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Asian Dance Traditions: A Kaleidoscope of the Beauty, Spirituality and Cultural Heritage of Asia

February 13, 2015 | By

Lopa Banerjee delves into prominent classical, traditional and folk Asian dance traditions, including India, China, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Asia, the mystic continent, fascinating explorers and travelers all around the world with its sublime spirituality, its rich oriental essence and aesthetic fervor, is a treasure trove of distinct cultural varieties reflected especially in various art forms. These art forms, including music, drama and dance, go a long way to represent various regions and cultures of the continent. The various subtle and distinct dance traditions of Asia which are persistently showcased throughout the globe even today are true emblems that reflect the cultural heritage of many nationalities, societies, religions, and ethnic groups in the continent.


Deepa Sashindran performing Kuchipudi (Pic courtesy: Kuchipudi parampara (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0])

To sum up the essence of classical and folk dance traditions of the entire continent would be an extremely difficult task, as there are thousand varieties of dance patterns and styles representing the culture and ethnicity of thousands of regions and nations. However, a peek into the most prominent classical, traditional and folk genres of certain parts of Asia, including a vast part of India, China, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand, would definitely suffice to at least identify the predominant cultural diversity and variations that Asian art, music and culture particularly embody.

Classical south-east Asian dance forms:

For ages, the south-east Asian music and performing arts, especially dance traditions have brought forth a strong, enriched legacy of artistry and aestheticism that has been widely embraced and appreciated throughout the world. India has for ages been a hot spot for classical and contemporary south-east Asian dance traditions, embodying a wide variety of the country’s history and culture.

The cultural varieties and patterns in south-east Asian dance traditions, precisely, the ancient Indian dance traditions, have been strongly influenced by the predominant forces of religion and mythology. If we look into the history of the classical Indian dance forms including Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, we would see that all of these dance forms have been strongly associated with Hindu temples and the temple arts, with the dancers regarded as Devadasis (temple dancers) or Bayadères. All these classical dance traditions were evolved with ‘dance’ being a sign of prosperity for the temples, with mythological stories being narrated through the dancers’ performances in order to enlighten people about the ways of the Gods.

Bharatanatyam, the traditional ancient dance form signifying the aesthetic and religious spirit of India, has evolved over many centuries in the temples of southern India. It highlights the beauty of strong lines originating from the dancer’s body and is embellished with intricately expressive hand gestures. The other two religious dance forms that also evolved in the southern India, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam, are accompanied by several lyrical compositions reflecting the desire of a devotee to merge with God and symbolizing the union of the soul with the super soul.

Another unique dance form, the Kathakali, originated in the Southern state of Kerala during the late 16th century, imbibing elements from the folk and also martial arts that existed at the time in Kerala. A combination of the five essential elements of fine arts, including expressions, dance, enactment, song and instrumental accompaniment, Kathakali today has emerged as a unique classical dance pattern combining story-telling, drama and mythology.  The dance form of Kathak, on its part, also originated as a story telling art form in northern India. It developed in Hindu temples and later in Mogul courts. It is characterized by fluid body movements, complex patterns of footwork, fast turns and sudden stillness. It has also evolved and enhanced significantly by the courtesans of Lucknow throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries and even beyond.

Another significant Indian dance form is Odissi, a classical dance style that originated around the 2nd century B.C. in the eastern region of India, and has evolved ever since. Natya Shastra, the classic book of dance by the ancient sage Bharat Muni speaks of this particular dance form. Odissi is basically a soft, flowing, sensuous style of dance which demands absolute control and precision of the body and attention to aesthetic and technical details. Essentially spiritual in thought, the dance was often performed in temples by Devadasis (dedicated temple dancers), who offered their dance as a prayer to God. The sculptural art depicted in the temples of Orissa is strongly connected with the art of Odissi dance. The dance is sculptural in motion, and the sculpture is the stillness of a moment of dance.

Most of these ancient dance forms are based on mythological stories using ‘mudra’ or a language of hand gestures to represent objects and ideas, and a language of facial expressions to represent subtle feelings through abhinaya (acting). Abhinaya, so to speak, remains one of the significant items in the repertoire of all Indian classical dance forms. Basically, it is an example of dance using a most intricate language composed of facial expressions, hand gestures, and is expressed through subtle body language. The dancers of Indian classical dance forms vividly depict the theme of the song using their body language. Although some Abhinayas in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam are based entirely on devotional songs, often romance and erotic themes (featuring the sringara rasa—the erotic and sensual) are explored through sensitive, intense gestures and body languages.

In essence, a precise interaction with traditional music characterizes all of these classical dance genres. On the whole, Indian classical dance traditions are perceived and performed as manifestations/expressions of the mind and soul and are extremely traditional. They still follow the rules set down by Bharatha Muni (a saint) in his Natya Shastra many years ago. They, along with folk dances present a spectacular and gorgeous aspect of the magnificent and continuous Indian dance traditions. For that matter, the dance forms of Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi and Kathakali may have subtle cultural varieties reflected in their unique styles, but all of these dance forms are created through subtle sensuous, rhythmic movements, evoking the spiritual through the experience of ‘ananda’ (supreme bliss). Experts of Indian dance traditions have connected this experience of supreme bliss with the creation of rasa (mood or flavor) that the dances bring forth.

Rasa as the cause of ananda (bliss) is considered fundamental and the essence of beauty and harmony in Indian aesthetics. Since the ancient Indian philosophy perceives the presence of the Brahman, the ‘Supreme Being’ in everything seen in the universe, these ancient classical Indian dance forms emphasize on the expression of spirituality and divinity in a piece of art as the richest and supreme expression of bliss. This aesthetic theory is common to all Indian classical dance styles.

A pre-dominant cultural pattern in south-east Asian dance traditions is the Guru-Shishya parampara (the teacher-to student legacy of dance), which has been a significant feature of Asian dance traditions for centuries. The traditional Guru-Shishya parampara emphasizes on the disciple spending extensive time with the Guru in the Gurukul (school of dance education) and also on extensive rigorous training under the tutelage of the Guru. Even today, though some think that certain aspects of the tradition are particularly problematic in the current global diasporic context, the fundamental aspects of the parampara continue to be perpetuated in diverse teaching contexts in India, particularly in the significance of lineage.

Cultural varieties and patterns in other Asian dance forms:

Apart from the very well-known and acclaimed classical Indian dance traditions that reflect a synergy of cultural variations, cultural varieties and patterns can also be prominently traced in various dance traditions from Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. While there is a magical imagery and touch of oriental aestheticism in Javanese court dance, there is a deep, mystic drama and physicality in Malaysian dance. On the other hand, there is a deeply moving spirit and intimate experience in the Cambodian dance traditions. Cumulatively, they are some of the leading creative forces of Asia’s dramatic, physical and spiritual dance traditions.

As for the Cambodian classical dance and culture, the Khmer arts, culture and dance traditions, which had been destroyed (after the destruction by the Khmer Rouge) and yet tried to rebuild itself, is now gradually being acknowledged internationally. In its essence, it is an art form which tries to explore an unusual repertoire of classicism, with an inventive approach to faith and fantasy. On the other hand, the traditional dance forms of Indonesia, especially those of Bali are embodiments of expressions laden with religious connotations (much like the classical Indian dance traditions). The Trance Dance, for example, is performed when a village is suffering from a natural disaster, an epidemic or bad harvest. The dance from, also widely known as the Sang Hyang Dedari form is primarily intended to appease the gods with the hope that they will bless the village.

Besides, there are other prominent dance forms of Bali which also manifest the great complexity of Balinese daily lives. All of these are interspersed with religious connotations, as the Balinese perceive their daily lives as a reflection of their religious belief. Among them, there are the Wali (sacred) dances performed by female dancers in the inner courts of temples, Baris, the warrior dance form with intense dramatic movements and elaborate head decorations of the dancers followed by the use of orchestra, and the Barong dance form, a story-telling dance form that narrates the fight between good and evil. Widely influenced by Hinduism and Indian cultural traditions, the dance forms of Bali adapt the various expressions of animism and folklore traditions. In spite of that, the Balinese have been able to create an expression in their dance forms which is distinctively flavored by their own cultural ethnicity.

Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and other dance forms:

Most of the Asian culture being vibrant and full of life, showcasing the rich arts, entertainment and heritage representing distinct cultural patterns, nobody can really ignore the vast kaleidoscope of traditional dance forms and folk dance forms represented by the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and also the Thai culture.

Coming to the traditional Thai dance forms, we see the performance of Ram Thai or Rabam as the main dramatic art form of Thailand. Thai dance, like many forms of traditional Asian dance, is distinctly divided into two major categories that correspond roughly to the high art (classical dance) and low art (folk dance) distinction. While the Thai classical dance drama include Khon, Lakhon, and Fawn Thai, the Thai folk dance forms include dance theatre forms like Likay as well as numerous regional dances and the ritualistic dance patterns, reflecting unique cultural varieties. The essence of cultural varieties in these various regional and ritualistic Thai dance forms are reflected mainly in their predominant folk performance style, their incorporation of various indigenous styles of folk theatre, of traditional costumes and also of traditional Thai music. Most of the traditional and classical Thai dance forms are inspired by Buddhism, which has a profound effect on the lives, beliefs and artistic expressions of Thailand and its legacy.

The Chinese and Taiwanese traditional dance forms, in their own way, uniquely synthesize their ethnic and cultural diversity through various dance forms like the Chinese Lion dance and other diversified Chinese dances including Chinese folk dance, Taiwan Aborginal Dance, Kung-Fu Fan Dance and also the traditional Chinese dance forms like the Dragon Dance, Feather Fan Dance, Traditional Chinese Ribbon Dance and also the Sword dance. Having a distinct ancient lineage that marks its origins around the 4th millennium BC, the traditional Chinese dance forms, mostly being choreographed group dances, convey the hue, extravagance and splendor of the Chinese culture to the world. The cultural pattern reflected in their dance forms speaks of the rituals, lifestyle and customs of their people, thereby representing their land and their people with contentment as well as elegance.

The Japanese traditional dance forms, for example, the Kabuki, Noh, folkloric, and Okinawan dance styles, on the other hand, are primarily based on the relationship between religion and dance in the Japanese society. Distinctly different from Ballet and other western dance forms, the dramas, dances and music representing Japanese art and culture also represent an incredible regional diversity. If we look back into their history, it would be seen that the Japanese had over the ages developed a variety of dance styles, now collectively known as Nihon Buyo, some of which were designed for court performance and the theater, and others that were more colloquial. Among the more colloquial dance patterns, there are the various regional and seasonal forms of Japanese Folk Dancing, including the minzoku buyo style, which reflects the uniqueness of Japanese folk life. Most of Japanese folk dance styles, along with an upbeat style of music, smiles and facial expressions of the dancers convey a spirit of youthful exuberance, which is the very essence of the culture of the Japanese.

Traditional Korean and Vietnamese dance forms, like the Chinese and Korean traditional dance forms, bring forth the spirit and essence of the rich cultural identity of the two countries. As for the Vietnamese traditional dance forms and Vietnamese music, both are very distinct in terms of style, composition, mood, modal system and performance. Traditional Korean dance forms, on the other hand, constitute mainly of the ritualistic dance traditions like Gopuli and Sungjoopulri dance, and folk dance styles like Salpulri deriving from the ancient shamanic rituals. Together, they incorporate the folkloric ritual dance beautifully into Korea’s typical traditional dance forms.

To sum it up, all Asian traditional and folk dance forms represent a raw beauty, splendor of distinct historical heritages and spirituality which reflect cultural diversity and variety in every possible way. Essentially, dance, music and the arts is in the blood and the veins of the entire continent of Asia. The more one gets involved in the multicultural web of distinct regional, folk and classical elements of dance forms in various parts of Asia, the more intrigued will he be by the variety of their styles, forms, contents and patterns. There is really no way one can possibly ignore that!

Read more creative expressions by Lopa Banerjee

Poetry – The Hummingbird, Lingering, Living

Musings – Why I Write: The Journey And The Inspiration

Review – Roots and Meanderings — A Collection of Ten Fresh, Engaging Fictional Narratives

Lopamudra (Lopa) Banerjee is an author, editor, poet and writing instructor staying in Dallas, Texas with her family, but originally from Kolkata, India. She has a Masters in English with thesis in Creative Nonfiction from University of Nebraska and also Masters in English from University of Calcutta, India. Apart from writing and editing some critically acclaimed books and being awarded with the Reuel International Prize for Poetry (2017) and for Translation (2016), she has dabbled in all genres of writing, from journalism and content writing to academic essays and fiction/poetry. She has been interviewed in various e-zines, literary blogs and also at TV (Kolkata) and at radio stations in Dallas, Texas. Very recently, she has been part of the upcoming short film 'Kolkata Cocktail', a docu-feature based on poetry, but her love for writing feature stories go back to her journalism days when she interviewed people from all walks of life and wrote essays and articles based on them. She loves performing poetry as spoken words art and has performed in various forums in India and USA.
All Posts of Lopamudra Banerjee

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