Dancing for the Gods

By Uma Dogra


Uma Dogra is a classical kathak dancer for over 35 years. Born in Delhi, she came to Mumbai in 1983 and established the Samved Society for Performing Arts, which for over 17 years has hosted two major festivals on Mumbai’s cultural calendar: the Pt Durgalal festival for Performing Arts, a festival of classical arts dedicated in memory of her guru Pt Durga Lal, and Raindrops, a dance festival which gives platform to talented young dancing talent across India. Dogra, an exponent of the Jaipur school kathak, is renowned for her fabulous footwork, scintillating abhinaya, which touches a chord with audiences of all age group, and her layakari. Today, Dogra is not only a reputed dancer in India alone, she has even taken her elegant terpsichorean skills abroad in festivals, workshops and seminars. It’s her undying passion and commitment to dance which has seen Dogra rise as one of the few true soloists in the country.


“Being three dimensional, dance is perhaps the only art, which has the capacity to incorporate the essential elements of all the other sister arts and to become a complete, integrated and a unified experience.”


Learning classical dance is like learning a language. You not only hone yourself with the theoretical aspects but also have to master the equally important practical side. To truly master a language, you need to devote all your energies to it and make it an integral part of your life. The same goes for Indian classical dance. Some think that a few classes are enough to say that: “I am a classical dancer”. But it takes more than just a handful of lessons to teach an art that dates back to thousands of years. That till date is the foremost difference between Indian classical dance and other dances.

Unlike other dances, Indian classical dance is governed by rules and regulations, which a practitioner abides because they help him to understand and perform the art better. It’s this preexisting structure which sets Indian classical dance apart from folk dance – the mother of all dances. All classical dances have their origins in folk dances. But while folk dance is free, the lexicon of Indian classical dance is rooted in sage Bharat’s Natyashastra, a historical text which dates back to 5,000 years, which has listed various guidelines such as the mudras (hand movements) one can use, when to perform.

But change, a constant feature in our life, is inevitable. Even the ancient performing art of dance cannot escape it. From costume and music to physical vocabulary, performers across generations have brought flourishes which have modified the existing repertoire. One can say that the social, the political and the economic factors of different periods have played an instrumental role in the kind of changes dance has seen. For instance, during the Mughal rule, a faction of kathak dancers did take their art to courts, and Bharatanatyam and Odissi saw their foundation in the temples, where women and girls performed these dances only for the Gods. During the British raj, dancing was banned in the temples with the Devdasi Prohibition Act of 1934. As a result, dancers had no alternative but to bring their art out in the open so that they could survive.

Even today, classical dance is considered a specialized art; it always catered to a niche audience, who were presumed to have an understanding of and eloquent taste in art forms. That’s why many dances received patronage from kings and rulers across country. The transition of dance from the private to the public domain has helped dance come a long way.

Change shouldn’t always be viewed with skepticism. The greatness of a dancer lies in his/her ability to add new elements in the existing vocabulary. You can’t just accept what’s given to you on the platter; you have to bring your ideas which help you to communicate better with the viewers who are constantly evolving. If you’re a good artist, you know that you have to adapt yourself to the changing times. While he may like to mould new compositions, he can do so only when he has aced the basics. Much like our life, which has borderlines that guide us to become better individuals, even Indian classical dance has some which cannot be broken.

A wide range of changes in turn have widened the repertoire of dance and given audiences opportunity to enjoy diverse styles. One of the biggest examples of change is the amount of choreographic work we see today. Initially, dancers performed the age-old compositions but today they are not afraid to take on different themes. This was not even considered 60 years ago, when all dance styles began to gain recognition as a separate entity. The contribution of dancers such as the Maharaj brothers (Achchan, Shambhu and Lacchu), Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Kanak Rele, Balasaraswati, Yamini Krishnamurthy has been enormous in making these dances credible. They have strived to pursue dance in an era when it was considered unacceptable and rarely encouraged. Their efforts have single-handedly popularized the dances and made them respectable arts forms.

However, in the ultra fast, urban world, the consumer has innumerable choices. Today, you can learn salsa or go to Shiamak’s. As a result, Indian classical dance, which requires immense dedication, determination and discipline from the student and does not fit in the crash-course format, has few takers. If you ask me why should I send my child to learn Bharatantyam over ballroom; my response is simple: it is up to your child to decide what he wants to learn. Give him the liberty to choose what he aspires to learn. In defence of classical dance, I will assert that if your child can learn any one Indian classical dance, he/she will find it easier to pick up any of the western styles.

In our fascination with everything western, Indian classical dance is also a great way to stay grounded to our rich, variant culture. Simultaneously, since Indian classical dance is so rooted in tradition it helps you to respect your culture, enhances your spiritual growth, helps you to conquer your stage fright, brings a whole new grace to your personality and enables you to express yourself better. When you are on that stage with the musicians, it gives me tremendous happiness. I am at peace when I dance.

However, many people believe that classical dances have an effeminate nature. I choose to disagree. Most of the legendary teachers have all been male including mine (Pt Durga Lal) and without them the dance would have never reached to the women. Kelucharan Mohapatra gave Odissi a new spurt of life, Birju Maharaj has given Kathak international recognition with his pyrotechnics, Manipuri has a male-friendly repertoire which has various physically-demanding and acrobatic compositions and almost all the stalwarts of Kathakali have been males. This narrow-minded perception lies in the eye of the beholder for classical dance is for everybody.

Despite the progress dance has made, the true glory of dance is withering as we become more concerned with external factors such as costume, light and sound. In the scuttle to make everything appear snazzy, the purity and essence of dance is losing ground. The internal expressions i.e. what comes from within is lacking in dancers altogether. It’s almost become a mechanized process. Now more effort is made to ensure that you look better on stage than to work on your dance. The visual is the norm of the day. It is here where classical dance is suffering.

Dance was once a means to connect with God. It was an offering to God in temples; the performers selected for this purpose were lucky to reach out to him. The present day demands more emphasis on all factors which were once secondary. The sacred nature of the performing art has taken a backseat and that’s one of the reasons why many people are not even attracted to it as they once were.

As we continue to battle against social evils, save the earth from environmental disasters and join hands to make this world a better and safer place to live, it’s equally important that we protect Indian classical dance from extinction. The responsibility lies not only in the hands of the gurus but also the parents who need to extend their full support when their kids choose to become classical dancers. We need to awake our senses to guarantee that we don’t lose this beautiful art which our ancestors have passed on to us. We need to value it and continue its legacy. After all, the show must go on.

Links :

Blending mind & Body: Kathak

Motion that Heals: Dance Therapy

Sam Veda Society

Uma Dogra's School of Kathak

Contact: 9820711418

A-202/2 Amit Nagar, Yari Road, Versova, Andheri (W) (2636-8707).


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