Upaanya Visharad - Level 5

Genesis of Dance and the Tradition of Dance

         The tradition of dance in India is about as old as the civilization and culture of India itself. Unfortunately, not much is known about the ancient history of this country, and ancient folklores and legends form the basis of all that is known about ancient India. The same applies in the context of Kathak. That being said, if there is any foundational tome on the Indian art of dance, then it must be none other than the text called ‘Natya Shastra’ by Bharatmuni. This book presents a thoughtful and detailed description of dance in India. Although the age of this book is not definitely known, a key observation provides an estimate of the vintage of this text. Even as the four Vedas are understood to be the ancient scriptures that define Indian Civilization, the Natya Shastra composed by Bharatmuni is often considered the fifth Veda. It is then reasonable to infer that the document referred to as the fifth Veda was created in the same timeframe as the other four Vedas. This document is also known as ‘Gandharva Veda’ in Vedic literature. 

         Nandikeshwar wrote a book titled ‘Abhinaya Darpan’ (The Mirror of Gesture) describing the genesis and development of the art of dance in great detail. According to the book, there was a time when the world had no idea about fine arts and the concept of entertainment was non-existent. In such a time, the people of Devlok collectively approached Brahmaji and beseeched him to create a medium for entertainment that would dispel all pain and sorrow, and whose practice would provide generosity, stability, patience, and pleasure. Not only this, but regular practice by the student of this medium should also yield glory, influence, good fortune, and proficiency. In the end, practicing this medium should provide happiness that even exceeds the bliss of spiritual enlightenment and joy in Brahma (Brahmanand) himself.

         In response to this request, Brahmaji picked the text (paathya) from Rg Veda, acting (abhinaya) from Yajur Veda, music (Sangeet) from Sam Veda, and emotion (ras) from Atharva Veda to create the knowledge of performance (Natya Veda) that leads to righteousness (Dharma), riches (Artha), deeds (karma) and salvation (moksha). For this reason, Natya Shastra (science of performance) is considered to be a pure and ancient as the four Vedas. 

        Brahmaji first gifted his creation of the Natya Veda to Bharatmuni. Bharatmuni used this foundational knowledge to create theatrical (natya), morbid (mrut) and dance (nritya) forms of performing arts. He then brought along Gandharvas, Kinnars and celestial beauties (apsara) to present these art forms to Lord Shiva for the first time. It is said that Lord Shiva was reminded of his own Tandav dance upon watching these performances, which he had taught to his disciple Tandu.  Lord Shiva asked Tandu to teach the Tandav form and Parvatiji to teach the Lasya form to Bharatmuni. 

      This very same Tandav dance became known to humans through the munis, whereas Lasya dance was personally passed on by Parvatiji to the daughter of Banasur, Usha. Usha came to Dwarka and taught the lasya dance to the local Gopikas. The Gopikas, in turn, popularized this dance among the women of Saurashtra. Glimpses of this dance are seen in the Garba-Ras folk dance of Gujarat. Lord Krishna adopted this dance and popularized it via his Rasleela dances. This dance is particularly seen in places like Mathura and Vrindavan to this day. This dance underwent natural modifications over the course of time, eventually giving rise to the Kathak dance. 


The Tradition of The Performing Arts


        Ancient Indian tradition was unique in its own way. In ancient times, it was known as Natya (theatre) or Drishya (view) or Prekshya Kavya (Viewable Poetry). Often it was simply referred to as Rupak (metaphor). Whichever way it was referred, it continues to be connected with today’s theatrical performances with great harmony. And yet, it had elements that drifted away from the origins.

        Ancient Sanskrit plays were referred to as Drishya Kavya (Visual Poetry) instead of Natya (theatre). This gives us an idea that Sanskrit plays had a higher significance than merely a theatrical performance. In a literal sense, Drishya Kavya implies a form of poetic storytelling that is enjoyed more by watching rather than reading or listening. These Drishya Kavyas were presented on a Manch (Stage), or it can be said that these poems were acted out on the stage. Although these works of art were presented on a stage, they usually lacked the performance style that is contemporarily recognized as Acting. The Drishya Kavyas that are now known as ancient plays completely neglected the aspect of visual expressions and acting. 

       The word Natya itself reveals some information about the form of these works of art. It needs to be interpreted as a type of poetry. The genesis of the word Natya is based on the root word ‘Nat’ which refers to the act of dancing. It can be concluded that ancient Sanskrit plays were closely associated with rhythm (sur) and tone (taal), but they had no place for enactment.

       These plays lacked the component of actually emoting or creating a sense of realism. Audiences were also accustomed to the artificiality of the Drishya Kavya. Audiences took cues from the pictorial and informational characters presented during the performance, and then used their imagination and intelligence to surmise the gist of the Natya. Scholars of the time maintained that a sophisticated appreciation was only possible when presented on the high tower of imagination, and that there was no place for realism in art. If the theatrical style of old times were to be summarized in a single sentence, it would suffice to say that the poet does not actually say anything directly, he merely hints at his motives. 

       Everyone in those times accepted this philosophy. The Drishya Kavyas were more akin to western Operas than Indian theatre. Western Opera is orchestra centric with prominence given to music played on multiple organs and a primary singer, but not to acting or emoting. The presentation objective of artists in those days was different from that of contemporary performers. Further, the artists and audiences alike had a different perspective on the art form. 

Artist Biographies

Sitara Devi

Sitara Devi was born in Calcutta (modern day Kolkata). Her father was Sukhdev Maharaj, who was himself an accomplished Kathak dancer. He served as the royal dancer in the court of the ruler of Nepal. Sitara Devi was strongly attracted to dance from a very young age. She started receiving training in dance under the guidance of Shri Shambhu Maharaj since the age of about 12. 

Sitara Deviji was equally skilled in Bharatnatyam, Kathak, and Manipuri dances. Sitara Deviji gained a lot of publicity and fame thanks to Indian motion pictures and her acting and dances in those movies. Her career in the motion picture industry left her with little time to practice and cherish her dancing. She left the film industry after some time to enjoy dancing.

She delivered many dance performances on international stages. She mesmerized international audiences with her dances and got many of them attracted to the Indian dance form. Beyond Indian dances, Sitara Deviji also expressed great interest in the dance forms of other countries. She continued to perform in several prestigious Musical Conferences. She was particularly skilled in the beautiful depictions of Shri Ram and Krishna in her dances. It is even said that she could present the entire Ramayana all by herself, being able to act out the roles of various characters with equal ease. Sitara Devi ji passed into the ages in the year 2014 at the age of 94 years.

Damayanti Joshi

Shri Damayanti Joshi was born on Dec 3, 1928. She was a member of an average middle class family in Mumbai. Her father passed away within a year after she was born. Her mother raised her with great care despite difficulties.

Observing young Damayanti’s love for Kathak from a young age, her mother sent her to get formally trained in Kathak dance under the guidance of Shri Sitaram Prasad. She was introduced to the famous danseuse Menaka Devi after a few years of training, who gave her an opportunity to showcase her dancing skills to international audiences. Damayanti ji earned much fame on her international dance tours. After returning to India, she trained under Shri Acchan Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj and Shri Lacchu Maharaj to learn advanced dance skills. 

Shri Damayanti Joshi was formally trained in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, MAnipuri and western dance forms. She served as a representative in the Indian Government’s Cultural Committee on tour to various countries such as China and Japan, where she also showcased her dances. Her Kathak and Manipuri dances were highly appreciated on this tour. She has performed in all the reputed Dance Conferences organized in India. She brought out the purity of dance in all her performances. She emphasized the emotional aspect of dance performance over the beat (taal) and tones (laya). Damayanti ji received a number of accolades in recognition of her dancing prowess. She passed into the ages in the year 2004 at the age of 76.

Shri Gopikrishna

Gopikrishna ji was born in August 1933 in Calcutta. His maternal grandfather, Shri Sukhdev Maharaj, was a noted scholar of music. His aunts Smt Sitara Devi and Alaknanda are well known danseuses, while his mother Taradevi was herself an accomplished singer. Thus, he was surrounded by a very talented family.

He became a much sought-after dance instructor after his performance in the motion picture ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’. Gopikrishna ji first received dance instructions from her grandfather, Sukhdev Maharaj. Later he also became a disciple of Shri Shambhu Maharaj. He was also skilled in Bharatnatyam and Manipuri dance forms. 

He received his early education in Bombay. He had to face many struggles in his life, having to live on the footpaths of the city during the hardest time of his life. However, he maintained his devotion to the dance form through all his struggles, and maintained regular practice. His opportunity in the movie ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’ came about very early in his professional career where he delivered a stellar performance, bringing him much fame within India as well as internationally. This performance catapulted him to the league of eminent dancers in India.  He toured all across India, delivering countless dance performances, and successfully attracting the Indian audiences towards classical dance. He played an important part in revitalizing public interest in Indian classical dance. 

Gopichand ji learned Bharatnatyam from Shri GovindRaj Pillai. He choreographed beautiful dance sequences in several Indian movies. He didn’t place much faith in earlier generations of dance tradition, and instead preferred to continuously experiment in his style of dance. He had two brothers, Shri Pandey and Shri Chaubey.   Shri Gopichand ji passed away in February 1994 when he was 58 years old.

Shri Acchan Maharaj

Shri Acchan Maharaj was the oldest of the three sons of Kalika Prasad ji. His father, Kalika Prasad ji, was a highly respected Guru of Kathak. Lacchu Maharaj and Shambhu Maharaj were the younger brothers of Shri Acchan Maharaj. Both the brothers were also top-notch stalwarts and gurus of the Kathak dance style. Thus, his entire family was totally immersed in the arts. Shri Acchan Maharaj tirelessly worked to expand the influence of Kathak dance, just like Shri Bindadeen Maharaj, and he was rewarded for his efforts with much fame and repute. He served as the royal dancer in the court of the ruler of Rampur for about 17-18 years. 

Shri Acchan Maharaj is widely regarded as the Emperor of Kathak of the twentieth century. He had the uncanny ability to communicate minute emotional details through graceful gestures and body movements that would ordinarily be difficult to explain even with words. He had great control over complex steps. He was able to dance beautifully and gracefully to the most beautiful notes and beats. He would dance for hours on end to complex beats of taals like Dhamaar, Surtaal, brahmataal, Aada Chautal and Sawari. He used to exquisitely portray episodes from Lord Krishana’s life, such as Makhan Chori (butter theft), Mathura Gaman (departure for Mathura), Kansa Vadh (killing Kansa), Govardhan Dhaaran (holding Mount Govardhan) and Radha-Krishna premleela (love). 

Acchan Maharaj was a very simple natured person. He was free from anger and arrogance. He also wrote a book on the Art of Dance, but that book is not available now.  He created many dance sequences around Krishna Leela. Audiences would be mesmerized the moment he set foot in the dance arena. He passed away in May 1950.

  He specialized in singing and dancing thumris or reading poetry and then acting out the sentiment of the poem (sher). Whenever he acted out the expressions of a delicate lady, it seemed as though a woman is really standing on the stage. His illustrious son Shri Birju Maharaj is unparalleled in the arts in his own right, and is furthering the divine task of publicizing and spreading art appreciation. 

Emotions and Their Evocation


When we watch a gripping theatrical play or a movie, or else when we read a novel or poetry, we lose ourselves in the performance and subconsciously begin cheering on some character towards glory or wishing the downfall of some other character. We become their partners in their successes and struggles, joys and sorrows, friendship and enmity and other experiences and emotions. We come so engrossed in the experiences of the characters that we feel like they are part of our real life. The peculiar feeling that the audiences experience when they are totally engrossed in an artist’s performance is the evocation of Ras (emotions). This evocation of emotions also has a scientific definition based on scriptures.

The definition of Ras/Emotionality is as follows:

Ras, or emotionality, is the thrill experienced by spectators, audiences, or readers when a latent sentiment blossoms through triggers, experiences and transitive expressions of an artist into an evocation of strong internalized feelings in the heart. 

Sthayi Bhaav (Latent Sentiments)

The sentiments that always exist as germs in the heart and are ordinarily hidden away, but manifest themselves in presence of a specific person, time or place as referred to as Sthayi Bhav or latent sentiments. Laughter, sorrow, anger, excitement, anxiety, fear, hatred etc are all latent sentiments. The following table shows the emotionality associated with each latent sentiment

Sthayi Bhav (Sentiment)

Ras (Emotion)

Rati (Desire)

Shringar (Adornment/Seduction)

Krodh (Anger)

Raudra (fiery)

Vairagya (reclusion)

karun/Shok (sorrow, depression)

Utsaah (excitement)

Veer (bravado)

Jugupsa (disgust)

Vibhatsa (morbid, grisly)

Bhaya (Fear)

Bhayanak (scary)

Haas (Laughter)

Haasya (Humor)

Sneh (love)

Vatsalya (affection)

Vibhaav (Triggers)

The person, object or place that arouses the Sthayi Bhaav (latent sentiments) is called a Vibhaav (trigger). There are two types of Vibhaav:

Alamban Vibhaav (Releasing Trigger): The person that arouses the Sthayi Bhaav is called a Alamban Vibhaav (releasign trigger).

Uddipan Vibhav (Stimulating Trigger): The object that enhances or aggravates the sentiment is call Uddipan VIbhaav (Stimulating Trigger).

Anubhaav (Experiences)

The efforts and actions taken by a person once their Sthayi Bhaav (latent sentiments) are aroused are referred to as Aubhaav (Experiences).

Sanchaari Bhaav (Transitive Sentiments)

Once a Sthayi Bhaav is aroused in a person, other fleeting thoughts and feelings that enhance the emotionality are called Sanchaari Bhaav (Transitive Sentiments).

Shringar Ras:

Shringar Ras is associated with the Sthayi Bhaav of Rati. The Alamban vibhaav of Shringar Ras is the husband, wife or person you are attracted to. The Uddipan VIbhaav for this ras is gathering clouds, a singing nightingale, spring etc. The rush experienced in the memory of a loved one, tears in the eye etc are the Anubhaav of this Ras. Inertia, aggression, despondency, enthusiasm, passion, arrogance etc are all sanchari bhav of this ras, which accentuate the Shringar ras, but themselves are fleeting emotions. 

Veer Ras: 

Veer Ras (bravado) is associated with the Sthayi Bhaav of Utsaah (excitement). The excitement can be about warfare, generosity, mercy etc, because of which Veer Ras is understood to have many facets. Any person or activity that arouses excitement is the Alamban Vibhaav of Veer Ras, whereas bistapoorna lalkaar (full throated challenge) is the Uddipan Vibhaav of this Ras. 

Restless waits, flailing of hands, grandiose bravado are the Anubhaav of this Ras, and ferocity, haughtiness, exhilaration, etc are the Sanchaari Vibhaav.

Vibhatsa Ras:

 Jugupsa/ghrina (disgust or nausea) is the Sthayi Bhaav or Vibhatsa Ras. Detestable objects such as meat, blood, corpses or nightmares are the Alamban Vibhaav. Vultures, hyenas, etc. preying on corpses represent the Uddipan Vibhaav. Spitting, squeezing the nose, hopping to the side etc are the Anubaav, and fear/horror are the Sanchaari Bhaav.

Raudra Ras:

Krodh (anger) is the Sthayi Bhaav of Raudra Ras. Harmful or damaging people are the Alamban Vibhaav and various unpleasant actions (such as uncouth behavior or indecency) of the harmful person are the Uddipan Vibhaav. Impulsiveness, labor and aggression are the Sanchaari Ras.

Haasya Ras:

Haasya Ras is aroused when any object or person behaves abnormally, makes unusual expression, dressed awkwardly or makes peculiar actions to amuse an observer. The peculiar actions and efforts of the person are the Alamban Vibhaav, whereas contortions of the body and humorous actions are the Uddipan Vibhaav. Trivialization, disdain, amusement are the Sanchaari Vibhaav

Karun Ras:

The despondency that sets in the heart when a prized possession is destroyed, or when a dear one is lost or something unpleasant happens is an example of Karun Ras. The person or object that is destroyed through unusual actions is the Alamban Vibhaav, whereas Uppian Vibhaav is exemplified by limp or listless body, unkempt and dishevelled surroundings etc. Deep despair is the Sanchaari Bhaav.

Bhayanak Ras:

Bhayank Ras is created when the heart is filled with a morbid fear by watching, hearing or imagining a fearsome person or object. The person, situation or object that arouses the feeling of fear is the Alamban Vibhaav. Astonishment, supefication etc are the sanchari vibhaav of this Ras.

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