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Discover the Colorful History, Enduring Legacy and Traditional Forms of Indian Classical Dance

Kuchipudi Dancer Performing a Tarangam | Credit: Yunji23asdfg
Kuchipudi Dancer Performing a Tarangam | Credit: Yunji23asdfg

People have shared stories since the dawn of human history; they live in our minds and shape the way we see our world. Even stories that some never fully learn to appreciate have a way of impacting our psychology and, as a result, our reality. Part of the reason someone may fail to recognize the value of Homeric works, like The Iliad, Odyssey, or many other ancient epics that have left a significant mark on our culture, is because of how we’re introduced to them — usually by reading hefty volumes of stories that were meant to be sung by bards, occasionally accompanied by performing musicians, who used rhythmic schemes to remember each stanza.

Not all ancient stories, however, were merely passed down by oral tradition before being committed to the written word. Instead, some stories were conveyed and preserved through movement; take, for example, the classical dance forms of India. What could have been said with words was imparted with the eyes, facial expressions, and head gestures; precise hand movements communicated specific ideas; fluid or forceful movements and fast footwork represented a mood or abstract idea; costumes and make up were utilized to maximize the impact of the storytelling and belief in motifs.

Indian classical dance forms are rooted in the performing arts principles that comprise religious Hindu musical theatre, the fundamentals of which are traced to the Sanskrit text Nātya Shāstra, an ancient and extremely influential encyclopedic treatise that originated somewhere between 100 BCE — 300 CE. Its many chapters essentially serve “as a manual on how to organize and to perform a drama, complete with passages on the characteristics of particular character types and their demeanor, how they move, and the music that should accompany them,” making it one of the most important reference text on Indian musical practice in this era.”

Dance-dramas are an immersive experience — something that Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant, the Artistic Director of Shankarananda Kalakshetra in Hyderabad, understands all too well. As one of India’s most renowned dancers, choreographers and scholars, she is an expert in two popular classical dance forms: Bharatanatyam, which “serves the expression of Hindu religious themes and devotions.” And Kuchipudi, a form that “originated in the 17th century with the creation by Sidhyendra Yogi of the dance-drama Bhama Kalapam, a story of Satyabhāma, the charming but jealous wife of the god Krishna.”

Chungroos | Via Pixabay
Chungroos | Via Pixabay

In religious dances-dramas, performers typically honor the gods by telling stories about their lives and exploits as well as utilizing universally recognized stock characters, like the hero (nayaka), heroine (nayika), or clown (vidusaka). So, before each performance, Jayant thinks about the story, and finds details that are akin to human life and behaviour. “These stories depict the spectrum of human emotions, couched in elaborate storytelling, characters, and legends,” she explains to ARTpublika Magazine, “they’re expressed through the idiom and grammar of one’s chosen dance style.”

The stories tend to be communicated through poetry, and the poetry is conveyed to the audience through carefully choreographed movements and gestures. “There are, for example, 13 gestures of the head, 36 different glances, and 67 mudras (or hand gestures), that can, in various combinations, yield several thousand different meanings.” Although these gestures generally characterize Indian dance — and help performers, like Jayant, express complex events, ideas, and emotions — there are very significant variations in each form. But, all dance-dramas must meet a number of standard specifications.

Because Nātya Shāstra attempts to justify Indian drama as a vehicle of religious enlightenment, it’s crucial to communicate the meaning and ideas behind each performance to the audience. Abhinaya, the art of expression or acting, involves four steps: Angika Abhinaya, or conveying the meaning through major and minor movements of the body using natural as well as symbolic gestures; Vacika Abhinaya, or using speech — including poems, lyrics, and dialogue; Aharya Abhinaya, or utilizing costuming, make-up, ornaments, props and stage decor; and Sattvika Abhinaya, the true expression of feelings and emotions.

All major Indian classical dance forms feature three different performance components that are specified by Nātya Shāstra. The first is natya, “the dramatic element of the dance (i.e., the imitation of character).” The second is nritta, or “pure dance, in which the rhythms and phrases of the music are reflected in the decorative movements of the hands and body and in the stamping of the feet.” And the third is nritya, “the portrayal of mood through facial expression, hand gesture, and position of the legs and feet.” Together, they form the fundamental basis of these dances. But each dance has its own set of rules and requirements.

Bharatanatyam Performance, by Augustus Binu
Bharatanatyam Performance | Credit: Augustus Binu

Bharatanatyam, the most popular of the main Indian classical dance forms, was originally a temple dance performed exclusively by women, before being brought to the public stage around the 1930s. The dance-drama lasts about two hours and includes a list of specific procedures that are performed by a single dancer — typically dressed in a colorful, fitted Sari, and adorned with symbolic jewelry that outlines the head and draws attention to the performer’s heavily lined eyes — who never leaves the stage or changes costume. Led by the teacher of the dancer, the piece is accompanied by an orchestra and a singer.

“The feet beat out complicated counter rhythms; the legs are bent in a characteristic low squat; arms, neck, and shoulders are part of the movement.” In the pantomime sections of the dance-drama, “the hands tell the story through conventional gesture language, while the face expresses the mood. In the pure dance the hands are restricted to 11 mudras (symbolic hand gestures).” When Jayant is swept up in her work, her hands quickly take one shape and then another; she raises her thumb to demonstrate the peak of a mountain or she rolls her hands into fists to convey combat.

A dancer in a costume, an expressive part of a Kuchipudi performance by Mullookkaaran
Kuchipudi dancer in costume during an expressive part of a performance | Credit: Mullookkaaran

Kuchipudi — which includes singing and was historically performed by an all-male cast, although is now predominantly performed by women — differs from the other classical dance styles. It “begins with the sprinkling of holy water and the burning of incense,” and involves numerous props and elaborate rituals; “the goddesses of learning, wealth, and energy are invoked, and the characters are introduced, together with songs concerning their function in the performance.” Both Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam involve costumes, jewelry, and make-up, but Kuchipudi dancers may wear the male dress, braid their hair differently, or wear light make-up.

Furthermore, both classical dance forms utilize Carnatic (Karnatak) music, which is native to southern India much like the dance-dramas themselves. Carnatic music is more thoroughly oriented to the voice common in the northern parts of Indian. “Even when instruments are used alone, they are played somewhat in imitation of singing, generally within a vocal range, and with embellishments that are characteristic of vocal music.” Although the music features elements of improvisation, the structure and guidelines provided for performing arts by Nātya Shāstra allows all of the participants in the dance-drama to work as a unit, though it may appear like a solo feat.

The principles on which Indian classical dance is built on may stem from an ancient religious text outlining the rules of the performing arts, but their life impact on the people who perform these dance-dramas is very real. When Jayant first received her breast cancer diagnosis, she worried if she’d be able to continue dancing. Soon, however, she found inspiration in Durga, an eighteen-armed goddess from the lighthearted dance production Panchatantra. “She was created to destroy evil,” explained Jayant, “so she became my mentor and [inspiration].” Indeed, drawing strength from the deities performers work to honor and represent is very common.

“Durga was supposed to have 18 arms, because she held all these different pieces of weaponry in her hands as she rode out to the battlefield to destroy evil. To me, each of those hands meant radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery,” continues Jayant. “And, Durga rode a lion. I said: ‘Now, I’m going to do this. I’m going to ride this out.’ My lion was my own inner strength, my inner resilience.” But, this wasn’t the first or last time Jayant relied on Indian classical dance to express herself. Her 1999 piece What About Me? was composed as a reaction to contemporary gender issues in India using the rules and practices first outlined by a 2000-year-old book.

The Goddess Durga Fighting Mahishasura, The Buffalo-Demon, Artist Anknown
The Goddess Durga Fighting Mahishasura, The Buffalo-Demon, Artist Anknown

Note* All images are either used with permission or are available in the public domain or for Fair Use.


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