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Role and function of dance: Historical context (Part 4)
- Dr. Anonna Guha, Mumbai

February 13, 2013

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

The chapter will approach the present socio economic status of the classical dancers while understanding in depth the current folk dancers' scenario in comparison with the past.

Social status:
The relationship between artistes and society was a love – hate one. Performing artistes never really enjoyed a respectable place in society. Their art though always remained exceedingly attractive to people even when they were prohibited or almost banned by the authorities or religious preceptors. It is interesting to study why the people responsible for evolving the natural instinct of man - to imitate - into a great art always belonged to the lower strata of society, how they earned their livelihood and what was their way of life. Since written sources aren't very clear it is difficult to say whether such artistes were actually priests / priestesses or people having a talent for the art. It is possible that they were given the duty of performing magico religious rituals of a dramatic nature and eventually they adopted the art as their profession during the Indus valley period. In the Vedic period there seems to have existed a class of minstrels who composed songs and sang them. In this class brahmana (other than priest) and kshatriya were included. But what isn't clear is if such individual brahmana or kshatriya minstrels enjoyed the status of a brahmana or kshatriya respectively or that of musicians. One does read about the well known minstrels Suta and Magadha. Suta did not enjoy a respectable place in the society as indicated by the fact that immediately after the jewel offering ceremony which the king performed where Suta too was included, he had to perform certain rites to atone for this sin committed by putting the unworthy persons of low classes or low castes in contact with the sacrifice. Similarly the Atharva Veda indicates the low position of Magadha, the other minstrel. Suta in the epics is the offspring of a vaisya father and kshatriya mother. Thus, both were varnasankaras that indicated lower status of these two artistes of the Vedic period. (Iravati 2003:205-231)

The Mahabharata says that gayaka – vocalist, vadaka - instrumentalist, and nartaka –dancer, should not be invited to a sraddha ceremony. They were among those from whom a brahmana is not to take food. While the Jatakas describe the artistes' art as popular it does indicate that they did not have a respectable place in society. The female artistes were viewed as temptresses because they danced in public and mixed freely with people, flirting even with the monks. To Kautilya, singing and dancing were among the duties of the sudra and theatre artistes were common folks having no social respect at all. Kautilya enjoins that the king should protect his people against the deceit of the merchants, artisans and kusilavas. Manu states that a king who is involved in kamaja varga, vices, loses dharma, artha. He clarifies kamaja varga as tauyatrika i.e. dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments. This means if the king indulges too much in the arts, it would destroy his kingdom. (Ibid)

It seems that performing artistes were considered so abominable that those who came to be associated with them lost their social prestige. Even if an artiste belonged to the upper strata of society, he was placed in the same social class as those of performing artistes. Silapadikaram while describing the city of Pukar informs that there were separate dwelling quarters for sutas, magadhas, prostitutes, rock dancers, religious dancers, actresses, bagpipe musicians. In canto XIII of Silapadikaram, it is said that Kovalan and Kannagi reached a village inhabited by brahmans who wore the sacred thread but they were given to music and dancing, having fallen from the Vedic life. Such brahmanas were regarded as socially inferior as they did not pursue their svadharma. (Ibid)

Though people loved theatrical arts throughout the history of the country, the performers of the art were always considered as detestable and people associated with them and their art lost status. They were often classed with antyajas i.e. untouchables. Even if they were generously allowed to study, that was only to praise the kings and the great men and preserve their heroic deeds as sutas and magadhas did. Studying Vedas was out of question for them. The artistes in general belonged to the common folk. (Ibid)

The reasons for the sastrakaras being so vehemently against the actors and for actors being so ill famed apparently lay in the actor's lifestyle. From the very beginning it seems there was some sort of vulgarity in their performance. In Rigveda, Usas had been compared to a dancer - 'as the dancer (female) bares her bosom to audience Usas too reveals her beauty by removing the darkness. This shows that female dancers during Rigvedic period danced with at least half of their body bare. Besides, most of the female artistes were courtesans as we gather from the epics, who had little hesitation in working with male actors. Being a courtesan, their moral standard was low. They are often mentioned as temptresses using their art for that purpose. (Ibid)

At this stage it is important to make 3 pertinent comments:
  1. On reading Manu's point on the King losing his kingdom on engaging in art activities may seem negative against artistes, but logically in order to govern a state one had to be logical, keeping strategy in mind. Therefore excessive indulgence in either art or alcoholism would naturally have a negative impact or governance.
  2. The brahmans who were looked down upon for pursuing art would probably be treated in that manner especially since during those times, caste restrictions were very strong. One had to follow the occupation of one's own caste and dharma. Deviating from these principles led to social ostracism.
  3. The behaviour of artistes during that phase was in tune with the prevailing social order. If the artistes were baring their bosom, one also has to keep in mind the attire people wore during those days. Hence looking at them as an enticing form, I believe is largely because in dance the instrument is the body, unlike other art forms. Anything associated with the body conveys more sexuality and physical allure.
Bharata had realized that to make performing art acceptable to both upper and lower it was necessary to eliminate the negative elements and acquire social and religious or Vedic sanction. He wrote his great treatise which gave drama a definite shape and a respectable position as an art form. It was a combination of folk and classical traditions of theatre and brought about some important changes in the attitude of people towards actors and their art. It appears that post the Natyshastra phase, artistes were properly trained in the art which had now become a science. Their lifestyle must have undergone a vast change, since they were now found in the company of respectable persons like kings and poets. (Ibid)

Natacharyas are known to be patronised by the kings with ladies of the royal family also being trained in the art. Many times women from noble families also learnt the performing arts and during the Vedic period unmarried girls and married women both were conversant with dance and music. The Divyavadna mentions the dancer queen Chandraprabha of King Rudrayana while a member of the royal family played the role of the heroine in Harsha's play Nagananda, who was first seen by the hero when she was playing veena. Girls of noble families also took part in rituals and festivals which had dance and music. An example is of the special type of dance called the 'festival of the ball' (kandikautsava). This dance was performed by a girl to acquire a virtuous husband and princess Kandukavati performed this dance in a masterly manner. Such royal family artistes belonged to the classical tradition of the art since they were trained by the acharyas, the representatives of classical tradition. They performed mostly within the limits of the royal palace and not in public because they practiced their art exclusively for their aesthetic satisfaction. In their own way they contributed to the development of the art. (Ibid)

Bharata's attempt to accord respect to the art and the artiste was thereby successful to some extent since they were at least recognized for their art. But despite royal patronage and respectable company, they never enjoyed a very high position. The reason was that the classical tradition of drama represented by the Sanskrit plays followed the rules prescribed by Bharata, but folk tradition could not put that mask on for very long period and gradually adopted their original style up to a certain extent. That is why we still find some obscenity or undesirable elements in folk tradition of drama, but at the same time reminiscence of classical tradition is also there because acharyas had tried to modify the popular tradition of their art and retain those elements. In Kuttanimatam, the natacharya is disappointed in his courtesan pupils because they gave more importance to their original profession rather than drama. (Ibid)

While considering the devadasi, it appears that as the consort deity of the temple her social status was originally quite high. She was one of the honorable members of the temple functionaries and her deep knowledge of the dramatic arts earned respect from connoisseurs of the field for her. But as her position in the temple degenerated her status in society also degenerated and she was treated like a temple prostitute. Thus she was dragged down from an elevated position to the level of a commoner – an ordinary courtesan. Several reasons led to this fall, the prime one being a financial cause. During the good times of this system, devadasis were employed by the temple and received definite endowments for maintenance. Their financial status was raised and some of them had their personal property. But gradually with the decline in the popularity and sanctity of the system, generous earnings became rare. The proceeds from the offerings of the devotees gradually became meagre with the result that the food received by them from the bhog of the deity was so much reduced that it was impossible for the numbers of devadasis to be sustained. Hence she was forced to seek other means to substantiate her income when not engaged in her legitimate duties. They acted in stage shows, danced and sang in social functions held in well-to-do households and the more accomplished were paid highly. Thus gradually they turned into temple prostitutes. Thus either due to financial problem, vulgarity in performance or loose morals, performing artistes gradually lost that respect which they had earned with great difficulty. But the artistes appointed in the royal court or those who received royal patronage in some way or the other still held respectable status and were honoured for their art. (Ibid).

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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