Indian Dance

Impact of Muslims and the British on Indian Dance


Impact of Islam -

Dance – isn’t it interesting that all the current “classical Hindu” styles are from outside the Mughal empire ?  Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudy, Mohini Attam, Odissi, ManiPuri – all come from kingdoms that were just beyond the borders of the muslim empire ! 

Invading armies of Islam killed off more than just India’s warriors.  It destroyed our cultural heritage at a prodigious rate.  Apart from art, architecture, literature and religious institutions, muslim rulers of various dynasties killed off various formal forms of dance in North and Western India.  Only folk music and dance survived in areas ruled by Islam.  That’s why the entire northern belt – from Sindh, Punjab, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Himalayan states, Rajasthan and Gujarat have no classical dance forms left for us to enjoy. 

Former Imperial capitals at Knauj, Patliputra, Magadh, Delhi, Chittor, Ujjain etc must have been innovative centres of dance and music.  Even Khajuraho must have had a regional style of its own.  From records in secular literature of pre-islamic India, we know that dancers and courtesans were as popular as today’s film stars and just as rich.  Names of Chitralekha and Amrapali are synonymous with dance and music.  Countless sculptures of various artistic styles exist from antiquity to testify to the popularity of classical dance in ancient India.

Sadly, muslim invasion wiped out all cultural activities from kingdoms in the west and north.  Islamic rulers considered Indian music and dance to be crass, vulgar and unislamic.  Public dancing was forbidden and religious music was banned.  Without dancers, teachers or musicians, various dance forms in these regions simply died out.

Similar cultural genocide was recently performed by the Pol Pot in Cambodia, where dancers were forced to work as agricultural labourers.  Only a few dancers managed to keep up their practice in secret and have slowly began to revive their art.  

West and North Indian states have been ruled by muslims for far too to hope for such a revival from living exponents of the art.  We can only hope to revive it by looking at archaeological data from art, architecture and literature.  Sadly, I don’t know if anyone is doing any research on the lost styles or to resurrect them. 

Kathak is a dance form that slowly evolved by mixing Persian and Indian dance techniques.  Sweet as it is, Kathak is but a shadow of the original Indian styles that were extent in the region.  After Aurangzeb’s purge of dance and music from the imperial palace, some of the best dancers and musicians from the imperial court took refuge in regional courts, setting up new “gharans”.


Impact of the British -

Traditional Indian dance outside the Islamic kingdoms of India was dealt a major blow when the British out-lawed devdasis in late 19th Century.  To the Anglican / Catholic mind, any female priestess in a sacred enclosure evoked the memories of the “whores of Babylon”.  To them, there could be no other function of a woman in the sacred precinct other than a sexual one.  They were convinced that these women were not serving any spiritual role as they were beautiful and bejewelled !  What else can such beautiful women do than to offer themselves as a sexual plaything of the priests ?

Fact was, DevDasis were temple servants, like all other temple servants and served the God as a reigning monarch would be served by his servants.  They sang, danced and added a touch a joy, beauty and glamour to the temple just as their counter parts did in the palaces of the kings.  There was no sexual element to this.  As maids to the Gods, Devdasis served the sacred, divine couples who reigned in the temple (most Hindu Gods are married and worshiped with their partners in the temples) 

Since the early common era, Devdasis were dedicated to the temple just as any other professional temple servant would be dedicated to the temple – musicians, accountants and jewellers.  Priests were a different class of temple employees and were the “personal servants” of the Gods.  They did all the things that a valet or a page would do in the palace, ie – bathe, dress, cook and clean for the God.  Being “maids” to the Gods, Devdasis performed similar function.  Experts amongst them danced to please the Gods.  Naturally, this meant they were in regular touch with the high priests.  Prudish British could not understand how men and women could work in such close proximity and not be sexually linked.  Their own bias and prejudice led them to believe devdasis were in sexual liaison with the high priests.

As professionals, Devdasi were expected to be consummate perfectionists.  They were educated in the various arts such as literature, dance, music and poetry to a very high degree.  Working with musicians, singers and dance teachers, they performed to hymns, prayers and songs written with spiritual themes.  Naturally, this meant, they had recourse to talk or meet with their artistic colleagues to discuss and practice their performance in the temples and at their homes.  British termed all such contacts as licentious and assumed the women were of loose character. 

Bigoted British asserted that their own women, who danced cheek to jowl with “any man” at European dance balls, were more virtuous than devdasis who performed solo in temples. 

Dance naturally keeps people fit and healthy and as their profession expected them to be gorgeously dressed, Devdasis were undoubtedly glamorous celebrities of their time.  As with all celebrities, they too had to contend with fans, rumours and gossip.  As with all celebrities, they moved in circles of the rich, famous and powerful.  Being politically motivated, the British selectively chose to believe what they heard and presumed the women were the kept mistresses of the rich and powerful.

Thomas Babinton Macaulay, of East India Company, set about decimating the traditional India education system and replacing it with a European model.  He was hell bent on denigrating anything Indian as “primitive and retrograde”.  East India Company’s need for political dominance led them to insist that the “natives” break with their religious and cultural traditions as well.  They destroyed a number of beautiful ancient institutions to dominate India.  Devdasi being just one such tradition.

Fortunately, within a generation being banned, dance of the Devdasis was rescued and brought on to stage before it died out.  Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Brahmin lady married to an Englishman, was sufficiently politically and socially acceptable to help revive the art.  Due to Christian reservations, aped by the middle class of India, it could never go back in the temple, but dance was now to be performed “on stage” – for the whole world to see.  When it was reserved for the God and his devotees, it was considered licentious and corrupt, now that it was to be performed it public, for the pleasure of all, it was more respectable ! 

Original “Sadhir” dance form was shorn of whatever elements the new teachers thought vulgar or unacceptable to the west.  Sadly, we don't know how much we have a lost as a result of reworking the original dance form.  Costumes, jewellery, music, setting etc were also modified and developed to conform to what would be acceptable to the “educated middle class”.  A new name was given to it – BharatNatyam – which sounded sufficiently and significantly ancient enough for it have respectability and support of the people. 

Rukmini Devi’s work encouraged other people to help revive other dying dance forms of India.  Various temple dances were rescued, reworked, edited, codified and arranged like Bhartnatyam.  This made them more "acceptable" to the masses.  It also made it easy to teach and performance these uniformly across the board.  Performed in a sterile environment of a minimalistic stage, hung with only black curtains, modern reworking of ancient dance forms was only suppose to have spiritual goal.  Classical dance was suppose to evoke spirituality and serenity of ancient India through its mythological scenes as depicted in dance.   

I wish someday, someone, will research into the lost arts and styles of Indian dance.  

Indians have always learnt dance and music – its part of the “64 arts” that a well-educated person much know.  Indian youth now learns various traditional, classical, folk, foreign and synthetic dance and music styles to become the modern Indian they aspire to be.  


© Bhagwat Shah   
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