The word dance, nrtya, immediately connects the mind to Nataraja. India has several dance forms. In fact, each community has its own very special music and dance. And yet, the common purpose of them all is the quest of the mind for bliss. Some of the dances of India have emerged as ‘classical’ having impact, influence and connoisseurship outside their places of origin.
When the maestros of each of these dances speak, they speak from within, their words rooted in commitment to the form as much as to the content. R. K. Singhajit Singh (Manipuri), Sharon Lowen (Odissi), Shovana Narayan (Kathak), Pratibha Prahlad (Bharatanatyam), Bharti Shivaji (Mohiniyattam), Raja and Radha Reddy (Kuchipudi) and Sadanam Balakrishnan (Kathakali) have written handbooks on the dances practiced by them. A compilation of a seven-volume set has been brought out under one title Dances of India by Wisdom Tree. Reading the introduction to each, one realises the commonality amongst them all. All these dances draw their repertoire from Indian epics, scriptures and the rich religious literature. Manipuri’s origin is linked to the creation of the earth by Brahma. The name Manipur comes from the legend that Shiva and Parvati danced the whole night in this location, which was illuminated by the jewels (mani) placed by the serpent king atop surrounding mountains.
The origin of Odissi dates back to at least 2nd century b.c. A sculpture of the period, depicting a dancer, accompanied by musicians is found on the walls of Udayagiri. Odissi, motivated by spiritual consciousness is still part of the temple ritual in Orissa. The earliest direct reference to Kathak is in Mahabharata, in Adiparva, according to Shovana Narayan. It is believed that Kuchipudi dance was initiated by Bharatamuni himself. The author of Natyashastra is dated 3rd or 2nd century b.c. Kuchipudi originated from the village of the same name in Andhra Pradesh. Raja and Radha Reddy, the best-known names in Kuchipudi, have written about this art form.
The name Sadanam Balakrishnan is taken with reverence among the names of Kathakali gurus. As a complete and independent dance form, Kathakali emerged in the 17th century a.d. though its origins can be traced to much earlier. Techniques and scientific basis of the dance and drama are from Naytashastra. The dance that Vishnu performed in his incarnation, as Mohini, in order to kill Bhasmasura, is Mohiniyattam, the beautiful dance from Kerala. Bharatanatyam traces its origin to Brahma, who is said to have created the Natya Veda. However it is commonly believed the dance of Shiva. It is the most known dance of India the world over.
Considering that the dances of India trace their origin to gods, it is not surprising that temples were the chief patrons of music and dance. While music is part of the daily ritual in almost all the temples, during festivals, dances are sponsored. Indian culture closely links art and creativity with life and spirituality.