India may be globally famous for Bollywood dances today, but there was a time it was called Prachisudha, the nectar of the east, particularly for its varied and evolved dance forms and gharanas of music. Historically, Indian classical dance dates back to Vedic times, and it is believed that all forms of classical dance stem from Natya Vedam – the creation of Lord Brahma.
However, due to regional influences, each form has a different name and is rooted in the culture of the region from which it originates. For instance, Bharatnatyam originated from Tamil Nadu, Odissi from Odisha, Kathak from Northern India, Manipuri from Manipur, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, and Kathakali as well as Mohiniyattam from Kerala.
These dance forms have survived for centuries, and although they are not mainstream in contemporary India, they have many patrons and a niche audience. Over the years, generations of new performers have also given these ancient dance forms a new lease of life by changing their tonality, texture, and narrative, but always staying true to their grammar.
Dancing to the tunes of the time
Iconic Kuchipudi dancer Dr S Raja Radha Reddy explains how Kuchipudi evolved its format to keep up with the changing times. In an interview to News18, Dr Reddy said, "Earlier, Kuchipudi dancers mainly presented stories from the Maha Bhagavata Purana. In fact, description of the stories (incidents) relating to incarnations of Lord Vishnu, especially of Lord Krishna is collectively called Kuchipudi Bhagavatulu. However, one of the greatest authorities of India's Natya Shastra and an exponent of Kuchipudi Natyam Vedantam, Laxminarayana Sastri foresaw a need for progressive changes that would help Kuchipudi dance form to evolve organically. Therefore, he reshaped the format from group presentation of stories to recital presentation which have independent, disconnected numbers in the show."
Dr Reddy pointed out that a lot changed logistically as well. While in olden days an elaborate stage with front curtains wasn't a necessity and a raised platform was enough to serve as a stage, the shows would be longer, and would often run through the night, during which performers would not only dance, but also sing.
"As the time changed and with the introduction of modern equipment like lights, microphones dancers today are accompanied by musicians & vocalists. They make an entry to an elaborate stage, dance wholeheartedly with lively movements and expressions to evoke rasa (sentiment) from the audience, with beautiful lights and sound effects," he added.
However, not all changes have been positive. Yamini Reddy, another Kuchipudi dancer, pointed out: "I think people's lives have generally become faster. Their attention is short-lived. This has affected not just the classical arts but all aspects of life. As a classical dancer, I find that concert duration has become shorter; people want to be thrilled with fast-paced numbers." Yamini said, adding that while overnight shows are a thing of the past, nowadays recitals barely last more than just a couple of hours.
"Any classical dance form itself possesses innate grace and beauty. However, the challenge lies in making people see that beauty and present these forms to them in a way that they would understand. As a Kuchipudi artist, I try to employ several presentation techniques and also combine technology (light, sound etc.) to bring this beauty across without compromising the purity," she added.
Discrimination and Uncertainty: The Pandemic Pause
The pandemic, however, has disrupted the slow yet progressive evolution of various Indian dance forms across India. While performing arts centres continue to remain closed, causing widespread unemployment of performers, things have shifted to the virtual sphere as recitals, and performances are taking place online. Several online music and dance festivals like the Parampara, A National Festival of Music and Dance, have tried to open a window into the world of dance and music even in such difficult times.
However, things have still been difficult for dancers across India, especially for those who do not have the resources to take the help of technology and are dependent on their dance gigs to sustain themselves during this crisis. "The pandemic has severely affected traditional dance schools. Even while the teachers and students are switching to technology, this is not working in every village and with everyone and is certainly not an alternative for the learning of stylised art forms. Hence a big number of dance students are staying away from their dance classes. This has reduced the revenue and affected the livelihood of art teachers and their families," pointed out Dr Neena Prasad, a Mohiniyattam dancer.
Some of the maestros and legendary dancers of India who have dedicated their time to preserve and perpetuate the Indian traditional dance forms have also found themselves in financial troubles. They run Gurukuls, which are institutions where the young generation is taught the ancient dance forms, and music. However, these artists have limited financial resources to run large scale teaching centres or impart their knowledge, and government aid to such institutions have not been forthcoming so far. Therefore, despite their endeavours to pass on the traditions to the future generations, these artists have found their hands tied, in the wake of the current health crisis.
The situation is worse for many famous classical dancers. A Firstpostreport recently claimed that Pandit Birju Maharaj, one of the stalwarts of Kathak dance, is among the 27 artists who have been asked to vacate government allotted accommodations by 31 December. Others include Mohiniyattam dancer, Bharati Shivaji, and Kuchipudi dancer Vanashree Rao, wife of Kuchipudi dancer Guru Jayarama Rao, in whose name their accommodation was allotted.
If things have been difficult for famous classical dancers, those who are not incredibly popular are battling even worse situations. In a horrifying incident, reported by Hindustan Times, a Dalit classical dancer tried to take his own life after allegedly being discriminated against for his caste and denied permission to perform 'Mohiniyattam' for an online cultural festival.
The Eternal Hope
"We are yet to see the result of the pandemic on the overall cultural scene. But, many are still suffering due to lack of access to technological advancements and lack of connectivity. This crisis has left several performers hungry and stranded." pointed out Bhavana Reddy, a Kuchipudi dancer.
However, despite the dire situation, classical dancers are still clutching on to hope. "Classical dance is our culture; it not only turns the western eyes towards our unique and distinct identity but also, has a deeper socio-cultural significance," Bhavana said. She added that these dance forms had survived famines, partition, plague, and tsunami, and it is unlikely that they would be obliterated anytime soon.
In fact, with passing time, it has evolved not just as performing art, but also as an academic discipline and is taught in universities in India as well as abroad. "We understand the cultural background, structure and the form of classical dance through the traditional guru, which is part and parcel of the tutelage. However, the academic study of a dance form needs another skill totally, where the verbal excellence of the dancer is counted more than her/his artistic excellence.
"But those, who can combine both virtues that of an academician and performing artist can excel too. Brilliant and genuine studies in this realm of art are awarded PhDs across Indian Universities too. Even While we understand that a university degree, postgraduate studies may not be capable of producing good artists as in a traditional gurukul, we cannot ignore the fact that they are employed widely as dance teachers in Indian schools across the globe. Hence, they impart knowledge and learning experience of Indian dances to many numbers, than the guru in a dance class. In that sense, academic studies in dance are contributing to shaping a career for those interested in this field," pointed out Mohiniyattam dancer, Dr Neena Prasad.