Click here for all links

Social media links

Role and function of dance: Historical context (Part 5)
- Dr. Anonna Guha, Mumbai

March 15, 2013

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

The fact that scholars and theoreticians found the performing arts worthy of their attention from a very early period is a significant indication of attitudes toward dance and drama. However this interest was not the sole force governing the relationships of dance and dancers to society in general. Gradually many changes took place in the performing arts. Art became a product of India's caste system and the practice of developing traditions of art within specific communities indeed within families was observed. The schools of art descended through teacher to disciple lineages. Since professional dancers traditionally tended to belong to specific communities within the caste system and they earned their livelihood through it, amateur performers were rare. The castes from which dancers and musicians were drawn, like those supplying sculptors and painters were comparatively low on the ancient systematic scale of ritual purity and social status. There were some exceptions where some forms of music and dance drama were performed by brahmans, exclusively by males. The performing communities of brahmans were marked lower on hierarchy as compared to those brahmans whose special duties involved learning and teaching of the Vedas or other ancient texts. Even the communities of dancers, had to be of sufficient ritual purity to be allowed to perform within temple premises. In Orissa for example, female temple dancers - maharis - actually performed before the sanctum, while boys impersonating female dancers - gotipuas - performed in less exalted surroundings in other outer precincts. The actor - dancers of Kutiyattam Sanskrit drama in Kerala who perform in specially built theatres within the temple grounds are lower ranked brahmans according to some authorities, according to others they are the highest among the Kerala Ambalavasis or temple servants. The actresses and musicians of Kutiyattam are of the next highest rank. (IED Vol 3 1998:458-459)

To understand dance as an occupation of a particular caste group, one can refer to the Kathaks as a caste. The Kathaks known for centuries as a community of dancers and musicians settled in several regions. It is quite likely that the dance also came to be known as Kathak by virtue of its association with the community. Kathak brahmins are invariably known as Maharajas, meaning great Kings. They were regarded not only as gifted Kathak dancers and percussionists but were also regarded as superior human beings. Throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh, one comes across people who belong to the Kathak caste. Taking into account the ethnological manuals about their traditional caste occupation, i.e. dancing, serving as teachers, managers and musical accompanists to dancing girls, enquiries about the caste Kathak were conducted at Mirzapur a 100 years ago. A note by one Bhagwandas Tahsildar from Allahabad unraveled some aspects of their life. Accordingly, the Kathak are really Gaur brahmins who originally used to sing and dance in the temples. On gauging their skill a certain Muhamadan Emperor of Delhi ordered them to perform in public. (Kothari 1989: 11-15)

The Kathakas are supposedly divided into 16 sections with gotra laws, all of which seem to be of local origin and derived from places they occupied in former times. Of these the names of 15 have been ascertained in Mirzapur. Bhadohiya from Parjana Bhadohi in Mirzapur district; Mathapati whose ancestors are said to have been heads of a monastery (matha): Mahuari, Bhunsaiha, Gonraha from Gonda, Usari, Mandik, Rajaipur, Notepur, Naikan, Jansali and Manjali who are chiefly found in the districts of Azamgarh and Gorakhpur. Each of them is again divided into gotras but it is impossible to list them since the people are generally an ignorant group. They only point out that the gotras are related to those of Kanaujiya and Sarwariya Brahmins. (Ibid)

They are popularly regarded by low caste Hindus as equal to brahmans and all castes including Rajputs salute them and beg blessings. The only practical difference is that they cannot receive the gifts of piety (dana). Widow marriage is not permitted among them. Apart from all the Hindu Gods, they worship Gazi Miyan and offer to him sweet cakes (pakwaan) in the months of kaur and chait. Despite the respect they accord, their work degrades them to a certain degree. Their women are secluded except on very special occasions such as marriage in very high caste families. But the men are known as bharuas or the attendants of the ordinary dancing girls who are often prostitutes. The teachers of singing and dancing play on the small drum (dhol) and cymbal (manjira), while accompanying the dancers to marriages and receive half their earnings. Their clan deity is Goddess Saraswati whom they worship at Basant Panchami festival on the 5th day of Phalgun with offerings of sweetmeat and incense. (Ibid)

Economic Status
There is no definite information regarding the economic status of the performing artistes during the Vedic period. It appears, however, that in the Vedic period some theatre artistes were appointed in the service of the kings. Probably such artistes received a fixed salary in the manner known to that period. Those who were assigned the duty of performing rituals of a dramatic nature would have received remuneration of some sort. On gathering from Buddhist and Jaina texts it seems that dancers were appointed in the service of kings and female artistes appointed as janapada kalyani enjoyed a respectable position and rich life as in the case of Ambapali. The Kannavera Jataka relates the story of a courtesan Sama whose price was a thousand pieces of money and who had a suite of 500 female slaves. This could also be so because she was a favourite of the king. From the epics it seems that the artistes had probably formed a community as they are referred to as sutamagdhavaitalikah or natannartakaganikah. Some female dancers and dance teachers too were employed in the harem as one gathers from the reference to Arjuna as Brhannala. Thus the artistes employed in the King's court got more respect and earnings, hence everyone vied for a position in the court. Others tried to serve under rich private persons. In contrast there were many who earned their living with great difficulty by catering to the amusement of people during celebrations and festivals. Since these artistes depended on festivals and special occasions for earning their financial status would not have been very sound and stable. One cannot ascertain whether the earnings of common artistes were sufficient or whether they had to seek other sources of income.

The festivities, in spite of their frequency, formed only an occasional break in their daily life and at other times, they led a miserable life. The family often sustained itself by begging. It seems natas did not do any other job besides their original work i.e. the art which they had adopted as their profession. It is not clear if these artistes had organized themselves as a caste as such or their professions in due course of time developed as castes. Their art had no doubt, taken the form of the family profession as words such as natakula (dancer's family), conch blower family, drummer family, are found in literature. (Iravati 200: 205-231)

The advent of the Maurya dynasty was a definite landmark in Indian history since the Mauryan emperors unified the greater part of India under one scepter. Thus changes in political, intellectual, psychological and social spheres were thereby effected. This reflected in the field of dramatic arts too. Arthashastra's author Kautilya's attitude towards the arts was not that of a rasika or art lover but totally utilitarian. For the first time in his treatise, salaries of performing artistes are mentioned along with the tax they had to pay to the state for providing them facilities. During Kautilya's time, it seems the state provided regular employment for some performing artistes who were helpful to the state in some way or the other as for spying or those included in personal staff. Besides artistes who were state employees Kautilya had thought about the common folk artistes too. He believed that theatre artistes present their shows to earn money, hence people should give them proper remuneration. It is a possibility that the remuneration was paid from the people of the village or the locality where the show was going to be held. This may be so since the state insisted that people contribute money for organising shows or dramatic performances. Those who had not contributed weren't allowed to witness the performance. (Ibid)

Some references in Natyashastra indicate that Bharata has made a plan regarding the artiste's financial status. For the benefit of those who had adopted the art as their profession, to learn and practice the art in the manner described by Bharata was a full time job. Naturally a person dedicated to the art in the true sense of the word would want to promote it honestly and that wasn't possible without financial security. Hence, generally speaking midnight, noontime, twilight and mealtimes were prohibited by Bharata for presenting dramatic shows, since performances during these times, drama would attract limited audience and less earnings. There were two types of artistes: those whose fees were fixed earlier and those who fees were not. The latter usually received gifts from the citizens spontaneously after or during the show. In the early medieval south, apart from getting remuneration for performance, girls who performed in temple on festival days, individual actors and troupes, received gifts of lands, a daily allowance of paddy and sheep etc for their performance. Thus despite prejudices the actors received affection and favour of kings and people. (Ibid)

Although temples were traditionally the chief patrons for the devadasis of South India and often for other arts as well, the kind of patronage systems differed locally and regionally. In one form of patronage, a group of artist families and their patrons were of the same ritual and social level; in other cases the patrons were of a slightly higher level. Traditional patrons supported performing artistes throughout the season and sometimes for generations, continuing till date. In rare cases a single patron - a temple authority, royal patronage or merchant prince - has been the principal or even the exclusive patron of a particular family of artiste or even a group of such families. Patronage in the past not only included annual monetary payment for artist's services, payment in kind- clothes, grain or goods. In case of royal or temple institutional patronage, artistes were also bestowed land and domicile and education. The relationship was also one of master and servant, which in the traditional context carried mutual responsibilities. (IED Vol 3 1998: 458-459)

Depending on the source of patronage, one perceived the context of the performance. Relatively exclusive performances were the ideal in which family, class and social rank prescribed the composition of the audience. Performances in the temples or open air before religious shrines allowed a wider range of people to attend it. Such public performances were usually the gift of a patron to the community which reinforced the patron's status. (Ibid)

In general dancers - actors were held in low esteem. The female dancers attached to the temples as devadasis and courtesans reinforced this attitude. Until recently when many attitudes began to change, 'no woman of good family' would have thought of learning dance. Apart from lowering the status of the person learning the art form, the traditional Hindu view of life doesn't advocate following another's dharma and social duty. (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.'

Post your comments
Please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted with name & email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.

Click here for all links
Articles | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns