Dance in India is as diverse as the multiethnic society from which it stems. Each region, with its own language, literature, customs, costume, and cuisine, has its own dance forms, some of which are traced through wall paintings, ancient manuscripts, and temple sculptures to well over three thousand years ago. There are dances in which everyone participates, at religious festivals or private celebrations, and those performed only by specialists who undergo rigorous training from childhood. Some forms are considered classical, while others are classified as folk; each is part of larger theater, music, religious, and even cinema traditions.

 Indian dancers gesture with the eyes, head, neck, and hands. With wrists bent and arms flowing, the dancer interprets the lyrics of accompanying songs, telling stories through facial expression and hand gesture; with bare feet, rhythms are beat on the ground to complement percussion instruments like drums, sticks, and cymbals. Indian classical dances have influenced court and temple dance in most of Southeast Asia—Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Dance sequences in modern Indian films, choreographed to extremely popular songs, have captivated peoples all over the world.

Ancient and Classical Dance

 Detailed descriptions of ancient Indian theater and dance are found in Sanskrit texts like the Natya Sastra (Treatise on Dramaturgy, second century BCE) and the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror of Gesture, thirteenth century CE), which present the theory and technique of a highly developed art. Elaborate lists of eye, neck, head, and hand movements, and of walks and turns, include the various meanings that can be conveyed. Sections are devoted to the performers, music, costume, and stage, as well as to the sacred and aesthetic purposes of dance performance.By the end of the nineteenth century, both the texts and the dances they described had fallen into obscurity due to lack of patronage and also to attitudes introduced by the British about the immorality of dance. Dance was associated with nauch (dancing) girls, many of them devadasis (female servants of gods) attached to temples who performed at temple festivals and palace parties. Regarding them as prostitutes, some outraged British women led an anti-nauch movement and sought to ban dance.

 The rediscovery and translation of ancient manuscripts, the birth of Indian nationalism, and growing pride in indigenous art forms led to a revival of many dance forms. The first dance form to be revived in the 1930s, that of the devadasis from temples in south India, was renamed Bharata Natyam (Theater of Bharata) after the legendary author of the Natya Sastra.

 With the ascendance of other forms like Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali and Kuchipudi, dances performed by men, and dances originating in royal courts, Bharata Natyam remains the paradigm of Indian classical dance. Traditionally taught by hereditary male gurus (maestros), who rarely performed, classical dance training includes the study of ancient texts on theater, aesthetics, mythology, and music. Many universities offer academically rigorous degrees in dance.

 Folk and Popular Dance

 While classical dances are presented by specialists and associated with elite social groups (the ideal spectator is learned, noble, and refined), everyone can participate in folk dances. Like one’s mother tongue, these are learned while growing up in a community. Each region and ethnic group has its own dances, as various as the dances of warriors carrying spears and the dances of women in swirling skirts with several water pitchers balanced on their heads. When dancers from all over India come to the nation’s capital to participate in the annual Republic Day parade, their nationally televised performances require a sports stadium.

 People dance at village fairs, street festivals, and in homes during marriages. They carry their dances with them when they emigrate to other provinces, or even abroad. Folk dances from different regions are now taught in high schools, and in many cities, when one ethnic group dances during its festivals, members of other ethnic groups join in. Traditional dances to a disco beat are popular among young and old, from Mumbai (Bombay) to London. Dance dramas or ballets, modeled on Western and indigenous forms in which a story is enacted through dance, are also popular among professional and amateur dance groups.

 Most popular of all are filmi dances that accompany the many songs that characterize Indian cinema. Clips of these dance sequences, in which stars lip-sync the lyrics while performing hip-jerking movements in an array of romantic settings and while wearing a range of form-revealing costumes, are a major part of television programming. Street children in many countries break into the more famous routines the minute they see an Indian tourist. Commercially produced extravaganzas, at which cinema icons perform live, are extremely successful in India.

Music and Costume

Musical accompaniment for dance is as varied as the dances. In general, dances from the south are allied to the Carnatic musical tradition, and those of the north to the Hindustani system and so follow their distinctive musical modes (ragas) and rhythmic cycles (talas). Beyond that, each dance form—folk, popular, or classical—has its own melodies, rhythms, and instruments. A chenda double-headed drum signals an all-night dance theater from Kerala, whereas a pungi double clarinet with a gourd reservoir accompanies a gypsy dancer from Rajasthan. As with the rest of Indian music, the leading instrument is the human voice, and, even within a single form, individual dances are defined by specific songs.

Apart from percussion instruments and feet with bells, rhythms are also expressed by vocalized syllables, like tat, dhit, gadhi ghena dhaa. In classical dance these syllables are chanted by the leader of the musical ensemble and accompany sequences of rhythmic dance. Songs can be set just to Indian musical syllables—sa, re, ga (the Indian do, re mi)—or to poetic texts or both. Poetic texts are interpreted with mimed as well as abstract movement. Lyrics usually refer to deities and characters from Hindu scriptures who, particularly in female temple-dance forms, are directly addressed in passionate love songs through which the dancer expresses a human’s yearning for union with the divine soul.

 Dancers’ costumes are usually the festive wear of the communities from which they stem, characterized by colorful fabrics and elaborate ornaments. In keeping with their earlier ritual status as “brides of a deity,” temple dancers are dressed as brides; actor-dancers of theatrical forms sometimes wear masks or masklike makeup, especially in Kathakali dance. Traditional dance and theater rarely employ scenery or props.

 Dance in the Early 2000s

 As India modernizes, becomes more urban, and is influenced by a world economy, the traditional dance ethos is changing. Dance festivals, organized by the government or supported by businesses, are held at ancient ruins and in foreign countries. Dance is becoming increasingly prestigious and performers are highly valued; they win national awards and receive government land to start academies. A new generation of spectators is encouraging dancers to update the form and style of dances and to experiment with non-traditional themes.

 Indian dancers travel widely; many live, choreograph, and teach abroad. Each artist subtly adds to and even changes the traditional forms, whether working within those forms or breaking away to find a more contemporary idiom. Fusion is a growing trend— Kathak and Flamenco, Bharata Natyam and jazz, Kathakali and ballet, filmi dance and Western disco. Yet the fount remains the traditional, particularly the classical, forms with which most dancers, including film stars, are familiar. Indeed, it is this interplay between popular and classical that has characterized Indian dance throughout the ages and makes it a vibrant expression of Indian culture.


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