Rooted in tradition and in step with the changing times, Indian classical dances are ever-evolving, says Padma Shri Shovana Narayan
It’s a common perception that Indian classical dances are frozen in time and, hence, somewhat irrelevant. But this is far from true. Indian classical dances have evolved over the years while strictly following the principles and canons such as the Natya Shastra (a treatise on dramatic art). These ancient guidelines, characterised by grace, precision of movement and elaborate formal gestures, steps, expressions and poses, have helped classical dance develop while retaining its praxis and ethos.
Despite the impact of changing times, at the heart of Indian classical dance forms is a pursuit of the elevation of the self and the attainment of higher levels of enlightenment through bhakti marg, involving darsana (direct vision). Today, the world speaks in a new language that combines the vocabularies of technology, social ethos and environmental concerns. The point to ponder really is: can Indian classical dance reinterpret itself within this new language and address the demands of the world as it continues to change?
The second half of the 19th century holds special significance, since it witnessed the formalisation of all recognised Indian classical dance forms. Dasiattam, Kathak and other forms were officially recognised, courtesy of efforts by the likes of the Tanjore Quartet (four brothers who lived in the early 19th century and contributed to the development of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music) and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (the last Nawab of Awadh, a great patron of the performing arts).
In the second half of the 20th century, efforts towards the classification of dance forms saw a revolutionary phase. Names of dance forms were changed, presentations were formalised and items were restructured. Additions to the classical panorama were made possible due to a restructuring of old dance practices – so much so that today we have eight recognised classical dance forms, as against the four that had been bequeathed at the time of India’s Independence in 1947. Speaking as a Kathak dancer, the fact that the dance form (whose earliest reference occurs in a 4th-century BC Prakrit inscription) is still fresh in the consciousness of the 21st century is significant. It has survived two-and-a-half millennia because of its innate spirit of evolution.
The early medieval period ushered in Sufi philosophy. On the other hand, Vaishnavism, with Krishna- Radha as the symbols for atma-parmatma, rose to prominence. The written word at this time was heavily influenced by the prevailing social ethos and found its way into dance.
Over the 12th and 13th centuries, themes of classical dance forms acquired Radha and Krishna as their favourite subjects. The languages used within the classical dance realm also changed. Sanskrit had already given way to regional languages and dialects in texts delineating abhinaya (expressional pieces). And major gods, though still forming central pillars of the classical fraternity, did not preclude the inclusion of local deities. In fact, even the evergreen subject of romance and solah sringar (the 16 steps of beautification) of maidens underwent subtle changes.
The prevailing social conditions of the medieval period saw the introduction of the ghunghat, or veil, which eventually found its way into texts as well as dance, leading to the creation of its hasta mudra (hand gesture). Romance now became suggestive, with shy glances and trembling hands and long tresses, in sharp contrast to the earlier explicit references to romantic fervour. Thus, ghunghat ki gat (movement showing the drawing of the veil across the face) and various kinds of glances through the diaphanous screen became part of the Kathak repertoire.
Today, we see a contemporisation of mythological stories. Draupadi’s story has been reinterpreted in terms of environmental degradation and exploitation of our planet, while Lord Krishna’s Kaliya daman lore has been recreated to draw attention to the issue of water pollution. Another popular reinterpretation of mythology has been in terms of women’s empowerment, where traditional stories about goddesses, queens and even Radha are narrated to emphasise women’s power.
Technology, change of venue and the timings of dance performances have influenced the use of lighting too. And this is an element that has been used intelligently by classical dance performers of today. From candles and oil wick lamps to gas lamps and electric lights, the tenor of evening and night performances has undergone a transformation.
The extent of the performing area that can now be covered by light has grown manifold. A three-dimensional approach to lighting has also been adopted where necessary to focus on important sections. Lights are used to add to the drama of the story being narrated. This, in turn, has impacted movements where the artiste is now able to share the beauty of both expansive as well as contained movements. And this holds true for all traditional dance forms in the country.
In terms of the performers themselves I can affirm that the traditional male Kathak performers have given way to women performers. Also, the traditional mantle of male gurus has been taken over by women over the years. And this again is applicable to most classical dance forms practised in India.
There is then, of course, the question of maintaining classical tradition. But what is classical tradition? A tarana, a certain raga or a thumri may be part of the classical tradition today, but all three have been fruits of new frontiers in earlier ages. The truth is that many aspects of what is termed classical tradition today have stood the test of time. This reflects the spirit of the verse from the Aitareya Upanishad that says, “Charaiveti, charaiveti”, which means “keep moving, keep moving”.
-The author is a renowned Kathak danseuse and the views expressed in the article are her own