most traditionalists would not think of as a credible genre of folk music, emerged from the Indian film industry. But film based dance and music are products of popular culture and borrow freely from typical folk dances. In essence it is folk, the music of the people. From the “Dhoe Mahobe Ghat”  in Pukar released in 1939  and “Aayi Aayi Besanti Bela” in 1960’s, to the newest popular songs like “Nagada Sang Dhol Baajey from Ram Leela, the Indian film industry has used variations of traditional folk as musical pieces, over the last 90 years.

The Aryan invasion of India dates back to about 7000 BC. The warrior tribes that came in from Europe pushed the indigenous Dravidian people into Southern India and into the forests and hills of the subcontinent. The Aryans also brought with them the folk music of their homeland, including the rhythm of the nomadic gypsies, which were then absorbed in the folk music and attire of Northern and Western India. The twirling movements and the mirrored skirts of the Banjaras in Rajasthan as they dance the Kalbeliya or the beats of the Faag dance from Haryana, carry with them the legacy of the Roma nomadic gypsys. The language and culture of present day mainstream India is Aryan in ethnicity, and is also known as the Indo Germanic way of life. The mother language of all Indian Aryan languages is Sanskrit. The refined culture of the Aryans defined the grammar of Indian dance, articulated in a manuscript known as the Natyashastra.

Natyashastra, believed to have been written by Sage Bharata around 3000 B.C. is a discourse that details all aspects of classical Sanskrit theatre. Though there is mention of 12,000 verses in an ancient script, only 6000 verses remain and have been translated. The chapters contain comprehensive treatments of the diverse forms that are regarded as the classical Indian concept of drama, including dance, music, poetics, and technical requirements such as stage design and size. Another significant component of the treatise is its justification of Indian drama as a representation of religious enlightenment. This is in sharp contrast to the folk forms which primarily reflect the daily lives and challenges of the common people. The temple dance Bharatanatyam was the first defined dance form of India, with its methodical levels of instruction and practice, incorporating both drama (Natya) and pure dance (Nritya).  The use of hand gestures, known as mudras, symbolizing objects and emotions were detailed. As the dance form evolved, more such gestures were added to the possible original 55 mudras. The traditional method is retained in the Tanjavore arrangement whereas the Kalakshetra form is a more stylized presentation of the dance. Though Bharatnatyam is the oldest known classical dance form of India, other major classical forms also emerged such as Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam. All the classical forms traditionally emerged as artistic representations of  the Vedic religious sentiment. 

Northern and Western India were the origin of the folk form of telling stories through dance by travelling artistes known as Kathaks – or narrators. They adapted some of the grammar of the Natyashastra and in the 16th century, evolved into the classical from of Katthak in the courts of the Mughal Emperor.  The two broad traditions of the classical form of Kathak are the Jaipur Gharana and the Lucknow Gharana. The Bhakti movement was the core of Kathak’s spiritual articulation. While the Jaipur Gharana retained its spiritual element, the Lucknow Gharana slowly became popular in the Moghul courts and absorbed various other elements, highly stylized to entertain the courtiers. Kathak is known for its intricate footwork to various rhythmic patterns and ending in a series of pirouettes.

Southern India was the birthplace of several classical dances. The dance form of Kathakali can be traced back to 17th century in the present state of Kerala. It is a refined version of the much older performing arts of Kootha and Koodiyattam. Kootha is an ancient form of dramatic theatre, where a solo artist narrated a story of the Divine, but its practice was confined to the Chakyar community. This form later evolved into Koodiyattam which translates literally to “dancing together”, and is recognized as the oldest form of Sanskrit theatre. After many other modifications, the theatrical dance form of Kathakali emerged. Elements were added to the presentation including two singers for harmony, cymbals to provide the beat, a powerful drum originally used in temple and a defined method to introduce the characters from behind a large satin curtain held at the front of the stage.  Later modifications included the use of Malayalam in addition to the Sanskrit lyrics, to make the performances more popular and accessible to the less erudite.  

The state of Kerala is also the birthplace of the semi-classical dance, Mohiniyattam. Unlike Kathakali, were the performers are traditionally all male, Mohiniyattam by name suggests that it is performed by women. The first mention of the dance form dates back to the 16th Century AD, gaining patronage in the royal courts. The dance is similar to Kathakali in its use of hand gestures and storytelling.

`In the 17th century, another classical dance form emerged in a tiny village called Kuchipudi in the modern day state of Andhra Pradesh. This style of dancing evolved from an old tradition of dance drama referred to as Yakshagana.  A poet of some repute, Siddhendra Yogi, initiated young Brahmin boys of Kuchipudi village to perform his compositions. The presentation of one such poem became very popular and caught the attention of the royal court. The Nawab of Golconda, granted the village of Kuchipudi to the families of Brahmins who pursued this art. At that time all the actors were male. The dance includes techniques like dancing on the rim of a plate, with a pitcher full of water on the head and other acrobatic presentations.

Eastern India witnessed the emergence of two classical forms – Odissi and Manipuri. Like the dances of southern India, Odissi also has its roots in the tradition of temple dances, and is rich in its lyrical expression of emotions and divine love. It gained popularity in the 17th century but its practice saw a steady decline, especially during colonial rule. The society-at-large and the British regarded it more as a representation of the Devdasi culture. I can only guess that, since the dance and culture of Southern India were better insulated against colonial influence and was safely protected by traditionalists, the classical dances of the region were much less affected by such misplaced interpretations that adversely affected the practice of Odissi.  In the post-independence era, Odissi saw a revival and rightfully regained its place a codified classical dance. A unique feature of this form is the Tribhangi, which is not found in the other classical dances. It is a graceful pose where the body is bent at three specific points. Like other forms, Odissi also uses the Natyashastra grammar and mudras to symbolize objects and emotions. 

Manipuri is a classical form which emerged in the present day state of Manipur, with its roots in the ancient dance form Lal Haraoba, meaning the festivities of the gods. Staged as a ceremonial offering, its performers are the maibas (priests) and maibis (priestesses) who through dance, express the theme of the creation of the world. It’s with arrival of Vaishanivism in the region during the 15th century, that the Divine love of Radha and Krishna became the focal point of Manipuri structured compositions. The most performed repertoires in Manipuri are Ras, the Sankirtanaand the Thang-Ta.

Contemporary dance in India emerged as an independent form, borrowing from folk and classical genres, as well as global dance forms. I consider it a misnomer in essence, since contemporary would mean anything belonging to the times – which would then mean anything of that era. Hence, as a dancer, I do think the term post-modern creative movements is more apt in describing the genre. Rabindranath Tagore first fueled such modernization by encouraging a separate genre called Rabindranrtiya – which was a true amalgamation of folk and classical forms, and the first attempt at contemporizing traditional Indian dance. The dances were greatly influenced by Manipuri and were choreographed to Tagore’s vast repertoire of songs. The immensely talented dancer, Uday Shankar pioneered the movement as a popular mainstream art and presented Indian post-modern dance on the global stage.

Modern India offers a rich palette of dance forms – from traditional folk to post-modern movements. Stalwarts such as Yamini Krishnamurthy, Mallika Sarabhai. Pandit Birju Maharaj. Rukmini Devi Arundale. Shovana Narayan. Sonal Mansingh and Uday Shankar to name a few, have enhanced each dance form and have presented their art to the world. While formal training in dancing allows for a stylized presentation of various dance forms and for formal experimentation, the natural act of dancing calls only for recognizing the rhythm which lies within us. Then we let that rhythm take over and we unfetter our physical and spiritual selves, giving heed to our elemental calling and becoming one with the Universe.



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