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Classical Dance of India--An Overview

Indian classical dancer Parimal Phadke explains some of the subtleties of this ancient art.

India is a country of diverse cultures, traditions and languages, and this diversity is very much evident in its dance. India can boast of some six major classical dance styles. It becomes a matter of intrigue as to how so many styles evolved within a period of 22 centuries. But we can definitely link them in some way to the dance that existed during the 2nd century BC with the help of a treatise called "Natyashastra." "Natyashastra" actually means the principles of dramaturgy. Then how does a treatise on drama contain invaluable information on dance and music? It was because ancient theatre in India was an amalgamation of all the performing arts. Thus, an actor or an actress also had to be an expert in dance and music.

This treatise lays down two aspects of dance that even today are considered canons of Indian Classical dance. 1)"Nritta," or pure dance.
2)"Nritya," or interpretative dance

"Nritta" or pure dance, is the movement of hands and feet on rhythm and speed. These movements do not convey any particular meaning, emotion or theme. Then what is the purpose of "Nritta"? It is to create a collage of rhythmic lines, forms and shapes. Why did I use the word "Rhythmic"? Indian music and dance is based on the concept of cyclic rhythm or tala. The simplest manner in which it can be explained is by the way of Time. Time can be divided into units called "minutes," and then their sub-units, "seconds." Similarly, tala or cyclic rhythm can be divided into units called "matra" and sub-units called "akshara." There are various types of tala or cyclic rhythms. The total number of units and sub-units they contain usually distinguishes them. Various rhythmic patterns are woven with the musical notes and structured rhythmic syllables. These are ultimately executed through Nritta hand and feet movements.

What do the rhythmic syllables signify? The ancient books on music give some specific syllables, which are nothing but instrumental sounds. The instruments have been divided into three types: 1) stringed instruments; 2) wind instruments; 3) percussion instruments. The sounds that emanate are spoken verbally and they constitute the rhythmic syllables.

While a dancer executes these movements, he has to keep an adequate balance between two elements: vigorous and gentle. To cite an example, in most of Indian classical dance styles, stamping of the feet is a common feature. A set of stamps should consist of both hard and soft ones. An imbalance will make the movements look either too harsh or too lifeless.

The second aspect is "Nritya," or interpretative dance. It acts an effective tool to exhibit the meaning of the song and convey the underlying emotion. The tools are the systematic gesture language and facial expressions. As we know, the actor in the ancient Indian theatre had to be well versed in the form of dance. It is quite natural that he must have a mastery over the gesture language.

The Natyashastra thus has a whole chapter devoted to hand gestures. It is just like the language used by the hearing impaired, but more stylized. The treatise lays down single handed and combined gestures to be used by the actor. It also lays down a separate category called dance gestures, which is to be used in pure dance (Nritta) by the actors. But later, as dance separated itself from theatre, the gesture language became, more dance-oriented though the basic types remained the same. Thus, today, most of the styles follow the 12th century treatise called the "Abhinaya Darpana," which means the mirror of gestures. It lists single- and double-handed gestures used for showing objects, actions, emotions, various standing and sitting postures, types of leaps, jumps and gaits, etc.

When it comes to extempore choreography, Nritya occupies an important place. To illustrate, if the dancer is dancing a love song, he is expected to explain the literal meaning of those lyrics--and then comes the real test of imagination: spinning out a story and making the audience enjoy various shades of that emotion through his or her story. Nritta doesn't have much room for on-the-spot choreography, but it does demonstrate a dancer's stamina and his or her skill over rhythm. In India, most classical dances evolved as temple art. Dance has been one of the chief forms of religious expression. It was also one of the mediums of worship. The dancer used to perform facing the idol of the God. That is the reason why Indian classical dance is a solo based art. It is only now that ballets or group dances are in vogue. But still, classical dance remains a solo performer's domain.

The performance has a specific structure that has been passed over by tradition. The combination of pure dance and interpretative dance in , varying degrees leads us to the creation of different dance items--which comprise the final picture of an Indian Classical dance performance.

Parimal Phadke has trained for 16 years in Indian Classical Dance, specifically in Bharat Natyam. He is currently working toward his Masters in Dance at Centre for Performing Arts, Univ. of Pune. He was recently honored with the national title "Singarmani," for excellence in dance. He seeks to rediscover the relevance of ancient classical theories of dance with contemporary and Indian Classical dance.


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