History tells us that several centuries before the birth of Christ, India's art forms of dance, music and theatre were already highly developed. There was a glorious period, for instance, during the rule of the Chola dynasty in South India rightly called the 'Golden Age', when all the arts flourished. Whether it was good governance at the village level, or the encouragement given to living arts and sculpture, or the building of great temples - it all happened during the Chola period. The exquisite bronze statues of Natraja and other deities that you see in museums are from the period. Yet, the dance we see on stage today has a story of only fifty to eighty years! And several events happened before these became known as artistic treasures around the world.
When the British ruled our country, the temple was the centre of the activity in a village and was for long, the only common place where the village community could meet. There were no halls, clubs or cinema theatres, as we have now. At this time, dancers performed in the temple. Although not from the Brahmin community, she and her musicians lived on temple lands and were employed by the temple. She performed on all festive occasions and had to be present for the daily rituals of the Lord. She was paid from temple funds and food grains for the dancers and their families came from temple lands. The community of musicians and dancers was a poor one. They were also what you might call 'schedule castes'. Perhaps in order to protect these families, there was a custom prevalent of her marrying the deity of the temple! This gave her dignity and payment for her work. As such, she was called a 'deva-daasi' or servant of the God. This custom allowed her to come into the inner sanctum of the temple and to serve the deity regularly.
However, this custom was not to last long. The British who ruled us, were suspicious of our many customs and beliefs. They decided to ban all activities centered on the temple. On the other hand, our own leaders who were fighting for India's freedom felt that the custom of marrying girls to the deity needed to be abolished. This custom they felt, exploited young girls. And so, with one sweep of 'reform', an entire community of artists lost their livelihood. For by abolishing the deva-daasi system, their position in the village society was also dissolved. The community had no work, for where could they practice their art with such dignity and reverence?
In South India, the dancer moved from the temples to the homes of the rich landlord. Landowners and royalty were the only people who could afford to have the dancer come and perform for a marriage in the family or for the birth of a son! For instance, in the state of Mysore, the royal family understood the value of these old dance forms. They had performances of music and dance at all festive occasions in the state. In Kerala too, the rich landlords paid for Kathakali troupes to perform all night, near their homes. The people who lived around the area would all benefit from the performance and the art thus survived.
In the North, the story telling traditions and the raas were popular in village and also in temples. However, apart form this, dancer also moved into the courts of the Mughal Emperors and other Hindu Kings. Kathak for instance, became a very popular form of entertainment. Many court dancers and especially, musicians flourished during the Muslim rule and in several rich Hindu principalities. But soon, the Privy Purse of the Maharajas was also under strain and consequently their patronage to many artists of the time stopped.
At about this time, the highest caste - the Brahmins - had begun to take up the art of dance in the south. Before this happened, great stigma was attached to girls from good families witnessing, learning or performing the dance. Even in this fifties after our Independence, most people in India were prejudiced against dance. The educated class looked down upon both the dance and dancer. Its beauty evaded them. They considered dance to be something that only 'cheap' woman did. Woman from their families would not be allowed to even see it!
Nevertheless, some western dancers began to show an interest in these traditional Indian dances. They began to use some basic Indian elements in their work. Besides, early black-and-white films that were being made in India also had folk and classical dance numbers. The charm of the temple was lost when this happened. But on the other hand, larger audiences were now able to see the dance. Today, people do not view what they see in the films as 'classical dance'. They understand that it is different.
Whether classical, or folk or filmy - all Indian dances emerge from the very roots of India's traditions. And at the root of India's traditions lies its mythology. Mythology is a very important part of any civilization. Every nation has its own collection of stories and legends that are built around gods, goddesses and super-human beings. These stories become part of the beliefs of a nation. They are handed down from one generation to another. Many of these legends are man-made. They are an expression of man's innermost dreams and fears. They underline a value, a thought , a belief. As ways of thinking change in society, myths also change. The great civilization like the Greek, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian - all had a great wealth of myth. In America myth was created! Walt Disney's characters have come to stay. So too, Batman and the strange characters in Star Wars.
In India, the stories are not only about gods. They are also about various kinds of spirits, sages, celestial musicians and dancers, demons, animals and birds - some mythical and others real. The stories tell of great forests and seas. They speak of universal phenomena like the planets, stars and the worlds beyond what the eye can see. The myths of India are something we can be proud of, because they tell 'the story of life' in the many worlds we live in. We live in the human world, in nature's world, in the world of the stars, constellations and planets, in the world of the gods and our beliefs, in the world of evil and our fears and the inner worlds of our dreams and our desires.
To tell these stories is the delight of every stage actor, every dancer and every visual artist. Sculptors and architects, who built the temples that dot our land, decorated the walls of the temples with these legends. People who meditated in caves painted the walls of the caves with images. Painters, both Hindu and Muslim, made drawings that told the story of war and love in a single frame. Every classical dance form, every folk form, every dance-drama tradition and jatra or 'travelling' theatre group presents in various ways episodes from our ancient myth.
Not only actors and performers, but religious people as well, tell these stories in different ways. They speak to small village groups or, in religious festivals, to larger audiences. In this very 'real' world of computers and science, every generation and every nation has built up a world of 'myth' - filled with 'unreal' people and 'unreal' animals, which travel into 'unreal' lands and have 'unreal' experiences!
People say that the world of the stage if 'unreal'. Is the rest of the world 'real'.