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 :
- Sacred dances, often connected to the temple, sharing a common esthetic quality and having sophisticated technique.
- 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 :
- The modern Western-influenced creations of the urbanized society.
- The large corpus of Middle East-inspired folk forms found mainly in the northwestern regions.
- 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.
- 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.