Asian Music and Dance

Sacred Music of the Stage

Bharata kula bhaagya kalike 
Bhaava rasaananda parina taakare 
Jagat eka mohana kale 
Jaya jaya rangaadidevate devi 
Victory to thee, divine goddess of the stage 
For thou art the good fortune of artistes 
The everlasting fount of joy and delight 
The one supreme enchantress of the world

This Sanskrit prayer addresses the Goddess of the stage – no, not Beyoncé, but Rangadevi – the divine being who presides over performers and performance space.

Say a Little Prayer

Most dancers and musicians have a pre-performance ritual. Some say ‘break a leg’, some do vocal warm-ups or stretches and others take some quiet time to centre themselves. Not so many spend the first moments of their performance invoking the gods. Though Indian performance art forms have firmly placed themselves in the contemporary psyche and artists have tailored the style or format to suit modern audiences, some traditions die hard. 

According to the ancient treatise on stage arts, the Natya Shastra, performance space is sacred. If art is a divine gift, then the place where it is performed is considered a representation of the temple. Often a small shrine is set up at the right side of the stage. Many traditional artists will still remove their shoes and touch the edge of the stage to their forehead in respect, and if the programme follows a standard format, it will usually begin with an invocatory piece. These usually invoke Goddess Saraswati – the goddess of arts and learning, or Lord Ganesha, who removes obstacles for the performer. Sometimes the particular art form has a patron deity – for instance, odissi dancers often begin with a dance dedicated to Lord Jagannath. In Qawwali music, artists begin with a hamd – a song in praise of Allah, followed by a nat, dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad.

A Sacred Legacy

Centuries ago, classical Indian art forms were developed in their highest degree to be performed for the deity in the temple. Like artists given patronage by the church in medieval Europe, the wealthy temples were often sources of spiritual and material shelter for artists. Devadasis were engaged to dance before the deity every day, and many prominent musicians and composers of the time lived similarly dedicated lives, focusing their entire artistic output on glorifying God. This resulted in a vast repertoire of dance and music that explores an ocean of devotional themes and stories from the Bhagavata Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana. 

It could be argued that the religious content of these pieces is often viewed as disconnected and irrelevant for young, often agnostic performers today. Interviewed in the New Sunday Express, Bombay Jayashri described her response to a woman who felt moved by the devotion in her singing of a Krishna bhajan. “I said no. I wasn’t thinking of Krishna. I was thinking about Yaman Kalyani, about the way the raga is styled in the composition, about the way I was presenting it. The song may be about the composer’s love for Krishna, but we are not so emotional about Krishna. My feeling, my love is for the raga, not for Krishna.” 

Still, believer or not, the creative brilliance of the old compositions stands the test of time. The following selection illustrates the breadth of styles of sacred music to be found on the South Asian stage. Some are straight artistic renderings of sacred poetry, while others like the Kalinga Nartana Thillana and the Shiva Paran play with sacred words and artistic technique to create unique entertainment.

Sacred or Profane?

Some sacred music is less specific about the object of its worship. The ghazal tradition spread in South Asia from the twelfth century onwards, largely due to the influence of an increasing number of Muslim rulers, as well as prolific Sufi poets like Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi and Hafiz. The compositions tell of unattainable love – the pain of the experience and the simultaneous bliss of focused meditation of the Beloved. The pieces are very widely performed and often presented in a secular context, but the lyrics are ambiguous – does the singer address their human lover, or the Divine? Artists like the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have both popularised the form in a performance context while simultaneously being respected as preservers of a rich tradition. Despite this, many ghazal aficionados express frustration that the complex, spiritual form is increasingly viewed as a light classical afterthought. Perhaps it’s still open to interpretation. The following are two examples – one a modern interpretation of ghazal by popular singers Hariharan and Talvin Singh; the other by Abida Parveen, whose popularity and stage prowess rivals that of Nusrat. The examples here are from Urdu poets, but as the ghazal form has increased in popularity, composers have written in almost every South Asian language. 

The other form of music that interprets Sufi poetry is known as Qawwali. It deals with the same themes but is distinctive in its powerful, choral sound. It is usually led by a main vocalist around whom sit many other support singers who clap and respond on specific refrain phrases.

The previous examples illustrate music for dance accompaniment and music for solo performance. Sacred music also features in a powerfully integrated way in South Asian drama.

The musicality of modern-day Bollywood can be linked to the same in more ancient and folk theatre forms.

Kathakali makes full use of an onstage ensemble of vocalists and percussionists who vocalise the words and emotions of the dancers, provide drama-enhancing music, and play songs that narrate the epic stories through poetic verse. The instruments they play are distinctive to the form, including suddha madalam, chenda and edakka. In previous decades, Kathakali performances were commonly announced in a village by ringing bells and blowing conches in the early evening. The show could last the entire night – an experience designed to engage the viewer in the story so thoroughly that the performers become indistinguishable from the Gods.

A similar tradition exists in the Braj area of Uttar Pradesh, where during the month of Kartika, groups of young boys perform ‘Rasa Lila’. The rich, vast canon of Braj Bhasha songs about Lord Krishna are embedded within the scripts – handed down from generation to generation. As in Kathakali, the performance space becomes a temple, and the performers are considered to become vessels for Divine presence during their time on stage. Each evening culminates in an onstage puja ceremony where audience members come up to the stage to offer flowers at the feet of the Gods (the actors) and receive their blessings.

Finally, some sacred music of the stage is even further abstracted – rather than a specific deity being the subject of the composition, the personification of the raga or non-lyrical sounds like nom and tom are worshipped in a melodious meditation. It is said the original sound heard at the beginning of creation was the sacred syllable aum – this and other sounds feature in the music of dhrupad. This form was featured in the first part of the series, ‘Sacred Music of the Temple’, as it was traditionally performed only for God within the shrine, but has become popular as performed on stages worldwide also. 

Divine Arts – Heaven on Stage

In the Vedic text, the Brahma Samhita, Lord Brahma describes the heavenly realm as that place where ‘every word is a song, and every step is a dance’. It seems natural then, that though the stage is a platform to entertain on a worldly level, it is also a perfect place to explore the relationship between the soul and the Divine. In the last part of the series, we’ll look at how sacred music deeply informs contemporary artists and musicians, trying to understand the relevance of spirituality in an increasingly secular world.



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