Perspectives In Studies of Indian Knowledge Systems of Indian Classical Dance & Music
- by Rani Khanam (Kathak Exponent)

India is a land of rich culture and heritage. Since the beginning of our civilization, music, dance and drama have been an integral aspect of our culture. Initially, these art forms were used as a medium of propagation for religion and social reforms. They were also incorporated specially to gain popularity.

From the Vedic era to the medieval period, the performing arts remained an important source of educating the masses. Chanting of Vedic hymns

(HIM-S) with prescribed pitch and accent, which are still a part of religious rituals.Culture plays an important role in the development of any nation; it represents a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices. Culture and creativity manifest themselves in almost all economic, social and other activities. A country as diverse as India is symbolized by the plurality of its culture. India has one of the world’s largest collections of songs, music, dance, theatre, folk traditions, performing arts, paintings and writings.

First let us understand what is Art.

“Art is an aesthetic expression of human emotions. these human emotions, are known as ‘RASA’. It signifies the ultimate satisfaction of ‘Aanand’ (Pleasure). Human emotions can be categorized into nine sub-headings or ‘Navras’. Thus the intellectual mind merges with the artistic streak, giving birth to art. Some of these are expressed through live performances and others through visual arts.

Lets understand the Performing arts and their development through various stages

The tradition of Indian Classical dance & music is ancient like the flow of the river Ganga, from the Vedas (Upanisads) to contemporary time. In Indian tradition, dance and music have been used to express devotion. They form an integral part of the socio-religious rituals and festivities, to the extent that Bharatmuni’s Natya Shastra (third century AD) has enjoyed the status of being the fifth Veda. Great Indian poet Kalidas mentions in Meghaduta that the Mahakal temple in Ujjain resounded with the sound of the ankle bells of the dancing girls. Also, according to an Arab traveller Ibn-al-Athir, (during the 10th century), “three hundred musicians and five hundred dancing-girls were attached to the temple of Som nath at the time of the invasion of Mahmud Ghaznavi.

Several of the Puranas; Matsaya Purana, Kurma Purana, Bhagwat Purana and Shiva Purana – recommended that arrangement should be made to enlist the services of singing and dancing girls to provide vocal and instrumental music and dance at the time of divine services. The oldest archaeological evidence of dance exists in the form of pictures and sculptures dating from about 2500 B.C.As it can be closely linked with religion and ritual dances that are mentioned in the Vedas.

Sangeet Ratnakara written by Sarangdeva in the 13thcentury mentions 264 ragas. A variety of string and wind instruments were invented over the period of time. Many rulers patronised music & dance. The Gupta monarch Samudra Gupta was himself an accomplished musician. In some of his coins, he is shown playing on the Veena.

Similarly in the medieval period the Sufi and Bhakti saints encouraged music…. Qawwalis were sung in Sufi Khanqahs & Shrines and devotional music like Kirtan and Bhajan became popular with the Bhakti Saints. Names of Kabir, Mira bai, Surdas, Tulsidas, Vidyapati are closely associated with religious music. Many scholars have invented many instruments & ragas. Great scholars like Amir Khusraw contributed equally to the promotion of music. Kitabe Navras written by Ibrahim Adil Shah II during the seventeenth century is a collection of songs in praise of Hindu deities as well as Muslim saints.

The living traditions of Indo-Persian culture in Hindustani music and dance developed through Silk Road between 11th centuries to 19th centuries has created an amalga mated heritage. Kings, Nawabs, Wazirs, brought with them their Persianaised culture which blended beautifully with the already highly-developed culture of Hindu India. This synthesis resulted in remarkably enriched forms of Music, dance, poetry, drama, language and celebrated Indo-Iranian “Ganga-Jamuni” Tehzeeb.

There were many famous musicians of Mughal’s court, the patronage given to these artists by the ancient and medieval rulers have been instrumental in keeping the traditions alive. The great musician Tansen, was a vocalist and instrumentalist at the court of Akbar in the 15th Century. Descendants of Tansen founded a tradition upon which modern Indian classical music is based upon.


Both dance and music, collectively known as Sangit, became connected with Drama. Like Indian music and dance has also developed a rich classical tradition. It has a great power of expression and emotions while telling a story. In India, the art of dancing may be traced back to the Harappan culture. The figure of Lord Shiva as Nataraja represents the creation and destruction of the cosmic cycle. The popular image of Shiva in the Form of Nataraja clearly shows the popularity of dance form on the Indian people. In fact classical dance forms like:

  • Kathak, from Uttar Pradesh.
  • Bharatanatyam, from Tamil Nadu
  • Kuchipudi, from Andhra Pradesh
  • Odissi, from Odisha.
  • Sattriya, from Assam.
  • Manipuri, from Manipur.
  • Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, from Kerala are an important part of our cultural heritage

Gradually dances came to be divided as folk and classical. The classical form of dance was performed in temples as well as in royal courts. The dance in temples had a religious objective whereas in courts it was used purely for entertainment. In both the cases, the artists devoted to this art form, found it no less than praying to God.

In southern India Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam(dance forms) developed as an important aspect of the rituals in temples. Yakshagana, a form of Kathakali in Kerala, tells us stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata whereas Kathak and Manipuri are mostly related to the stories of Krishna and his leela (exploits). Performance of Odissi is related to the worship of Lord Jagannath. Though the Krishna leela and the stories related to Lord Shiva was the theme of Kathak, this dance came to be performed in royal courts in medieval times. In the medieval period Kathak dance form was promoted by the Muslim rulers. Apart from Kuchipudi and Manipuri, the basic feature of the Indian classical tradition is the solo dance. Taking an overarching view, one standing feature of the dances is the character of improvisation in performance and applies to both rhythmic patterns and mimetic elaborations.

With the first period of Muslim rule in India in the 1200's, music became split into the northern tradition of Hindustani music and the southern tradition of Karnatak music. The most outstanding composer-musicians of Karnatak music were a group of three musicians called the Trinity-Shyama Shastri, Tyagaraja, and Muthuswami Dikshitar. In the south, temples, ‘courts’ and other parts of the building provided an important stage for all dancers and musicians. In the medieval period, the south remained very rigid with the rules of dances that were imbibed from ancient Sanskrit texts. It became a seat of learning and institutions of dance emerge first in the southern region.

Institutions have opened up giving opportunities to many younger students. Performances which were earlier limited to a privileged few have now been thrown open to the public and can be viewed by thousands of art lovers throughout the country. Schools, Universities have departments of Dance & music like; Indira Kala Vishwa Vidyalaya of Khairagarh, Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, Bhatkhande university of Lucknow, Kathak Kendra, Kalashetra and many institutes are all propagating performing arts in their own ways. The different course has been introduced by the institutions for its students and the syllabus has been well structured. Music conferences, Baithaks, lecture demonstrations are all spreading the different art forms to corners of India.

Many cultural NGOs have worked to bring about a rapport and bondage with artists and the modern generation and creating the audience for our classical dance forms in mass and educational institutes. Students get a brief taste of the dance & music forms by way of lecture-demonstrations, simple workshops and interactions through the masters and established artists.

Abroad based Masters/ Artists have also flourished and different performing arts institutions started by Pt. Ravi Shankar ji, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan sahib, Ustad Alla Rakkha ji etc. are prestigious teaching centres for foreigners. Many foreign universities also have facilities of art forms giving degrees and diplomas to students. All over the world Indian artists are invited to perform and participate in various festivals and occasions. In the last few decades the status of dance as well as its performers has changed. Young people have started learning dance to enrich their personal qualities.

The soul of Indian Music

The soul of Hindustani Sangeet (Music, instrument and dance) is Spiritual communication of the self to the Almighty. The dancers and musicians convey the emotional force of composition through the language of their medium of communication which is their own specialisation.

Guru Shishya Parampara

The gharanas function in Guru Shishya Parampara, that is, disciples learning under a particular guru, transmitting his musical knowledge and style, will belong to the same gharana. Indian traditional dance styles are more than two thousand years old and there arises the need to create awareness and interest in the minds of younger generation, so that they are able to enjoy classical dance learning and performances in the real sense of the term keeping our age-old tradition and culture intact.

The modern guru-shishya relationship is an INTER MING LING of the traditional Gurukul system and the modern teacher-student relationship. It is constantly changing by inventing new methods of teaching, innovative choreographies, differently interpreting our mythological stories but trying our best to follow the tradition and unquestioning respect that existed in the traditional Gurukul system. In India, the concept of guru-shishya has survived despite all the modernizing mechanisms. The modern Guru - Shishya trend is yet to find its balance in the space between tradition and modernity that Indian dance is currently undergoing.

In traditional Gurukul system the students spent one to one training, an extensive amount of time, with the guru, left every other aspect of their lives behind. The students dedicated their entire time to the art which was not just for months or an year but for decades. One can also see it as pure meditation. They learnt other art to enhance their creativity, understanding and practice of dance.

Since the 1930s the need to educate and nurture traditional Indian classical dance led to the establishment of various dance institutes that resulted in traditional teachers leaving their small town and coming to teach in big cities. This took away the role of the Gurukul system from the one-to-one method of dance training to group lessons.

The Gharana System

Without mentioning of Gharana, Guru Shishya Parampara seems incomplete. Different Gharanas are like different flowers and each flower has its own fragrance & excellence. Gharanas are the school of thoughts and each of them have a different vision for the aesthetic production. A Gharana needs a continuity of at least three generations.

Unlike the West where the dance and the music are written heritage, the Indian performing art also includes oral understanding and is a flowing tradition. Every nuance imbibed/ interpreted by individuals is different and the signature of an artist is to contribute to the flow of the tradition making it relevant for the contemporary time and audience.