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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

World Dance Day: Lesser-known dance traditions from Eastern India that have influenced the present classical dance forms

Every region of the country has some kind of dance, folk theatre and music to call its own. On this World Dance Day, let's revisit some of Eastern India's classical traditions.

By: Lifestyle Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 29, 2019 4:41:12 pm
Odissi, World Dance Day, Odissi is a classical dance form from Odisha that has roots in the Mahari and Gotipua dance traditions. (Source: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

At the time of independence, the country had four major recognised dance forms; namely Kathak from the Indo-Gangetic belt, Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu, Kathakali from Kerala and Manipuri from Manipur. By the sixties, the number had increased to seven.

Later, a similar movement started taking shape in the seventies, catching full momentum in the eighties and nineties of the last century. “Exercise was undertaken in Assam where the folk theatre of the monasteries — the satras — were metamorphosed into creating a solo dance form, ‘Sattriya’ that sought to fulfill requirements of solo dance replete with a fleshed out repertoire, presentation format, reflecting the spirit and codifications of the treatises,” Kathak dance exponent Shovana Narayan tells

Some of the major classical dance traditions have evolved from the simple dance origins and have influenced them deeply. These lesser-known dance forms which often find their roots in treatises Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpan have declined over the years owing to different reasons – political disturbances, lack of patronage, foreign rule and social stigma are a few.

On this World Dance Day, also called the International Day of Dance, let’s revisit two of Eastern India’s classical traditions with the help of dance exponents.

The Devadasi dance of Assam has influenced Sattriya

Devadasi tradition, or the tradition of temple dancers of Assam, was associated with both Vishnu and Shiva temples. Traditionally woven into the core of Sattriya, it has been used to convey mythological stories to people in an enchanting way. The dance consists of three distinct parts — Guru Vandana, Ramdani and Geet Abhinaya.

Sattriya dancer Prateesha Suresh says, “Historical evidence of devadasis or ‘dancing girls’ can be found as early as the sixth century. The style of the dance is same as Sattriya. Even the bols or rhythmic patterns are very much alike. Certain names like ‘Ramdani’ which is the first part of a pure dance in Sattriya was called ‘Ramjani’ in Devadasi.”

According to her, the terms denoting rhythmic patterns like ghat and chora ghat are also used in Sattriya. Even the costume where the Devadasi wears a skirt is similar to the skirt of the Sattriya female dancer, so is the way the hair is put up in a high bun.

“Sattriya dance was established by Shrimanta Shankardeva in the 15th-16th century. So it is not difficult to presume that this dance form was in practice during that time,” says Suresh who has been practicing Sattriya for over 25 years.

However, the Devadasi tradition slowly faded after a ban ordered by the colonial rulers. Afraid of continuing the art, the dancers gave up its practice. “Due to this, today we have only a small dance piece of eight minutes of this art form. Even this needs practitioners and patrons to keep the dance alive and may be work on enriching its repertoire with greater involvement,” highlights Suresh.

Mahari and Gotipua traditions influencing Odissi

In the mid-1950s, the state of Odisha, courtesy efforts of a special group ‘Jayantika’ saw amalgamation of the dance of the Maharis or female temple servants into the framework of the dance of the Gotipuas (the acrobatic dance of young boys dressed as females) to create a new classical dance form Odissi “reflecting the codifications of the treatises” as per Shovana Narayan.

Every region of the country has some kind of dance, folk theatre and music to call its own. The latter part of colonial rule infused a wave of nationalism in the country whereby dance – and more so classical dance – became the emblem of our country’s rich ‘high’ cultural heritage.

To quote Urmimala Sarkar Munsi from her paper ‘Boundaries and Beyond’,  several regions saw a “process of cultural engineering, wherein the grammar was systematically structured, the link with the Natya Shastra was deliberately sought and established, and, in most cases, even the name of the form was newly invented”. Southern regions had a head start. The eastern regions started following suit.

Considering these traditions are varied and deep but lack awareness and study, Suresh says there is a need for younger exponents to explore these traditions.

She says, “If each one of us could take little responsibility of understanding these traditions a little more than just “performances”, it will help us in preserving great creations. I would urge all young exponents in engaging in more discussions on their subjects. Be inquisitive and ask more questions.”

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