- INDIAN CLASSICAL DANCE
by David Courtney, Ph.D.
has a very rich tradition of classical dance. The Natya
Shastra, which is the oldest surviving text on stagecraft
in the world, spends a considerable time discussing it.
In the old days of the theatre, the dancers would mime
the story while the singers would sing the dialogue. The
instrumentalists would accompany them all. The nature
of the old theatre was such that the dancers occupied
a central position.
many centuries the dancers were attached to the temples.
This maintained a strong religious flavour to dance. Even
today many of the traditional themes are mythological
the centuries different areas have given their own colour
to the ancient classical tradition. Today the acknowledged
classical styles are: Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, Kathakali
of Kerala, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Manipuri of Northeast
India, Orissi from Orissa, and Kathak from north India
and Pakistan. Each of these styles has a strong regional
connection and none can claim to be representative of
the entire Indian subcontinent.
is particularly problematic to talk of classical Indian
dance. The problem stems party from the definition of
the word "classical", and partly from the nature
of the Indian dance forms.
will use three simple benchmarks to determine whether
something is "classical". The first benchmark
is age. The second is its ability to cross ethnic boundaries,
and third is class associations.
is the first benchmark to come to anyone's mind. It is
generally acknowledged that for something to be considered
classical, it must have great age. This seems simple at
first, but it begs the obvious question of how one determines
age. Clearly every performance exists in the here-and-now,
so the performance itself cannot be used. Although the
performance may not be used to determine age, we might
consider using the genre. This would be acceptable to
many people; however if this is used, it is surprising
how recently some genre have developed. Bharat Natyam
for instance only goes back to the early 20th century!
Since the genre also produces ages which are not acceptable
in traditional Indian world views, most Indians would
use the tradition to define age. (The relationship between
performance, genre, and tradition will be discussed later.)
ability to span different ethnic groups is another common
benchmark. This is best illustrated by a simple model
put forth by the anthropologist, Robert Redfield in the
early to middle part of the 20th century. According to
Redfield's model, there are "great" and "little"
traditions. We may simplify theses concepts by saying
that "little" traditions are the folk traditions
while the "great" traditions are the classical
traditions. The "great" tradition of European
classical music was able to span the different ethnic
groups that extend from Russia, throughout Europe, and
even into the new world, yet the "little" folk
traditions remained isolated to smaller geographical areas.
It is in this same manner that Carnatic classical music
spans the diverse cultures of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Carnatica,
or Andhra Pradesh.
connotations are also a benchmark for determining whether
something is classical. "Classical" arts tend
to be used by the upper classes to define their cultural
we have three benchmarks to define "classical";
age, transethnicity, and class associations. These benchmarks
work very well in describing Indian classical music (both
Hindustani and Carnatic), but the various schools of dance
tend to fall short in one or more areas.
brings up the curious question of how many classical dance
forms there are in India. Since all the various schools
of dance are deficient in one or more of the benchmarks,
one may argue that there are no classical dance forms
in India. I think that most people would be dissatisfied
with this proposition. On the other hand if we relax our
criteria excessively, we find that there may be a dozen
"classical" forms. I think that this too, is
unacceptable to most people.
we will try and steer a middle path. One that will produce
about half a dozen systems. If a reader wishes to take
exception with our inclusion of a particular form as "classical",
we certainly understand. As has already been stated there
are ample reasons to disallow particular genres as being
classical. By the same token if a reader takes exception
to the exclusion of a particular genre, this too is understandable.
It is our belief that the informed reader may make their
own decision in these matters.
Indian Classical Dance Forum · Introduction to
Indian Music · Bharat Natyam · Kathak ·
Odissi · Kathakali · Kuchipudi ·
Manipuri · Mohiniattam · Andhra Natyam ·
Folk Dance · Works Cited
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