Has Indian Classical dance lost its spiritual purpose ?

Has Indian Classical dance lost its spiritual purpose ?

There is much to say about the Indian classical dances about its lucidity, expression, etc. Yet many and most of our dancers forget why they are dancing and for what purpose they are dancing. The competition for performing, the glamour, commercialism, image, fame and all that nonsense has cropped into the dances since fifty years back when it was first brought from the temple. 

A dance like ours containing divine and Godly verses does not need people like critics to judge a dancer. Any dancer, whether they are veterans or superstars or a learner should be treated with equal respect as an expression of divine. 

Many dancers cling frantically to an organization and the organizers in order to get performance opportunities. In return they are expect to promote these organizations and bring up the organization’s image in the name of dance; thereby contributing to politics, rivalry between organizations, you name it. Then there are those who run after reporters to make sure a dancer is publicized in the paper – all in the name of our spiritual art. Such attitude creates separation between humans because of the ego. The main point is whether one has transformed after seeing or dancing about the divine. For the purpose of the dance is not to show oneself but to express the divine – that should be reflected in the dancer’s outlook in life.

Sometimes I wonder whether devadasis in the past have all this in mind when they dance before their Lord. No. They had only one aim – to dance before the Lord in the temple, and that too with no audience looking on. They did not even need music – for they themselves used to sing while dancing padams (loves songs of the Lord). It was just the dancer and the Lord. The devadasi’s dance must be of a very high order of divine quality when compared to most of what we see today which is mostly dramatic and showmanship. For me, the most beautiful and divine experience of dance is not in any organization, festival, or country, but in front of the Lord in Shiva’s temple in Chidambaram in the annual Shivaratri. I am not even talking about performing before the thousands at the annual Shivaratri. I mean prior to that when curtain of the statue of Nataraja is unveiled and one gets a glimpse of the Lord and dance in front of him! That too was only five minutes for me. 

The dance we see today is quite far from the spiritual level of the dance in the past. There is a big gap in the creativity of composers, musicians, dancers between now and the past. One could see that the dance has evolved from the Vedic ages to the Tanjore Quartet repertoire created two hundred years ago. Yet we are still seeing the Tanjore Quartet repertoire without any further improvisation or development. Any further development has not been seen as successful as when compared to the grandeur and creative genius of Tanjore Quartet times. 

There were a lot of exchange and interaction in the olden days in dance and music according to “Bharatanatyam – A Tamil heritage” written by Lakshmi Viswanathan. Sadly, what we see nowadays is arrogance between dance practitioners that there is hardly any progress in the dance at least back to the level of what our ancestors left for us.

One can easily see the guru-shishya parampara is virtually non-existent these days. What is left now is the training with performers who are themselves globe-trotters having little time for students. Seeing the glamour in their teachers, these students grow up learning the “tricks of the trade”. They want to be on stage one day performing to hundreds or thousands of people whatever you name it. Then tour round the globe and picking up titles and awards – all just to serve the ego. I wonder why they need to pack their bags. This kind of performance mania and frenzy has not only polluted cities like Chennai (the MAD MAD Madras season) but also in cities around the world where “NRI sabhas” have cropped spreading the same disease. All such playthings only serves the ego. Only when the ego diminishes can one dance the divine. For the divine has no ego. 

It is interesting to note that many of the best artists were the ones unknown to the world in the past. Only recently have we “discovered” them and made them history. They danced for themselves with no other motive but for the sake of dancing. 

Perhaps, now it is time for us to reflect and ask ourselves for what purpose we are dancing and whether it has served the divine purpose it was once meant to be.

~ Indu G. 


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  • An excellent article – mentioning the exact state of affairs w.r.t present state of Bharatanatyam . One dancer I have been observing over the last few years who is making a difference with a lot of authentic research on scriptures and weaving them into her bharatanatyam production is Bala Devi Chandashekar with production like Nandanar Charitham, Uddhava Gita and most recently Vishwam. She has had excellent reviews for all of them.

  • So true!! Although all dancers feel the same, we have all become slaves to our desires of wanting to become famous, to be recognised, the list is endless!! Yes, we have lost purpose!! We are selling not only our art but also our souls. Sadly, once we are gone the popularity dies with us. There comes another young artist to fill that place. This is the truth of life but we wish not to see that. God help US!!

  • Alerting article for the dancers who forget the goal of divinity as well as for the society who demands deviation from the dancers ! Every sentence of this article is true and boldly stated. The introspection and continuous checking will make a change . Thanks for making time to write this article.

  • Very true. Hope those who are suppose to be ‘supporting’ the art-form read the article. THE MOST memorable performance of our life was in front of Nataraja in Chittabalam at 6am. The dance was only for Him. Devotees may or may have been looking. However in most places, learning, performing, venues, halls, travel etc etc all cost. Artists, teachers, Gurus depend on either sales or funding (in UK at least). Given the choice not many want to bother with politics or name. But without it survival of artists & hence the art-form is questionable for those who have no other means to live. Only some lucky ones with perhaps family backing are able to. But even then, what about about their next generation?

  • yeah just only one moment when u can feel that divine experience as u said is when we dancers perform in-front of Lord Shiva. I can still feel that divine moment when I first performed in-front of lord Shiva in Perur Temple may be just for 3 minutes but yes that was the main purpose and feel of divine.

  • Divinity, longing for that divinity is rare whether in gone days or current days. Many talk divinity, but lack true understanding. Hence we see rare artist that truly moves you and uplifts you. No amount of discussions would resolve the issues as it is an individual matter. One must have a higher degree of spiritual longing to reach and deliver that experience.
    Now, the sad thing is that ego driven, competitive society, dance artists, musicians, critics as well as audiences are responsible for the current situation that bring down the art in the name of awards, titles, followers, fanfares etc. etc.
    I am simply glad to this article that gets everyone thinking and creates awareness!

  • Most of the points in the article are facts. I totally agree and would like to put in some more points of my thoughts. One comes to this dance home with definitely with some interest in them. Each one varies in their style. The critics don’t even give them time to go deep and start with the comments. It really makes the dancer lose hope on herself. I strongly feel that one should stop commenting and try to appreciate the artist which boosts up the artist to strengthen her ability and interest towards the dance which in return can bring more people to give a thought of learning our traditional dances.

  • Who is interested in Dance and Divinity now ..?

    What you have written has been echoing and shared with me by my mother – i will surely write her has noted dancer with lot of purity and divinity in her and her Dance but she is noted Dancer only for me and a handful of students and that too..all westners….none from the place where she spent 35 years……

    They all call when they need her name and stamp as she know to most in the corridors but they know well that for her purity and divinity matches to none.

  • Dance nowadays is only for the rich and not for the middle class. A child even though very talented,if she is from a middle class family she is surely not going to succeed. A Dancer is never paid for her performance. It is always the other way round. Until this is the trend dance will never be an alternative profession for our youngsters….

  • Agree, not many artists are there to experience ‘divinity’ and suffer from horrific ‘visibility craving’ syndrome now a days. I perform over 15 diverse Classical / Folk /ancient vibrant arts from India and have staged hundreds of unique shows across USA and India. Yet, I always refrained myself from commercializing these for many such reasons. Last 22 years in US, I made every effort to train and educate thousands of children/adults (mostly never been on shows) from all corners of the world on the rich treasures of our ancient arts. To inculcate habit of “experiencing the divinity” and develop the deeper understanding that these are developed keeping in mind multitude of ideas. Some of the rare arts I perform were developed over thousands of years and are complex ALL NIGHT performances(imagine the power of the art where 1 artist keeps the big crowd awake for all night!). For example, I danced over 5 hours in Teyyam / kOla costume in hot sun to reach out and educate 40,000+ crowd of Irvine global village (CA) last year. My similar performances (Yakshagana etc.) in renowned International Folk festivals, India Parades to schools/universities across US though attracted tens of thousands of audience, my motive had been always to educate the science behind these arts … i.e. genius creation of our ancestors to combine spiritual sciences, therapy, mindboggling spiritual transformation, Judicial resolutions, social order, Entertainment, Ancestral root tracking etc. But ego/maya holds the key! Most Indian charity/regional orgs are dominated by individuals who have no talents and are there for boosting their egos. At times it’s much easier for me to gain appreciation from a talented Hollywood Directors than a common Indian businessmen or IT geeks involved in these entertainment committees. With that question of survival needs to be addressed. In my small Indian county, last 30 years we lost about 40+ ancient arts as a result of globalization and economy returning back to it’s rich ancient days level. These arts survived thru thousands of years of poverty/rich economic cycles but alas 100% western literacy, 0% education on local arts/history/science wiped out! Most Indians who thrive to be rich forget that these artists and their families needs to eat and thus need to open up the pocket (poor villagers had a good system of donation!). Being extremely diverse culture most adults know nothing beyond “Bollywood”! As a result they won’t even allow many such arts be showcased even if free! If you look at those comments on “Indian Dad” [me!] on any of my Hollywood videos eg: Google Buzzfeed video “teens teach parents dance”. You know people truly getting entertained vs those out there to watch their kids perform or there for visibility sake are different (spiritual leaders are as much ignorant as others!).

  • What does one do while facing the secularization of Indian dance? the fact is that dance technique has soared since “the good old days” at the same time there seems to be an increasing focus on bhakti versus sringara…

  • Kathakali is not diluted- and cannot be diluted because the ‘I’ is removed when they put on the mask… Even today artists are recognized based on the characters they portray… Name and fame is based purely on talent- and they engage an audience through the night continuously for days together.
    I asked my Kathakali asan- about these conflicts at one stage- he gave me an answer that has so far not given rise to any more conflicts- I just get back to those words everytime I feel who am I doing this for…
    Sharing his advice- he said-
    “Deepa we dont dance for spirituality, divine or audience. We perform for the lamp which is lighted in front”
    As performers we need to light the lamp of our individual conscience so that it can someday merge with the all conscience.
    God bless for writing this article. Just remain patient.

  • Echo Bala’s sentiments. Unless, talent is promoted, rich will continue to dominate. It’s really sad to see how dancers struggle to make ends meet and yet hold on to the drive and passion to continue. It cannot be a career or a profession. It has to be a way of life but still the big question is where will the money come from for the dancer to survive if it were to be a way of life!…….

  • The article is good something to think about. The author has mentioned that since the Tanjore Quartet there has been no spectacular progress, what we as audience, performers, gurus or anyone connected to the arts have to decide is are we ready for change, of course within the frame-work laid out in the Natya Sahstra ? Does the audience go to a performance to understand the meaning of the art or to look at the external, jsut the technique the costume the lighting etc ? Rarely do I hear an audience talk about the meaning of a dance that has been presented! I hear about artists becoming commercial ? How else are they going to support themselves if they are not paid ? Devadasis wee taken care off by the temples, who takes care of artists today ?

  • As an initiative to educate the purpose behind a classical dance, which is one of the most ancient forms of dance, here is my effort for the community. Hope people will appreciate visual art and fine art 1.…/site/article/view/1143/546 2. 3.

  • Yes it has, also there is a decline in these classical dance forms. One of the reasons for this is the dilemma between tradition and talent. In India, all classical dance forms have been taught in ‘Guru-Shisya Parampara (Teacher-student relationship)’. Now with the increase in number of stages somewhere the maintenence of ‘traditionalism’ of this parampara has become more of a puppet show.