Chapter 13. The Performing Arts and Multiculturalism in India – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


The Performing Arts and Multiculturalism in India

Mrinalini Sarabhai

May my motherland bearing folk, speaking different languages, holding different religious views, treat them all as residents of the same house, pour like a cow that never fails a thousand streams of knowledge to enrich me.

We could begin the history of the Indian subcontinent, which has nourished human aspirations and spiritual wisdom for more than 4,000 years, with those known in the ancient texts as the pitrayanis (who follow the path of fathers, lit. patrilineal). It is said that the enlightened among the pitrayanis came to be known as devayanis, treading the path of devas, or gods. The devayanis were the aryas, or noble men. The devayanis described their landmass as:

Uttaram yad Samudrasya

Himadre scaiva dakshinam

Varsham tad Bharatam nama

Bharati yatra santati

North of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is the land called Bharata. There dwell the descendants of Bharata.

Legends describe the Bharatas as kings on the banks of the River Sindhu. The Persians or the people living to the west of the Sindhu referred to the river as ‘Hindu’ while the Greeks called it Indus. The land of the river Indus came to be known as India, the popular name of the subcontinent of Bharatavarsa. The excavations carried out in the 1920s, which brought to light the Harappan civilization, established that there were well-developed cities in the Indus valley area around 4,000 years ago.

It must have taken several thousands of years for humankind to reach this level of civilization, which means that there must have been people in India, both in the north and the south, much before the Harappan civilization came into being. The climate and natural conditions of the subcontinent have always invited groups of people to settle down; the thriving civilizations on the valleys of the Nile in Egypt, on the Tigris-Euphrates delta in Mesopotamia, on the banks of Karun and Karkheh in western Persia, and at the valley of the Yellow River in China well over 6,000 years ago, all seem to suggest that India too had a settled population before the Harappan age.

It is with the coming of the Aryans, from c. 2,000–1,500 BCE, that we begin to get accounts of the cultural, religious and socio-economic life of the groups spread over northern India. The Rgveda, the earliest-known literary document of the Aryans, provides a wealth of information about the lives of these early Aryans, and Vedic and post-Vedic literature is surely the background of Indian history, philosophy, religion and social thought. It is from the Vedas that the guru-sisya parampara, which emphasized the importance of learning, was derived. Living in secluded asramas or gurukuls under the care of their gurus, amidst the seclusion of the forests and in communion with nature, students who came from far and wide were inculcated into a highly integrated approach to life.

The Vedas were followed by the Upanisads and the Aranyakas, both a part of the Vedanta literature. Vedantas explored new avenues of thought, were less ritualistic and more comphrehensive about the relationship of the human beings with the cosmos. The Chandogya Upanishad, which dates back to the sixth century BCE, discusses the meaning of human existence. The philosophical thought of the Vedantas were modified and added upon to become the basis of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion, which is now called Hinduism.

Among the Vedic and post-Vedic literature, the Samaveda, which contains the melodies of the hymns and chants used mostly in the Rgveda, is considered the origin of Indian music, and mentions for the first time its seven basic notes. This, then, was the foundation of the performing arts in India, generating millennia of thriving music, dance, drama and shadow play, which were adapted and given specific flavour by different regional, linguistic and cultural groups as the population in the subcontinent expanded. The cultural diversity of India as well as its basic unity are manifested in the Indian performing arts. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are believed to have been orally relayed for a long time, before achieving their current written form. The interpretation and performance of these epics by groups all over India, then as now, have been influential in promoting multiculturalism in the arts across the subcontinent. These stories were, and still are, a great unifying force.

All art, whether Indian or western, is a quest for perfection. Artistic creation in India was a source of pure pleasure, but it had a deeper meaning that was philosophical. In India, the spiritual meaning imbued each art and craft form with a deep sense of the Divine. From the earliest sculptures of Mohenjodaro to the golden age of the Guptas, forms of artistic expression that were not only intellectual but also purporting a divine revelation became the axes upon which Asian art based its identity. India has inspired the countries of the East, particularly South-east Asia, for millennia and this influence continues. It was in the eighth century CE that the monumental temples of Ellora, Mamallapuram and many others were built with an exuberance of beauty that is hardly matched anywhere else in the world.

The gods had come into their own in sculpture, painting and the performing arts. The wholeness of life was emphasized with its close association to nature. Stories told of the relationship of the human being with the universe. The forces of the elements were worshipped in exquisite poetry. The first movements in dance spoke of everyday living, and festivals celebrated the seasons and their fruitfulness each in its own particular setting. When the sage Bharata wrote his Natyasastra, dance had already become a comprehensive form, and the treatise was a culmination of the knowledge gathered through centuries of experience and practice. It was but natural that the temple, the focus of all cultural activity, became the home of dance and music. The songs of praise and longing expressed human aspiration. The traditional concept was the search for the greater self, the realization of the soul. The love of God, the mystery of the unknown, the ultimate transformation towards ultimate bliss, were the themes underlying the images of every artist and artisan. That oneness contained a myriad variation of creative beauty, each with a vocabulary of its own.

In all parts of the country, musicians, dancers, poets and storytellers performed in their own ways enhancing the richness of each style. A garden has many flowers that give fragrance to the earth. A forest has many trees that sustain the earth and purify the air. Each retains its identity, but cannot exist without the other.

Civilization is mirrored in the cultural patterns of a country. The classical arts make evident not merely their roots but also their development. Indian art has remained, through centuries, remarkably consistent in its consciousness of the relationship between man and God. Towards the attainment of a oneness in the totality of experience, certain norms (pramana) were structured to inspire and direct the artists. While sanctions were preconceived, the artists had complete liberty of spontaneous creativity (manodharma). Three factors were essential: practice (abhyasa), perseverance (sadhana), and the most important, an inner perception (antarchaksu). The great sage Valmiki sitting at the feet of Brahma, thought of the bird he had seen slain by a cruel hunter, leaving its mate lamenting: ‘What is the use of this world without a grain of mercy in it?’ And, from the depth of compassion came a verse, in poetic metre, a sloka, ‘Use this verse’, said the God Brahma, ‘to tell the story of Rama, and your songs will defeat time. The story will be revealed to you’. Thus, in his mind’s eye, the vision of Rama’s life was his to behold. A reality of perception, rediscovered in an imaginative world long before the incidents of the great epic Ramayana had taken place.

Life was dharma (righteousness) and every action, part of a universal spiritual image. Art was not separate from existence. It was living. This can be recognized from the artistry of every facet of craftsmanship where even the simple mud pots were fashioned with love and decorated with aesthetic taste. Each individual was seeking perfection and godliness through every expression. That perhaps explains the continuity of the tradition in the classical and the folk arts of India.

The philosophy of Indian thought was the backdrop of the dance technique. The divine concept of the cosmos found its earthly counterpart in the dancers’ representation of the words of God. In Natya Veda, drawn from the wisdom of all the four Vedas, was a dramatic form dominated by music and dance.

For even in dramatic dialogue, the mudras, the hand gestures, gave authority to the words, as is explained in the plays of Kalidasa and other dramatists. These hand gestures are an integral part of all forms of art. The Samarangana Sutradhara, which is a work on sculpture, describes in detail the mudras to be created for every image. In traditional rituals of prayer, mudras gave credence to the words of the priest.

According to the Natyasastra, Brahma stated that drama (natya) is a representation of the state (bhavanukirtana) of the three worlds. It tells of right action (dharma) for those who are dutiful, and it speaks of love for those who need to be fulfilled. Much can be learned from it, for it teaches self restraint, courage, heroism, wisdom, joy and sorrow. It provides entertainment as well as good counsel. It reflects life, its emotions and its activities. In expressiveness (bhava) and aesthetic enjoyment (rasa), it will serve to educate. There is no wisdom, no knowledge, no art nor craft nor device, nor action that is not contained within natya.

Bharata says that Brahma uttered these words for the daityas (demons or the evil ones), who led by Virupaksa, protested against the first drama which portrayed their defeat at the hands of the devas (gods or the noble ones). It was to celebrate a festival in honour of Indra on the twelfth night, when the moon was bright in the month of Bhadra (August-September), and Bharata had selected that episode perhaps to please the gods. The spirits of evil resented the play and through their magic powers paralysed the actors. Indra restored peace and destroyed many of the ungodly asuras. The flagstaff of Indra from then on became a symbol of protection and was called the jarjara.

As the performance was held in the open air, and could be disturbed by anyone, Bharata requested Brahma for a playhouse. Visvakarma, architect of the gods, designed the first theatre, the ‘natyagrha’ (theatre room). But in order to quieten the daityas, Brahma summoned Virupaksha and promised him that their ideas too would be incorporated. ‘Do not be angry or sorrowful’, he said, ‘this Veda will portray both the good and the bad and will be a representation of the states of all the worlds’.

The Natyasastra, in detailed chapters, classifies the building of a stage and its consecration. It enumerates and codifies dance techniques with their varied movements. The disciplines of all forms of dance for expression and aesthetic pleasure are analysed and explicitly explained. Speech is codified and so are the various elements of dramatic scenarios. Costume, make-up and décor are emphasized and an interesting passage tells us: ‘As if a man enters the body of another person, and thus renounces his own nature and assumes another, a person painted in different colours and clothes will behave in the manner according to his costume and hue’.

The treatise most pertinent to dance and perhaps the earliest is Nandikesvara’s Abhinaya Darpana (c. third century CE). While Bharata’s Natyasastra gives an elucidation of the karanas (particular poses as well as cadences of movements) and angaharas (sequences of karanas), Nandikesvara described the type of natya including tandava and lasya, and folk forms like prenkhani, peruni, kundali, dandika and kalasa. This text was perhaps a collection of the treatises available and the prevailing forms of dance of the time.

Sarangadeva, who wrote the Sangita Ratnakara in the thirteenth century, based much of his text on the Natyasastra of Bharata. The fourth chapter of this text is on dance, where the three-fold meanings of natya, nritya and nritta are defined. He emphasizes the manner in which karanas, the basic dance movements, can be utilized in the expression (abhinaya) of dance.

Paranjyothi Munivar’s text Thiruvilayadal Puranam (sixteenth century) tells us that Bharatam was a name given in the south to dance by combining the essential ingredients of bhava (expression), raga (melodic modes) and tala (rhythm). Vedanta Desika (1268–1369) in a composition called Sri Hastigiri Mahatmiyam, the story of the origin of Kanchipuram, states that bhava is born in the mind, raga in the throat and tala in the hands, which together make Bharatam. The scholars who named the particular dance form Bharatanatyam may have taken these meanings to indicate the ‘natyam’ that includes the three elements. Natya is drama; nritya, dance, with abhinaya expressing the sentiments of a particular theme; and nrtta, dance movement in its basic form. In both these texts the actual poses, movements of dance, combination of steps have been given in minute detail. Many treatises have been written through the centuries, but as Bharata and all writers emphasize, learning can only happen under a guru. ‘To perform and practice a student must study texts and the traditions as taught by learned gurus’, says the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikesvara. The texts are for those who wish to relate the past experience with the present tradition.

From the great tree of traditional knowledge and practice came the many forms of dance and drama techniques of India. The south preserved the heritage and the classical cultures remained unchanged through thousands of years. The sampradayas (the traditions passed on from teacher to pupil through the centuries) has been the most important aspect of learning. For in dance it is the performance that is the vitality, the continuity and the life stream. This is the guru-shishya parampara with its stress on direct visual-oral transmission of learning.

Dance has inspired the sculptors, and texts have codified known movements. On the walls and the upper recesses of the Brihadesvara temple of Tanjavur, the dance of Siva, the basic form of dance, is a living monument. More detailed are the karanas sculpted at Chidambaram, with verses from the Natyasastra written below every figure, indications of the system of kinetics prevalent at that time. This intermingling of the performing arts with sculpture tells us of the influence of the classical art.

Artists, scholars, patrons, all added new dimensions to the existing concepts and innumerable new styles from each region continued to be codified. Royal patrons like Bhoja in Sringaraprakasa divided dance into suddha and desanta (classical and folk). Later, in every part of the country, separate notions of aesthetics emerged, drawing perhaps from existing folk patterns and while schools had the various sastras as the root source, each regional style had a separate identity.

The Bhakti movement swept South India in the sixth century with the emotional and devotional songs of the Saiva saints, the Nayanars, the first of whom was the saintly Sambandar. Visnu came to be worshipped as Mal or Mayon by the Tamil mystics, the Alvars. By the seventh century, the hymns became so popular that the people sang and danced to the beautiful lyrics that spoke of devotion through utter surrender and love.

The Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (thirteenth century), with its lyrical poetry, took hold of the imagination of the people in many parts of the country, and in Orissa and Manipur the impact was significant.

One of the great writers on music, Sarangadeva (thirteenth century), speaks of melodic improvisation, which is followed even today. But what is interesting is that one soars into various notes but returns to the essential sat which in philosophy is pure consciousness: thus classical musicians played around the main raga but returned to the source. But the multidimensional forms of music today have left the sat and create their own patterns. The styles of today illustrate the rich tradition of India’s creativity. Each area has its own distinctive flavour and yet there is a marvelous unity underlying the intrinsic nature of the dance. The themes are similar for they are taken from stories, still loved and known.

Bharatanatyam goes back to the verses of the Rgveda and is almost recognizable in a lovely figure found in Mohenjodaro. The basic posture, with the knees bent and turned outwards known as ardha-mandali, is the same position in all the main dance techniques of India, showing the antiquity of the form as is evident in sculpture on temple walls. The famous Tamil epic of the South Indian Sangam age (500 BCE–500 CE), the Silappadikaram, explains in detail the performance of a dancer. The carved images in many of the temples, Chidambaram, Darasram, Kumbakonam, Vridhachalam, to mention just a few, are the records of the tradition. The devadasis1 in each temple, through their rituals of worship, kept alive the art form, till cultural revival brought dance out of the temples into the theatres of today.

The Kathakali of Kerala, born in a highly ritualistic society where dance was an integral part of village life, became a sophisticated dance form in the sixteenth century. Tremendous stylization made each gesture and expression a miracle of precision. The Sanskrit tradition of the Koodiyattam dance form, had been existing since the fifth to second century BCE, based on the Natyasastra. But it was Kathakali that emerged as a more popular form, in a language understandable to the people of Kerala. Stories from ancient epics are enacted, reinforcing the victory of good over evil. The superb make-up, each colour denoting a particular characteristic of the hero or anti-hero, is an elaborate process before the performance, and it is danced in temple courtyards. As the perfected designs are painted upon the face, and the grand resplendent ornaments laboriously tied, the actor dons his costume, already transformed into the character he has to play. Years of training, of being massaged and oiled into pliability, of study, of reciting the sacred texts, of initiation, make him an awesome figure on the stage.

Another form from Kerala, the wonderfully graceful Mohiniyattam, evolved from the Dasiyattam tradition, or the style of the temple danseuses, as a solo recital and was influenced by the dance drama styles of Kerala with its own original patterns. The presentation begins with the invocation of cholkettu and follows with jatisvaram, padam and tillana.2 It is an elegant and graceful technique, emphasizing the lasya aspect of dance.

The Yaksagana of Karnataka, another powerful dance drama form with superb costumes and make-up, enacts plays from the Bhagavat, Mahabharata and Ramayana. As in the Kathakali and the Bhagavata Mela Natakam, characters enter behind a screen (thera-sheela) and begin the ceremony with their backs to the audience, seeking the blessing of the Supreme in prayer.

The Bhagavata Meta Natakam of Andhra, called Kuchipudi after the village that was donated to the Bhagavatars who performed in the dance drama, is also a concept based on the Natyasastra and Abhinaya Darpana tradition. The Brahmin actors sing, dance, recite and converse with the audience through the sutradhara (narrator), in exciting dialogues. Somewhat similar to Bharatanatyam, the Kuchipudi style is more fluid; its exquisite poses resemble the karanas on temple walls and the sollukattus (rhythmic syllables) are sung in musical ragas.

Odissi, very akin to Kuchipudi in terms of the exquisite poses, emphasizes the lasya or graceful style danced by women called maharis in the temple at Bhubaneswar. It was at the Jagannatha temple that the music and dance developed and the poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda was recited and danced in the natya mandapa (amphitheatre). The history of the Gita Govinda and its influence throughout the country is a fascinating study.

In the chhau dance, from Purulia and Seraikela along the Chotanagpur plateau in northern India, dancers use colourful masks to depict each character. The basic style follows movements of warriors of old, and the narrates the ancient stories, and today varieties of powerful heroic movements are depicted in this form. The folk dancers of Mayurbhanj in Orissa do not wear masks but paint their faces according to the parts they play.

Manipur, the beautiful land in the north-eastern fringes of India, is associated with rasalila where during the month of April and May the ‘festival of gods’ is enacted, and men and women move in marvelous rhythm to devotional music. Here too the lyrical grace, the religious fervour, the exquisite drumming, all combine in a wonderful synchronization of folk and classical techniques.

The Kathak dance, popular in Mughal courts, depicted Krishna’s love for Radha. Many of the dancers were Brahmins belonging to the Lucknow school. The syllables were spoken by the dancer, as the syllables are spoken by the nattuvanar3 in Bharatanatyam. In the Mahabharata (Adi Parva), a passage occurs: ‘Oh King, the Kathakars and also the forest dweller, ascetics and Brahmins sweetly recite the divine stories’.

With the Mughals, the technique of styles from Persia mingled with the dances of India in the north. It was in the reign of Jahangir (1605–1627) that Persian and Indian techniques of Kathak merged in exquisite synthesis of style. In the mid-nineteenth century, Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Awadh (in North India) who was himself a great artist, was deeply moved by the rasalila and it is chronicled that he himself participated in the dance drama. Lucknow, where he ruled, became a centre of dance, and the Lucknow gharana (tradition) took shape under him. Many were the elements that formed the storytelling of Kathak dancers, but special mention must be made of Madame Menaka from Bengal who brought coherence to Kathak through Pandit Gaurishankar of the Jaipur gharana, her partner.

During the reign of the Mughals, these dancers were extremely popular and the British references to Indian dance are mainly of Kathak dancers whom they saw in the Mughal courts. Since then, Kathak has flourished and taken many new forms. There was a rich heritage of music, poetry, dance and storytelling throughout the land. There was no place, where dance and music were not found, and the Kathakars and Bhagavatars recited their ancient tales in every village. The Bhavai of Gujarat is an example of this technique where actors dance, sing and act, telling stories in the folk tradition inspired from the life around them. The Bhavai dancer tells stories of the intermingling of Muslims and Hindus, one of the most popular stories being of the young Bania woman Tejan who falls in love with the Muslim Thanedan. During the navaratri4 festival, Bhavai is performed at the temple of Ambaji5 with all sects participating. There is also a great amount of social tolerance in the vesas (costumes) of Bhavai, which are a mixture of various cultures, as are the fashionable garments of our country today.

One of the best loved of poets, Kabir, represents both the Muslim and Hindu wisdom of India’s multicultural culture. He came from a low stratum of society and is said to have converted to Islam. His scathing criticism of both Hindu and Muslim prejudices and hatred led him to a life of free thought.

Rabindranath Tagore composed songs ‘defying the canons of respectable orthodoxy’. He himself was influenced by the baul singers, a religious sect of singers in Bengal who travelled around the villages, with their one-stringed instrument, the ektara.

In this century, dance has become a vehicle of social change, a reflection of the world. It has gone beyond boundaries and has now become an expression in the movement of universal images, while retaining its classical technique. Dancers do not borrow but imbibe processes of thought that have become universal. Where the nayika (lead danseuse) traditionally only expressed sringara6 in its various aspects, today’s dancers speak of terrorism and violence.

We have been concentrating on dance and its multicultural aspect. Let us now turn to music. The seven notes of the musical scale are attributed to the Samaveda. The recitation was accompanied by the vina (sitar-like instrument), the vaana (a variety of vina), the venu (flute) and the dundubhi (drums). Ragas as we know them today came later and it was the Brihaddesi (500–700 CE) of the sage Matanga which classified and elaborated them. Sarangadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara in the early thirteenth century arranged the ragas according to seasons and times. Mughal and Persian influence came with the invasions and the music reflected life in the courts, nature and artistic pursuits, leaving out religion. Much later, Emperor Akbar (1542–1605) filled his court with scholars, writers and musicians, prominent among whom was Tansen who created many new ragas. Many miracles of his musical prowess are related, the best known being his rendering of the raga meghamalhar to bring rain.

In the South, Saint Purandaradasa (1484–1564) was the father of Carnatic music. He classified the musical notes into the framework that is followed to this day. A poet and social reformer, he popularized music amongst the masses with his poetical musical compositions. He lived in Vijayanagara in Karnataka till the city was destroyed by invaders in 1565. Fortunately, his music found a new home in Thanjavur at the royal court and Vijayanagara became the centre of South Indian classical music, from where came the great singers and composers: Thyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri

Most of classical music was in the form of worship, whether to a deity, or in celebration of festivals. Dance dramas like the Kuravanji speak of the love for the kings of Thanjavur. A gypsy woman, who tells the heroine’s fortune, also describes her wanderings and the hills from where she comes. She too like the wandering players, spreads her ancient lore across the country. There was a great influx of cultural exchange through these storytellers and musicians. I digress here to mention that the 1961 Census of India notes that the Nilgiri district had the highest number of spoken languages—80 languages per 4,09,308 inhabitants—many of them tribal.

While most of the classical musical repertoire is philosophical and in praise of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, there are some lyrics that speak of the life around. In the Mahabharata, for example, the lavani which translated means ‘plantation’, speaks of agricultural pursuits. Later, it emphasized the emotion of love in separation, as does the thumri in Hindustani (North Indian classical) music. These songs are also similar to the javali in Bharatanatyam, where the heroine speaks of separation from her loved one, and to the abhisarika of Indian painting. In Kerala, Christian songs descriptive of the birth of Christ are sung in the Kummi dance, and one of the finest singers of Hindu devotional songs today is Dr K.J. Yesudas, a Christian.

While classical music is divided into the Hindustani style of the north and the Carnatic style of the south, the folk tradition of music in each region is strong. This tradition is called desi (regional) as opposed to the scholarly margi. Today another genre is ‘filmi’ music, derived from the musical-melodramas that are abundant in the Indian film industry. This form of music has become extremely popular and is completely multicultural, borrowing from everywhere: the traditional as well as new ideas and trends.

The dance forms of India have had their impact on almost every known form in world theatre. Marius Petipa (1822–1910), who was one of the great ballet choreographers of Russia, had as one of his most successful dances a creation called ‘La Bayadere’, which was composed in 1877. Petipa laboriously studied whatever Indian material he could find, and some of the character dances, such as the frenzied Hindu dance, have some definite relation to the movements in Indian dance forms. The title role of Nikia, the temple dancer, is for a classical ballerina par excellence. It also had a Brahmin priest and a manu dance by a dancer balancing a pitcher on top of her head!

The scholar Dr Chummar Choondal told me that a dance drama on Christ in Malayalam called Muvarasunatakam, performed at the St. Xaviers church at Surya Palayam near Coimbatore has been staged on and off for a hundred years.

In the United States, Ruth St Denis (1879–1968), the creator of the modern American dance technique, was deeply influenced by India. Her most popular items were based on Hindu concepts, and a popular item was of Radha, Krishna’s consort. Martha Graham, the most celebrated of American dancers, followed the tradition and made her debut in a dance called ‘the three Gopikas’ (cowherd girls)! While creating a vast repertoire and style of her own, some of the basic stances are definitely traditional postures from India.

In this century, dancers, musicians and writers are exposed to cultures all over the world and are naturally influenced by them. India’s rich traditions continue, but the winds of change inspire and invoke the ancient concepts, creating new patterns of thought and form.