Dance in India, is rooted in age-old tradition. This vast sub-continent has given birth to varied forms of dancing, each shaped by the influences of a particular period and environment. These pristine forms have been preserved through the centuries, to become a part of our present culture, a living heritage which is both our pride and delight.
Nurtured in temples, princely courts or villages, dance has moved into the auditorium of today, bringing pleasure to many more people, in far-flung regions. It is now possible to appreciate the lyrical grace of the Manipuri dance of North-Eastern India in, say, Gujarat. This dance-form arising out of Krishna-bhakti, is sinuous in its movements and romantic in its concept, celebrating a divine theme which is meaningful to people all over the country. Similarly, the sophistry of Kathak, which flowered at the courts of the Mughal princes with its accelerated tempo, intricate foot-movements, and subtle facial expressions, evokes a resplendent past common to us all.
The abundant largesse of dance in South India, from the Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, to the Kathakali dance-drama of Kerala, to the Kuchipudi of Andhra, has become part of the melting-pot of culture enriching the life of any Indian today. For, to witness the strength and vigour of Kathakali as it enacts episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, is an education in itself. The extremely stylised gestures, the elaborate make-up, the masks and the splendid costumes of these all-male dancers, recreates an incomparable sense of pageantry. Bharatanatyam, the temple-maiden's dance of devotion, has a classic quality which is as daunting as it is beautiful. The rigorous precision of foot and hand movements, the eloquent range of expression depicted through eyes and mouth, and the total linear consonance of body is exacting and exciting in its perfection.
Bharata's 'Natya Sastra' is the Bible of Indian aestheticians. It says that the Creator (Brahma) created dance to give joy in life to the gods who found their cosmic functions to be heavy and dreary. 'Bharatarmada' and 'Abhinaya Darpana' are other important classical works on the Indian art of dance. Kalidasa's drama Malavikagnimitra, Vishnu Dharmothrara and Agni Purana throws much light on the art. Other important Sanskrit works are Dhananjaya's Dasa Roopaka, Sargadava's Sangita Ratnakara, Thulajaji's Sangita Saramitra, Bala Ramavarma's Bala Bharata, Haripala Deva's Sangita Sudhakara, Veda Suri's Sangita Makaranda, Rasamanjari etc. Tamil works on dance are Bharata Senapatheeyam, Bharata Siddhanta, Bharata Sangraha and Mahabharata Choodamani. In the famous Tamil epic Silappadikaram , there is a reference to eleven varities of dance (alliyam, kudai, kudam etc). It refers to 24 kinds of abhinayam.
The Heritage Of Devadasi Dance
The Devadasi dance tradition which developed through the temple Danseuses is an important type among the dance patterns of India. Bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu, Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh, Odissi in Orissa and Mohiniyattam in Kerala took shape in the tradition of Devadasi dance. These dance forms grew and developed a classical status.
In the Puranas, there are references that a custom of dedicating maidens to the deity in temples was prevalent in India from very early times. They later came to be known as 'Devadasis'. They were in charge of the music and dance aspects of temple rituals. In India, the dancing and singing of Devadasis was an integral part of temple worship. They were attached to temples in various parts of India, like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Mysore, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Orissa and Kashmir. It was a common custom in all places that maidens under went a symbolic marriage with the deity before she became a Devadasi. In Kerala, it was called 'Penkettu'.
The Saiva section of Hinduism fancied the Devadasi custom more than the others. The 'Shiva Purana' lays down that when Siva temples are built and endowments made for the conduct of the daily rituals, the gift of damsels well versed in dance and song should be made to the temple. History records the fact when in the 9th century A.D. Raja Raja Chola built the Brahadesvara temple in Tanjore he gifted four hundred Devadasis to the temple.
Dance was an important factor in the worship of Siva. He was known as 'Nataraja'. The 1st items in 'Bharatanatyam' called Alarippu and in Mohiniyattam known as colkettu are considered to be dance patterns sacred to Lord Shiva. There is a sloha in praise of Siva towards the end of the text used for colkettu in Mohiniyattam.
Devadasis in Kerala are to be found in the Manipravala compositions of the 1st half of the 13th century and later literacy works. Famous dances like Unniyacci, Unniyati, Unniccirutevi and others are described therein as expert exponents of the Devadasi art, attached to Siva temples and residing in their precincts. Most of the stone inscriptions containing references to Devadasis in Kerala, have been discovered from Siva temples. Saiva form of religion has an antiquity of about 4000 years.
Though in the beginning the Devadasi institution was confined to Siva worship, as times passed other forms of relegion also adopted the Devadasi tradition. By about the 1st century B.C, the Devadasi system had found a place in Buddha, Jama and Hindu temples. Various references in ancient literature gives us an idea of the Devadasi tradition and their dance performances. In Kautilya's Arthasastra (considered to be written in the 3rd century B.C) there are references to Devadasis and their training in dance. In 'Mricchaghatiham' a Sanskrit drama supposed to have been written by 'Sudraka' in the 2nd century, the heroine B.C Vasantasena is introduced as a good danseuse. The original 'Katha-Sarit-Sagara' (the ocean of story) written in Paisaci language is deemed to have been composed before the birth of Christ. Though original is lost, its Sanskrit translations are available. In the story entitled 'Alajala', a dancing girl 'Sundari' who performed in temples is mentioned. The earliest and the greatest Tamil epic poems, 'Cilappatikaram' and 'Manimekhalai' are the main sources of information about the life of the danseuses of Tamil Nadu and Kerala of that age and their special styles of dancing.
In the course of time, separate subsects of Devadasis came into being. The duties of Devadasis included dancing as well as cleaning the temples, providing flowers and other items needed for the conduct of the daily propitiations in the temple, cleaning the rice and the articles of offerings to the deity to help the work of the priests. In addition, they were called upon to perform dances in the King's court and serve the palace in general. This variety in their work pattern gave rise to various types with separate distinctive names.
The Devadasis known as 'Basavis' in Karnataka, are of 4 types. Those who danced in temples were considered the most prestigious and they belonged to the highest class. The Maledavaru indicated the section which took part in dance recitals in marriages and other festivals, while the Maleyavaru prepared garlands of flowers etc. for the temple and the Subyavaru were plain prostitutes. In a village in Karnataka called 'Basaruru', Devadasis can still be found. The common word to denote Siva devotes is 'Basavas'.
In Tamil Nadu, those who danced in Siva temples were called Devadasis, those who performed dance recitals in the Kings court were called Rajadasis, and those who gave dance performances in festivals elsewhere came to be known as Svadasis.
In Andhra, there were 3 types of Devadasis. The genuine devadasis who performed in temples, those who danced in the court of Kings came to be known as 'Rajanarttaki'.
In Kerala, the Devadasis had a highly respected place in society. This is made clear from the ancient poetic compositions of Kerala. Devadasis like 'Chandotravam' and 'Sukhasanderam. Kulasekhara Perumal, the ruler of Kerala in the 9th century A.D dedicated his own daughter to the Srirangam temple. So it was not uncommon for maidens from royal or even Brahmin families to become Devadasis. Kerala history has many examples of beautiful and attractive ladies of Devadasi sect being accepted as consorts by kings. It is said that Devadasis, Kandiyiu Teviticci Unni, Cherukarakkuttatti and others had been queens. Uttara Chandrika, the heroine of the 'Manipravala Kavyam' of that name belonged to the Chirava royal family.