Global Indian View

The Art of Indian Dance and its role in Hindu Temple

A report by Dr. Uma Nagaswamy

(L)Malvika Raj performing Ganesha Kavutvam (C) Images of Jagannath, Balabadra, and Subhadra (R) Medha Raj performing Tillana

Dr. R. Nagaswamy on a visit to the city of Austin, in Texas, USA, gave an absorbing lecture on The Art of Indian Dance and its role in Hindu Temples, at the Hindu Temple in Austin on the 11th of July, 2009.  Illustrating his talk with a large number of slides, Nagaswamy showed that almost all forms of classical Indian Dance like Bharatanatyam, Mohini-Attam, Kathakali, Kuchupidi, Odissi, Manipuri, Gaudiya-Nritta etc., based on one main source Bharata’s Natya Sastra.  Just as various regional languages sprang from one source, the Vedic Sanskrit and Prakrit, in space and time, so also the variation in Dance styles flowered through centuries into regional styles, but they are firmly rooted in Bharatam tradition.  Bharata’s Natya Sastra besides giving the basics of Dance movements in well structured Chapters into beautiful movements of heads, neck, eyes, torso, hands, hips, thighs and feet, it gives in detail the 108 poses of combined Dance movements called Nritta Karanas, which serve as alphabets with which the Dancer could create innumerable forms.  Dance is essentially a creative art, with neither a beginning nor an end and so continuous, the same Dancer presenting a new form of her presentation.  As it is ever fresh and new, the question of modernity has no meaning.  It is a highly suggestive art that never remained static.  Just as poets create new poetry, so fully accomplished Dancers and who have mastered the language of bodily gestures create to form appeal to aesthetic joy in the spectators, generally called rasa-asvadana.  So Dance is called in ancient Indian texts, visual poetry – Drsyakavya, said RN.

        Bharata’s treatise is not confined to Dance alone, but it is a treatise on the art of Classical music, and Instrumental music and the technician of making musical instruments called Nritta, Gita and Vadya, the art was designated as “Sangita” in ancient times as for example the great medieval text by Someswara called “Sangita Ratnakara” included Chapters on Dance, vocal music, and instrumental music.  Bharata also has classified drama – Nataka, into ten categories.  As it deals with speech, Bharata denotes several chapters to the phonetics, syntax, embellishments (alankara) etc., virtually as a lucid grammar of Sanskrit language.   A chapter on the construction of stage and audience hall with proper acoustics shows Bharata’s treatment of architecture.  It is a multi disciplinary scientific treatise that has overwhelmed all earlier texts that existed earlier.  Bharata composed the text as said to have been given by Lord Brahma, the creator who created this as the very essence of all four Vedas, and had the same authority as the Vedas and at the same time as having the advantage of reading for all sections of the people and also serving as a source of entertainment.

        Having given this account of Dance, RN gave a background of the Hindu Temples and the rituals just as the priests creates the imagery for worship, RN observed the Dancer creates the image of gods through her Dance gestures as a part of the Temple rituals, just as the priest is initiated to perform worship, the Temple Dancer also undergoes ritual initiation to Dance in the presence of God.  The presence of dancing girl is as much important as the worshipping priest, which is the functional requirements of Devadasis in Hindu Temples, a function that was twisted and presented in bad light by the colonial rulers. 

        Dr. RN also showed sculptures from early Temples of India that show how the art of Dance has influenced the art of sculptures and paintings until the alien culture destroyed one of the finest art of India.  RN’s speech was acclaimed as an outstanding presentation for a proper understanding of Temple culture.  Interestingly the lecture was preceded by an invocatory song by Eashwar Subramanian, Ganesha Kavuthvam by Malvika Raj and concluded with a Tillana by Medha Raj.  Dr. RN explained that the item Tillana which is considered by all Dance critics as of recent origin is as ancient as 6th Century A.D. mentioned in a Sanskrit Dance Dramatic composition derived from the word Tirana. The lecture was organized Chandreka Kaushik, an enthusiastic art connoisseur residing in Austin. 

        The Hindu Temple of Austin is situated on a high mound serving as a virtual hill Temple.  The full Temple is yet to be built but is housed in a big hall, with other parts awaiting construction.  All the images now under worship are made of metal, the stone images are to be made and consecrated when the Sanctum towers are built.  While most of the images are in South Indian tradition, there is also an impressive image of Puri Jagannath of Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra included in the group of images. 

(Below) Dr. R. Nagaswamy delivering his lecture on The Art of Indian Dance in Hindu Temples

(Below) Vedic Priest honoring Dr. R. Nagaswamy







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