Indian culture is a tapestry woven with threads of ancient traditions, rich history, and vibrant mythology. Among the many art forms that celebrate this cultural heritage, dance stands out as a captivating medium. Indian mythology, a treasure trove of stories, gods, and goddesses, plays a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of traditional Indian dance forms. In this blog, we delve into the profound cultural significance of Indian mythology in dance, exploring how these stories have been seamlessly integrated into the very fabric of this timeless art.
Before we go on to discussing the role of Indian mythology in dance, we must first delve into one of the primary factors which gave rise to it- The Bhakti Movement. For the spread of this movement, there was a need for a unifying factor which encompassed all strata of society across the country and that could be achieved only through art like dance, music, and poetry. From the 6th-7th Century to the 13th-14th Century, the Bhakti Movement thrived. The bhakti poet-saints were quite lively and interesting historical figures in the cultural and religious landscape of India. They were not saints in the strictest sense of the term. They were poets, wanderers, mystics, renouncers, sages, philosophers, godmen and godwomen. The diversity of the social classes of these bhakti poets hailed from, is breathtakingly large. While Sūrdās was a blind Kriṣhna devotee, Kabīr was an iconoclastic weaver-devotee of the formless God. While Raidās was a leather worker, Mīrā bāi was a Rajasthani princess. Tirumnkai Ālvār was a thief, Kanappa Nāyanar was a hunter and Mānikkavācakar was a minister in the Pānṭiya court.
Folk songs and folk dramas reinforced the authorship and authority of bhakti poet-saints. Often the performers claimed and superimposed the saints over their own lives, struggles, and religiosity. The names of saints became household names in their respective regions so pervasively that blind singers were called ‘Sūrdās’ and women perceived to be independent are called ‘Mīrā’.
Over the centuries, bhakti thus came to occupy both the personal sphere of home in the form of Ishta Devtas and the public arena of the temple, arts and even the marketplace.
Post Chola period, the classical dance structures and formats were codified during the Bhakti Movement. All mythological stories were glorified during this period including the Puranas and mythological histories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. These stories, episodes, and narratives, in dance, are all emanates of the Bhakti Movement.
The Bhakti movement utilised the art of the story telling tradition for the propagation of legends, history and mythology. At its core, dance in India has always been a medium of storytelling. Mythology, with its vast pantheon of deities and epic tales, provides the perfect canvas for dancers to convey intricate narratives through movement. Classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, and Manipuri are replete with performances that narrate the stories of Gods and Goddesses, embodying the essence of Indian mythology.
Bharatanatyam, for instance, often features stories from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Dancers portray characters like Lord Krishna or Lord Rama, donning elaborate costumes and using symbolic gestures or mudras to communicate the essence of the narrative. This not only preserves these ancient stories but also brings them to life in a way that captivates and educates the audience. It was owing to the Bhakti Movement that the Devadasis’ dedication ceremonies gained momentum and the temple dance practitioners grew. The written texts started getting converted into dances, for a better reach to larger audiences.
Kathak, on the other hand, drew inspiration from the tales of Lord Krishna’s playful antics. Kathakaari was started in the temples of Ayodhya. Dancers used intricate footwork and expressions to mimic Krishna’s charm, rekindling the magic of his stories on stage.
Odissi dance found its roots in the temple sculptures of Odisha, which are often adorned with scenes from Hindu mythology. Dancers replicate these sculptures through their movements, creating a live connection between the art form and ancient legends. The only medium of popularising these legends was the medium of dance and music. Gotipua began retelling these stories. Different dances emerged from these narratives. For example, Mahari dance evolved from the poetry of Jaydev’s Geet Govind. Hence, we see how the change in the culture brought about a change in the dance scenario in our country.
The Bhagwad Mela Naatakam also emerged during the Bhakti Movement to popularize the Bhagwad Puranas. Sufi music and saints started singing and praising their Gods. This also gave rise to Sufi dance. Poets like Kabir, whose poetry resembled the poetry of the Muslim Sufi teacher Dadu Dayal, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak and Islamic Sufi Poet Lal Ded influenced with their ideas and teachings.
The 6th-15th Century also saw the growth of many Temples and the architecture of these temple sculptures also denoted the many forms of Gods as described in the texts and mythological accounts. So, temple architecture and iconography also were greatly influenced by the Bhakti Movement and the same was seen being translated into dance as well. The evolution of Odissi itself is originating from the temple sculptures. Mythological scenes and episodes were all being carved into these temples deeply embedded in the religious beliefs of those regional communities.
According to Dr Muthukumaraswamy, Bhakti’s social structure kept Hindu communities together, as a unifying factor, during periods of tumult. Mahatma Gandhi effectively invoked the Rāmarājya to signify free and independent India and used the congregational settings of the bhakti bhajans to steer the nationalist movement. Balagangadhar Tilak infused Hindu festivities such as Ganesh Chaturthi with nationalist fervour. Rabindranath Tagore and Subramanya Bharathi wrote poems of intense nationalism inheriting the idiom and aesthetics of bhakti. During the independence struggle, all the folk performing arts of India transferred their inherent bhakti aesthetics into forms of resistance against the British. It is no exaggeration to say that independent India was born on the bedrock built by the culture and heritage of bhakti. Post-Independence India witnessed another resurgence of Hindu bhakti characterised by the renovation of temples, renewed interest in pilgrimages, festivals, and temple rituals.
Beyond storytelling, Indian mythology in dance holds a profound spiritual significance. Many dance forms are considered a form of worship and a medium to connect with the divine. When a dancer embodies a deity or mythological character, it is believed that they become a vessel for the divine energy, transcending the boundaries between the mortal and the divine. For example, in Bharatanatyam, when a dancer performs the Ardhanarishvara pose, they are not merely portraying the fusion of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati but are believed to embody that divine union, invoking a sense of spiritual bliss in both them and the audience.
Indian mythology in dance is not just a form of artistic expression; it also plays a crucial role in preserving cultural identity. Through the ages, dance has been a medium for passing down stories, values, and traditions from one generation to the next. This continuity ensures that the rich tapestry of Indian mythology remains an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage.
While classical dance forms continue to thrive, contemporary dancers and choreographers are also exploring new ways to incorporate Indian mythology into their work. This fusion of tradition and innovation breathes new life into these ancient stories, making them relevant to a modern audience while preserving their essence.
The cultural significance of Indian mythology in dance is undeniable. It is a bridge that connects the past with the present, spirituality with artistry, and tradition with innovation. If dancers continue to draw inspiration from the vast treasure trove of Indian mythology, this timeless art form will continue to enchant, educate, and enrich both Indian culture and the global artistic landscape. Through the mesmerizing movements of dance, the stories of gods and goddesses continue to transcend time, weaving themselves into the very soul of India’s cultural identity.