Drama: Indian Dance and Dance Drama

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In the cultures of the Indian subcontinent, drama and ritual have been integral parts of a single whole from earliest recorded history. The first evidences of ritual dance drama performances occur in the rock paintings of Mirzapur, Bhimbetka, and in other sites, which are variously dated 20,0005000 bce. The ancient remains of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (25002000 bce) are more definitive. Here archaeological remains clearly point to the prevalence of ritual performance involving populace and patrons. The Mohenjo-Daro seals, bronze figurines, and images of priests and broken torsos are all clear indications of dance as ritual.

The aspect of Vedic ritual tradition closest to dance and drama was a rigorous system called yajña. Various types of sacrifices called yajña s were held at different astronomical confluences and lasted for five, seven, fifteen, or twenty-one days. These rituals were dramatic performances presented in a sacred enclosure. Usually three altars symbolized the celestial, terrestrial, and mundane worlds. The altars were in the shape of a square, a circle, and a semicircle. The performance included incantation, verses recited in different meters in specific intonation, movement in eight directions along a circumambulatory path in the sacred enclosure, and offerings of sixteen auspicious objects. Combined, these activities constituted a comprehensive ritual drama. Participating were the priests and the yajamana, the person desiring the performance of the sacrifice. Roles were clearly defined: the patron, his wife, the priest, his assistants, and members of the society representing the various vocations.

The ritual's movement pattern was dramatic from inception to conclusion. The cosmos was symbolically recreated for the duration of the performance, and the movement of the universe in its process of involution, evolution, and devolution was suggested. The ritual's ultimate conclusion was the ritual burning of the sacred enclosure.

The concern of the Vedic poet was also focused on images of dance and drama, as evidenced by the inumerable textual references to these arts. Some members of the Vedic pantheon were dancers: Ūa, the goddess of the dawn; Indra, the god of the thunderbolt; and the two sets of twin gods, the Māruts and the Aśvins.

Archaeological remains from the Mauryan period provide evidence of the prevalence of ritual dance and dance drama. The terra-cotta figures of the dancing girls, the drummer, and others of this period suggest preoccupation with ritual dance. The tradition continues in the Sunga, Stavahana, and Kushan periods (second century bce to second century ce), culminating with the great Buddhist stupas, Jain monuments, and early Hindu temples of the Gupta period (fourth to sixth centuries ce). The frequency of ritual performance is evident from the architectural remains of sacrificial enclosures, sculptural reliefs, and literary evidence.

The NĀya ŚĀstra

Attributed to Bhārata, the Nāya Śāstra (second century bce to second century ce) enunciates a theory of aesthetics and the techniques of dramaturgy in thirty-six chapters. These chapters discuss dramatic evolution, theatrical and stage construction, and the presentation of drama. Drama is viewed as a reenactment of the cosmos, which is composed of celestial, terrestrial, and mundane worlds. It is compared to a ritual performance (yajña ) and aims at emancipation or release (moka ) gained through the purification of emotion (rāsa ).

Like the stupa and temple, the theater is a sacred enclosure, and the stage is the sacred altar. A center is established, and all else radiates from it. The stage center is demarcated. The performance is a ritual that begins with offerings to the sacred center and the deities of the eight directions. The Nāya Śāstra devotes a full chapter to the preliminary rituals (pūrvaraga ). These comprise various entries and exits of three principal dancer-actors who establish the ritual space through song and mime. Drama proper follows. The Nāya Śāstra clearly draws upon Vedic ritual drama to create the edifice for dramatic ritual. It extracts elements from the four Vedas: intonation, recitation, gesture, language, music, and the internalized states of emotion, to create a fifth whole that Bhārata called the fifth Veda of drama. With speech, movement, music, and costumery, the performance is early multimedia. The Nāya Śāstra recognizes regional variations and can be presented in either stylized or natural modes.

Enunciated in oral tradition two thousand years ago, the precepts of the Nāya Śāstra are still followed in India in many dance and drama forms in whole or in part. The preliminaries invariably invoke principal deities; the sacred enclosure is demarcated. Whether the performance is in open space or in a closed theater, a center is established. Offerings are made of eight auspicious things, such as coconut, water, turmeric, and so forth. Once the director and his companions have established the consecrated space, the audience is invited to participate in the mythical, consecrated time of the drama.

The architectural plans of many stupas and temples built between the second and thirteenth century provide evidence of adhering to a sacred geometry of the square and circle. In each instance, a center is fundamental. Many rituals were performed in different areas of the temple, from the inner sanctum to outer enclosure. By the eighth century and particularly between the tenth and thirteenth century, special structures called naamaapa were built for ritual dance and dance drama.

Music and dance were included as part of temple offerings (seva s) involving flowers and incense. A solo dancer performed before the deity. Hereditary dancers called devadāsī s also performed in the temple sanctum. This practice was prevalent in all parts of India. Many other ritual dance dramas were performed in the courtyard, a tradition that continued and developed in many parts of India.

Ritual Dance Drama

The ritual dance-drama form with the longest continuity, called kuttiyattam, is performed today in special theaters (kuttambalama s) in Kerala. The spectacle held in these special theaters within the temple precincts is performed by professional acting families called chakyar s. Such families can trace their genealogies back to the tenth century of the common era.

The play starts with the sounding of a large, pitcher-shaped drum, the mizhavu. The director and his companions enter, almost exactly as described in the Nāya Śāstra, carrying a brimming vase and a pole. In the central area of the stage, eight auspicious gifts, aa-magala, are offered; these offerings almost replicate the offerings within the temple sanctum. The actors then circumambulate the stage, establishing the eight directions and the three spaces of the universenether, terrestial, and celestial.

A single play takes from seven to nine nights to complete. Each act is elaborated upon in minutest detail. A repertoire of ten plays is extant, although today only excerpts are presented. Night after night audiences witness these performances in rapt attention. Participation in the performance is a ritual act comparable to the daily worship the devotee offers to the deity inside the temple.

In the Guruvayur Temple (c. fifteenth century ce), the dance drama called Kattam is presented in the temple courtyard rather than in a kuttambalama. The life of Ka is enacted by a totally male cast of actors over a period of eight nights. The performance is based on the Kagiti, a text composed by King Manavedan. The favorite episodes of Ka's lifehis birth in a dark prison, his childhood pranks, his conquest of the snake demon Kaliya, his destruction of the demonness Pūtanā and the demons hidden in tree trunks, his playful sport with the cowherdesses (gopī s), and his final journey to heaven (svargarśana )are all re-created in a charming spectacle full of lyricism and fluidity. The faces of some actors are painted in green or red, symbolizing good and evil characters, respectively; other characters wear large masks.

The kathakali dance drama form was inspired by kuttiyattam. By some accounts it developed as a reaction to kattam. Eclectic in character, it is a highly sophisticated art form utilizing the preliminary rituals of kuttiyattam and presenting dance dramas based on the Indian epics, the Rāmāyaa and Mahābhārata. While kathakali' s ritualistic origins are not immediately clear, it draws essentially upon the rituals held in the temple sanctum.

The countless ritual dance drama forms of several village communities in Kerala are fundamental to the evolution of all temple dance drama forms. The preserve of the socioeconomically deprived and backward classes, these forms are known as teyyam s, a name derived from the word daivam ("to be god"). Many different forms of teyyam and teriyattam continue to be performed in Kerala. In these performances, the spirit of the deity enters the actor so that the ritual enactment invariably culminates in magic and trance. These forms characteristically feature elaborate makeup, high headgears, and oversize costumery, all designed to create an otherworldly vision. In the form called mudiyettu, an enclosure is made, and the image of the goddess Kālī is traced on the ground with the powders of different cereal grains. Another person, who many be considered devotee or priest, worships the image. Then this priest/devotee dances in a trance state and obliterates the image. A second enclosure is made, and the action of the dance drama shifts to this second space. A lamp, which had accompanied the first part of the performance, is moved to the second enclosure, symbolizing continuity. The story of Kālī vanquishing the demon Darika is enacted in the second enclosure. Until about the mid-twentieth century, the role of Kālī was performed by the same actor who worshiped and obliterated the image in the first enclosure; today they are different actors. At the end of the performance, the actors who take the roles of Kālī and Darika become possessed.

It is important to remember that for those forms drawing inspiration from the temple, the ritual precedes the dramatic spectacle, and the actors always are narrators and performers of the myth. In village dance drama rituals, however, the performer is not an actor but is transformed for the duration into the deity. The performance, therefore, invariably ends in trance with the actor possessed.

Similar dance-drama forms are known elsewhere in India. The patterns of chanting mantra s in the temple sanctum; singing inside the temple; and performing dances in the dance hall (manadappam ), dance drama in the temple courtyard, and dance drama in the village field or open spaces are pan-Indian.

One can identify three major systems of dance as ritual process and ritualistic dance drama from the thousands of distinctly regional or local forms. The first is an offering of music and dance, usually performed by a solo female dancer or a group of dancers. This genre owes its repertoire in varying degrees to the traditions followed by devadāsī s, māhari s, and others, and includes the bhāratanāyam of South India, the orissi of Orissa, and the ardhanantyam of Andhra Pradesh.

The second system includes the dance dramas within and without the temple courtyard. Here the performers are largely male dancer-actors, not devotee-narrators as in the solo offering. The medieval cycle plays concerning the life of Ka or Rāma emerged within this broad category. While known throughout India, they are special to the North and East. The third system is characterized by the presentation of themes from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaa.

Performances of Rāma-līlā are pervasive throughout India. The life cycle of Rāma, hero and god, is also presented during early autumn in Java, Bali, Thailand, and Malaysia. Commencing with ritual preliminariesinvoking gods of the water, earth, and sky and the deities of the quarters, and seeking benedictionthe life of Rāma is enacted nightly in episodes about his birth, his ultimate coronation, the banishing of Sītā, and, in some versions, his immersion in the waters of the river Saryu. The Rāmnagar Rāma-līlā and the Tulsīghāa Rāma-līlā are held in different parts of the city of Banaras. These ritual dance-drama performances take on a special quality because the locale itself is transformed into the situs of the story. Each episode is performed in a different place. The singer-director recites verses from the Rāmacaritamānas, a sixteenth-century work by Tulsīdās. Young boys, especially trained for the annual performance, act their roles in the changing locales; the audience identifies them with the mythical heroes. During the performance of the Rāma-līlā, a period of over twenty days, the actors who play the main role of Rāma and his brothers are considered deified. They are consecrated through ritual before the beginning of the dance drama; from that time on the human is icon come to life. Only after their final performance when they remove their headgear do the actors return to mundane life. Until that time, the audience worships them as they would an icon, the sacred and the profane are concurrent without tension, and actual time and place become mythical while also retaining their own ordinary identities.

Ritual and dance drama around the Ka theme constitute another performance system throughout India. Inspired by the early life of Ka, especially that narrated in the Bhāgavata Purāa (c. ninth century), the cycle of Kalīlā plays is performed two weeks before the Janmāamī, the day of Ka's birth on the eighth day of the waning moon of JulyAugust. The most important of these is the Vndāvana Kalīlā. Again, as in the case of Rāma-līlā, young boys are trained for their roles, initiated, and consecrated. For the duration of the cycle plays, these young boys, as Ka, his consort Rādhā, and other cowherdesses (gopī s), are considered deified. Beginning with Ka's birth, a new episode in his life is presented each day. This is known as līlā. The enactment of the stories in the early life of Ka culminates in the rāsa, the circular dance of great antiquity in which Ka stands in the center with the gopī s surrounding him. During the dance, Ka creates the illusion in which each gopī believes her partner to be Ka. In the Vndāvana Kalīlā the one young Ka suddenly is multiplied, leading to complex circle dancing until Ka and his consort Rādhā finally stand in the center. All others pay obeisance to the icon (mūrti ) of Ka and Rādhā as they would within the temple. Ecstatic cries fill the arena. Devotees prostrate themselves before the young dancers who are, for that time and space, deities.

In Manipur, the same Kalīlā becomes Rāsalīlā and is performed five times yearly to coincide with the full moon of spring, the monsoons, late autumn, and so forth. Instead of young boys, young girls before puberty take the principal roles. The gopī s can be women of any age, from ten to more than sixty. The enactment of Ka's early life is a moving spectacle, but the presentation of rāsa provides the most heightened ecstatic experience. The rāsa is held in the Govindjī Temple precincts in Manipur in springtime; the mahārāsa, or grand rāsa, in the November full moon. The gopī s arrive in two files of twenty to forty dancers each, dressed in glittering skirts and transparent veils. They sing verses from the tenth section of the Bhāgavata Purāa, each gopī vying with the others to communicate her yearning for the Dark Lord. Tears flow effortlessly. Singing in falsetto, with minimal restrained gestures, also occurs. Always played by a young girl, Ka appears, dances, and looks for the gopī s. Rādhā, dressed in a green skirt to distinguish her from the red-skirted gopī s, then appears. This provides an opportunity for a solo dance of great beauty. A dialogue through music and dance takes place between the two, followed by estrangement and then reunion. As in the Vndāvana Kalīlā the dance ends with a circular movement but without a number of Kas appearing.

The atmosphere is charged with devotion (bhakti ). Members of the audience enter the arena and bow down or prostrate themselves before the dancer-deities, offer gifts, and then retreat. The dance can last all night until early in the morning, when the gopī s and the audience worship the child actors portraying Ka and Rādhā as they would the icons inside the temple sanctum.

See Also



Bhattacharya, D. H. Origin and Development of the Assamese Drama and Stage. New Delhi, 1964.

Blank, Judith. The History, Cultural Context and Religious Meaning of the Chau Dance. Chicago, 1972.

Desai, Sudha. Bhavai: A Medieval Form of Ancient Indian Dramatic Art. Ahmadabad, 1972.

Ghosh, Manomohan, ed. and trans. Natyasastra. 2 vols. 2d rev. ed. Calcutta, 1967.

Guha, Thakurta P. The Bengali Drama. London, 1930.

Hawley, John Stratton. At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan. Princeton, 1981.

Hein, Norvin. The Miracle Plays of Mathura. New Haven, 1972.

Jones, Clifford, and Betty True Jones. Kathakali: An Introduction to the Dance-Drama of Kerala. San Francisco, 1970.

Raju, P. T. Telugu Literature: Andhra Literature. Bombay, 1944.

Ranganath, H. K. The Karnataka Theatre. Dharwar, 1960.

Shekhar, Indu. Sanskrit Drama: Its Origin and Decline. Leiden, 1960.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Traditional Indian Theater: Multiple Streams. New Delhi, 1980. Includes extensive bibliography.

New Sources

Sax, William S., ed. The Gods at Pay: Lila in South Asia. New York, 1995.

Kapila Vatsyayan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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