India is a country that has a strong base of the performing arts. The colours, music and the dance movements have been part of the culture, tradition and custom of Indian life. The art of dancing flourishes at various levels from the highly stylised classical dances to the fold dance traditions.
This is an exploration of dances in my state Tamil Nadu.
The oldest dance style of India flourishes in Tamil Nadu even today. It is derived from the temple’s devotional dancers who have been performing from the 10th century to 1950’s. Made respectable, popular and into an art form by many people like Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra, the stylised dance form is classically preserved by dancers and teachers.
Kalakshetra was established, in the words of Rukmini Devi,
“with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.” The training of young and talented people by masters of art, with the background of a religious spirit, has been its main aim.
Sculptures in temples like Chidambaram codify the different poses, hand gestures and movements of the dance form as prescribed in Baratha’s Natya Shastra. Lord Shiva is Nataraja, the King of dance and his dancing pose is iconic in Hinduism. It has multi-layered symbolism.
Kalakshetra is a cultural academy dedicated to the preservation of traditional values in Indian art, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam dance and music.
The Bagavatha Mela
A dance-drama, the Bhagavata Mela natakams, composed by Melattur Venkatarama Sastry (1743-1809 A.D), is performed annually in honour of the Narasimha Jayanti in March. The story of Prahalada and Narasimha is enacted by men in the Sri Varadaraja temple in Melattur near Kumbakonam. This is a rare temple/theatre art performed with Bhakti, music, dance and drama. It has lasted 4 centuries and is the only surviving link today with ancient Sanskrit theatre in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu has many folk dances:
Mayil Attam is the dance of the peacock and dancers dress in the bird’s costume.
Bommalattamor Puppet Shows are popular forms of entertainment in villages. The puppets are made of cloth, wood, leather, etc. and controlled by strings or wires. The stories are from the puranas, mythology, history and folklore.
Kummi began when there no musical instruments existed! Singing is accompanied by rhythmic clapping of hands.
Karagaattamis performed by balancing a pot on the head. Traditionally, this dance was performed by the villagers in praise of the rain goddess Mari Amman and river goddess, Gangai Amman.
Kolaattam. The dexterity of the dancer is close to that of an acrobat. Kolaattam is performed by women with two sticks held in each hand and beaten to a rhythm accompanied by dancing steps.
Pinnal Kolaattam is danced with ropes held in their hands and the other end is tied to a tall pole. The ribbons are entwined into colourful patterns and then unwound. This is the equivalent of the Maypole dance.
Kavadi Attam is the balancing of an arch with a horizontal stick that is placed on the shoulders. It is usually carried on pilgrimages carrying offerings of milk and other things tied on the either side.
Poikkal Kudirai Aattam is the False legged Horse Dance. The dancer carries the dummy figure of a horse’s body made of light-weight materials on his/her hips.
The sides of the horses hide the legs of the dancers and gracefully swings with their movements.
Kai Silambu Attam, a martial dance is performed in temples during Amman festivals or Navaratri festival. The dancers wear anklets-bells and hold a stick in their hands to keep the rhythm. There is a lot of acrobatic jumps and movements.
Theru Koothu or street plays are is performed at street corners in the open air.
Puli Attam,the tiger dance, is performed by young men with their bodies painted yellow and black, complete with fangs, head gear with ears, paws with claws and long tail, simulating the prancing, pouncing tiger with every ferocious move.
The drums beat vociferously and add frenzy to the performance. This dance is regularly performed during temple festivals, drawing large crowds.
Dance is greatly linked to religion and temple festivals. Balasaraswathi was an important dancer who managed the transition from the traditional life of atemple dancer to an artist who took this dance form to a global audience. She says, “Dance is an artistic yoga (natya yoga), for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal”.
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