History of Indian dance form can be traced to pre Vedic period i.e. Indus Valley Civilization. It is revealed from a dancing figurine found in the course of excavations at Mohan Jodaro and Harappa, that dance had important place in the social life of the people of those times and they were quite well versed in this art.
Indian people had knowledge of music and dance even during 5000-6000 BC, which is acknowledged by famous historian Fedis also.
The art of dance as practised by Dravids was also of high order and from their life we learn of richness of ‘homogeneity’, ‘vision’ and ‘beauty of innerself’. Dravid women were proficient in dancing and beautiful.
1. Indian dances during Vedic period : During the Vedic age, Indian Dance took a new turn. It was enriched with new emotions and variety of presentation. In the Vedas, which belonged to this age, the word ‘Nritya’ has been mentioned at various places. It is also revealed that the Rishis (Sages-learned men) of this age were well aware of the art of dancing. According to Prof. Alag Retorn, artists of all three types i.e. singers, dancers and instrument players were present during this age. Women dancers used to participate without any hesitation in public performances of music as singers, dancers and instrument players and enjoyed high status in the society. In Brahmins, Upanishads and other Vedic scriptures of this age, Nritya has been described vividly.
We thus see that during Vedic Age, dance was an important social activity. In all festivals and functions, Nritya was an essential performance and was viewed highly.
2. Nritya during Aryan Period : Aryans linked Nritya to Yoga, made it simple to learn and gave it a spiritual meaning. They used practice of dance to purify and strengthen their mental state and capabilities. Aryans believed that dance was a powerful medium for purifying the soul and taking it out of darkness and evil thoughts. They elevated their state of mind through practice of dance.
During this period, Natya Nritya (dance drama) Geet Nritya (dance and song) Roop Nritya (abhinaya and dance) Bhav Nritya (emoting through dance) were developed which enriched and elevated the level and content of dance. Aryans laid great importance on purity and considered purity as beauty. Beauty was however, considered to be mother of Nritya. Nritya was considered as an expression of beauty.
3. Nritya during the period of Ramayana : Nritya was fully developed during the period of Ramayana. It is known from the Valmiki Ramayana that people belonging to both high as well as lower strata of society in this period were skilled in all the three arts of music i.e. singing, dancing and instrument playing. Amsagie has written in his book that musical excellence of the order, the glimpse of which was found in the Ramayana age, was not found in the prior periods.
Rama was also skilled in music, playing of instruments and painting. Ravana, the king of Lanka also used to worship Lord Shiva with song and dance and his wife Mandodari and other women of the palace were proficient in all types of arts.
It can thus be concluded that various types of arts including singing and dancing attained significant progress and improvement during this age.
4. Nritya during the period of Mahabharata: During the Ramayana period, we find that all classes of society had developed interest in Nritya but the art of dancing i.e. Nritya got fully developed during the Mahabharata period. During this period, the number of dancers was very large.
Krishna is the ‘sutradhar’ (around whom the entire Mahabharata developed) and he was the master of the art of dancing. He performed ‘Raas Nritya’ with Gopis (village women) and used to leave everyone spellbound. The great grandson of Krishna, Pradyumna and his wife Usha learnt ‘Lasya’ style of dancing from Goddess Parvati (wife of Lord Shiva) and then propogated it in Dwarika. Similarly, Arjuna learnt the art of dancing from Urvashi, a nymph from heaven and during the period of his banishment when Pandavas were required to live incognito, he transformed himself as Brihnnala, the Eunuch and taught the art of dancing to Uttara, the daughter of King Virat. Thus it can be seen that even the main characters of Mahabharata were quite skilled in the art of dancing.
5. Nritya during Bauddha period: The great war of Mahabharata led to widespread destruction. The ordinary people were scared and the art suffered gradual decline. Buddha, the knowledgeable one, in about2500 BC, preached religious and social reforms and showed the way to Nirvana (relevation) to people.
Buddha encouraged the male as well as female dancers to participate in social functions and when women went for darshan of Buddha, they praised him through the medium of singing and dancing. The art was also used for propogating Buddhism and bringing it closer to common folk.
Lord Buddha, also known as Siddharth in his early life was skilled in various types of arts and artists enjoyed a status in the society.’ Amrapali’ was the famous danseuse of Buddha period that ultimately became his disciple and renounced the world but this reveals that the art of dance developed significantly during this period.
6. Nritya during 3rd Century A.D.: In the closing stages of 3rd Century A.D., the art of dancing underwent revolutionary transformation. This was the period of ‘Nagas’. It was during this age that Muni Bharat, the great master of Music, created ‘Natyashastra’ which is still available.
The peculiarity of this age is that the Naga people used music and dance in the process of worshipping and they raised the art of dance as also other arts beyond the level of sensuality. They built Rangshalas (auditoriums and theatres) at various places to facilitate performances. In this age, expression of bhavas (emotions) through mudras was considered superior.
7. Nritya during 4th Century A.D.: Chandra Gupta II who also assumed the title of Vikramaditya, was son of Emperor Samudra Gupta and ascended the throne in the year 375 AD. During his reign considerable progress was made towards further development of fine arts like music, dance and painting. Emperor Samudra Gupta had established a strong and stable kingdom and due to advancement made by the society in various spheres of life, Gupta period has been referred as the Golden period of Indian history.
In his book “The Essence of Indian Music”, Shri BullDog Ipsa has mentioned “I consider the Gupta period as the Golden period of music only because during this period even the ordinary people had such high level of understanding of literature and fine arts which is not found even today in people who are highly educated and belong to the progressive class.”
During Gupta period, Indian music and dance crossed the frontiers and became popular in foreign countries. From the idols and paintings of this age, it can be summarized that the artists of this period had elevated dance to a form of devotion and they emoted each sentiment in the most beautiful and presentable manner.
The great poet and playwright Kalidasa belonged to this period and his plays prove that drama, dances and music were evolved and established in their classical form. Dances were developed through plays and many famous dancers such as Malavika of Malavikagnimitram and Urvashi, main character of ‘Vikramourvashiyam’ a play by Kalidasa belonged to this period.
8. Dance during Rajput period: Rajput period extended from 687 AD to 1000 AD. During this period, art forms were not practised by masses but became a profession by personal choice. Many of Idols, sculptures, paintings were destroyed by invaders. According to many experts, the tradition of ‘Gharanedari’ took roots during this period as artist started confining their skills to themselves. An author by the name of Ajmat has recorded in his diary that “The Rajput kings of those times loved music with the same intensity as they were brave.” Many musicians found shelter in the courts of the kings and the art progressed under the protection of the kings. Women used to participate in the social festivals during this period.
9. Dance during Moghul period: The period beginning from the reign of Emperor Akbar and upto the end of the rule by Emperor Shahjahen is known as ‘Later Middle Age’. Both the emperors were lover of fine arts. The Dhrupad and Dhamar styles of singing were born during this period and much advancement was made in dance form. It was during this age, that changes were ushered into costume of Kathak but the spirituality of Vedic age began to vanish gradually.
To derive pleasure and entertainment from dance, Bhavas were depicted in a relatively cheap style and gradually dance came to be associated with prostitutes. The Lord was displaced by the King and renowned artistes were made to dance with a cup of wine in their hands for the enjoyment and pleasure of the kings.
In other provinces of India, various styles of dances were, however, developed during this period. In south India, the environment for dancing continued to be classical and spiritual as it was not affected by Muslim culture. The kings in south India established dance schools and bequeathed villages to dance teachers. Various dance Mudras were sculptured on the pillars of the dance schools.
During the period belonging to Vijaynagar Kingdom, Krishnadev Rai had set up a ‘Ganika Nagar’ for the dancers. The dancers used to live here as Devdasis. During this period ‘Bharatnatyam’, ‘Kathakali’, ‘Kuchipudi’ and ‘Yakshagan’ were in full bloom along with Kathak. Around the end of Moghul period, the Nawabi reign came into being in Oudh and the ‘Lucknow Gharana” of Kathak was founded.
10. Dance during European period: The advent of the European races into India resulted into an appreciable influence of Western culture on Indian Culture. Since they had brought rich cultural traditions with them, this age can also be referred as ‘Renessaince of Cultural Consciousness’ as Europeans in their spare time used to listen and watch Indian music and dance and this provided an opportunity for Indian dance and music to evolve on the international scene.
It was during this age that the music began to be taught through institutional medium due to efforts made by Pt. Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande and Pt. Vishnu Digamber Paluskar, who set up music institutions in various provinces of the country.
In this age, literature concerning Indian music was written and many Indians as well as European scholars got attracted towards Indian music and culture and wrote books of high quality.
This age also saw emergence of artists of international repute, notable among them were Gopinath, Reeta Devi, Ragini Devi, Shiv Shankaran Namboodari, Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundel, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Smt. Bela Saraswati, Sri Ram Gopal and Sri Uday Shankar who performed overseas and made Indian classical music and dance internationally recognized. We may thus conclude that during European age, Indian dance was revitalized.
11. Indian Dances post Independence: The country shed the yoke of slavery on 15th August 1947, which led to popular awakening in various spheres including fine arts. As a result Indian dances became popular among masses. In major cites of the country, institutes dedicated to the teaching of dances were set up and dance was introduced as a subject in the schools and universities.
In the post independence period, there have been considerable changes in Indian classical dance styles in regard to presentation, makeup, dress, use of musical instruments, light and sound. Many books have been written in Hindi, English and other languages on Indian dances.
In the year 1954, Sangeet Natak academy was set up by the Central Government, which has made considerable contribution towards preservation and development of traditions concerning music, dance and drama. The academy organizes many programmes, provides financial aid to artists and honours them as well. Now Indian artists go abroad to perform.
Post independence, Indian dances have entered the homes of the common man and the art has achieved a status and recognition in the society. People belonging to all classes feel a sense of pride in learning classical dance.
Our Government has played an active role in encouraging classical dances and as a result, its future appears quite bright.