Dance : Under the aegis of temples and courts

Dance in India has always been a cultural midpoint. They portray spiritual cognizance, religious resignation or cultural celebration. Every Indian state is hallmarked by its various dance forms, classical and folk. And when you travel around the country, you notice our ancient temples deliberately and generously promote classical dance. The temple architecture witnessed in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Kerala are some such examples.


In Kerala, temples have – Koothambalamor (the temple of dance) within the main temple premises. The design of the Koothambalamor is a beacon of ancient theatrical construction. With space designated for both dancer and the audience, the roof has small recesses to accommodate oil lamps that would shine a light on the performer, giving the audience a visual treat of the dancer’s expressions and makeup.


In Orissa, the principal dance form of Odissi was always performed in dedication to the Sun God, as witnessed in the architecture of the Sun Temple, Konark. Called the Nat-Mandap, constructed facing the main temple. The movements that define Odissi, combine facial expressions as well as isolated movements of the neck, chest, and pelvis. To aid better visualisation of the dancer’s movement, and to prevent climatic conditions from obstructing a viewer’s pleasure, the pavilion facade was built with a narrow opening. And since Odissi is always performed in homage to the Sun God, the height of the Nat-Mandir and main shrine were built to the same height, aiding an unobstructed view to the Sun God. As for the public, they were seated a level below.

Temples in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were built under the influence of Dravidian architecture. The foundation form of this style is based on the principle of the Cosmic Man and how his physical form is celebrated; in the form of the temple premises that links building science, religion, aesthetics and the community (Vastu-Purusha Mandala). These temples were built as a multi-sensory spatial medium that allows the temple to act as a mediator between the human body and the cosmos.
Temples were also considered a barometer of the community/kingdom that celebrated victory in war, opulence in the time of peace and cultural propagation. The Kings of yore, who were known to be patrons of the arts, encouraged music and dance, in the form of Rajadasi (King’s courtesan) and the Devadasi (temple dancer). Therefore, Bharatanatyam developed as a deeply rooted phenomenon in the temple culture.

The temple was also the main place of engagement for a citizen to participate in community gatherings. The free-standing pavilions in the temples were dedicated to cultural performances where the common man was educated about virtues, behaviour ethics, morals, courage, and love through the arts. Thus the dancers/performers became the symbol of religious and spiritual awareness. Their sole purpose being, able to transport viewers into an imaginary world, creating a link between viewers and the divinity.

Similarly, the thrall of Kathak spread through the northern part of the country. Known as ‘Kathakars’ a travelling  band of storytellers, who began with humble beginnings in their villages telling each other’s stories went on to presenting stories in Kings’ courts. With such patronage, they began to perform in temples and thus set the foundation of Kathak becoming a temple dance where they focused on mythology, gods and goddesses, and performed as ritualistic offerings. With the arrival of the Mughals, the interpretation was romanticized to impress Mughal rulers, as the dancers continued to worship their deities but in much- veiled formats of their original compositions. The Mughal courts have had significant influence over dance style, choice of costume, the ensemble of musicians, and range of themes in Kathak performances.


Thus dance has evolved, influenced by many aspects of life, culture, architecture, music, politics and geography to what is now a contextual, professional presentation. With such a rich tapestry that is Indian Classical Dance, it now thrives only in the background, practiced and appreciated by the very few. And the aim of the Performing Arts Intensive is to bring back this lost charm by making it a global conversation. To aid better talent discovery, innovation and cultural enhancement, the Performing Arts Intensive is packed with nuanced programming that will take into account, the past, the present and the future.

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