Indian classical dance has a historical background that is more than five thousand years. Indian classical dances portray stories from Hindu mythology but it is the spiritual aspect of reaching out to the Supreme that is utmost important, hence stories from other religions like Christianity or Islam are also portrayed through the medium of varied bodily movements, hand gestures, (mudras), and expressions.
There are eight different classical dances of India, namely Bharata Natyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Odissi, Kathak and Sattriya dance from Assam. These dances hail from different states of India and there are several folk and tribal dances that truly reflect on India's cultural unity in diversity.
Indian dance has gone through varied stages of development, regression and progression due to varied social and political changes over the years. Most of the classical dances originated from the temples and dancers were known as "devadasis" (servants of the God), "Meibis" or "Maharis" and were confined to temples.
They used to perform on religious occasions but slowly the dancers started drifting from temples to the courtyards of rich chieftans or "zamindars" and further on royal patronage took over, wherein kings patronised the arts and artists as well. With degradation, the Devadasi Act was passed by the Government to abolish the devadasi culture that induced young girls to devote their lives completely to the Gods.
Great personalities intervened and brought about a new respectability to classical dance by inspiring young girls from respectable families to take up dancing seriously. Dance critic and scholar E. Krishna Iyer donned female attire in order to attract young children to learn classical dance.
While Rabindranath Tagore established Shantiniketan in Kolkata to promote arts and literature, Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra in Chennai, poet Vallathol established Kerala Kalamandalam in Kerala and Bharata Natyam exponent Mrinalini Sarabhai established Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad. Slowly and steadily the performing arts gained a new dimension and colour that was applauded worldwide.
Uday Shankar and Ramgopal are considered the pioneers as far as placing Indian dance on the international platform. As a young boy Uday Shankar travelled overseas to study painting but after he met the "prima donna" Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, his life changed.
She asked him why he didn’t learn Indian classical dances and thereafter, he got completely involved with learning Bharata Natyam and Kathakali from great masters.
Having witnessed western classical ballet performances, he extracted the best aspects of performances and interpreted it in the Indian ballet format which was appreciated globally and was known as the “Uday Shankar style”.
Uday Shankar established his dance academy in Almora (UP) and produced the film ‘Kalpana’ which was a financial disaster but a fine testimony of the art of choreography and showmanship of the great performer. His younger brother Ravi Shankar was also in the group that included names like Zohra Sehgal, Narendra Sharma, Vijay Raghav Rao etc. Ram Gopal was another male dancer who was well appreciated for his performances that blended creativity with aesthetic quality.
It is interesting to note Kathakali, the dance style from Kerala is the only dance that is exclusively performed by men due to its strenuous technique and style of presentation that is vibrant and strong. Renowned Bharata Natyam dancer Rohinton Cama, disciple of the legendary Vyjayanthimala had once remarked, "It is the females who have trespassed our territory!” Although classical dancing is dominated by female dancers, there are plenty of male dancers who have excelled.
One among them is Kathak dancer and choreographer Gopi Krishna whose performances in films like V Shantaram's ‘Janak Janak Payal Baje’ made him legendary. Here’s a closer look at some of the male dancers who have made their mark...
Nilesh Singha is one of the leading male Bharata Natyam dancers in Mumbai who has established his own dance academy, Shivoham. Says Nilesh, “The gender issue does not matter any more, ultimately it is your devotion and performance that matters the most.”
Manipuri is normally performed by females due to its graceful and lyrical quality. A young handsome Manipuri dancer from Manipur, Manju E not only performs the graceful styles but also the "tandava" style which is another concept of Manipuri.
New Delhi-based Madhur Gupta is a brilliant Odissi exponent, a prolific writer and disciple of the renowned Odissi exponent Sharon Lowen. Madhur says, “Grace is one of the most important aspects of a performance and Odissi is known for its grace and quality of being sensual combined with sensitivity that really touches the spectator.
What inspires me the most is the transition when the dancer takes you on a journey, going close to the Almighty which forms the core of the philosophy of reaching out to the supreme, when you surrender yourself at the feet of Lord Jagannath, the divine bliss, the ultimate of classical arts.”
Anil Kumar Singh
Mumbai-based Anil Kumar Singh is a Bharata Natyam dancer and performs Rabindra Nritya based on Rabindra Sangeet. Anil says, “My family used to say, men wearing ghungroos (dancing bells) is a shame, it is effeminate and not right for boys but my conviction and hard work proved them wrong. Today I am getting invitations to perform for various occasions, I will be shortly performing in Colombo and Singapore. I believe that you should do your best and enjoy it.”
Amarnath Ghosh is a talented Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer from Chennai. He performs regularly and teaches as well. Amarnath shares, “Kuchipudi initially was danced only by Brahmin boys as it was believed that if females perform, the purity of the dance will be disturbed.” The great yogi and composer Siddhendra Yogi encouraged young Brahmin boys to pursue Kuchipudi seriously. Amarnath wants to propagate Kuchipudi on the international platform and is working towards it.
Rupak Mehta is a brilliant Bharata Natyam exponent and the director of Brahmnaad Cultural Society and Avenue Nehru Camps (Himachal Pradesh). A performer, teacher and choreographer, he says, “When a male dancer performs, he should dance like a man with masculine power and vitality, symbolic of Lord Shiva. For me, dance is pure devotion as we always portray stories pertaining to the gods and then we are automatically blessed by the divine grace."
Rahul Mondal is a powerful Bharata Natyam dancer from Kolkata who combines the fine aspect of dance and Yoga. To watch Rahul dance is sheer joy as he takes you on flight of artistic excellence. Rahul declares, “For me, dance is life and life is dance.
Classical dance is the expression of the soul which is above any particular gender of the person. It is your devotion that matters the most, when you dance, the world should dance with you and that should be the spirit.”
Some of the great master performers include Vempatti Chinna Satyam, Vedantam Satyanarana Sharma who dons the female attire, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj, Deepak Mazumdar, Nandkishore Kapote.
The dance of life is eternal, dancers perish but the dance must go on for ever.