Asian Music and Dance

Indic Dances and their Roots in Hindu India

Dance is as susceptible to political changes as are other aspects of a society and those in power can use it to reinforce their own positions and reflect their own ideologies. Bhagwat Shah looks at the history of dance in India and the impact of Muslim and British rule from a Hindutva perspective.

Dance is a natural expression of emotion; any emotion: love, joy, hate, hope, fear, despair, peace, frustration, pathos, pride, anger, bliss. Over the centuries, Indians have taken these expressions of emotions and developed them in a number of different dance forms. The ancient treatise called the Natyashastra helps formalise some of the expressions while leaving enough room for regional dance forms to interpret them in their own way.  

Essentially there were four types of dances: folk dance, inspired by the tribal tradition; sacred dance, performed in the temple by the devadasis as an integral part of the daily routine; professional dance, as practised by courtesans and professional dancers including travelling entertainers; also an ever-changing contemporary dance form, mixing the above three styles, used by the citizens during festivals and family functions.  

“Dance had a wonderfully elevated status in ancient Hindu society”

Dance had a wonderfully elevated status in ancient Hindu society. Indeed, some sages stipulate that the entire universe came about as a by-product of Nataraj’s dance. The ability to dance was an essential part of the ‘must have’ education routine of cultured citizens in our ancient city states. Hundreds of regional styles and variations existed in the many courts and kingdoms across India. Famous dancers were fêted like modern film stars and were unmissable at any public or private function. Dance and dancers are mentioned in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain spiritual literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and even in the political treatise of Kautilya. One of the most famous statues to be excavated from the ruins of Mohenjodaro is a dancer in a tribhanga pose.

“One of the most famous statues to be excavated from the ruins of Mohenjodaro is a dancer in a Tribhanga pose”

Indian cultural influence flowed eastwards through trade and conquests. We can still see the influence of the Natyashastra in traditional dances of Burma, Java, Sumatra, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and beyond. Even now, their costumes, storylines, facial expressions and movements are strikingly Indian. 

Like all art forms, dance is impacted by vagaries of economics, politics and cultural changes that affect any society. Islamic invasion of India from the ninth century onwards severely curtailed dance and music in North India. Temple dance was uprooted by wholesale destruction of Hindu religious institutions across North India. Professional dancers were discouraged by new rulers who had their own favourite dance forms from central Asia. Contemporary dance was curtailed, as any expression of joy or frivolity by the Hindu masses was viewed with suspicion by their Muslim overlords. However, tribal tradition was relatively untouched as it was remote from the centre of towns and cities where Islamic governments held sway.

Over time, India tamed and mellowed its stern rulers from the wild wastelands beyond the Hindu Kush. In the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar, delicate mudras from the Natyashastra, seductive ragas from traditional music and glittering Indian costumes were mixed with Persian dance forms to create a new hybrid style which was later called kathak. Complex footwork, graceful gestures, pirouettes and rapid stamping of the feet became the hallmarks of this new style.  

“The long rule of Akbar saw an unprecedented flowering of arts and culture… however… Aurangzeb exiled dance and music from his court”

Indian veena and mridanga were modified into sitar and tabla to suit this new form of dance. Akbar’s court was very pro-Indian at the time and the emperor encouraged the use of contemporary language and music in his court. The ancient style of dhrupad was developed for its gravitas and classical roots. Merging traditions of east and west created a new set of ragas. A local variant of Hindi, Brajbhasha, was used along with Farsi and Arabic to compose suitable poems for court entertainment.

The long rule of Akbar saw an unprecedented flowering of arts and culture after the advent of Islam. Royal patronage also encouraged others to fund development of dance, music and other art forms across North India. However, three generations later, Aurangzeb exiled dance and music from his court. Artists migrated to other courts in the empire in order to survive. Kathak dancers migrated to Lucknow, Varanasi and Jaipur, founding the three principal ‘gharanas’ (houses) of modern kathak. In the early twentieth century, the Raigarh gharana was formed to merge the three styles of kathak. Aurangzeb’s dispersal of the arts had a profound impact on many regional styles of painting, singing and dance. New elements were added to the dance routine, such as thumri, dadra and khayal. Urdu, the hybrid language of the army camp, was increasingly used instead of Brajbhasha, which was geographically aligned to the imperial court at Agra.  

From the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, dance and music outside Islamic kingdoms of India retained their traditional Indian roots. In the Hoysala, Nayak, Vijaynagara and Maratha empires, dance and music continued to be performed with the same poetry and music as before. Costumes and jewellery became more circumspect to reflect the increasing bashfulness regarding exposing the human body. As with the north, popular styles of dance and contemporary dance took on new elements from contact with the Islamic and Christian influences. Folk dance remained isolated in the villages of the interior. Pure Indian styles of dance became fossilised and only remained in the temples. Devadasis of Jagannatha, Madurai, Srirangam and countless other temples kept alive traditional dance routines.

Devadasis of Jagannatha, Madurai, Srirangam and countless other temples kept alive traditional dance routines… the British Raj was the final nail in the coffin for the temple dancers of India”

Harried and harassed during Islamic rule, the British Raj was the final nail in the coffin for the temple dancers of India. Influenced by biblical tales of temple harlots and Sunday school warnings about worshipping idols, anglicised Victorian rulers of India were very sceptical about the religious merits of women working in the temple. Crazy western logic dictated that it was perfectly civilised for a woman to dance cheek-by-jowl with a total stranger but licentious for a woman to dance solo in a temple precinct. They outlawed the devadasi practice and killed off the last bit of formalised Indic dance.

In 1936 Mrs Rukmini Devi Arundale founded Kalakshetra to revive and reinvent the dying art of Indian dance. It was transformed into an acceptable art form by westernising its repertoire and sterilising its setting. Its music, poetry and forms of expression were made sufficiently neutral for it to be inoffensive to a western-educated audience. Starved of state, temple and private funds, other dance forms followed suit and a number of ‘recognised’ dance forms emerged with sufficiently antique, Indic-sounding names. Currently bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, odissi, manipuri, mohiniattam, kathakali, sattriya and kathak are the most recognised forms of ‘classical’ Indian dance.

After sixty years of Congress rule, some members of the dance community are worried about a sea change in Indian politics. Some people are afraid of the rise of the BJP which they label as a pro-Hindu party. They fear its ‘Hindutva’ agenda will have a negative impact on the development and direction of Indian dance. Driven by a Nehruvian distaste for all things Hindu, they feel that if a pro-Hindu party came to power in the centre, it would be ultra-conservative, almost Talibanesque, and will drive arts, entertainment and dance into uncharted waters. 

“Even now, Indian dance is alive thanks to countless Hindus who encourage their children to practise it”

What they selectively forget is that among all rulers of India, it was the Hindu rulers who have always given generous support to the liberal arts and they gave much-needed support to kathak. Hindu kings have sponsored and nurtured various dance styles around India, often at great personal cost. Even now, Indian dance is alive thanks to countless Hindus who encourage their children to practise it. If anything, having a government with Hindutva at its core will help to revive interest in the traditional arts, including dance.

“If anything, having a government with Hindutva at its core will help revive interest in traditional arts, including dance”

Hindutva-baiters forget that India and its politicians have much bigger problems to solve than which dance style should be represented on which stage. Alongside the perennial concern with roti-kapda-aur-makaan (‘food, clothing and shelter’) for the masses, any new Indian government, even a Hindu-leaning one, will need to take charge of rampant inflation, chronic corruption, lack of sufficient educational institutions, inadequate infrastructure, etc. Dance and music will be the least of its priorities. Maybe it’s not the Hindutva that these commentators fear but the loss of selective government patronage they have managed to secure with successive Congress governments. 

If the aggressive attack of Islam, condescending censorship of Christianity and selective secularism of socialist Congress haven’t killed off Indian dance, I doubt that the benign support of Hindutva will do it any harm.



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