Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
Dance as ritual
Brahma, the Supreme Creator, according to the Natya Sastra, took recitation from the Rig Veda, the song from the Sama Veda, the Abhinayas - the histrionics from the Yajur Veda, and Rasa - the sentiments from the Atharva Veda and created the fifth Veda - the Natya Veda for the benefit of all varnas. As this Veda - the science of Natya - was too complex for ordinary mortals, Brahma approached sage Bharata Muni who accepted the task and with the inspiration of Nataraja the cosmic dancer, simplified the Nat ya Veda and gave it to all mortals as the Natya Sastra.
Much can be said about this theory of the divine creation of natya and of the other mythological stories that trace the origin of dance to Shiva's cosmic dance. However, it is beyond dispute that this close connection to mythology, religion and philosoph y vested the performing arts in India with a mystical quality and raised it from a pure science to a form of religious oblation to the gods.
Indeed from time immemorial the performing arts in India have been a form of religious expression, an expression of spiritual energy in worldly terms. To the seers of the Vedic period it was another form of yagna, and priests often assumed the roles of g ods to recreate the story of cosmic creation. Largely ritualistic, these performances combined the spectacular with the mundane, the spiritual with the secular.
This blend of religion with Natya in its broad aspects - dance, drama and music - has continued to exist through the centuries. Temples too reiterated this connection by actively playing the role of patrons in the development of the performing arts. Scholars however claim that this symbiosis between art and religion was a later development and was not so dominant during the post-puranic and the Sangam age of South India. They cite the existence and even domination of secular dance and music before t he 6th century. Undeniably however the bhakthi movement of the south at the turn of the 6th century brought art and religion closer. As the Saivite saints, the Nayanars and the Vaishnavite saints, the Alwars, poured their hearts out to their gods in musi cal ecstasy, they raised the arts to a high level of spirituality.
Koil Olugu - the records of the Srirangam temple gives details of how the Divya Prabandam of the Alwars was revealed to Nathamuni in a dream. Fearing that it might be lost again Nathamuni set it to music, created the necessary mudras and gestures and had it enacted for 30 days in the month of Margazhi (December 16 to January 15). The Araiyar Seva as it is referred to is still part of the rituals of the Srirangam temple and is a perfect example of the strong link between the temple and the performing art s.
The Araiyars are hereditary families in the service of the temple and the special dress they wear, especially their headgear, is supposed to have been given personally by the pleased deity of the temple.
Indeed from the Seventh Century, temples vied with courts in their splendour as huge grants came their way. Arts became a part of the 64 offerings of the Shodasopacharas to the deity. As temples took on a courtly mien, Rajopachara as an integral part of worship became the order. Agamic literature grew not just to incorporate dance and music but to go into details on the raga to be played and dance numbers to be incorporated.
Even as Agamic literature grew, so did the institution of the devadasis - the temple dancing girls. In keeping with these developments later treatises on dance included particulars on temple dances on special occasions and ordinary. Composers and musicia ns like Muthuswamy Dikshitar got involved with organising temple rituals and festivals. The commitment of Pandya. Chola and Vijayanagar rulers to the temple also helped in this transformation of a simple place of worship into a vast establishment caterin g to the cultural needs of the community.
Visual illustrations of dance and music were carved on temple walls and huge halls or Natya mandapams as they were called built for performances. The temples really became centres for theatrical presentations and in the process made available to a huge b ody of its devotees the aesthetic pleasure of watching fine dramatic presentations for free. The ancient belief that a god is most pleased by dramatic presentations was in many ways responsible for this. Almost from the time drama was in a ritualistic stage it formed part of worship, a fact confirmed by India's ancient literary traditions. Organ ising a samaj or festive gathering in a temple in honour of the presiding deity was a long-standing custom all over India. And in this festive gathering it was customary to present a dramatic presentation. Even today the organising of dance, drama and music to invoke and appease the deities is part of the Shiva Sakthi cult in the contiguous States of Bihar and Orissa. In Seraikela, in Bihar and Mayurbhanj in Orissa - home of the Chaau dance, the ritual of the Chaitra Parva, in mid-April uses art for the religious ardour of the people. One sees elements of the same in the ritual dances of Dakshina and Uttara Karnataka where Bhutas and Theyyas respectively represent lesser gods worshipped by a rural communi ty. Tribal priests and oracles, dressed in colourful costumes take on the roles of gods in a state of identification to the deity. These are unique theatrical performances in which the priest is the chief performer and organiser as well. In fact references are found to the practices of staging plays in the natyashalas of temples from the Fourth Century B.C.. The Nat mandirs of Konarak temple and the Modhera sun temple are ample proof of these temple plays that are referred to as Preshan.
The Ankiya Nat, the one act play tradition of Assam started by the Vaishnava poet Shankaradeva continues this Preshanka tradition as do the Krishna Leela plays of North India and the dance dramas of the Bhagavathars in Kuchipudi in Andhra and Melattur in Thanjavur district. In Kuchipudi a small village of Andhra, the Bhagavathars, hereditary Brahmin dancers stage mythological plays through the night in open-air theatres. In similar tradition is the Bhagavata. Mela Natya of Melattur in Thanjavur district . While originally these were performed within the temple courtyard organisational problems have brought them outside. However they are performed in front of the Uthsava Murthy and the deity is addressed as the chief audience. While Gita Govindam is one of the piece de resistance of the Kuchipudi Bhagavathars, the Melattur Bhagavatha Mela is based on the beautiful compositions of Venkataswami Shastrigal. However the only surviving form of the ancient Sanskrit drama is the Koodiyattam of Kerala. This uni que temple art, that is more than a thousand years old, was kept alive in the temple theatres of Kerala by members of the Chakyar and Nambiar communities. It also most closely follows the injunctions of the Natya Shastras about performances. Till recentl y this art form was confined to the temple precincts but slowly from the Sixties, performances have been held outside the vicinity of the temple.
For it is this possibility of being accessible to a larger audience that can keep alive not just Koodiyattam but the entire Indian tradition of religious dance drama. Unfortunately very little of the once glorious art of the religious dance dramas is sti ll left and even what we see is but a pale image of a once virile art form. Most temples today are no longer the centre of community life and their role as patrons of art has faded away. It is time to accept this, even as we have to accept that it is not the temple prakara alone that can sustain the spiritual nature of the perfo rmance. What is ultimately needed is the spiritual dedication of the actor-dancer and the identification of the audience with the spiritual nuances.
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