Origin Stories of (Indian) Classical Dance

“It would seem that dancing came into being at the beginning of all things, and was brought to light together with Eros, that ancient one, for we see this primeval dancing clearly set forth in the choral dance of the constellations, and in the planets and fixed stars, their interweaving and interchange and orderly harmony” says Ananda Coomaraswamy in his ‘Dance of Shiva.’

So, dancing came into being before everything else in this world. But, dance as we know it today, was not how it all started. The tradition of dance as a performing art goes back to the Vedic times. Dance during these times was only trance-like and ritualistic in nature, but it represented a remarkable and harmonious fusion of music, dance, drama, the spectacle and the colourful. Priests, who assumed the roles of gods and sages, in order to recreate on earth the event of Cosmic Creation, performed these dramatic dance spectacles. But, how did dance become so pure and sacred?

According to the oldest treatise on the theory of Indian performing arts, the ‘Natyashastra’ compiled sage Bharatha, not everyone had access to learn and understand the teachings of the Vedas in those times. To enable everyone to have access to the teachings of the Vedas, the gods approached Lord Brahma, the Creator to ask for help, says the ‘Natyashastra’. The gods then urged him to create a fifth Veda that would be accessible to all the strata of the society and would thus also preserve the society.

Lord Brahma then fashioned a new Veda, known as the ‘Natya Veda’, which would be helpful to the moral and material welfare of mankind. He created this fifth Veda by compiling different aspects from the other four Vedas. That which should be read (paathya), the intellectual content, Brahma took from the Rig Veda; that which could be sung, the music (gaana), he took from the Sama Veda; the abhinaya, the mimetic art, he took from Yajur Veda and the ‘rasas’, the emotional content, he took from the Atharva Veda. Thus, was formed the ‘Natya Veda’ which gave sacred importance to the performing arts.

Lord Brahma then asked Vishwakarma, the divine architect to construct a playhouse in which Bharata muni was asked to put in practice the new ‘Veda’. Bharata soon discovered that the performances lacked grace without women and Lord Brahma is said to have resolved this predicament by creating celestial damsels whose skillful movements embellished the presentation.

It is said that under Bharata’s able tutelage, the play ‘Amritamanthana’ was performed by his hundred sons, gandharvas and apsaras, with Lord Brahma, devas and daanavas as the audience. During the course of the natya, Lord Brahma said, “This natya is not created for the specific purpose of representing either you (daanavas) or the devas; rather natya is the representation of the states of the whole world. Through the depiction of the deeds and states of the world it will show the good and bad behavior and thus give instruction to the people.” Thus was the birth and purpose of the fifth Veda, Natya Veda.

According to Bharata’s ‘Natyashastra’, the fifth ‘Veda’ was designed “to serve as a resting place for those who are grieved, weary, unhappy or engaged in and arduous discipline; towards bestowing righteousness, renown, long life, fortune, increase of reason, and affording counsel to the world.”

Dance, therefore gives the audience and the dancer so much meaning and happiness, as it was born before everything else and then progressed to encompassing the very essence of life within it.


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