From the Book:
HISTORY AND MYTH
History tells us that several centuries before the birth of Christ, India's art forms of dance, music and theatre were already highly developed. There was a glorious period, for instance, during the rule of the Chola dynasty in South India-rightly called the 'Golden Age', when all the arts flourished. Whether it was good governance at the village level, or the encouragement given to the living arts and sculpture, or the building of great temples-it all happened during the Chola period. The exquisite bronze statues of Nataraja and other deities that you see in museums are from that period. Yet, the dance we see on stage today has a history of only fifty to eighty years! And several events happened before these became known as artistic treasures around the world.
When the British ruled our country, the temple was the centre of activity in a village and was for long, the only common place where the village community could meet. There were no halls, clubs or cinema theatres, as we have now. At this time, dancers performed in the temple lands and were employed by the temple. She performed on all festive occasions and had to be present for the daily rituals of the Lord. She was paid from temple funds and food grains for the dancers and their families came fro temple lands. The community of musicians and dancers was a poor one. They were also what community of musicians and dancers was a poor one. They were also what you might call 'schedule castes'. Perhaps in order to protect these families, there was a custom prevalent of her marrying the deity of the temple! This gave her dignity and payment for her work. As such, she was called a 'deva-daasi' or servant of the God. This custom allowed her to come into the inner sanctum of the temple and to serve the deity regularly.
However, this custom was not to last long. The British who ruled us, were suspicious of our many customs and beliefs. They decided to ban all activities centred on the temple. On the other hand, our own leaders who were fighting for India's freedom felt that the custom of marrying girls to the deity needed to be abolished. This custom they felt, exploited young girls. And so, with one sweep of 'reform', an entire community of artists lost their livelihood. For by abolishing the deva-daasi system, their position in the village society was also dissolved. The community had no work, for where could they practice their art with such dignity and reverence?
THE THEORY OF INDIAN DANCE
The entire universe is Shiva's stage! The vigor of his dance makes the constellations move. Dance in India is said to have originated in Lord Shiva. When he dances he is called Nataraja -the Lord of Dance. It is said that when Shiva danced, the gods were delighted. They gathered around him and each of them offered to play an instrument or sing for his dance. Goddess Saraswathi, the Goddess of Learning and Arts, played the Veena. Lord Indra, God of the Heavens, played the flute. Brahma, the Creator, played the cymbals. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, sang for him and Vishnu, the Protector, played the mridanga. The heavenly musicians and dancers, sages and other deities all came to watch Shiva and were awe-struck. The dance was joyous and was called the 'ananda tandava'. When Shiva later performed, it was in great anger at the burning grounds. He is then known as Bhairava and the dance is called the 'roudra tandava'.
While Shiva danced the 'tandava', Parvathi performed the 'lasya'. These are the male and female aspects of Indian dance. The tandava is vigorous, energetic and bold. The lasya is graceful, gentle and feminine.
It is said that Brahma, the Creator, was disturbed by the turmoil that existed on earth. People were not happy. The Brahmins had kept the knowledge of the Vedas a closely guarded secret. They were exploiting the other communities. Brahma decided to remedy the situation. A dramatic and visual presentation of the texts would make it interesting even for uneducated, simple people. Soon, they became aware of the lessons contained in the holy scriptures. He taught this art of 'natya' or drama, to a sage called Bharata. Bharata taught this wonderful art to his ganas or attendants and they performed it in front of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva was so happy to see their dramatic performance, that he taught them his own vigorous dance, called tandava. Bharata then wrote a long thesis on the art of dance, drama and music, which is called the 'Natya-shastra'. This shastra is a 'Bible' of information for dancers, musicians and actors on the method of performance on stage.
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