Classical Indian Dances

Indian classical dances are unique, refined, highly evolved in terms of stylized and codified techniques, highly sophisticated conscious artistry, intrinsically concomitant emotion, performer's intellect and beholder's profound involvement. The variations and appeal of various forms Indian classical dance stem from the inspiration and work of the individual rather than of the collective. Though precise information regarding the origin of Indian dance is concealed in the womb of antiquity, the dainty figurine of the dancing girl discovered in the 4000-years old ruins of Mohenjo-Daro is the earliest artifact relating to dance. The countless carvings, paintings and icons of dance in temples and shrines all over the country bear witness to the development of the dance in the centuries one by one. In India, dance has been used both as a vehicle of worship and as an expression of man's most profound emotions, his various states of mind. In keeping with the sacred nature of Indian dance, there has been the tradition of temple dancers. The Devdasis, literally handmaids of god, were dedicated to the temples of South India at an early age and led austere lives to perform their sacred task. The Maharis, traditional exponents of Odisssi, were also attached to temples.

Nataraja- The Cosmic Dancer: The supreme manifestation of the essence of Indian dance is the image of Lord Shiva as Nataraj- the jeweled ornament of the crescent moon, a symbol of complete control of the senses, the serpents wound around his arms and wrists, proof of his control over vital life forces, his foot raised high over the wicked demon, a symbol of triumph over the ego. The great historian of Indian art, Ananda Coomarswamy described Lord Shiva as " the clearest image of the activity of god which any art or religion can boast of.

Classical Dance: The Indian dance system, among the oldest and most comprehensive in the world, has followed a steady line of development for nearly two thousand years. The five dance styles known as classical or art dance forms are so called on account of a sophisticated degree of stylization. The history of these forms cannot be traced backwards beyond two hundred, sometimes three hundred years, when considered from the point of view their present format. Nevertheless, each has a link with antiquity, with the literature, sculptural and musical traditions of the ancient and medieval period of India and the particular region. They all adhere to the principles enunciated by Bharata, namely of the division of dance into nritta (pure or abstract dance which consists of movements of the body and limbs performed for their own sake, for their own beauty and decorative effect, and not in order to convey any special meaning to the beholder.), nritya (dance with mime- dance which is essentially expressional, performed specifically to convey the meaning or import of a theme or an idea. This is accomplished through the use of facial expressions, codified gestures of the hands and symbolic poses of the body.)and Natya (the third aspect, consists, like Nritya, of facial expressions and hand gestures but it has in addition the element of drama which is introduced through the use of the spoken word), of tandava and lasya of stylised presentation (natayadharmi). However, the technique of movement is distinctive, with a definte stylisation. Each follows a different set of rules for the articulation of movement. Musical accompaniment invariably comprise a vocalist; a drummer either on the double barrelled drum (called mridanga, madalam, pakhavaj) or the two drums (tabla); a cymbal player who recites the pneumonics; there is usually one more instrumentalist playing a string instrument, bowed or plucked.

Language of The Hands: Within the formal boundaries of grammar and technique, there is scope for improvisation- the dancer is not only free to but also expected to show his creative resources in certain areas of the dance. Indeed, he is the architect of each movement that goes to make the final edifice, and it falls or stands by his effort alone. The dancer's technique involves the use of the entire body, from the smallest eye muscle to the arms, hands, legs, feet, the torso and the face. He has at its command that wondrous language- 'hast mudra' or hand gestures, that enables him to use now one hand, now both hands, to suggest a world of imagery. Lotus buds open slowly to invite the kisses of honey bees, deer roam the forest, and fish weave in and out of unseen ponds. A swift clench of the hand and it becomes a warrior's fist, hooded is the cobra poised to strike. Fingers spread out close to the lips become Krishna with his flute, arched they are the tiger's tensed claw.

Another major element of classical dance is 'abhinaya', which broadly means expressions. This is achieved through four means- 'angika', the body and limbs; 'vachika', song and speech; 'aharya', costume and adornment; and 'satvika', moods and emotions. Much, however, is also left to the imagination of the beholder, and for this reason, suggestion and symbolism play a vital role in Indian classical dance. Then the dancer on his part is expected not only to create or project moods and feelings, but also to evoke similar responses in the beholder. All of which explains why in the Indian tradition, the 'rasikas' or members of the audience are expected to be as familiar with the technique as the dancers themselves.

Common to all schools of classical dance are the 'tandava' and 'lasya' elements. These two terms represent the carry-over into dance aesthetics of the central concept of Hindu philosophical thought, the male-female principle. 'Tandava' the masculine principle is, as name suggests, heroic, bold and vigorous. 'Lasya', the female element, is soft and graceful. But this is not to suggest that the first is employed exclusively by male dancer and the latter by women. It deserves to be noted, however, that the labels, nritta, nritya, natya, tandava and lasya, and others of their kind do not refer to any distinct types of dance, but only represent technical facets common to the various Indian classical dances. Major schools of Indian classical dance are Bharat Natyam, Kathakali, Kathak and Manipuri. In recent years, Kuchipudi and Odissi have also been recognized as classical Indian dance forms and so has the Mohini Attam of Kerala.

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