Asia, the mystic continent, fascinating explorers all around the world with its sublime spirituality, its rich oriental essence and aesthetic fervour, is a treasure trove of distinct cultural varieties reflected especially in its various art forms. These art forms, including music, drama and dance, go a long way to represent various regions and cultures of the continent. The various distinct dance traditions of Asia which are persistently showcased throughout the globe even today are true emblems reflecting the cultural heritage of many nationalities, societies, religions, and ethnic groups in the continent.
To sum up, the essence of classical dance traditions of the entire continent would be an extremely difficult task, as there are a thousand varieties of dance patterns and styles representing the culture and ethnicity of thousands of regions and nations. However, a peek into the most prominent classical dance forms of India would definitely suffice to identify the predominant cultural diversity and rich aestheticism that Asian art, music and culture particularly embody.
Classical south-east Asian dance forms:
For ages, the south-east Asian music and performing arts, especially dance traditions have brought forth an enriching legacy of artistry and aestheticism, widely embraced and appreciated throughout the world. India has for ages been a hot spot for classical and contemporary south-east Asian dance traditions, embodying a wide variety of the country’s history and culture.
The cultural varieties and patterns in south-east Asian dance traditions, precisely, the ancient Indian dance traditions, have been strongly influenced by the predominant forces of religion and mythology. If we look into the history of the classical Indian dance forms including Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, we would see that all of these dance forms have been strongly associated with Hindu temples and the temple arts, with the dancers regarded as Devadasis (temple dancers) or Bayadères. All these classical dance traditions were evolved with ‘dance’ being a sign of prosperity for the temples, with mythological stories being narrated through the dancers’ performances in order to enlighten people about the Divine.
Bharatanatyam, the traditional ancient dance form signifying the aesthetic and religious spirit of India, has evolved over many centuries in the temples of southern India. It highlights the beauty of strong lines originating from the dancer’s body and is embellished with intricately expressive hand gestures. The other two religious dance forms that also evolved in South India, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam, are accompanied by several lyrical compositions reflecting the desire of a devotee to merge with God and symbolizing the union of the soul with the super soul.
Another unique dance form, the Kathakali, originated in the Southern state of Kerala during the late 16th century, imbibing elements from the folk and also martial arts that existed at the time in Kerala. A combination of the five essential elements of fine arts, expressions, dance, enactment, song and instrumental accompaniment, Kathakali today has emerged as a unique classical dance pattern combining story-telling, drama and mythology.
The dance form of Kathak, on its part, also originated as a storytelling art form in northern India. It developed in Hindu temples and later in Mogul courts. It is characterized by fluid body movements, complex patterns of footwork, fast turns and sudden stillness. It has also evolved and enhanced significantly by the courtesans of Lucknow throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries and even beyond.
Another significant Indian dance form is Odissi, a classical dance style that originated around the 2nd century B.C. in the eastern region of India, and has evolved ever since. Natya Shastra, the classic book of dance by the ancient sage Bharat Muni speaks of this particular dance form. Odissi is basically a soft, flowing, sensuous style of dance which demands absolute control and precision of the body and attention to aesthetic and technical details. Essentially spiritual in thought, the dance was often performed in temples by Devadasis (dedicated temple dancers), who offered their dance as a prayer to God. The sculptural art depicted in the temples of Orissa is strongly connected with the art of Odissi dance. The dance is sculptural in motion, and the sculpture is the stillness of a moment of dance.
Most of these ancient dance forms are based on mythological stories using mudra or a language of hand gestures to represent objects and ideas, and a language of facial expressions to represent subtle feelings through abhinaya (acting). Abhinaya, so to speak, remains one of the significant items in the repertoire of all Indian classical dance forms. Basically, it is an example of dance using a most intricate language composed of facial expressions, hand gestures, and is expressed through subtle body language. The dancers of Indian classical dance forms vividly depict the theme of the song using their body language. Although some Abhinayas in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam are based entirely on devotional songs, often romance and erotic themes (featuring the sringara rasa—the erotic and sensual) are explored through sensitive, intense gestures and body languages.
In essence, a precise interaction with traditional music characterizes all of these classical dance genres. On the whole, Indian classical dance traditions are perceived and performed as manifestations/expressions of the mind and soul and are extremely traditional. They still follow the rules set down by Bharatha Muni (a saint) in his Natya Shastra many years ago. They, along with folk dances present a spectacular and gorgeous aspect of the magnificent and continuous Indian dance traditions. For that matter, the dance forms of Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi and Kathakali may have subtle cultural varieties reflected in their unique styles, but all of these dance forms are created through subtle sensuous, rhythmic movements, evoking the spiritual through the experience of ‘ananda’ (supreme bliss). Experts of Indian dance traditions have connected this experience of supreme bliss with the creation of rasa (mood or flavour) that the dances bring forth.
Rasa as the cause of ananda (bliss) is considered fundamental and the essence of beauty and harmony in Indian aesthetics. Since the ancient Indian philosophy perceives the presence of the Brahman, the ‘Supreme Being’ in everything seen in the universe, these ancient classical Indian dance forms emphasize on the expression of spirituality and divinity in a piece of art as the richest and supreme expression of bliss. This aesthetic theory is common to all Indian classical dance styles.
A pre-dominant cultural pattern in south-east Asian dance traditions is the Guru-Shishya parampara (the teacher-to-student legacy of dance), which has been a significant feature of Asian dance traditions for centuries. The traditional Guru-Shishya parampara emphasizes on the disciple spending extensive time with the Guru in the Gurukul (school of dance education) and also on extensive rigorous training under the tutelage of the Guru. Even today, though some think that certain aspects of the tradition are particularly problematic in the current global diasporic context, the fundamental aspects of the parampara continue to be perpetuated in diverse teaching contexts in India, particularly in the significance of lineage.
In the final analysis, the South Asian classical dance forms represent a raw beauty, splendour of distinct historical heritages and spirituality which reflect cultural diversity and variety in every possible way. Essentially, dance, music and the arts are embedded in the blood and the veins of the entire continent of Asia.