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  Life   Art  26 Jun 2018  Dance, music through the ages

Dance, music through the ages

Published : Jun 26, 2018, 1:39 am IST
Updated : Jun 26, 2018, 1:39 am IST

During the later Mughal period, singers and dancers with lavish royal patronage began to wield great influence in the court.

 A nautch girl sitting at the feet of two memsahibs and singing by SC Belnos c.1820
  A nautch girl sitting at the feet of two memsahibs and singing by SC Belnos c.1820

Dance and music, according to Indian tradition, are divine creation. The story goes that one day, Indra, lord of the firmament and some other gods grew bored and implored Lord Brahma, the creator, to find them a pastime that could be both seen and heard.  So Brahma inspired the sage Bharata to compile the Natya Shastra, the sacred treatise on dance and music.  While codifying the dance art, Bharata realised that the graceful lasya dance could be performed only by women. 

He informed Brahma about his problem, whereupon the supreme Lord created the Apsaras, the first performing women artistes, to entertain the gods.  Poets have composed songs extolling the beauty of Apsaras and how they delighted the gods as they danced merrily to the music of Gandharvas, the mythical divine singers. Mythological stories refer to Apsaras being commissioned by Lord Indra to seduce the sages whose austere penance caused tremors in Heaven.

Thus it was that the great sage, Vishwamitra, was captivated by Maneka’s charms that led tothe birth of Shakuntla, the heroine of Kalidasa’s famous drama by that name.

Urvashi, peer among the Apsaras, who is said to have been born on earth, imparted divine knowledge of dance and music to human beings.  Devadasis, as temple dancers, were the first recipients of this art, and over the centuries, their devotional dances became an essential part of the temple service.  Devadasi system was prevalent all over India, which is evident from glimpses of social and cultural life in the Mauryan period, provided by Kautilya.  As time passed, the exchange of devadasis between the temple and the court became an established practice.

In ancient India there were also Ganikas, accomplished in 64 kalas (arts) which included dancing and singing.  Known for their physical charm, they entertained the rich and famous who vied with each other to win their favours. To be seen with a Ganika was considered a status symbol. The encounter between the Ganika and the ascetic is stock-motif in Sanskrit literature. In the course of time, dancing grew more and more popular and every king and chieftain had his own troupe of professional artists accomplished in dance and music.

With the advent of Islam, the Devadasi institution disintegrated in north India but it continued to flourish in the South. For the Mughal rulers, dancing was an essential component of royal entertainment and they brought to India Persian dancing girls known as Damnis, Lolonis, horokenis and Hentsinis with their own distinctive style of dancing.  The interaction of Persian dancing style with that of the traditional Hindu form brought a glorious fusion of Hindu-Muslim arts and a new kind of alloyed dance form was evolved, popularly known as “Kathak”.  The wealth and prosperity of the Mughals encouraged the cultivation of all art forms and with royal patronage. “Kathak” came to be regarded as a sophisticated form of entertainment.  The high-class dancing girls were conferred the title of Kanchanis (gilded) by Akbar.  

During the later Mughal period, singers and dancers with lavish royal patronage began to wield great influence in the court. Jahandar Shah married the famous dancing girl, Lal Kunwar and gave her the status of a queen with the title of Imtiaz Mahal (Chosen One of the Palace).  She came to be known as the “Dancing Empress” of India.  Another colourful ruler, Mohammad Shah Rangila, also married a dancing girl, Uttambai, known as Qudsia Begum.  After the decline of Mughal power, Delhi lost its former glory and the scene shifted to Lucknow, the seat of Oudh Nawabs, where the leading dancing girls found a new home.  Repositories of art, culture and refinement, they occupied a respectable position in society.  Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh, whose reign is remembered as the golden age of music and dance, went to the extent of establishing an institution called the Parikhana (fairy-house) where young girls were taught dance and music.

Meanwhile, in South India, the institution of devadasis had continued but after the decline of kingdoms and gradual impoverishment of the great temples, devadasis were forced to seek patronage of Indian princes and landlords. Those who could not secure regular employment with them travelled around in search of other patrons. Under the sahibs’ patronage, the classical dance forms of Kathak in north India and Dassi-Attam in south India were given the common appellation of Nautch and the performing artist in her new incarnation emerged as the Nautch girl – delicate in her person, soft in her features, perfect in form – who captivated the hearts of the English sahibs by her song and dance and enthralled the more sophisticated among them by her conversation and wit.

 A nautch girl performing on a platform on the tusk of an elephent, Kotah early 19th centuryA nautch girl performing on a platform on the tusk of an elephent, Kotah early 19th century

The nautch girl and their earlier counterparts, the ganikas, devadasis and nartakis belonged to a class of professional artists who were accomplished singers and dancers and also well-versed in literature. They provided stimulating company and the elite usually sent their sons to their salons to learn refined manners and social etiquette. The Nautch girl institution dominated the entertainment scene until the end of the nineteenth century when its decline began in the wake of an anti-nautch campaign mounted by the missionaries and the Western-educated Indian social reformers. This moral censorship dealt a deathblow to the traditional Indian dance art nurtured and preserved by these women artists through the ages. The reformers succeeded in denigrating the dancing profession and its practitioners.  The great teachers and disciples of classical arts of dance and music were forced to find other avenues for a living.

However, while nautch and its exponents – the nautch girls carrying different appellations as Baijis, tawaifs, devadasis and naikins – were languishing.  Indian classical dance witnessed a revival.  In the twenties and thirties of the 20th century some dancers from abroad, including the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova from Russia and Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn from the United States, contributed to this awakening in no small measure.  Among the Indian pioneers of revival were Gurudev Tagore, Uday Shankar, Menaka from north India and E. Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi and Ragini Devi from South India.  They sought to make their compatriots aware of the ancient spiritual glory of Indian dance.  Both dance and music were thus liberated from the yoke of the social stigma attached to them and acquired a new dignity.  The surviving great masters and gurus of dance art all over the country were sought after and they began teaching dance and music to young educated girls from respectable families.

The post-independence period has witnessed a cultural renaissance.  The Kathak dance form of north India has graduated to ballet in the hands of some contemporary exponents while Dassi Attam or Sadir-Nautch of South India has reappeared in its incarnation of Bharatnatyam, an appellation pertinent to any dance form based on the principles enunciated in Bharat’s Natya Shastra.  There is a welcome revival of other traditional dance forms too from different regions of India.  The state, through radio and television, has emerged as the leading patron of the performing arts. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations plays a leading role in introducing Indian dance and music to the audiences in different parts of the world.  Several organisations and some industrial houses are also providing generous patronage to promote upcoming artists. Thus the future of India’s performing arts seems bright in the new millennium.

The writer is an author best known for Lahore: A Sentimental Journey

Tags: kathak, qudsia begum, natya shastra