By Shovana Narayan

This article is the first part of a series of two articles by Guru Shovana Narayan. Find the second part here.

India has had contact with other cultures from time immemorial. These contacts, combined with natural environmental changes, created push and torques that led to a constant process of cultural synthesis. Migration is a truth that cannot be ignored. Whatever be the reason for such migrations, people who settle down in other areas, carry with them the flavour of their own culture. Thus, the imported flavour takes roots in the psyche of the people of the new region and sets in motion a process of cultural synthesis. The converse scenario is equally true. In addition, the process of fusion—when aspects of two cultures fuse to produce a new practice—has its own individual identity. Such a process is continuous.

From pre-historic times to the Indus Valley Civilization followed by the Vedic period and its successive periods, the Indian sub-continent has witnessed inclusion in favour of exclusion. Elements of dance, theatre, group formations, musical instruments and rituals of pre-historic India found resonance in the Indus Valley-Harappan periods. Large scale migratory patterns, whereby the population moved from Western Coastal regions to the interior heartlands of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, have been borne out by their folk songs; which refer to the songs of the salt, flight on the camels and rituals. These songs are also accompanied by phonetic sounds with symbols reminiscent of the Harappan period and occurrence of ancient Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian words. These are yet indicators to the all too evident pushes and pulls of natural disasters among other games of socio-political power changes.

The Aryan Influx

Hinduism incorporated all forms of belief and worship without feeling the need for obliterating or eliminating any other belief or ritual.

With the drying up of rivers, there was the inevitable migration of population; largely towards the Gangetic belt. The Vedic civilization—largely associated with the Indus valley—added another dimension, with the emergence of Itihas and Puranas. In the spread of Aryan precepts, various sages such as Sage Agastya carried out the Aryan expansion in the Deccan. Sometime later, almost the whole of India had come under the spell of Aryanism. Hinduism incorporated all forms of belief and worship without feeling the need for obliterating or eliminating any other belief or ritual. No part of India remained oblivious or untouched by inter-regional and inter-cultural influences. Sanskrit, identified with the brahminical religion of the Vedas, was adopted in all parts of India. One of the important fall-outs of this was the adoption of the caste stratification of society and which in turn, also had its impact on artistes.

Political instability and foreign invasion from the northern and western borders also led to migration of a large number of scholars to safer areas, carrying with them masses of literature and literary and artistic thoughts of the art forms and traditions with which they had grown and had seen along the way. These were compiled painstakingly in various treatises. Most of the authors of treatises such as the Natyashastra and the Sangeet Ratnakar, namely Bharata and Sharangdeva respectively, originally hailed from Kashmir.

10th century is a water-shed in the area of performing arts as it marked regional development of various art forms. Till then, the usual outward turn of knees or the straight stance gave way to regional identifying features. Similarly, language, music and costume got influenced under various rulers – be it from across the Indian borders or from beyond state borders.

The Mythical Journey of Nataraja

Rituals enjoyed a prominent position in both pre and post-Aryan periods, extending itself to imageries and iconography.

Devotion is the underlying factor of classical performing arts. Rituals enjoyed a prominent position in both pre and post-Aryan periods, extending itself to imageries and iconography. The evolution of faith saw a dynamic process of inclusion of myths, rituals and iconographies. The seal discovered at Mohenjodaro that shows a seated figure in a crossed-legged posture of meditation surrounded by animals, is identified with Shiva as Pashupati. Post the period of Buddha, the upsurge of devotion to Lord Shiva—the Auspicious One (a concept with elements of Vedic deities such as Agni, considered to be the bull—the vehicle “Nandi” of Shiva, Rudra—the deity with ‘golden red hue of flame’ and Surya), found fruition in the early Mauryan period.

This also led to the birth of the philosophy and myth of Nataraja. Tantra and Shakta traditions find a unique merger and expression as Nataraja; dwelling on monistic idealism where consciousness is the one reality. With its roots on the banks of River Sindhu in Kashmir, Shaivism, Tantrism and the concept of Nataraja and its iconography slowly spread its wings to various parts of the sub-continent. The migration of Shaivite scholar—Sage Moolanath—from Kashmir to Chidambaram in 6th century AD, laid the foundations of Shaivism at Chidambaram; with associated legends taking roots. In due course of time, Sage Moolanath came to be known as Thirumuller (Thiru for Shri ) in Tamil style.

Lord Shiva doing Rudra Tandava (violent dance).

Lord Shiva doing Rudra Tandava (violent dance). | Photo Courtesy: Coroflot

The iconography of Dancing Shiva grew slowly. Ganges came to adorn his locks around 5th century AD. The crescent moon and serpent were added in following centuries. The aureole of flames came about in 8th / 9th century AD and is attributed to Buddhist iconographies. Till 10th century-11th century AD, Nataraja was known by names such as Narteshwar, Natakeswar, Nriteshwar and he was always portrayed in a frontal position. But post 10th / 11th century AD, not only he came to be known as Nataraja but he also came to adopt the position as is popular today. These have been borne out by epigraphic representations from 2nd century BC “Sunga” period in north and north-west India to various parts of India, only to finally culminate in the 11th century popular figure of Nataraj of Chola period.

Radha-Krishna: A Divine Romance

The other popular figure in performing arts is that of Krishna. Even though Krishna finds continuous mentions in various references since 4th century BC, yet it is from the 10th century onwards that he has filled our consciousness and along with Radha, has become the central motif for all art forms. Jayadeva, the court poet of King Lakshmanasena (AD 1179-1205) of Bengal raised the level of Radha and brought in the element of divine romance. His Sanskrit classic, Gitagovinda (Songs of Govinda) became a powerful evocative landmark in this process. It raised the imagery of Radha to unprecedented heights of imagination. In fact, till tenth century AD, mention of Radha was minimal.

The issue now is to understand the reason behind Jayadeva’s seemingly intentional elevation of Radha from a somewhat obscure person to a central deity of worship. This may perhaps be best explained from an analysis of the socio-political situation existing at that point of time in Indian history.

Radha_Krishna Paradigm | Photo Courtesy: Flickr

Radha-Krishna: An epitome of yearning and devotion. | Photo Courtesy: Flickr

By the tenth century, while the influence of Shaivism was waning and Vaishnavism was on the rise, it had to simultaneously face new emerging challenges because of the changed socio-political scene that came with the advent of Muslim rule. With men out on battlefields, the natural emotional urges found resonance in the stories of Radha and Krishna.

Thus, Krishna came to symbolize the philosophical and pragmatic acceptance of the relevance of desire.

Vaishnav verses that extolled the yearning of the individual soul for the Almighty—symbolized by Radha yearning for Krishna in Vaishnavism— and between the lover and the beloved (the Almighty) in Sufism, became subjects of enactment in performing arts. Sufi thought became visible in Vaishnav philosophy and vice versa. The two parallel streams with their verses being part of all our performing art traditions, lent beautiful and meaningful cultural synthesis.

It was this yearning — Kathak being the link between the two focal points — which resulted in its characteristic pose where one arm is raised above the head and the other arm stretched out at chest level. This particular pose finds a certain similarity to the Sufi whirling dervesh’s hand position, where his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence and his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth.

Piroutting Around to Oneness

Weaving through contours of socio-political history and inter-cultural dynamics, Kathak exudes the fragrance not only of 2500 years of Indian history, but more so of the last 1000 years of heritage.

Kathak dance form has had an unbroken continuity since 4th century BC. It subtly captures the natural beauty and innate solutions to historical cultural conflicts and unobtrusively imbibes the cultural diversity of this distinctive cross-cultural fertilization. Unlike Hinduism, the Islamic code of the Shariat did not bestow recognition on dance, music and other performing arts and forbade its use. The Brahmin Kathaks therefore remained confined to their temples. Yet, it showed great resilience and inherent strength because of its innate belief in plurality. With the increasing spread of Muslim rule in a large part of the sub-continent, ripples were felt in the field of performing arts. Regionalization of art forms and development of various streams of languages became pronounced.

The element of pirouettes associated with dervish dances in Sufism, found its way into Kathak’s rhythmic virtuous rendering. Even though a sculpture from Patliputra pertaining to the Maurya period (3rd century BC) indicates use of pirouettes and the Natyashastra too refers to the ‘cakra bhramari’, yet the pirouettes were not treated as a special spectacular aspect of a Kathak rendering. It was under the influence of Sufism that it assumed a virtuous garb. The Brahmin Kathaks found a unique explanation to marry the sensibilities of Vaishnavism and Sufism.

Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul Turkey. They can spin for hours in a trance-like state without ill affect. | Photo Courtesy: Flickr

Whirling Dervishes can spin for hours in a trance-like state without ill affect. | Photo Courtesy: Flickr

As Indian philosophy expounded the cyclic nature of life, there could be no better visual translation of this philosophy of ‘kaal cakra’ and ‘jeevan cakra’ than with the rendering of the ‘cakra bhramari’ (the pirouettes). In Sufism, the impulse for pirouetting also stemmed from a similar philosophy whereby abandoning the ego, the believer aims at one-ness with the almighty, encompassing in this ‘dhikr’, the three elements of ‘tawhid’ (realization of Allah’s oneness and role as sole creator), resurrection and prophethood.

In the words of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, “All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”

Performing Artistes

The new societal norms led to another significant development. Male Brahmin Kathaks now remained confined to their temples. For court entertainment, a new group of women performers—the courtesan dancers—emerged; replacing the till hitherto ‘devadasi’—a practice prevalent in all parts of India including Delhi and surrounding areas. Dubbed as ‘nautch’ by the British (corrupted version of ‘naach’), there were several categories of such courtesans.

Thus, the Kathaks performed not only within the sacred temple precincts, but they also performed in courts of both Hindu and Muslim rulers.

There are few instances where depending on the personal interests of Muslim rulers, male Brahmin Kathak dancers performed in the haloed precincts of the court. The Sangeet Ratnakara, 13th century treatise, indicates how some of the artistes adapted themselves to changed socio-political circumstances. Thus, the Kathaks performed not only within the sacred temple precincts, but they also performed in courts of both Hindu and Muslim rulers. Court etiquette demanded that they could not place an idol of their Hindu Gods. The Kathaks found a unique solution by placing the ‘tulsi mala’ (rosary symbolising Krishna) or the ‘rudraksha mala’ (rosary symbolising Shiva) in lieu of an idol and which did not offend the sensibilities of the muslim ruler. This has been recorded and archived by the British in the 17th century.

Musical Amalgamation of Vaishnavism and Sufism

The meeting of Vaishnavism and Sufism had other fall-outs too, as it saw new genres of music compositions such as the ‘khayal’ and the ‘tarana’ which were off-shoots of the traditional ‘dhrupad gayaki’ of ancient India. The new genre of music compositions became part of the Kathak repertoire.

It is widely believed that impetus for development of the new musical system of qawwali (a form of Sufi devotional music) came from Amir Khusro, inspired by the Central Asian ‘Sema’. As orthodox interpretation of Shariat code permitted only devotional music and calligraphy, it has been recorded that because of such restrictions, a serious argument took place between Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (1243-1325 A.D.) and Qazi Mohiuddin Kashani during the reign of Ghayasuddin Tughlaq on the practice of the newly developed qawwali and the mehfil-e-sama where the participants entered into a state of ecstasy, reminiscent of dervishes.

The ‘tarana’ derived from the Persian term ‘tarannum’ (melody) emerged as an adaptation of the ‘non-tom alap’ rendering of ‘dhrupad gayaki’. In the emergence of the new philosophy in the wake of Muslim rule in India, the ‘tarana’ saw the meeting point of Vaishnavism and Sufism, where at the height of ecstasy in devotion resulting in a trance-like state, the commonly used meaningless syllables ‘deem-ta-na-na’, ‘na-dir-dir-dani’, ‘de-ra-na’ etc. symbolised the union of spirit of the self with the higher Almighty. Unlike its parent ‘dhrupad ang’ where the ‘nom-tom alaap’ was sung at slow speed (‘vilambit laya’), the newly evolved ‘tarana’ was set at medium speed (‘madhya laya’), sometimes even reaching a faster pace (‘drut laya’).

The success of the new melodic composition ‘tarana’, is evident from its adaptation in various parts of India, whether as ‘thillana’ or ‘pallavi and such others, facilitated by exchange of artistes as gifts by the Mughal Governors sent by the Delhi court to the provinces.

Vacika Abhinaya

The area of ‘vacika abhinaya’ saw far-reaching influences of developments, that impacted performing arts across the length and breadth of the country. With the advent of Muslim rule in the capital at Delhi, the region saw a cross-fertilization of several languages: Prakrit — of the common man, Sanskrit — of the learned, Persian, Arabic and Turkish. From this interaction, the new language of the masses that developed was Hindavi. This new language was utilized by Amir Khusro and became an important vehicle for ‘abhinaya’ in Kathak. Urdu emerged as the cross fertilization of Persian, Arabic and Turkish words, adorning the sentence structure of Prakrit and Hindvi. This became the language of outpourings of the romantic poets of late 18th and 19th centuries.

The new lingua franca was utilized for evocative verses of ‘thumris’ that centred on the eternal theme of yearning of union of the individual soul with the Almighty, which was symbolized by the yearning for union by Radha or the gopis with Krishna—the Almighty. These poignant verses reflected love in both its hues, namely, pain of separation and ecstasy of union. When performed by the courtesans, Mohan became synonymous with ‘sajan’ or ‘piya’. Interestingly, the contents and themes performed by the traditional Brahmin Kathaks continued to be strongly based on Hindu deities.

It was the fermenting 16th century onwards that also saw Maithili verses of Vidyapati being adopted and performed by the monks of Assam in the ‘sattras’. Jayadeva’s Gita Govind was adopted by performers in southern India while Telugu verses (language that has borrowed heavily from Sanskrit) became central pieces of performance repertoire in the southern region. Thyagaraja ‘kritis’ became a dominant feature. During the 17th century, which was the era of Muslim rule, several Persian and Arabic words were also added in the Telugu language, and its influence went on till the 19th century.

Repertoire in Southern India

Muslim rule in southern India were exemplified by Tipu Sultan and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Tipu Sultan, Tiger of Mysore, in the 18th century ruled over a large kingdom bordered by the Krishna River in the north, the Eastern Ghats in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west. The first Nizam of Hyderabad was of Turkic origin from Uzbekistan who found service under the Mughals. They became rulers of Hyderabad in the 18th century. Their kingdom included regions of Andhra, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Both the rulers were known to have patronized performing arts. The repertoire of the ‘devadasis’ performing in their courts included several items that had Islamic influence, one such being the ‘salaamatoru’. It was during this period that the counterpart of the ‘tarana’ locally known as ‘thillana’ found its way into the repertoire of the ‘devadasis’.

Developments in North East

The medieval period saw the spread of Vaishnav influence in the north eastern state of Manipur which led to a healthy amalgamation of cultures – traditional local tribal culture with Vaishnav thoughts and practices. This led to the ‘sankeertan’ music and the development of the Raas dances based on Vaishnav padavalis. Various virile and vigorous cholam dances now formed part of temple rituals of Manipur. In Assam, the Vaishnav influence saw the development of temple rituals that included dance by the temple priests of the monastaries (‘sattras’) – similar to the Kathaks of the Gangetic belt, who performed largely to verses of Shankardeva and padavali of Vidyapati from Mithila.

Introduction of Temple Rituals & the ‘Devadasi’ Tradition

After the decline of the Mauryan Empire in 3rd century BC, the Sungas who were Brahminical by faith came to power. Concept of Dancing Shiva (later known as Nataraj) emerged. Importance of female energy—Shakti, embodied as a woman Goddess, started coming into prominence.

Fulfilment of a wish, dire economic compulsions and poverty forced families to donate their daughter as ‘devadasi’.

Temples were built to Hindu deities where ladies, known as ‘‘devadasis’, were employed to serve in the temples to clean, cook, wash, etc. With growth of temple rituals, few were also given the task of entertaining the ‘Gods’ through music and dance. Their dance came to be known as ‘dasi attam’ (dance of the ‘dasis’ i.e. dance of the ‘servants of the Lord’). There were several avenues for recruitment to the ‘‘devadasi’’ profession. Fulfilment of a wish, dire economic compulsions and poverty forced families to donate their daughter as ‘devadasi’. Families without sons donated their daughter to become ‘devadasi’, as it ensured that their property stayed within the family (as she was now taken to be a ‘son’). Women folk of the defeated or killed were dedicated to temples to become ‘devadasis’.

Dasi Attam: A Dance of the Devadasis | Photo Courtesy: VIC

Dasi Attam: A Dance of the Devadasis | Photo Courtesy: VIC

A flourishing ‘‘devadasi’’ system was seen in all parts of the sub-continent. Much has been written on them. Kalidasa makes a reference to the ‘‘devadasi’ pratha’ in the Mahakala temple of Ujjain at the time of ‘sandhya pooja’ (evening worship) in his ‘Meghdoot’. Jain chronicles refer to both the ‘deva kumars’ and the ‘deva kumaris’ as temple dancers. Hiuen Tsang makes a reference to the number of dancing girls he saw attached to the Sun temple at Multan while the ‘Rajatarangini” of Kalhana also indicates to the prevalence of this custom in Kashmir from about the 7th century AD onwards. This system was also not unknown at the Vishwanath temple at Benaras as is evident from the reference in ‘Kuttinimatam’. The Mughal period refer to the existence of ‘‘devadasis’ in the temples of the Indo-Gangetic belt. A ‘parwana’ dated 25 January, 1644 AD (15 zulqada 1053 AH) written by one Azam Khan, mentions the presence of ‘nrit-kanyan’ i.e. women dancers in the Govind Dev temple at Vrindaban. Others who have commented upon the system include Domingo Paes (Portuguese diplomat), Fernao Nunz, Abbe Dubois (19th AD), Dr. Shortt, Mundy (English traveller), etc.

Economic reasons provided impetus to the system as temples were important sources of revenue. The presence of ‘devadasis’ increased the attraction of temples.

Al Beruni (11th century, Arab historian) has recorded that the institution of ‘devadasi’ was maintained by the kings for the benefit of their revenues.

The ‘devadasis’ were kept outside the caste system. This in effect meant that they belonged to the lowest caste. However, with their assigned service as temple and court performers, the ‘devadasi’ system reflected how a non-hierarchical principle of auspiciousness qualified lower castes and out-castes for certain ritual status. Sacred prostitution was linked to cultural hegemony and caste-oriented feudal economy.

Understanding Between the Brahmin Priests and the Rulers Over ‘Devadasis’

The ‘devadasis’ were ‘servants of the Lord’. Herein, there was a struggle as to who constituted the ‘Lord’ of the ‘devadasis’. Brahmin priests claimed that they being the representatives of gods in heaven, the ‘bhudevas’, i.e. gods on the earth, thus have the first claim; as anything offered to god belongs to brahmins, so the girls offered to god must also belong to them. The Kings retorted, that they make appointments of ‘devadasis’, they give them money and land and feed them, so that gave them greater claim.

Conflict was resolved by an understanding and ‘devadasis’ were branded on their chest with emblems of ‘garuda’ (eagle) and ‘chakra’ (discus) for kings and ‘shankha’ (conch) for brahmins.

Colonial period: Impact on Performing Arts & the Abolition of ‘devadasi’ System

With the Crown making India its colony after the 1857 War of Independence, equations changed.

Indians were no longer treated as ‘equals’. All that was seen as interesting and ‘cultural tradition’ was now considered, impure and debauch.

The notion of white supremacy gained ground. Within some Indians, there was a spirit of new prudery, while in others, there was an identity crisis. With interest of the colonial powers in antiquity and tradition, there was also a rush among the new awakened Indians especially in the field of performing arts, to trace their respective roots as far back as possible and lay claim to being the ‘oldest’ in terms of antiquity. Associated social reformation induced a search for identity and a need to legitimize, theorize and justify existence in terms of antiquity by conscious process of tracing back of roots with the help of temple sculptures and incorporating elements that had not existed or had not been practiced earlier. This led to the reconstruction of dance of that region in mid-twentieth century from a virtual skeleton framework.

In the changing Crown and colony relations, the colonial masters viewed the ‘devadasi’ system as temple prostitution, subservient to a degraded and vested interests of priests and the rulers. It was also argued that it was a deliberately created custom in order to exploit lower castes by the upper castes and classes – all under the protective shield of religion.

Consolidation of colonial authority saw changes in land relations and emboldened the colonial masters to strike against the ‘devadasi’ system. Secondly, the newly emerging bureaucracy and administration also changed the balance of power structure. The Brahmins being the educated intelligentsia were preferred in employment, which placed them in influential positions that were denied to the not-so-educated low castes.

There was widespread fear that continuation of ‘devadasi’ system was essential for Brahminical authority and for furthering class and caste inequalities and loss of self-respect.

This gave rise to ‘non-Brahmin’ consciousnesses and resulted in social upheaval, ripples of which were felt in the performing arts. There was widespread fear that continuation of ‘devadasi’ system was essential for Brahminical authority and for furthering class and caste inequalities and loss of self-respect. There was also fear among the upper castes that with the changing power structure, temple ‘archakas’ would be dispensed with and that domination of the Brahmins and rulers would cease. Less opportunities in securing influential government jobs added to the list of woes of the non-Brahmins.

With a rising momentum of Anti-Brahmin movement, the colonial authority gathered strength to introduce the Anti ‘devadasi’ Bill and which had the support of lower castes and members of the ‘devadasi’ community. Support for the Anti Devadasi movement came from a section of Indian upper caste Hindu social reformers and a large section from within the ‘devadasi’ community itself. Lawyers, writers, artistes and even the ‘devadasis’ joined this fray. The third group that was also against the system of the ‘devadasis’ was the Isai Vellalar and the Sengundar communities, who vigorously supported the ‘devadasi’ abolition Bill.

At the same time, a small group of educated elite Brahmins including the first Brahmin woman led the counter movement, in early thirties of the twentieth century. Initial efforts were directed towards sanitization, re-construction as well as re-christening of ‘dasi attam’ (the dance of the ‘devadasis’). Consciously taking terms from Bharata’s Natyashastra, the dance form was given a new name ‘Bharatanatyam’ by scholar and critic V. Raghavan. He popularized ‘Bharatanatyam’ to represent ‘Bharat’ i.e. India and ‘natya’ i.e. theatrical dance. He also gave it its creative acronym – ‘bha’ for bhava, ‘ra’ for rasa and ‘ta’ for tala.

Revamping Eroticism with Devotion

With the entry of the first Brahmin lady, Rukmini Devi Arundale, into the till hitherto prohibited field, the counter movement received great fillip. Her association with the Theosophical Society and her easy entry and acceptance in the corridors of colonial power structure, became catalysts. Rukmini´s entry changed the tenor of dance. It now became a Brahmin stronghold. There was studied construction of backward projection of the antiquity of the dance not only through ingenious change of name but also in the sanitization and restructuring efforts. Elements of eroticism were removed and the art form was imbued with devotion. Traditional erotic references to the Lord (priest or noblemen) were now taken to that of addressing the Almighty.

The sanitization process also saw removal of all elements from the repertoire that had Islamic influence. In this process, death knell was sounded on traditional items like the ‘salamatoru‘. The ‘margi’ system of presentation that had been initiated by the Tanjore Quartet in the late 19th century, received greater attention under these three Brahmin stalwarts.

Led by the upper echelons of society namely V. Raghvan, E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale, all belonging to the Brahmin caste, it soon led people to presume that it was an ‘ancient dance’.

‘A dance was created in the past in order to be restored for the present and future’, said Schechner and Khokhar.

Orissa: The eastern Indian state of Orissa that had the system of ‘maharis’ (the temple girls) equivalent to the ‘devadasis’ of southern India went through a similar phase. The British Victorian sensibilities dubbed ‘maharis’ as ‘prostitutes’ and their dances were considered sacrilege. The mid-fifties of the 20th century saw re-structuring of the dance of the ‘maharis’ including re-naming. Elements of ‘gotipua’ dances and the dance of the ‘maharis’ were fused to create Odissi. The Jayantika group in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century drew the ‘margi’ presentation format of the newly structured Odissi form.

North-eastern India: Re-structuring and re-naming of the dance form was not an issue in the North eastern state of Manipur as the temple dancers – men and women – had always been treated at par and there was no discrimination between the two. In Assam, ‘Sattriya’, performed by Brahmin priests (like the traditional dance form Kathak of Indo-Gangetic belt) did not need re-christening.

Unfortunately, the courtesans were mistaken to be Kathaks, a notion that was fanned and allowed to grow, whether by design or not, remain to be deduced.

North and Central India: As stated earlier, owing to the fact that traditional Kathaks had always been men belonging to the Brahmin fold, the need for re-christening was not felt. Unfortunately, the courtesans were mistaken to be Kathaks, a notion that was fanned and allowed to grow, whether by design or not, remain to be deduced. This created tensions within society, a society that was already engulfed in a growing divide between the two dominant communities. In this process the content of Kathak repertoire and the terminologies used in Kathak that speaks of its roots in pre-Christian era, was lost sight of. Costume and the virtuous rhythmic elements practiced in Kathak, re-inforced the ‘divide and rule’ sentiments. Twentieth century also saw further changes in the ‘margi’ system of presentation in Kathak that was first initiated and became visible in the early to mid-nineteenth century in the courts of Awadh, especially under the patronage of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.


Speaking of costume, all writings of the colonial period have emphasized that the art of stitching was unknown to pre-Muslim India. In this context, attention is drawn to few facts:

In 4th century BC, with the marriage alliance of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya with the daughter of the Greek general of Alexander, mutual influences could not be ruled out. Sculptures of dancers of that period indicate adoption of tight fitting pants and a flared frock like upper garment (akin to today’s ‘churidar-angarkha’). Also, the long ‘lehenga’ skirt style of dressing for dancers of the Gangetic belt can be seen in the sculptures of that era. In the absence of sculptures from earlier period, it cannot be conclusively stated that stitched clothing of this kind existed prior to 4th century BC, even though the Riga Veda mentions clearly that stitching was known to India as borne out by the following verses:

‘seevyatvapah soochya achhidyamanaya’ (Rigaveda )

the needle i.e. ‘soochya’ is used for joining together two pieces.

‘yatha soochya vasah sandagheeyat, evamevaitabhiryagyasyachhidram sandaghet’

Aitareya Brahmana (II.32.4) i.e. two pieces of cloth are joined together by a needle.

The same style of stitched clothing namely of tight fitting trousers and a long shirt and the ‘lehenga’ and ‘dhoti’ variety are evident in the sculptures of the Gupta period (4th-5th century AD), a thousand years before the advent of Mughals here. In 10th century AD, Al Beruni has recorded in detail the practice of wearing stitched clothes such as the ghaghra or lehenga-choli-chadr and the kurta-pyjama. He says:

“Their ‘şidār’ (a piece of dress covering the head and the upper part of breast and neck) is similar to the trousers, being also fastened at the back by buttons.”

“The lappets of the ‘ķurţaķas’ (short shirts from the shoulders to the middle of the body with sleeves, a female dress) have slashes both on the right and left sides.”

Sculptures from the Sunga period also indicate that stitched clothes were worn by some section of the population. Co-existence of non-stitched and stitched clothes in India since early Mauryan period (4th century BC), seemed to have been part of the performing art tradition in northern and central India, as borne out by sculptures and writings of Al-Beruni.

The costume of women performers of medieval India conformed to the dressing as was the practice in the Muslim courts. Paintings of this period indicate great usage of ‘churidar-angarkha’ with the veil covering the head. This continues till date. In case of ‘lehenga’ or long ankle length skirts, an equally long fan was draped in front. But uncovered head seemed to be taboo in this period as is evident from miniature paintings so characteristic of this era.

Southern India: Even within traditional India and unstitched clothing, influences of neighbouring states or adoption of custom of the new ruler in style of dressing is visible.

The rule of the Marathas over southern India (1676-1832) also left its impact. The Maratha custom of the nine yard sari being worn by upper class (especially Brahmin) women, soon caught on in southern states of Thanjavur and surrounding areas courtesy establishment of Maratha rule in 17th century. This translated itself into the costume of ‘dasiattam’. Its modern contemporary stitched version was designed by an Italian designer friend of Rukmini Devi Arundale in late thirties of the 20th century.

Guru Shovana Narayan, Padmashree, Sangeeta Natak, Bihar Gaurav, Delhi Government’s Parishad Samman, Japan’s OISCA awardee among many others, is a Kathak Guru, performer, choreographer, activist, author-researcher-scholar.

Featured Image Credits: TanaGandhi via VisualHunt

Posted by The Indian Economist