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Nritya through the lens of time…

The coming of Aryans to India about 4000 years ago is considered to be a turning point in the history of the country. The Aryans settled down and mixed with the local people, thus sowing the seeds of a new civilization. This civilization prospered on all fronts, leading to the compilation of epics – like the four Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and other such texts, which serve as the basis of all streams of learning.

References to the art of dancing is found in the Rig Veda which was compiled around 1500 BC, thus substantiating that dance was one of the oldest forms of art in India. Around 302 BC, Megasthenes came to India and noted that Indians were great lovers of music and dance. According to ‘Natyashashtra’ the oldest treatise on dance, the art of dance was created by Lord Brahma.

Natyashashtra is the oldest written text in the history of performing arts. The story of natya as per the Natyashashtra is that natya was created by Lord Brahma at the request of Lord Indra and other gods as a form of expression and entertainment. Lord Brahma then created the Natyashashtra as the fifth veda, which was open to all, irrespective of caste, creed and gender. He drew literature from Rig veda, song from Sama veda, abhinaya from Yajur veda and rasa from the Atharva veda. It was suggested to Lord Indra that Natyaveda be used for the entertainment and enlightenment of the gods. But since gods expressed their inability to practice it, Lord Brahma passed on the Natyaveda to his son Bharata. Lord Shiva instructed sage Bharata in the use of angaharas as karana, the modes of Tandava, and his consort Goddess Parvati taught sage Bharata - lasya, the softer aspect of dance. Sage Bharata taught this art to his 100 sons and thus, this divine art descended from the heavens to earth.

Yet the dance we use on stage has a story of only 50 to 80 years. When the British ruled our country, the temples were the center of activity in villages. During this time dancers performed in the temples. Although not from the brahmin community, the dancer and musicians lived on temple land and were employed by the temples. They performed on all festive occasions and had to be present for the daily rituals of the temple deity and were paid from the temple funds. The community of the musicians and dancers were poor, perhaps in order to protect these families there was a custom prevalent, of the dancer marrying the deity of the temple. This gave her dignity and payment for her work. As such the dancer was called a ‘devadasi’. However, this custom was not to last long. The British who ruled us thought this custom exploited young girls and so with one sweep of reform, and entire community of artistes lost their livelihood. The British banned the devadasi system. In South India, the artistes moved from the temples to the homes of the rich landlords. Landlords and royalty were the only people who could afford to have a dancer come and perform for a marriage in the family or for the birth of a son. For instance, in Mysore, the royal family understood the value of these old dance forms. They had performances of music and dance at all festive occasions in the state.

In the North, storytelling traditions and the raasa were popular in the village and also in temples. Apart from this the dancers and musicians also moved into the courts of Mughal kings and Hindu emperors. Kathak became a very popular form of entertainment. Many court dancers and musicians flourished during the Mughal rule and in several rich Hindu principalities. But this patronage too could not continue till long and stopped.

At about this time, the ‘highest caste’ the brahmins had begun to take up the art of dance in the South. Great stigma was attached to girls from good families witnessing, learning or performing the art. Even in the 50ies after our independence most people were prejudiced against dance. The educated class brought up on the Victorian sensibilities looked down upon both the dance and dancer. Its beauty evaded them.

Fortunately, however, a growing body of individuals tried to rescue the art form from degradation to which it had descended. By the beginning of the 20th century, eminent people like Rabindranath Tagore and Uday Shankar tried to revive people’s interest in dance by bringing it to them. Uday Shankar even created the first modern Indian dance form by incorporating elements from all classical dance styles. In the South, E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer by profession almost single handedly worked towards the revival of the true dasi -attam. To him goes the credit of introducing Balasaraswati, a devadasi whose enormous talent captured the imagination of an entire generation.

Through these efforts dance lost some of the stigma attached to it, but it still remained in the hands of its traditional exponents. Rukmini Devi Arundale was the first dancer who did not belong to the devadasi clan. In her hands Bharatanatyam underwent radical changes. She introduced welcome reforms in the presentation, creating new artistic and modest costumes. She removed the unpleasant aspects of the dance by introducing once again the devotional flavor, long missing from dance, making it once again a means of worship as originally envisioned by the ancient practitioners. In her words – “we have no more temple dancing today, but we can bring the spirit of the temple to the stage”. After her the list of great dancers is long, Ram Gopal, Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, C.V. Chandrashekhar, Kanak Rele, Mrinalini Sarabhai and many more. Today, the classical forms of dance are again vibrant and alive and experiments and developments in the art forms make these times exciting.

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