Indian classical dance is religious in content and flavor. For centuries, the dance existed within the temple bounds, as the Art of the Devdasi. These women whose name signifies “servants of the Lord” were consecrated to the temple and performed ceremonial dances before the image of the Deity. Consecration of Devdasis flourished throughout ancient India, most prominently in the Southern states and Orissa (now called Odisha) in the east of India. There, the kings were worshipped as God on earth, and the devdasis occupied a role both political as well as devotional. To be selected as such brought great honor to a girl’s family in times bygone. Today, there are no practicing dancers in the temples; the dance halls lie in ruins, but their sculptures speak of their glorious past. The art of dance is now presented as stagecraft by professionally trained dancers. In this setting, its ancient religious fervor yet remains but is in constant danger of losing its traditions and succumbing to fusion and modern choreographic trends.
Odissi is an ancient classical dance style of India’s temple worship tradition. Performed in the temples of Orissa, it was part of the elaborate rituals carried out in the daily worship Puja of Lord Jagannath. The performers were female dancers and singers attached to the temple and known as devdasis or devotees of the lord. With the demise of the devdasis lineage, scholars and dance gurus took over creating a classical dance repertoire based on textual knowledge, sculptural temple carvings and existing dances. However, the beauty of Odissi style is evident visually on the temple wall carvings especially at the Konark, which incorporates the dance sculptures as ornamental motifs that serve today as a basis of a rich heritage and a reference for the dance, preserving the purity of the style.
Indian Dance drama as a Theatrical Genre An ancient form of movement and theater known in India as dance drama co-existed with the classical temple tradition for hundreds of years, drawing inspiration and technical aspects from it but has always been secular and stage oriented. The themes were generally religious and mythic stories presented as a theater spectacle rather than devotional worship. Dance dramas are driven by themes, moods and character roles and can include various styles of movements and dialogue as suited to the situation. The use of stage props such as masks, weapons, costumes etc. are the norm along with stage sets and light design. Also, the dance drama includes a variety of musical styles ranging from classical ragas to instrumental music and sound effects. Dance dramas can be presented as polished theater works or staged as simple folk and village presentations that often have comedic flair. The effect differs from any form of dance drama tradition in the West, though religious operetta would describe it to some extent. The action is danced and the acting tells the story in the form of gesture, expression and mimetic characteristic of Indian dance. Dance drama is mostly, very musical presenting comedy and heroism as staged effects in the recounting of the episodes of Gods, heroes and demons.
Colorful skirts and veils, pulsating rhythms, swaying hips and stamping feet show the joyous celebration of life as festivals abound in the villages in India. In dances of courtship and wedding, often a dialogue carried through the dance can be understood in its vibrant hand gestures and body movements. Presentations of different dances from various regions, show a cultural diversity but, within the commonality of the Indian tradition.