Indian dance forms can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, which means we are talking about thousands of years ago. The fact that a dancing figurine was excavated at Mohenjo Daro proves the fact that dance simply meant a lot to the civilisation.
While the ‘Dancing Girl’ figurine provided evidence that music and dance existed during the Indus Valley Civilization, the evolution of classical dances of India can be traced back to the Vedic period (1500-600 BCE) during when, even the priests performed rituals and ceremonies that integrally involved chanting, singing, and dancing.
During the Gupta Period (320-550 CE Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, and Odissi Gharana of classical dances of India came to the scene.
Below, we’re going to explore how classical dances of India have evolved through the pages of history.
The Encyclopaedia of Indian Dance: Natya Shastra
‘Natya Shastra,’ written by Bharata Muni around 200 BCE, is considered to be the encyclopaedia of classical dances of India. It gives detailed descriptions of various dances which were performed during the time. The Natya Shastra classifies dance into eight parts: Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (expressive dance), Natya (dramatic dance), Veedha (specialised movement), Bhava (emotion), Rasa (sentiment), and Abhinaya (acting).
The Vedic Period
During the Vedic period in Indian history, there was an emphasis on rituals and ceremonies around fertility and richly decorated images were created where dancers were seen depicting these rituals and these performances appealed to a wider audience. Evidence suggests that these rituals were performed by women who danced while carrying out religious rites related to marriage or childbirth. These dancers were also known as devadasis or “servants of god” who served their communities by helping with various tasks including harvesting crops or assisting during childbirth. During this time there was barely any emphasis on learning specific movements or steps but rather a preference was clearly shown towards the exactness and precision of the ritualistic performances accompanied and complemented by music performed by flute players or drummers.
The Aryan Period
Indian dance was further refined during the Aryan period when dancing was elevated to the stage as an art form instead of just another activity conducted by a group to carry out religious rituals. The major theme found in Aryan dancing was the idea of ‘purity.’ This is hardly a surprise, as history suggests that Aryans considered purity to be the truest form of beauty.
For example, the Natya Nritya (dances portraying a drama), Geet Nritya (dance accompanied with songs), Roop Nritya (a dance form that involved enacting) and Bhav Nritya (expressing emotions through dance) forms developed during this period. Dancers and artists held positions of importance in society and were considered to be as pure as the dances they performed.
However much the concept of dance and its various forms came into being during the Aryan period, dancing and singing had been intrinsic elements of the Ramayana period (7th century BC to mid-6th century BC). Valmiki’s Ramayana, the epic saga, tells us that dancing, singing, and playing instruments were art forms practised by the different strata of society.
3rd century and the writing of the Natya Shastra
Indian traditional dance and the art behind it experienced both a dip in popularity as well as a subsequent revival around the 3rd century on account of the society undergoing tumultuous conflicts ravaging the country. However, in the closing years, Indian classical dancing experienced a jolt of revival with the writing of ‘Natyashastra’ by Muni Bharat, who was considered to be the greatest master of Indian music to have existed in those times. Dancers would often perform in enormous auditoriums and theatres.
The Mughal Era
This period in Indian mediaeval history, chiefly during the period beginning from the reign of Akbar to that of Shahjahan, experienced social stability which proved to be a boon for the growth and prosperity of both the art and artists. However, there were opposing forces that did hinder the progress of art and craft from time to time since while some emperors understood the importance of art and culture and its power to unite people across diversity and deep differences, many other emperors did not care for it enough and let art languish.
The Dhamar and Dhrupad schools, for example, were established and developed during this period. But on the other hand, classical dancing lost much of its essence in the North as the emperors did not exhibit keenness in classical dancing. In the South, however, art flourished without a doubt. Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, to name some of the most famous dance forms, flourished particularly in the Ganika Nagar set up by Krishnadevaraya. The dancers would often perform ritually in auditoriums and royal courts all over South India.
Classical Indian dancing attained its truest form and found recognition post-independence when the doyens and masters of the craft began to showcase Indian dance forms on the international stage. Many of these maestros of the faculty took to establishing institutes and schools to teach aspirants and hone their dance skills. One of the firsts was the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts set up by Mrinalini Sarabhai in 1969. The students from these schools headed by their teachers began to travel all over the world and held shows showcasing various beautiful nuances of classical dances of India, which led to bringing international recognition and generating awareness across the globe.