Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dance As Worsphip

This article has appeared in the Deepavali Special Issue of the 'Bhavan's Journal 'of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Mumbai

in its issue dated 31st October 2008, with a couple of photographs

Best wishes
B.M .N.Murthy, Saturday 15th November 2008

Dance Tradition in Indian Temples

The term “Nritya’ which also includes dance was created by Lord Brahma himself as a visible means to elevate man from the mundane to the sublime, to enlighten him through entertainment and to ultimately teaching him to desire and look for union with the Infinite. According to Sage Bharata, the creator of ‘Natyashastra’, “there is no wisdom nor art nor craft, no device, no action that is not found in dance”. It was but natural that this glorious art was presented from the earliest times in the sacred precincts of the temple for it was also education besides entertainment. In course of time, the temple became the centre of all theatrical arts and soon dance became part of the temple ritual worship. With the passage of time, dance became an inseparable activity in major temple complexes like Madura, Chidambaram, Tanjore. While designing and building a temple complex, apart from the several components of a temple complex like the Garbhagudi, Vimana, Gopuram, Prakara etc, an additional structure was also accommodated for fine arts like dance and music and was called as Ranga Mantapam.

According to tradition and the Sthala Puranam [Local legend] of Lord Jagannatha Temple at Puri, when the great temple was being built at Puri, Raja Indradyuamna sent a special invitation to Lord Brahma to inaugurate the temple. Brahma agreed and came to Puri with two of the celestial dancers-- Urvashi and Rambha. With the installation of deities- Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra- who were carried in three beautiful chariots, musicians sang while the Apsara women danced. The dancers attached to the Puri temple claim their heritage to those two celestial dancers Urvashi and Rambha who brought dance to the earth. These dancers were called ‘Maharis’ and the tradition in Puri used to be that when the Naivedyam was offered to the Lord, the dancer and her accompaniment on Pakhwaj [ a musical instrument made of wood and similar to Tabla] were the only two others who were present besides the Raja Guru who represented the Raja of Puri. This shows the high esteem with which the dancers were held in the temple.

While in Puri the temple dancers danced Sri Jayadeva’s ‘Geetha Govinda’, their sisters in the South, called Devadasis, danced in praise of Lord Shiva, The Lord of Dance. The Devadasis of South India were custodians of some of the rituals within the shrine. They made their dance a certain temple ritual which was essential to establish a contact between man and divinity. They were called Devadasis because they were the servants of the Lord dedicated to the service of the temple. Their main duty was to sing and dance in front of the deity at specified times daily and accompany the deity in procession. From the epigraphs pertaining to the Chola period we learn that they had a respectable place in the society and that even affluent people dedicated their daughters to the service of god in the temple.

Devadasis were good exponents of dance and music who did much to preserve the traditional dance forms for several generations. The temple was the greatest single agent which extended patronage to them and utilized their services, particularly during festivals. Even their dance masters called ‘Nattuvars’ were in the service of the temple. Some of the temple inscriptions mention about the different types of dances which the Devadasis performed. According to one inscription found in the Chola period, the dance mode which they adopted while performing in front of the deity was entirely different from what they adopted while performing before the general public.

Apart from mere dancing, some Devadasis specialized in Dance-dramas. Instances of dance-dramas performed by the Devadasis came mostly from the Pandyan country. They chose the theme from the Mahabharata and from the Puranas and enacted them on the stage. Dance sculpture found in several South Indian temples bear witness to the progressive development of dance as an art. In leading temples like the Brihadeeshwara Temple at Tanjore, Sarangapani Temple at Kumbhakonam and the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram, we find graphic descriptions of various dance poses with explanatory labels from Bharata’s Natyashastra. We can also see exquisite paintings of Apsaras dancing before the deity.

The system of engaging dedicated dancers for worship in the temple was not confined to India. It was in vogue in ancient times even in other civilizations and religions. In fact, ancient Greece, Egypt and Japan had more or less similar arrangements in their place of worship.

To dance in a temple with dedication and devotion was not as easy as it appears to be. Not all, even with a lovely form and figure, could become Devadasis. A certain ingrained attitude, what we call as ‘Vasana’ in Sanskrit, was essential to become a Devadasi. Further, the dancer was to have an alert mind, appropriate physical features, an agile body capable of swift and graceful movements, expressive eyes etc. In fact, Bharatha prescribes the following major qualifications for an ideal dancer “ Strikingly beautiful, sweet in speech, steady, sprightly, skilled in conversation, born of good family, learned in ancient scriptures and Shastras, sweet voice, expert in singing, quick in grasping and with total self-confidence”

Selection of Devadasis for a temple was very strict and the qualifications were rigid and tough. Moreover, before one could aspire to become a Devadasi, she was expected to have several years of experience and training in music and dance. The lower age of admissibility was 15 years and the retirement was at the age of 30 years. A Devadasi could serve a temple for a maximum period of about 15 years. She could get married or remain as a spinster.

With the advent of the East India Company to India and subsequent conquest of our country by the Britishers, the glory attached to the institution of Devadasi started eroding gradually. Some temple officials colluded with some of the Government officers and mortgaged the institution of Devadasis for totally selfish purposes and brought bad name to a Devadasi. In fact, a new name was given to these dancers and they were called
‘Nautch Girls’. The foreign ruler started interfering with the tradition and practice of the Devadasi system. The degradation of the institution went so low that even an ‘anti-nautch’ movement was started. In course of time, the movement gained so much momentum that the elite and educated in the society thought that it was beneath their dignity to send their daughters to learn dance. It was at this juncture that there came a wave of general art renaissance in the country, sometime in the mid thirties of the 20th century, spear-headed by two great personalities namely Sri. E.Krishna Iyer and
. Rukmini Devi Arundale. It was the untiring efforts of these two great stalwarts that revived dance as a divine art and put it back in its high pedestal.

In Kerala, temple dance took a slightly different form in the form of Kathakkali. Here the dancers are usually all-male and they pick up their themes from some of our sacred scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata etc and perform the dance in the form of a dance-drama. The main purpose is to portray that in the battle between good and evil, it is only the Good that triumphs finally. At the Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala
the main theme for dance is chosen mostly from Bhagavatham and Narayaneeyam.

In Andhra, temple dance took the form of ‘Kuchipudi’. Dance-dramas were enacted by choosing subjects from ancient scriptures. Each temple had a Balipeetha, established on a large, well polished slab of stone placed in the inner courtyard of the temple. Upon this stone platform, the Devadasis danced on festive occasions.

Karnataka had its own temple dance in the form of ‘Yakshagana’, similar in content to the dance-dramas of Kerala and Andhra. Here too, as in Kathakkali, the actors wear enormous crowns; the facial make-up is intricate and suggestive of the character of the role. The costumes are also intricate and the colour of the costume depends upon the dominant mood of the character. While one particular colour suits portrayal of sentiment of Sringara, quite a different colour is chosen while portraying a demonic scene with the dominating sentiment of Raudra.

In India, every dance-drama had its origin in a temple and there have been several instances where they have been offered as vows to the deity by the people in times of calamity. Kings and affluent people patronized dance. It was not merely the temple precincts that were important. More importance was given to the spirit of dance which was nothing but total dedication to the Supreme. Dance was held in such high esteem and the divine status accorded to it was such that it was believed that wherever a dance-drama was staged that ground would be sanctified. No wonder Sage Bharatha in his Natyashastra says;

“One who performs well the art of dance created by Lord Shiva

Will go liberated to the abode of God”


ARTICLE NO. 473--Dance Tradition in Indian Temples
Created: Friday, November 14, 2008 8:20 PM


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