In India, various facets of performing arts are all pervading bringing colour and joy to numerous festivals and ceremonies, and reaffirming the faith of the people in their heritage. These facets have been responsible for sustaining the long continuities of ancient traditions. They are the link between the past and the present. It thus exemplifies the complex, organic interaction of all aspects of life implicit in all tribal and folk art forms; art is not seen as something apart from life, a mere ornamentation or entertainment, but as an intrinsic part of it.
Under the patronage of Kings and rulers, skilled artisans and entertainers were encouraged to specialize and to refine their skills to greater levels of perfection and sophistication. Gradually, the classical forms of Art evolved for the glory of temple and palace, reaching their zenith around India around 2nd C.E. onwards and under the powerful Gupta empire, when canons of perfection were laid down in detailed treatise – the Natyashastra and the Kamasutra – which are still followed to this day. Through the ages, rival kings and nawabs vied with each other to attract the most renowned artists and performers to their courts.
While the classical arts thus became distinct from their folk roots, they were never totally alienated from them, even today there continues a mutually enriching dialogue between tribal and folk forms on the one hand, and classical art on the other; the latter continues to be invigorated by fresh folk forms, while providing them with new thematic content in return. In addition, while links with their folk roots distinguish the regional classical art forms, the myriad folk forms throughout India are bound by common classical religious and mythological themes.
In India, religion, philosophy and myth can not be divorced from their art forms. Dance and music are tied inextricably to ceremony of any kind. Weddings, births, coronations, entering a new house or town, welcoming a guest, religious processions, harvest time , any or all of these are occasions for song and dance.
Music and dance are probably the most elemental art forms, spontaneously expressing the entire garment of human emotions and experiences. There are tribal belts throughout India, and although each tribe has its own distinctive music and dances, they all share a similar form, with men and women forming separate rows with linked arms and executing intricate leg movements in a gradually increasing tempo that builds up to a crescendo of vigour.
The folk music and dances of agricultural communities celebrate the rhythms of daily life, the turn of the seasons, the highlights of the agricultural calendar, religious festivals and important events that punctuate the flow of life, such as births and marriages. While folk music and dance share common themes and concerns, there is a wide variety of forms. Along the entire Himalayan region, from Kashmir to Darjeeling, folk dancers link arms and sway gracefully in undulating movements, celebrate the sowing of the wheat crop; few can resist the infectious beat of the dholak, the two-sided drum, and pairs of dancers take turns to execute complex acrobatic movements in the centre of a circle of abandoned dancers. Women perform the Giddha, also characterised by its spontaneous energy. Rajasthani women, their faces covered with flowing veils, are swirls of colour as they pirouette in the Ghoomar dance, while their counterparts in Gujarat perform the famous Garba, dancing in a circle with batons. Their men perform the Dandiya Ras, a more vigorous version of the same dance, leaping and crouching in twirling patterns. In the fishing communities of Maharashtra, men and women link arms and dance together and the women climb on to the men’s shoulders to form pyramids. The women’s Lavani dance from this area is notable for its unabashed sensuality. There are also several forms of dance-drama or folk theatre, such as the Nautanki of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Bhavai of Gujarat, the irreverent Tamasha of Maharashtra , the Bengali Jatra, the spectacular Yakshagana of Karnataka and Theyyam of Kerala, all of which narrate legends of local heroes, kings and deities. Martial art forms throughout the country have been stylized to quasi dance forms, notable among which are the martial dances of the North-eastern hill tribes, the Lazim dances of Maharashtra, the Kalaripayattu of Kerala, and the highly stylized masked Chhau dances of Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar.
Together these dances have formed a vast reservoir from which the classical dances have drawn sustenance. There are seven major classical dance styles — Bharatnatyam from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Kathakali, a classical dance-drama from Kerala, Manipuri from Manipur, Kathak from Uttar Pradesh, Odissi from Orissa, and Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh and Sattriya from Assam which has recently been included in the fold of Classical Dances. In their present format, their history cannot be traced back to over two to three hundred years, but they all have links with the ancient and medieval literary, sculptural and musical traditions of India and of their particular regions. They all adhere to the canons of classical dance laid down in the Natya Shastra, a second century C.E. text ascribed to the sage Bharata, to whom it was supposedly revealed by the Creator, Brahma.
Folk theatre and dance-drama were the common roots of both classical dance and theatre , the traditions of both of which were elaborated upon the Natyashastra. Kalidasa is India’s most famous poet and dramatist, and his plays are still performed today. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh, was a noted playwright and staged elaborate dramas at his court.