The Arts

The Militant Origins of Indian Dance

All primary Indian dance forms, originating in primitive and tribal societies, are solidly linked with work activity. Classical forms have not been able to shed the martial and gymnastic poses of forms from which they originated

December 6 was the 90th birth anniversary of provocative dancer/choreographer Chandralekha, whose ten productions in 20 years (from 1985), critiqued the creeping decadence of classical Bharatanatyam and opened new directions for Indian contemporary dance. An important thinker, she wrote several critical pieces/talks on her ideas of a new dance. We reproduce here, an edited down version of the startling paper she presented, in 1979, at the first ‘Marxism and Aesthetics’ seminar organised by Vivan Sundaram at Kasauli. Originally published in Social Scientist, the paper became the template, five years later, for her own path-breaking production ‘Angika’. The title, evidently, was a polemical rejoinder to the conventional idea of ‘divine origins’ of Indian dance. Written almost 40 years ago, the ideas remain fresh.


Industrial society surges ahead, reducing the human body to a mechanical appendage. It is almost as if various components in the body are being slowly phased out to be replaced by mechanical gadgets – “the dreamt of metallisation of man” – as Walter Benjamin quotes Fascist philosopher Filippo Marinretti as having said. Under capitalism, people live at a distance from their own bodies. This is as much an indication of the alienation of man from himself as from his labour, besides being a direct impediment to praxis. Neutralise their physicality, and the system need have no fear of any potentially revolutionary class. The idea of active, physical intervention gets progressively replaced by passive verbalism.

A brief survey of the material foundations of Indian dance forms will give some insights into our present predicament, where the divide between idea and action is continuously widening. All primary Indian dance forms, originating in primitive and tribal societies, are solidly linked with work activity. They are intimately related to functions of daily life – like food-gathering, hunting, fishing, cultivating and harvesting. Tribal dances are particularly distinguished by their sources in rituals, gymnastics and martial arts. Dancing, in these early communities, was a means of expression as well as a method of building up energy circuits within the body and aligning with the rhythm of the universe.

We are fortunate in having a material sub-culture that simultaneously retains forms of expression spanning several stages of the development of Indian society, providing us evidence of the continuity of a tradition remarkable for its formal purity. In the tribal belt, for example, one still sees forms of dance that are clearly modes of an elaborate attack/defence ritual, for creating the necessary energy in participants for a confrontation. The militancy of dance forms in India is supplemented by the fact that even the classical forms, despite their idealised content, have not been able to shed the martial and gymnastic poses of forms from which they originated.

All tribal/folk dances were forms of collective expression, specifically meant for creating a sense of fraternity and were invariably performed prior to a big hunt or a war. The whole intricate pattern of vigorous body movements was a method of energising the body and mind for action. In fact, the best warriors in several tribal communities were also their best dancers.

Every region of the subcontinent seems to have its own variety of dances upholding militant traditions. Among the Nagas in the Northeast, there is an elaborate spear dance, in which each dancer brandishes a spear above his head and simulates the various movements of attack and defence. Beginning with leisurely movements, the dance slowly builds up the tempo, ending in a climax of swift, breath-taking leaps in the air, all in perfect rhythm and synchronisation with drums and cymbals. Similar kinds of dances are common to other communities like the Semas, Changs, Rengmas, Maos, Aos and Konyaks in the area.

Also read: Remembering Chandralekha – Artist, Choreographer, Feminist

In Bengal, the dances of Raibenshes and Dhalis are elaborate series of awe-inspiring physical exercises which are close to the traditions of unarmed combat. Odisha also has several forms of dances that are exceptional for their sheer power and militancy. The important varieties are the Paika, Gotipua and Garudabhan dances, from which Chau dance originated.

Every region has its own dance form using swords, shields and sticks which are all indicative of and preparations for combats. The sword and shield dances of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Coorg and Kerala are well known. Forms with sticks are common to Andhra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu (Kolattam) and Gujarat and Rajasthan (Daand). Kerala has also specific forms like Pulavarkali and Velvakali, utilising swords, shields or sticks.

The Gonds, Bastars, Marias and Bhils of MP, Bihar, Andhra and Bengal belt have exciting hunting dances which condition the human body for agility and control. The Irulas of Tamil Nadu also have a robust form of hunting dance called Elelakaradi. In the Kumaon region of UP, the Cholia martial dances can be traced back to the Khasia warriors. In this, pairs of dancers with swords and shields make intricate formations covering long distances; they almost act out a mock battle.

Significantly, there is no dearth of militant traditions among the backward classes, Scheduled Castes and tribals of India who are also the most exploited sections, forming the lowest strata of society. Almost all of them still retain their dances and martial art traditions, but only as formal rituals without being able to transform them into real action to change their condition of life. Progressive movements are guilty of overlooking this highly charged layer of material sub-culture in which militancy is integral to the various cultural forms of communities and does not have to come through a verbal/mental process.

In the north, the cradle of these dance forms were the akhadas or community gymnasiums and, in the south, the kalari. Both the akhada and the kalari propagated a sophisticated, materialist philosophy of individual and collective wellbeing, with focus on the human body itself. They promoted pre-Hindu concepts of body expression, like lasya-tandava (militancy with grace), which later became a formal category in classical dance. With precise understanding of anatomy and human engineering like breath, stamina, tension, flexion and control, what the akhada or kalari basically tried to achieve was to harmonise the human body in space and bring it closer to itself.

Chandralekha in the ‘Naravahana’ sequence from her pathbreaking 1985 production ‘Angika’. Courtesy: The Chandralekha Archive, Spaces, Chennai

Thus, the verticality of the body was broken to a more compact and relaxing circularity in the akhada and kalari. The idea was to infuse the body not only with the potential for extensions and contractions, but also to convert every movement to an energising exercise. These contractions got stylised in classical forms as ‘bhanga’, ‘araimandi’ and so on. The ‘araimandi’, a kind of half-squatting which is the basic stance in Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathakali and Kuchipudi, is also the basic stance in wrestling (Indian kushti and Japanese sumo) kalarippayattu, silambam, karate, tai chi chuan and Thai boxing. It is abstracted as the ‘mandala’ in classical dance, a continuous making and breaking of squares, circles and triangles, to harmonise with the circular stage symbolising the earth/cosmos.

The dances taught one how to hold the body in order to make it steady like a rock, to make it as light as a feather, to leap, to pivot, to shift, to step forward, to retreat and to balance. Symphonies in duet and collective movements with sticks, swords, shields and spears developed slowly out of the primitive barehanded forms.

The practice of these dances was not some esoteric exercise meant for personal satisfaction or for entertaining spectators. It had specific social applications. In Odisha, for example, the Paika dancers were a particular group of unarmed foot soldiers who went ahead of the main army to demoralise, with their speed and grace, external forces bent upon aggression. In the Pandya period in Tamil Nadu, the Silambam stick dancers/fighters were the unorganised guerillas and mass leaders who terrorised the feudal barons to control their rapacity. These militant functions are evident even today in different forms of dance, such as Chau with its roots in Paika and Kathakali, with its roots in kalari.

Paika means infantry. Though extinct today, their battle-dances are still preserved by their descendants in Puri district. Each village in the region has an akhada, where youngsters assemble in the evening. The primary aim of the dance was to develop physical excitement and courage among the warriors and keep them in battle readiness.

Kathakali too is obliged to the body conditioning and flexibility of kalarippayattu. Kalarippayattu is among the most developed attack/defence systems and there is good reason to consider kung-fu and other Southeast Asian martial art systems as offspring of kalari. Besides being ritualistic and physical, kalari, by virtue of its grace and stylisation, is a form which generates energy in the individual.

The social existence of these forms today is precarious. Their direct references to life are more or less truncated. Most folk dances exist at the mercy of the state. They are promoted and preserved by state institutions to be annually presented as euphoric spectacles of governmental creativity during Republic Day parades in New Delhi.

Also read: Who Are These Age-Old Female Figures?

One does not have to be a Marxist or apply Marxian concepts of aesthetics to these art forms to evaluate the situation of folk dances in the country. On the other hand, besides the obvious dislocation from processes of life, the classical dances too exist as ideological vehicles for a class that thrives on nostalgia and mystification of the real content of history. Though one accepts that there is no mechanical relationship between ideology and cultural forms, it has to be said that art, like religion, has a strong reactionary potential and is consciously used for the purpose even today.

The theory that we finally need to work towards is how to generate the creativity, self-expression, dignity and militancy of the people. Marxist aesthetic theory posits itself against the basic formations of capitalist society – like alienation, objectification, commodification – which are all variations of the essential dehumanisation of man under capitalism. The problem arises when this is sought to be applied to traditional cultures which had already evolved sophisticated philosophies and theories of art and society long before Western societies pulled out of their Dark Ages. It becomes more complex when we realise that almost all the significant concepts in traditional cultures trace their origins, historically, to a time which Marx called ‘primitive communism’, when man was notionally closer to nature, to himself and to his fellowmen. This has important implications for, in their aesthetic manifestations, one comes face to face with remarkably materialistic concepts predating Marx by centuries.

The Indian system of aesthetics, for example, is formulated upon the centrality of man. Concepts like the pancha mahabhuta maintained the primacy of the human body in all cultural configurations. The module for every objective projection was man himself. For example, all measurements were direct references to the human body and senses. This location of the human body in the environment was revealed abstractly in the concept of the mandala. The mandala was a dynamic consonance between the cosmos, the community and the individual. The subject/object dialectics conceptualised in the mandala invaded the farthest reaches of material life to become the basic conceptual model for every conceivable form of structure or form or daily activity. The Indian concept of aesthetics also negates inherently formal or cosmetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘style’ and goes directly to the sensual content through the concept of rasa.

These are live concepts in our culture, still capable of activating people. The tragedy is that progressive movements have failed to reach out to our sources of culture, the areas charged with energy, and harness them to build vitality in people which, like in any revolutionary theory, is important for changing conditions of life. This becomes all the more important when we see that cultural levels, at times, have the possibility of being far ahead of political levels and thus have the potential for initiating social change.

But, of course, we suffer today as much from conceptual poverty as from economic poverty and it becomes a task for us to formulate a theory of revolution that integrates all these levels.