ON DANCE TRADITIONS
THE PLACE OF DANCE IN ANCIENT TIMES
Key-Note Address By : R. Nagaswamy
Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha (Regd.)
Silver Jubilee Celebrations
Symposium on Classical Dance,
February 25 & 26, 1989
I consider it a great privilege and honour to have been invited by the SHANMUKHANANDA SABHA to deliver the Key-note address of this session of the Silver Jubilee Celebration. I am thankful to the Sabha, its members and office-bearers for giving me this valuable opportunity. I find eminent natyacharyas, artistes and scholars who have devoted their entire life to the art of dance, participating in this two-day seminar. I am either competent nor learned to speak to such a galaxy of eminent artistes on "Tradition, Trends and Adaptations to Present Times". As an Archaeologist and Historian, I can only recall to you, the place of dance in ancient times, in a brief outline.
I find that almost all forms of classical dances of India like Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohini Attam etc., are represented in this conference. It represents the essential unity of all the classical dances of India, which from its recorded history has over 4000 years of continuous existence. One should naturally be proud of belonging to such a great and dynamic heritage. That the tradition has survived in spite of several onslaughts of both time and streams of alien and often antagonistic trends speaks of its vitality. There could be no doubt that it would survive and continue to flower and spread its ever fresh fragrance in the years to come.
In the earliest strata of Indian though, represented by the Rg Veda, we find the classical form of dance mentioned frequently. The Maruts, said to dance in measured steps, are often referred to as dancers - Nrtavah. "O ye dancers with golden ornaments on your chests, even a mortal comes to ask for your brotherhood Take care of us", says a Vedic hymn. (Rg Veda viii - 20 - 22) The Maruts not only dance rythmically but also sing, and are called the singers of heaven. While they are described as the male dancers, the most charming imagery of a dancing girl, is created in Ushas, the dawn, portrayed as a dancer decked in gay attire;
Adhi poshaamsi uapate nrtoohu iva pornute vakshaha
"As the dawn arrives, with her beautiful colour in the eastern horion, it gladdens the heart of the living beings. The birds flutter, singing with their sweet voices. Men rise up from their sleep and busy themselves in activities. Ushas is a giver of joy and happiness like a beautiful dancer." There are several passages in the Rg Veda, indicating the highly developed art of dance, to which many of nature's phenomenon are compared. Soon we find the dancer occupying an important position in society. All religious and auspicious rites, required her presence. For example, the birth of sanctity and immortality is symbolized by the Purna Kumbha. It is the dancer who brings the Purna Kumbha. "O fair damsel, bring hither to us the purna kumba, filled with streams of clarified butter blent with nectar".
poornam naari prabhara kumbham etham drutasya
dhaaram amrutena sambhrutam
In temple rituals, that the dancing girls brought the Kumbha is well known, One should realise that dance was not simply an art, but was a way of life with the Vedic Indians.
When religious structures like the Temples, the Buddhis Caityas or the Jania Bastis came to be built on a permanent footing dance-both by men and women-formed an integral part of the institution. For example, in temple worship, music and dance were the 14th and 15th angas of the Shodasopacara
Geya vadhyam chaturdasam nrittam panchadashamchaiva
Without dance there is no temple worship. The Agamas specify the types of dances to be performed at different times and also for different worship. In the Tevaram hymns, dance is called by various names - as Nrittam, Natakam, Natyam, Layam, Kuttu, Adal, Tullal etc. The "Amarakosa" lists different words used to denote dance as:
Tandavam natanam natyam lasyam nrityamcha narthane
tanyathrikam nritya geetha vadyam natyam idam trayam
Tandava, Natana, Natya, Lasya and Nartana are all synonyms. I do not think that there is any need to discuss in detail, whether 'Natya' meant only drama and not dance. Right from the time of Bharata all forms of dance (including drama) were called by the generic term Natya and the art of dance called Natya Kala and the science of dance as Natya Sastra. Bharata would call it Natya Veda. In fact Bharata says "whether greatness one achieves by studying the Vedas, by performing the Yagnas, by making noble gifts, he could achieve by the recitals or study of dance."
ya idam srunuyaath proktam natya vedam swayambhuva
kuryath prayogam yaschainam tatha adheeyate vaa naraha
yaa gatih veda vidushaam ya gatih yagna vedinam
yaa gatih daanasheelaanaam taam gatim Praapunyaath Saha
Abhinava Gupta, the great commentator calls Natya itself as Veda.
natyam eva vedaha iti vyakyaasyamaha;
Abhinavagupta also defines Natya as the essence of Rasa.
Natyam nama . . . . . . . . . . vryththanta aaswadanarupaa
Samvedana-samvedye vastu rasa-svabhavam
We have seen that Dance developed as a part of temple ritual in all parts of India.
How temples served as centres of dance and dance dramas can be illustrated by hundreds of epigraphs - stone inscriptions found all over India. Here two or three instances are cited.
A royal charter of Sricandradeva, who ruled a part of modern Bangladesh in 930 A.D. granted a land in favour of a temple. In it he mentions a number of services to whom provisions were made. Among them we find two Natas. Raja Raja Chola, the great, who built the great temple of Tanjore provided for 400 dancing girls to do dance in the temples, besides Natyacharyas, musicians and those who enacted dance dramas, including chaakkais. A queen, Rudrambha of the Kakatiya family, who ruled the Warrangal region in the 13th century provided for services of dancers and musicians, In the temple of Visveswara Deva. It is interesting to note among them one was a Kashmiri.
yo vishweswara-devasya nartarkyaaha dasa sankyaya
mukharee vadya samyukta: ashtau maddala vaachakaa:
ekaha kashmira desiya gayintyaha cha chaturdasha…
That Kashmir the abode of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, has influenced the dance tradition of other regions is vividly brought out by this document.
Almost 100 years ago, Monier Williams, the famous compiler of the Sanskrit-English Dictionary, witnessed Indian dances once at Bombay and for the second time in the Tanjore temple. In 1875, Williams attended the wedding of Sri Mangaldas Nathoo Bhai's two sons at Bombay where he witnessed a dance on which he wrote:
"A splendid drawing-room blazing with light was thronged with native gentlemen and Rajas, most of whom sat round in a double row, intently gazing at the movements and listening to the songs of two jewel-bedecked Nach girls. These girls, wore bright-coloured silk trousers and were decorously enveloped in voluminous folds of drapery. They did not really dance, but merely sang in a monotonous minor key with continuous trills and turns of the voice, while they waved their arms gracefully to and from, occasionally lifting one hand to the ear, and frequently advancing a few steps up the room and then retiring again, closely followed from behind by two or three musicians who played accompaniments on instruments called Sarangi and Tabla (tom-toms). The loves, quarrels and reconsiliations of Krishna and his wives, especially his wife, Radha, formed the subject of their songs, which were kept up incessantly for hours, no native spectators appearing to find them tedious. I was told that a few of 1000 rupees is sometimes paid to a first-rate Nach girl for one night's performance".
About the music and dance Williams saw at Tanjore, he has the following to say: 'I may mention in conclusion that most of the Souh Indian temples are sufficiently well endowed to maintain a band of musicians. That of Tanjore has fifty. The number and variety of their musical instruments struck me as extraordinary. All the temples also maintain troops of dancing girls. The Tanjore temple posseses fifteen, ten of whom danced before me in the court of the temple with far livelier movements than are customary among the Nach girls of western and northern India". It may be mentioned that Williams' visit was within 20 or 30 years of the age of the Tanjore Quartette.
Around 1520, Domingo Paes, an Italian Traveller visited Vijayanagar, when the great Krishnadevaraya was the Emperor. The ruler invited Paes and permitted him to see a part of his palace portion. Paes has given an eye witness account of what he saw, which is a fascinating account of the royal palace. An extract from this report would be of great interest in this context. Among many structures he saw, Paes refers to an important hall, where women learnt dancing.
"There we went up by a little staircase and entered by a little door into a building which is in this manner. This hall is where the king sends his women to be taught to dance. It is a long hall and not very wide, all of stone sculpture on pillars which are at a distance of arms length from the wall. . . . .Other images as well as those on the panels are all dancing women having little drums. The designs of these panels show the positions at the end of dances in such a way that on each panel there is a dancer in the proper position at the end of the dance; this is to teach the women, so that if they forget the position in which they have to remain when the dance is done, they may look at one of the panels where is the end of that dance. By that they keep in mind what they have to do.
"At the end of this house on the left hand is a painted recess where the women cling on with their hands in order better to strench and loosen their bodies and legs; there they teach them to make the whole body supple, in order to make their dancing more graceful. At the other end, on the right, in he place where the king places himself to watch them dancing all the floors and walls where he sits are covered with gold, and in the middle of the wall is a golden image of a women of the size of a girl of twelve years, with her arms in the position which she occupies in the end of a dance".
It is not clear, whom the golden image of a dancing woman represented. It probably was that of Goddess Uma, who taught Lasya to Usha. From the description it seems to be a deity, in which case it suggests that girls learnt their art of dancing in the presence of Goddess Parvati the Ranga devata. Also it seems from the description, of the hall within the royal palace that those who learnt dance were royal ladies. The king himself used to be seated when the girls were learning dance. The other point of interest is the regular bodily exercises the girls used to undergo besides the art of dancing. What an amount of care and attention was bestowed on dance training in the palace of Krishnadevaraya is clearly brought out in this remarkable eye-witness account. It also suggests that perfection in the art was the guiding principle, and not that all court dances were meant for sensuous enjoyment, as erroneously thought by many.
There is a work in the Tanjore Saraswathi Mahal Library bearing the signatures of the Maratta rulers indicating that it was studied by them as a part of education. The work called Samrajya Lakshmi Pithika is a text book for the Royl Princes' education. One of the chapters deals with how kings should witness dance in the royal court. The chapter titled "Rajnah Lasya-avalokanam", states that the kings should witness dance for the achievement of all auspicious wealth and the stability of the kingdom.
saarvabhawmo narapatihi mandalasya isvaropi vaa
samrajya-lakshmyaaha sthairyaartam sarvasaubhagy siddhaye
pashyet lasykalaam ramyaam natibhihi abhisoochitaam
aloka-ascharyakareem mano nayna nandineem.
The text is clear enough that the dance in the court was essentially for the prosperity of the kingdom and not for sensual satisfaction. If anyone cosiders that the court dance was meant for vulgar representation, they are mistaken. If there are failings, it is due to human failures like in all other spheres and that it was never the main motive. The text also prescribes certain standards for the audience as well. The king himself should have a deep knowledge of Bharata's treatise and be capable of discussing it with learned men. The songs selected should be of very high standard and not very cheap, and of vulgar taste. When one listens to some of the Padas used in modern times and especially if one understands the meaning our young dancers however free their life may be would not like to dance for them. There are no doubt great names of composers - but that does not mean, their Pada compositions could be danced in sabhas. That is why Bharata has very clearly stated that the compositions could be danced in sabhas. That is why Bharata has very clearly stated that the compositions should be of great standard, and its meanings should be known to all the audience.
tasmaath gambheeraarthha shabdaah ye lokavedam samsiddhaah
sarvajanena graahyaah te yojyaah nataka vidhivat
I would like to emphasize that Sringara has no doubt universal appeal-
sringaaraika madhuraha para prahlaadano rasaha.
But it is not the "sambhoga Sringara" love in union, that is great, but it is the "vipralamba Sringara" that gives the greatest aesthetic joy. These aspects have been discussed in several works in detail over one thousand years ago, by eminent Indian poets like Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta and others. It is strange that there are amongst us, some, who are ignorant of great Indian poetic tradition, advance all arguments to justify sensuous presentation as the primary concern. It is therefore, necessary for all those who would like to interpret the classical Indian dance, either through recitals or through exposition, to study the wealth of information enshrined especially is Sanskrit literature.
Sanskrit has been the root, which enabled the plant to put forth several flowers. It has through the centuries, strengthened the development of regional styles. It is clear for anyone conversant with all forms of Indian classical dance; be it Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Odissi, Kathak or Manipuri - that all these forms have their roots in Sanskrit. Let it be made very clear that there is no classical Indian dance tradition without Sanskrit.
Just as the study of Sanskrit Kavya tradition is a must for a dancer, so also an understanding of sculptural tradition of India, will provide the proper perspective. The representation in sculpture of stone-metal-ivory-wood and paintings which are found all over India, belonging to various periods of India's history, will widen our vision and show how dance has been a part of Indian life and how we can understand through sculptural wealth.
It would be interesting to know how the great Indian dance tradition suffered. The Islamic rule in northern part of India, destroyed temple culture. Temples in the north ceased to be centres of dance from about the 13th century. But wherever the cruel hand of destiny did not reach-as in south of India, protected by the Vijaynagar, Nayaks and Maratha rulers, in Kerala, in Manipur, or even in Orissa, the classical temple traditions continued. In other places, it was stamped out.
Under the Mughals dance was revived, not as temple dance but as the Durbari dance. These historic factors should be kept in mind for a knowledge of a survival of dance only in some parts of India. While in other parts, the classical quality diminished . The Maratta rulers of Tanjore were the last of the great supporters and in a way responsible for keeping alive the classical tradition in the south in Tamil Nadu, Mysore and even in Kerala.
With the advent of the British rule, persistent attack was maintained on Indian traditions. It was necessary for the rulers to keep us in subjugation. One of the areas that fell a prey to this situation was the temple dance. Instead of projecting the main aspect of temple dance, it was propagated as temple prostitution. The temple had dancers on their role for dance and not for anything else. If there was anything wrong in the then set-up, it should have been left to the social scientist to make an in depth study. Instead, Western educated, over-zealous reformers killed the art in the temple in one stroke, by prohibiting dance itself in the temple premises. This act destroyed an art in the south as well, in the 1930s. Instead of curing the patient of the ill, he was easily done away with. With the Government support gone, the temple premises forbidden, the art of dance reached its lowest ebb and was dying.
It is at this crucial stage of its history, emerged the Sabhas, who lent a helping hand to this art. In spite of great financial restrains and vicissitudes, the sabhas have resurrected this great art from near extinction. It is in this regard, the role of Sabhas should be appreciated. The entire nation should be thankful to the Sabhas, for the historic role they have played. In the past fifty years, it is the sabhas that kept the hope of survival alive. That the SHANMUKHANANDA SABHA is now celebrating its Hall's Silver Jubile shows the vital role it has played in the crucial stage of Indian dance tradition particularly in this part of the country. I am sure every one of you assembled here, and all those who have the interest of dance in their heart would join with me in paying our rich tributes to the SHANMUKHANANDA SABHA, and all its members for the valuable service they have rendered to this art.
Friends, I would have liked to speak to you on the distinction between the classical and the so-called folk tradition, I would have loved to deal with the necessity to keep to the tradition and not to succumb to the temptation of modernity. But as one has to maintain the time measure, I conclude with congratulation to the Sabha and also my heart-felt thanks for his opportunity.