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Indian dance

Danse indienne

  1. What Indian dance is
  2. Characteristics of Indian dance

What Indian dance is

It is important to clarify what, in this Website, “Indian dance” stands for. This two word expression has different recognized meanings in different books or works. It is most commonly associated with the (so-called) classical dances like kathak and bharata natyam.

But for this Website we need a more accurate picture to match this phrase. And it deserves it anyway. Firstly, it does not refer to the dances of India as a whole, but only to some of them. Secondly, its geographical scope is not limited to the political entity of India nor even the Indian subcontinent.

1. Not all dances of India

The subcontinent knows many different dance traditions, some are of indigenous origin, others show a more or less obvious foreign influence. Among the indigenous traditions are :

  1. Sacred dances, often connected to the temple, sharing a common esthetic quality and having sophisticated technique.
  2. Tribal dances. They sometimes have a ritual function, like the dances of number 1.

Dances of foreign origin, or betraying heavy foreign contributions in their foundations include :

  1. The modern Western-influenced creations of the urbanized society.
  2. The large corpus of Middle East-inspired folk forms found mainly in the northwestern regions.
  3. Dance forms, such as kathak, originating from the Mughal courts have a mixed background. They are partly derived from the Indian temple tradition but shall be considered with caution as their technique and context owe also a lot to Middle Eastern culture.
  4. Dance that is used in the commercial films like Bollywood productions. That style of dance derives itself from the three previous traditions 3, 4 and 5.

We should make no confusion between what we are naming Indian dance and these four kinds of dance. Dances 3, 4 and 6 are of no relevance to our present purpose. Dance 5 can sometimes take interesting forms depending upon context, style, performer. This is due to its Hindu background.

It is in dances of the first category (1) that our matter of interest lies. These dances can have various forms and exist in scattered places in the Indian subcontinent, from Nepal to Sri Lanka. It is in the subcontinent's southern part that this tradition is best represented today. It must be kept in mind, however, that it would be too simple to retain this category as our Indian dance. One reason is it's present situation. It has suffered a great decline in the subcontinent as a whole. Through a process of acculturation, it's relevance to the Indian social and ritual organization has diminished while the Mughal and folk dances were becoming the norm. The temple dances took a less important role in Indian culture. They became less prevalent. The British colonization merely finished off the temple tradition. The déwadasi, these female dancers serving the temple ritual, couldn't perform their sacred function anymore. This was a great loss for the temple dances. There has been a revival, but often artificial and conducted by an external will, not from the tradition's spontaneous vitality. Most dances today are performed OUT OF CONTEXT : they are not taking place in the temple (the place where they came from), they are more often serving an academic purpose than a ritual one, the audience is westernized even though it may contain only Indians. Once decontextualized, the dance can easily be soaked in Mughal esthetics (especially the music and costume) before being exported and adapted to concert, academic or intellectual forms.

When referring to these reconstructions, names we are the most accustomed to include bharata natyam, odissi, kathakali. While such names can be useful in giving hints about what region of India one is situated in, they are simplified and artificial denominations. Compared to the long duration of the Indian dance tradition, these denominations are relatively recent although they pretend defining the “standard dances of India”. They reflect a European academic approach to art, an approach in which Indian dance becomes a classical expression. To be more accurate : in India, classical means dead and fossilized.

There are, on the other hand, uninterrupted dance traditions that have “survived” the general decline. One example is the kudiyattam theater of Kerala. It does not publicize itself because its context is not the recital hall but the village temples. It is intended for ritual and a casual audience. Kathakali is a recent derivation of kudiyattam. Bharata natyam is itself derived from dési-attam. Kudiyattam and dési-attam enter our scope of “Indian dance”. Kathakali and bharata natyam can also be of relevance when they do take authentic forms and quality. Sri Lanka's temple dance has the same origin as bharata natyam but has better retained the quality of the original dance. Nepal also keeps an interesting form of dance. We see already that “Indian dance” contains not the six or so stereotyped labels but their sources from which they have been revived or reconstructed. It is significant that Nepal and Sri Lanka are at the extreme ends of the Indian subcontinent.

2. Geographical scope

If we discern hints of Indian esthetic qualities in many dances of Asia, it is particularly in South-East Asia that a concrete influence is seen, and it is the Khmer and Javanese dances that show an esthetic quality and a technique that are really Indian.

We would miss important dance forms without considering these Khmer and Javanese dances, and the Balinese one. If they are derived from those of India, they are also the only existing descendants of forms that have disappeared in India. They could also be re-creations of forms never known in India but based on the same principles, esthetic quality and context as those in India. This means that an Indian dance form can come into being outside India.

We would miss a lot because these forms haven't suffered the same kind of decline than in India. The terms “Indian dance” have thus to cover dances found in lands showing Indian cultural legacies. These lands, which in this respect can be called “Greater India”, form a large part of South-East Asia.

“Indian dance” doesn't include all dances in South-East Asia. It is in the court and the temple that we have to look. The corpus of tribal and folk dances is of no relevance. In mainland South-East Asia, Cambodia has been an important center of Indian dance. In the Indonesian archipelago, Java and Bali are the two main islands where the Indian character is strongest, although not equally on all dances. Some Indian influence can be seen on many non-temple dances and numerous folk dances in Sumatra and other islands of the archipelago. Normally, these dances won't be considered as “Indian dance”.

We should keep in mind that even the court and temple dances of Java and Bali often show an influence of the tribal and folk dances. When this influence is strong, the Indian aspect is often limited to hand positions, costume and depicted story. But gestures are not of Indian nature. In this case, we cannot speak of Indian dance, only of Indian influence on the dance.

We should also remember that there is no sharp boundary between Indian dance and other dances of India and South-East Asia. Dance styles influence other dances and there are mixed forms. Indian dance is best defined not by such and such dance or such and such region, but by specific characteristics, mainly esthetic.

We could have chosen other terms, such as “Indic dance”, “Indian sacred dance” or “Hindu dance”. We could have used the plural “dances”. All these alternatives can be used interchangeably.


 About the site… Date of this page : 17 SEP 2005