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Civilizations Change, Art Evolves (Part 2)

Civilizations Change, Art Evolves (Part 2)

By Shovana Narayan

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

Musical Instruments

The Natyashastra mentions and classifies musical instruments into four major categories. Sculptures of ancient India show the existence of various forms of percussion drums, stringed instruments (with and without frets), wind and solid instruments.

The Muslim invasions and rule saw some changes. It is commonly believed that the two piece drum such as the ‘tabla’ was unknown to India prior to the period of Amir Khusro. However, dance panel sculptures from Central India from the Gupta period (i.e. 4th-5th centuries AD) reveal the presence of a pair of vertical drum, thus negating the widely held hypothesis and legends associated with the medieval period origin of the ‘tabla’. Modifications carried out by Amir Khusro cannot be ruled out wherein the ‘bayan’ of the drum was modified to a more rounded form modelling itself on the ‘naqqara’ (or ‘nagada’) drum. It was this era that adopted the Arabic name of ‘tabla’ (based on the drum ‘tabl’). Thus, the hitherto ‘oordhvaka’ drum stood re-christened.

The Amir Khusro era is generally credited with naming the instrument 'tabla'.

The Amir Khusro era is generally credited with naming the instrument ‘tabla’. Photo Courtesy: Marc Wathieu via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Corroborating the fact that ‘mridanga’ still continued to be the most popular percussion drum during the Mughal period, are the paintings of musicians and dancers during the period 15th century to 19th century that depict wide use of the horizontal drum, the ‘mridanga’. It therefore follows that the replacement of ‘mridanga’ by the ‘tabla’ was extremely slow and could come about only after late 19th century. In fact, even Kathak, Hindi, and vernacular dialect literature of the Indo-Gangetic belt refers to the horizontal drum as ‘mridanga’ and not by the now common name of ‘pakhawaj’, a term that seems to have come into vogue since the last few decades. With the ‘tabla’ slowly gaining ascendancy in late 19th century, many special patterns emerged that gave rise to the ‘Dilli baaz’ of tabla, many of which were translated into dance.

Of the four categories of musical instruments categorised in the Natyashastra, the stringed category, with and without frets, goes by the generic name ‘veena’.

The lute-like musical instrument, ‘sarod’, has led to several wide ranging discussions. The fretless instrument is also found in the 5th and 6th century’s sculptures of Ajanta and other regions. Some opine to it having been a modification of the central Asian, Persian or Afghan ‘rubab’. These discussions still continue with as many views and as many opinions depending on the scholar.

It is widely believed that it was Amir Khusro who inspired innovations in the form and in the number of strings of the ‘veena’ that finally resulted in the ‘sitar’.

The stringed instrument, ‘sitar’ (derived from the term ‘seh tar’ that indicated presence of resonant strings along with main strings) came into prominence during late medieval period. It is widely believed that it was Amir Khusro who inspired innovations in the form and in the number of strings of the ‘veena’ that finally resulted in the ‘sitar’. Mughal miniature paintings do show two kinds of stringed instruments, one with a long slender neck and few strings (similar to the ‘tanpura’) and the second, again with a slender neck but a little more broad, having several strings and frets. There is also a variety of long necked stringed instrument sporting two rounded resonant barrels, reminiscent of the present day ‘sitar’ or the ‘surbahar’. The stringed instrument with over 100 resonant strings, ‘sarangi’, became a standard accompanying instrument for Kathak.

The Maratha kings who ruled over southern Thanjavur, the erstwhile Cholamandalam, since the rule of Ekoji I in late 17th century, made important contribution to the history and culture of the area. Rajah Serfoji II, born in the family of Chhatrapati Shivaji, and adopted by the Thanjavur family, was greatly influenced by Rev. Christian Freidrich Schwartz, a Danish missionary, under whose care he grew up. Thus Western sensibilities of approach to music, musical notations, presentation and even adoption of the violin and the clarinet in Carnatic music system came as no surprise.

In direct contrast, despite the long standing rule of Muslim rulers such as Tipu Sultan and the Nizam of Hyderabad, who too patronised and nurtured traditional southern Indian performing arts and in whose courts traditional pieces like the ‘salami’ and verses in praise of the Muslim ruler were sung and danced, such pieces and associations with the Muslim court disappeared in the wake of cultural renaissance 80 years ago. Conscious efforts were made to distance the performing arts from Muslim influences.

Caste and Gender of Performers

Usually a question is raised as to what is the caste of the performer. In its discussion, the social tensions and mindset of the local populace becomes evident.

In case an art form owes its origin to the male gender, to the upper caste and to Indian born faith, they were acceptable in society. Male origin art forms such as Kathak, Kathakali and Kuchipudi did not have to undergo re-christening or sanitization. Women origin dance forms such as Bharatanatyam had to be re-christened from ‘dasi attam’ and ‘sadir attam’ to Bharatanatyam while the dance of the Maharis was re-structured that included features of the dance of the gotipuas and which came to be known as Odissi in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century. Mohini attam stands out as an exception. Manipuri dance forms did not have to undergo a sanitization process for there was already a beautiful harmonious blend of pre-Vaishnav and Vaishnav cultures and the equal respect accorded to both men and women performers.

Bharatanatyam is a re-christened form of the women origin dance forms ‘dasi attam’ and ‘sadir attam’.

Bharatanatyam is a re-christened form of the women origin dance forms ‘dasi attam’ and ‘sadir attam’. Photo Courtesy: tdayal via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Traditional Kathak performers of Lucknow gharana are Brahmins (Kanyakubj or Gaur Brahmins) as borne out by various censuses conducted during colonial times of the Kathaks of eastern and central UP. However those farmers or families from the not so high caste hierarchy especially from Rajasthan who took to the practice of Kathak, were categorised separately. This took a different tone when women entered the Kathak scene. Because of prevailing ‘purdah’ system, women who came to be associated with public performance of dance and music were either relegated to the lower caste hierarchy within the Hindu fold or became converts to Islam but in either case they, like their southern ‘devadasi’ counterparts, were kept on the fringes of society.

The ‘devadasis’ were relegated to the lowest category in the caste hierarchy. It was only the entry of the first Brahmin woman namely Rukmini Devi Arundel in the thirties of the last century that changed the direction and today dance has become a Brahmin stronghold as also a way of life in every Brahmin family – a tradition that was unthinkable only 70 years ago.

The tradition of women not being allowed to display their art in public space also led to the genre of men doing women’s roles (i.e. ‘stree vesham’) in Kuchipudi and in Kathakali.

In the newly emerged film industry of the early to mid of the last century, matters were no different. Either men performed the role of women or women were imported from abroad to do various roles in films.

Fallout of Colonial Period and Post Independent India

The colonial period saw emphasis on roots, tracing of tradition and antiquity of tradition to bestow pride on a civilization. The one that went first past the post in re-constructing its antiquity came to be known as the most ancient art form. Thus, study of temple sculptures and incorporation into dance started in most parts of the country and led to a process of antiquity being established by inventing theories tracing direct linkages to Natyashastra. In this effort, the ‘devadasi’ system was bestowed a haloed past. There was a conscious distancing of connection with Muslim courts and sensualism.

In independent India, there was an upsurge of the need for regional identity. In order to be recognised as a ‘major dance tradition’ or before it is called ‘classical’, the first task of a dance form was to bolster and create a body of items and formalize the repertoire in a recognised ‘margam’ format. Hence till hitherto, traditional art forms that were only practiced in temple cloisters ‘sattras’ of Assam by male priests, soon modelled itself into the accepted ‘margam’ format and opened its doors to women performer. Thus 1947 that saw only four recognised ‘Classical’ dance styles namely Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri and Bharatanatyam, however post Independent India saw inclusion of four more dance forms within the fold of ‘classical’. These were Kuchipudi and Odissi in the fifties, Mohiniyattam a decade later and finally in the year 2000, Sattriya was declared ‘a major dance form’.

Independent India has seen exchange of experiences and ideas, welcoming of new class and breed of educated performers. In the true spirit of multiculturalism that is the hallmark of this country, it has provided the fermenting ground for extension of boundaries in terms of themes, thoughts, ideas, costumes, language, text and execution, meeting the challenges posed by technological advancements and demands of an unmatched fast changing pace of globalization, but while keeping intact the form, spirit and substance of its own art form.

The practice of musicians following the dancers with their instruments tied around the waist for support that was prevalent during the medieval period was changed to the formal seated position of the musicians.

Boundaries of language have been extended to dance enactments in several different languages besides intelligently marrying the traditional idiom to eclectic music of various cultures, both indigenous and Western classical, without diluting its inherent form and substance. The practice of musicians following the dancers with their instruments tied around the waist for support that was prevalent during the medieval period was changed to the formal seated position of the musicians, ennobling both the dancer and the musicians. Technological advancement in terms of light and sound also found their imprint in stage presentations.

During the fermenting socio-political period of the twentieth century that was witness to rise of nationalism in the air of freedom movement, significant developments in the preservation and nurturing of this art form became visible. Institutions, national and private, sprung up everywhere where legendary Gurus brought with them the ‘margi’ system of presentation that had been mapped in late 19th century. While promoting emergence of solo performers, there has been furtherance of genre of dance dramas.

Gender, Dignity and Status: Similarly, the margins and space of acceptance of artistes especially dancers have also undergone transformation for today performing arts as a vocation is not discarded as an option in increasing number of families. Status and dignity for the arts and artistes have also witnessed a steep rise. Even the traditional male bastions like that of Kathak, Kathakali and Kuchipudi have been punctured with the tide of women performers and educated women performers at that, taking over the mantle – which in its own way has impacted dance presentations. Male gurus are giving way to women gurus.

Traditional male-dominated dance forms like Kuchipudi have seen a major revolution with women performers taking over.

Traditional male-dominated dance forms like Kuchipudi have seen a major revolution with women performers taking over. Photo Courtesy: Arayil via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Patronage at home and abroad: For Indian performing arts, the move out of community-controlled venues like temples, community centres and local halls – brought implications in its wake. Economics and need mean that dancers have to look outside the body of their own cultural support team; they have to look both to public funding and mainstream audiences.  And around both of them, a whole world has changed—changed by technology and travel. It is now shrunken and contemporaneous in very tangible ways. It has been altered by new responses to the concept of ‘home’ and changing meanings of identity, nationality and community. Patronage by Rajas and Maharajas has given way to societies, government bodies and public and private sector bodies being the sponsors of performing arts. Globalization and changing tastes of patrons have also impacted presentations – some good and some questionable.

Abroad, in the early years, the role of the Indian artistes was comparatively simple. Accompanying her husband on his posting abroad, she (musician or dancer) would replicate her classical training by passing it on to a number of selected pupils. There were very few outlets for performance, and the audiences were rather small. Consequently the importance of the private concert grew, set up by a ‘rasika’ at their home, for a few knowledgeable invited guests.

Such performances by artistes from India served to open the eyes of the Western connoisseurs to the body of performing arts, especially dance, existing in India. But they were regarded as exotic visitors. However in the 70’s, following the large-scale arrival of Indian families, growing prosperity of the community and changing demographics, there was a visible upsurge in the call for cultural activities. Community-specific, culture-focused institutions were formed to meet this call.  These small ‘sabhas’ also hosted a number of top level artistes touring the countries abroad and who were willing to perform for small groups of audiences. The trend continues.

Today with many Indians migrating abroad what kind of margins, pushes and pulls in performing arts exist there? From ‘replication’ of art by wives of men posted abroad, ‘projection’ of art has now given way to ‘engagement’. The Indian Diaspora is now more confident with their increasing affluence, stature and acceptance in the host country abroad.

Those engaged with performing arts are now not hesitant in trying to reflect the ethos, angst and emotions that they underwent in their adopted country.

Criticisms of such efforts in their home country have slowly given way to an awareness and acceptance of this new expression. Relationship of artistes abroad with artistes in India has also undergone change. It is now one of professional exchange. It is one of equality rather than of patronage.

Thus the margins of space and aesthetics impact presentations at several levels – horizontally as well as vertically in time in terms of repertoire, themes, movements, presentations, dignity, status and gender considerations. Ultimately, it is change that is ‘constant’ and performing arts and artistes have responded to changing times and changing ethos with subtlety and finesse that have only contributed in terms of value addition to society. There is a blurring of water-tight boundaries as dance forms of one part of the country are increasingly gaining acceptance in other parts of the country or globe.

Vasudhaiva kutumbakam is actually being seen and practiced!

Shovana Narayan is Padmashri, 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: Pabak Sarkar via VisualHunt

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