The Temple Tradition in Three Styles of Classical Indian Dance: Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak (TT17)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Dr Anne-Marie Gaston
Date: May 24, 2017
Time: 2.30-3.30

This illustrated paper/lecture demonstration, will examine the changing importance of religious expression in three classical Indian dances (Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak), from their traditional (up to 1947), to their modern context.

Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu state. It was the hereditary profession of devadasis, women who danced in temples as part of religious ritual and on secular occasions, where they also played an important secular role as professional dancers and singers. Devadasis were taught by hereditary male teachers. In the 1930s, these teachers began to teach the dance, with some modifications, to non-hereditary dancers, both women and men, who were instrumental in creating the modern stage version of Bharatanatyam. Early stage presentations, although including much devotional repertoire, generally eschewed religious trappings. Recently this has changed, with increasing emphasis on temple associations.

While the Bharatanatyam of today evolved from a preexisting classical style, Odissi, from Orissa State, was created as a classical dance style in the 1960s and differed from Bharatanatyam in many ways. Unlike Bharatanatyam, it did not constitute a unified dance style but was assembled out of pre-existing elements of which the most important was the gotipua tradition, a dance-drama style performed by prepubescent boys. Many of the chief architects of Odissi had been gotipuas and spent their youth dancing, studying percussion and performing in theatres and villages. Unlike the devadasi tradition, where some dances were performed as part of temple ritual, gotipua performances took place mainly in secular venues, except for certain very sporadic specific events associate with the Jagannatha temple in Puri. While their repertoire centered on Hindu mythology, especially Krishna, the gotipuas were essentially itinerant entertainers. From the late 1950s, girls and women started to perform the Odissi of the gotipuas which induced a group of teachers to formalize the style, borrowing their format from Bharatanatyam. From the 1980s, many men also began to perform Odissi. In recent years there has been an attempt to trace Odissi’s roots to a pre-existing temple tradition. However, historical records for the temple tradition of female dancers/musicians (maharis), dedicated to Lord Jagannatha in Puri, lacks clear documentation. While their dance was largely ignored in the 1960s, during the creation of Odissi, there has been a recent trend by a few high caste women towards recreating their vision of the mahari’s dances which emphasizes the religious component. A similar tendency is apparent among Kathak adherents. All accounts ascribe the origin of Kathak to Hindu temples and princely courts, but the temple connection remains tenuous and most dancers of the post-independence period studied within traditions associated with the Muslim court of Wazir Ali Shah in Lucknow (Oudh) and the courts of some of the Hindu Rajas of Rajasthan, especially Jaipur. Despite this, modern practitioners generally claim that the dance originated as a religious presentation, whatever the immediate antecedents may have been. As in the other dance styles, records indicate that all of the Kathak teachers were men. Historical records, with very few exceptions, list only men as performers, despite the fact that there was an important parallel tradition of women dancers and singers in the courts and wealthy houses.

I will discuss the origins for each of the three dance styles, their presentation in the early post-independence period and subsequent trends towards increasing religiosity in repertoire and presentation.

Anne-Marie Gaston (D.Phil. Oxon, M. Litt. Oxon) (Anjali) is a scholar and internationally recognized performer of several styles of South Asian classical dance: Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Mayurbanj and Seraikella Chhau . All of her dance training has been in India, over fifty years, with some of the greatest teachers. Her dance repertoire includes both traditional repertoire and innovative dance/theatre performances which seamlessly blend movement, original musical scores, text, video and images on a variety of themes: Environment Yoga, Buddhist, Greek and Mesopotamian myths. For these mixed media productions, which include professional quality images and video, she collaborates with composers, musicians, mask makers, dancers and actors. As part of the 500 years of Shakespeare’s birth celebrations, in collaboration with her long time Kathakali Guru, Sadanand Balakrishnan, she created Lady Macbeth, a mixed-media presentation, set in Rajasthan, which includes an original musical score, video and images. She has performed and lectured in theatres, art galleries and museums across Canada, USA, Netherlands, Greece and in Paris.

She has published three books: Bharata Natyam from Temple to Theatre (Manohar), Siva in Dance Myth and Iconography (Oxford University Press), Krishna=s Musicians: music and music-making in the temples of Nathdvara Rajasthan (Manohar). Another book, Bharatanatyam Evolves, will appear shortly. She contributed the chapter on ‘Embodied Movement’ for the Oxford Handbook of Sacred Arts, as well as numerous articles for academic journals. She is a Research Associate with InterCulture, University of Ottawa, Canada. In 2016 she was a member of their delegation to Chengdu, China for the International Conference on Matralineality.

She is the artistic Director of Cultural Horizons