The ‘ancient’ nature of Indian classical dance – specifically in terms of its teaching, practice and performance today – is a contested fact. Many, including myself, have argued that classical dance forms in India as we witness them today, are modern manifestations of their original ancient forms – not entirely unscathed and untouched by changes in history, such as imperialism, post-colonial nationalism, and the emergence of the middle class in India.
However, what need not be contested is its use of relatively ancient poetry and texts. In this sense, classical Indian dance forms still encapsulate and carry the ‘ancient’ within them today. They draw lessons from classical texts such as the Natyashastra, written somewhere between 200 BCE and 200 AD. They also extensively make use of texts such as the Gita Govindam written by Jayadeva, a 12th century poet. Many padams belong to the 14th and 15th centuries and some dance pieces draw their literature from the ancient epics Ramayana (Valmiki’s dating back to approximately the 4th and 5th century BCE,
Kamban’s in the 12th century, Kandhali’s in the 14th and Tulsidas’ in the 16th century) and Mahabharata, written possibly between the 4th and 8th century BCE.
It is the use of these texts and narratives that definitely gives an ancient colouring to these dance forms, however they may have been modernized from their inception until today. This use of ancient literature makes these dance forms a valuable art, binding the ancient past with the present. They also provide rich resources for choreographing abhinaya pieces, reminding the dancer and spectator of the beauty and complexity of Indian mythology. Indian classical dance, when paired with the ancient narratives, takes story-telling to a whole new level.
However, the acknowledgement that Indian classical dance has this ancient aspect to it has led to several questions and concerns within the world of Indian dance. For instance, what is the place of this ‘ancient’ dance in the modern world? How does it remain relevant in modern times?
I have struggled with these questions, and do not claim to have arrived at answers – there is always room for further research and introspection – but my instinct tells me that the answer may lie in the power of interpretation.
Many dancers struggle with this question of whether an ‘ancient’ dance form is relevant or even appropriate today. I do not think there is a simple monosyllabic answer to this question. With regard to some of the narratives, some of it can be argued to be old-fashioned and backward in its thinking – specially their reference to lower classes and women. In a modern world where untouchability is frowned upon and equality between the sexes is openly advocated, these narratives seem inappropriate. If these narratives are to be performed literally, word-to-word, without the dancer digging deeper to find a meaning and interpretation that is relevant today, then the dancer loses the battle against his or her opponent. The most beautiful part of these narratives in dance, is that they are open to interpretation. If a dancer can interpret these in the modern world, in a modern way – no one could dare call them irrelevant. For example, behind the apparently powerless and hapless ‘nayika’ pining for her lover who has strayed into the arms of the ‘other girl’, there is the powerful strength to survive such a betrayal with dignity, and the potential to unleash her wrath upon the cheating lover when he finally arrives at her doorstep. And of course, as I have always believed, there are other narratives that will always be relevant due to the powerful human emotions that they are able to depict, display and make the dancer and audience experience.
But for all this to happen, the ancient texts must not only be simply read and mimed, but need to be understood, examined and interpreted to find contemporary relevance.