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Role and function of dance: Historical context (Part 3)
- Dr. Anonna Guha, Mumbai

January 15, 2013

(Excerpt from the Phd thesis 'Dance in the urban culture' under the guidance of Dr. Sharit Bhowmik.)

Rhythm, gentle, solemn, passionate, frenzied, savage, so too the dance. For it is the rhythm that provides the beat for the bodies that move. The heartbeat for the dance and the bodies move, sway, swirl, dip and rise. They rejoice and droop. They exhilarate and collapse. It is all part of a world at once gentle, solemn, passionate, frenzied and savage. This is the world of folk tribal and ritual dance in India. A world born no one knows when. A world that found its own moorings, nourishment, growth, flowering and maturity. A world that has yielded generation after generation of performers. They are everywhere men and women. They are part of India's multitudes, performers, dancers. Not trained, not professional dancers, not by design. By birthright. (Khokar 1987: 10)

This passage brings out the true picture of folk and tribal dances and dancers. Their dance is spontaneous but this does not mean that they dance anywhere or anytime. There is an inbuilt method in it all, a rhyme and a reason even though it may not be a consciously cultivated one. Certain promptings and stimuli inspire, provoke, urge and compel people to dance. Their dance then evolves and sustains norms. There is no written or communicated instruction or direction for the dance. It is essentially what the dancers have gained and assimilated without deliberate effort as a legacy from past generation. In order to understand this complete process, it is imperative that one understands these varied shared manners and moods because these are reflected in the Indian dance .These moods and motifs become the common language and grammar for the folk, tribal and ritual dances as they exist in the different milieu of the country. (Khokhar 1987:14-30)

Beginning with the cycle of life embracing birth, wedding and death, ceremonies like puberty, initiation, betrothal and ancestor worship are all included. All of these have considerable significance for the family and to the immediate community. The various emotions are often expressed through dancing. Joy is a core emotional experience common to all living beings and one of its most spontaneous and transparent expression is the act of dancing. Festivals and celebrations calling upon community participation commonly involve dancing. Love again is the primal pattern of the human heart and of this are born courtship dances. Though these allow free mixing of the sexes they carry no marked sexual overtones. The close embrace so every day in Western societies is virtually absent. Erotic songs however are quite common, as are songs about legendary lovers. To promote social cohesion, dancing often pushes itself as a collective activity and only on occasions chosen specifically for it. (Ibid)

Dancing reflects the value of nature in people's life. Many of the folk, tribal and ritual dances are intimately connected with nature's patterns. A bumper harvest calls for rejoicing while the growth of crops is supposedly encouraged through rites for rain or invoking of the spirits of fertility. Everyday tasks like planting, winnowing and fishing or occupational activity like rowing a boat or pounding the earth are also seen in dances. For tribals fighting the enemy, real or assumed is one of their prime concerns and for this they have mimic fights both for diversion and to keep themselves in proper shape. Hunting is yet another common feature of tribal life that is sustained through dancing. Some dances are tied up with particular location and can be held only there due to the temple shrine or its association with a figure celebrated in legend or local love. In most cases, the place is decorated for the dance events. While there are dances addressed to the deities of Hindu Mythology, they are also danced in the honour of glorified heroes, demons, animistic figurines, malevolent spirits, serpent gods, the spirit of vegetation and so forth. They are represented symbolically or ornamentally through icons, paintings, stone carvings and in some cases totem images. (Ibid)

In preserved societies dancing is universally seen as an exercise akin to prayer. This profound and intense experience is a conversation with the chosen divinity. The desire is that the Lord responds and the rituals therefore involve invocation and propitiation. The participants normally belong to a privileged class and enjoy a hereditary right to perform. In some cases people dress up as the deity so as to facilitate identification. The appearance here is only in the context of the story. (Ibid)

Dancing that is recognized as sacred is often functionally related to magic. This frequently relates to mystic ceremonies generally marked by quaint or weird rites. There is the Shaman who interacts with the supernatural as the priest and medicine man, fights sickness and exorcises evil spirits or forces through the power of dancing. There are ordained performers who through ecstatic dancing attain the status of oracles. Most ritual dances acknowledge the trance as fulfillment, generally demonstrated by progressively hysterical movements leading to a collapse. While being completely absorbed in the dance and its frenzy the dancer may also as part of the ritual chop off the heads of goats or fowl offered as sacrifice. Ritual dancing is a means of gaining control and displaying authority over nature and the supernatural. (Ibid)

Unlike classical dances which are essentially executed in solo styles, folk and tribal dances are group events. The dances have a variety of formations in terms of floor patterns. The solo dancer really speaking has no place in folk and tribal dancing though in ritual dancing it is the individual performer that counts. In dances of celebration and joy, however, a single dancer may sometimes detach himself or herself form the group and be prodded by others to give a demonstration of virtuosity. In folk and tribal dancing there is largely no narrative content, but in ritual dances the thematic element is strong and use is freely made of such components as stylised and symbolic hand gestures. Most dances are accompanied by music and the instruments are played by men. Generally there is a separate category of accompanists but in some dances the dancers themselves play the instruments particularly the drums as they dance. Singing by the dancers, accompanists or both is quite common though seldom are the words of the song translated into dance, their purpose being primarily to reinforce rhythm. (Ibid)

Folk dances thus depict the culture of the local people of a particular State or province. They embody the moods of recreation and celebration of the people. Though seeped in the traditions and culture of a particular region they are more a source of relaxation and coming together for the local people. Some of the well known folk dances are the Bihu dance of Assam celebrated during Holi, the Dhunuchi dance of Kolkata in worship of Goddess Durga, the Kaikotikoli dance of Kerala during Onam, the Dhangar dance of the shepherds of Maharashtra, the Garba and Daniya dance of Gujarat during Navratri worshipping the Goddess.

One now gets a clearer picture of dance in the Indian historical setting. Dancing has been a part of the religious worship as well as in celebrations and festivities, be it by the devadasis or the courtesans, or professional artistes who displayed their art. The dance they performed was presentational or classical. Participational dances or folk dances on the other hand have been a part of tradition for centuries and are a part of the native culture. The difference in both the life styles of both the kinds of is that in the presentational form, the dancers were rigorously trained in the art form, while in the participational, it was a form which one saw for years and grew up with them. The former were professionals while the latter danced with the community. Naturally then the socio economic impact on their lives would have been different. When we look at society's attitude towards dancers then as well as their economic status, we are essentially discussing the lives of professional artistes.

Dr. Anonna Guha, a Visharad in Kathak, is a scholar and researcher with a double doctorate - in Sociology and in Human Relations. She holds a post graduate diploma in personality development and psychology. Anonna has trained in the performing arts under her father Dr. Tushar Guha, the Founder-Managing Director of Nrityanjali - folk dance, acting, singing, voice modulation, oratory, choreography and personality development. Anonna is a counsellor, a trainer in behavioural sciences and imparts Soft Skills training pertaining to Human Relations, Emotions, Communication, Personality Development, Stress Management to young students and adults. She is the Trustee and Jt. Managing Director of Nrityanjali. She has written the syllabus content for Masters degree in Sociology, Mumbai University. She has many articles, research papers and dissertations to her credit, one being her Phd thesis on 'Dance in the urban culture.'

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