Culture odyssey: The eclectic journey of Indian dance

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : From temple dancers and royal courtesans to modern-day prima donnas: Indian classical dance has gone far in the last 100 years from seclusion to the contemporary glamour stage of mainstream culture and from religious dance dramas to experiments with reality.

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“The contemporary Indian dance stage reflects the spirit of globalisation,” Kuchipudi dancer Kaushalya Reddy who hosted an international dance festival here early this year told IANS.

According to Indian scriptures, Lord Shiva, the cosmic dancer, is the inventor of dance. He dances every evening and the gods accompany him.

Brahma gives ‘taal’, Vishnu plays ‘mridang’ (percussion)’, goddess Saraswati plays ‘veena’; while the sun and the moon play the flute. Nandi plays the ‘damru’ – gypsy hand drum -, Bhringi plays ‘maadal’ (percussion)” and Narada sings.

Epochs later, in another world, contemporary Indian dance theatres speak of environment degradation, abuse of women, untouchability and oppression of the economically marginalised.

Traditional Indian dance even translates world literature and uses a medley of allied genres like arts, puppetry, musical innovations and western components to interpret and deconstruct.

The ‘devadasis’ or temple dancers introduced bharatanatyam, the south Indian temple dance, to the north and the west of India. There was a time when a set of talented temple dancers was part of the dowry of Chimnabai, a Tanjore princess who married the Maharaja of Baroda, Siyajirao Gaewkwad III, in 1883.

“Modern India has accepted a form that was once associated with ill-repute. The ‘devadasis’ of early 1900s to the prima donnas of this century is the essence of the change,” said Ashish Khokar, son of the late bharatanatyam guru and archivist Mohan Khokar.

As the demand for abolition of the devadasi system – as it was seen to be exploitative of women – upped its pitch in the 1950s, the dancers became teachers in their own right, inspiring legions of students to study and practise the traditional genres.

And now with the world looking to India for its culture, the dance audiences are growing, says Karan Singh, the president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

Ashish, the inheritor of one of the world’s biggest archive on Indian dance comprising more than 300,000 memorabilia, said “the role of dance in India documents the process of social change in the country”.

The ICCR mounted a week-long exhibition of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection in the national capital from Sunday.

Indian classical dances owe their transition to the popular cultural canvas to early foreign pioneers.

Two of them, Victor Dandre and Anna Pavlova, during a visit to India in 1922, lamented, “there is no evidence of India’s famed dances; all we could see (across the country) were snippets of Nautch”. And “temple dances were all but history”.

In her mission to take traditional Indian dances to the world, Pavlova partnered with an unknown young Indian artist Uday Shankar. In the process she gave to the world the czar of Indian classical dance.

“Ragini Devi from the US helped revive Kathakali, the traditional dance of Kerala. She took legendary Kathakali guru Gopinath to the US – and introduced the west to one of India’s oldest dance forms,” recounts the late Mohan Khokar in one of his documents on the history of Indian dance.

India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, who is to be Indian ambassador to the US, said: “People across the world are drawn to Indian classical dances like a magnet. It is a symbol of the richness and the depth of the Indian cultural identity.”

“The story of how the Indian classical dance came to the mainstream is not only the story of the struggle of Indian dance but a historical account of how life in India has changed,” she said.

“The world is now talking about India thanks to its culture,” Rao told IANS.

Noted Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj is trying to connect the ancient ‘kathaakar’ tradition – the storytelling origin of kathak dance – to the present by bridging a geographical divide.

“My ancestral village, Hadiya near Allahabad, still has 979 families of traditional ‘kathaakars’ – the exponents of early ‘kathak’. They mostly perform in temples. I am planning a three-day festival for them in my village for the country to know the historical legacy of ‘kathak,” Birju Maharaj said.

Said ICCR director general Suresh Goel: “It is our responsibility to deliver history to the future. Unless we preserve history, we don’t have a future.”

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])