No other single culture perhaps can boast of such a huge variety of folk dances as India can. Indian folkdances have an inexhaustible variety of forms and rhythms from the jubilant and bubbly Bhangra in the Punjab to the quaintly sensuous Lambadi dance in Andhra Pradesh. Dance has been a function of man's life and can be traced back as far as the savage cannibal dances of the primitive man. While the primitive man associated dance with ritualistic agendas, the modern man does it for pleasure and an expression of art. But the essence of the form remains the same.
India with its vast variety of races and cultures is a veritable storehouse of folk dances. Most of the so-called classical forms that show a high level of refinement have their roots firmly entrenched in the dances of the common people. Perhaps no other form of dance has the beauty of the common man dancing in pure unadulterated joy displaying his boundless energy and throwing open the doors of the heart. The concept of portraying emotions or "Abhinaya" is so as to say foreign to the folk dances. What matters here is not the expertise of the native dancer but his or her eloquence, buoyancy and the joy he takes in the art form.
The folk dance in India found it's own roots, moorings and maturity. Certain dance forms in India can be traced back to the pre historic days. Folk dances have intimate relations with every day lives. There is a dance for harvest, rain, birth, and marriage et al. you name it and you have a dance for it.
The credit for preserving this art form goes to the artisans themselves, The tribal belt that runs through almost all parts of the country are the creators of the tribal dances. To these tribal dance is an integral part of their every day life, Not professional dancers or even trained ones, they dance just as they have been doing for centuries. Then there are the village folk or the agrarian community have their own repertoire of dances for every occasion. Many of them moved to the townships as performers and kept the dance form alive.
Lets dance through the myriad forms of dance in India. Each one is unique in it's own form and sustenance, I have tried to include as many forms as possible, placing emphasis on the lesser known forms of the art
The half-naked adivasis or the aborigines are the most uninhibited in their dancing while their counterparts in the North like the inhabitants of some parts of South are more restrained in their art. It is perhaps impossible to find any other culture that retains such a wide variety of forms amidst such a huge diversity in the forms themselves. There is hardly a fair or festival where these dances aren't performed.
It is very difficult to classify Indian dances but tentatively they can be grouped into social (those concerned with labors such as tilling, harvest etc), religious (on occasion of a festival) and ritualistic (to propitiate an angry goddess). There is also another special type of dance that appears in all the above categories namely the masked dances.
The Kolyacha is among the better known examples of social dances. A fisherman's dance belonging to the Konkan coast of western Central India the kolyacha is an enactment of the rowing of a boat. Women wave handkerchiefs to their male partners, who move with sliding steps. For wedding parties young Kolis dance in the streets carrying household utensils for the newlywed couple, who join the dance at its climax.
The national social folk dance of Rajasthan is the Ghoomar, danced by women in long full skirts and colorful chuneries . Especially spectacular are the Kacchi Ghori dancers of this region. Equipped with shields and long swords, the upper part of their bodies clothed in the traditional attire of a bridegroom and the lower part concealed by a brilliant-colored papier-mache horse built up on a bamboo frame, they enact jousting contests at marriages and festivals. Bawaris, by tradition a criminal tribe, generally are expert in this form of folk dance.
In the Punjab, the most electrifying social folk dance and debatably the most popular with today's generation is the male harvest dance, Bhangra, which is also popular in the Punjab province of Pakistan. A song always punctuates this dance. At the end of every line the drum thunders. All the dancers in a chorus take up the last line. In ecstasy they spring, bellow, shout, and gallop in a circle, madly wiggling their shoulders and hips. Any man of any age can join. The popularity of the dance lies in the enthusiasm in which it is performed rather than any particular expertise on part of the dancer.
The Lambadi Gypsy women of Andhra Pradesh have their own unique dance form punctuated by gaudy costumes and slow movements. The Lambadi women wear mirror-speckled headdresses and skirts and cover their arms with broad, white bone bracelets. They dance in slow, swaying movements, with men acting as singers and drummers. Their social dance is imbued with impassioned grace and lyricism and is less wild than that of Gypsies in other parts of the world. The striking beauty of the lambadi dancers lies in the subtle sensuality of the performer, This is among the few forms of dance, which is fully monopolized by women and gives importance to expressions too.
Both men and women, who traditionally have lived on equal terms, perform the bison-horn dance of the Muria tribe in Madhya Pradesh. The men wear a horned headdress with a tall tuft of feathers and a fringe of cowry shells dangling over their faces. A drum shaped like a log is slung around their necks. The women, their heads surmounted by broad, solid-brass chaplets and their breasts covered with heavy metal necklaces, carry sticks in their right hands like drum majorettes. Fifty to 100 men and women dance at a time. The male "bisons" attack and fight each other, spearing up leaves with their horns and chasing the female dancers in a dynamic interpretation of nature's mating season. The dance traditionally includes a huge group and is performed more as an "enactment" rather than a dance.
The Juang tribe in Orissa performs bird and animal dances with vivid miming and powerful muscular agility. Again this dance focuses more on "enactment" rather than on any special dance movements. All these types of dances are peculiar in their proximity with nature symbolizing the people who enact or perform them.
Some major examples of religious folk dances are the Dindi and Kala dances of Maharashtra, which are expressions of religious ecstasy. The dancers revolve in a circle, beating short sticks (Dindis) to keep time with the chorus leader and a drummer in the middle. As the rhythm accelerates, the dancers form into two rows, stamp their right feet, bow, and advance with their left feet, making geometric formations. The Kala dance features a pot symbolizing fecundity. A group of dancers forms a double-tiered circle with other dancers on their shoulders. On top of this tier a man breaks the pot and splashes curds over the naked torsos of the dancers. After this ceremonial opening, the dancers twirl sticks and swords in a feverish battle dance. the main attraction of this dance is the beat and the rhythm. It can be said that it shares this in common with the Bhangra.
Garaa, meaning a votive pot, is the best known religious dance of Gujarat. It is danced by a group of 50 to 100 women every year for nine nights in honor of the goddess Amba Mata, known in other parts of India as Durga or Kali. The women move in a circle bending, turning, clapping their hands, and sometimes snapping their fingers. Songs in praise of the goddess accompany this dance. The modern day Dandiya has its roots in this art form and is among the dances still popular with the modern day folk
Dance dramas based on life of Lord Krishna are enacted in Manipur by young women who use simplifies gestures descended from the large complex system of hand gestures called mudras.
Of the endless variety of ritualistic folk dances, many have magical significance and are connected with ancient cults. The Karakam dance of Tamil Nadu State, mainly performed on the annual festival in front of the image of Mariyammai (goddess of pestilence), is to deter her from unleashing an epidemic. Tumbling and leaping, the dancer retains on his head without touching it a pot of uncooked rice surmounted by a tall bamboo frame. People ascribe this feat to the spirit of the deity, which, it is believed, enters his body. This dance form is normally passed from generation to generation and normally every village has it's own performer to dance on the required occasions
The Therayattam festival in Kerala is held to propitiate the gods and demons recognized by the pantheon of the Malayalees. The dancers, arrayed in awe-inspiring costumes and hideous masks, enact weird rituals before the village shrine. A devotee makes an offering of a cock. The dancer grabs it, chops off its head in one stroke, gives a blessing, and hands the bloody gift back to the devotee. This ceremony is punctuated by a prolonged and ponderous dance.
The greatest number of masked folk dances is found in Arunachal Pradesh . The yak dance is performed in the Ladakh section of Kashmir and in the southern fringes of the Himalayas near Assam. The dancer impersonating a yak, dances with a man mounted on his back. In sada topo tsen men wear gorgeous silks, brocades, and long tunics with wide flapping sleeves. Skulls arranged as a diadem are a prominent feature of their grotesquely grinning wooden masks representing spirits of the other world. The dancers rely on powerful, rather slow, twirling movements with hops.
The Chau, a unique form of masked dance, is preserved by the royal family of the former state of Saraikela in Bihar. The dancer impersonates a god, animal, bird, hunter, rainbow, night, or flower. He acts out a short theme and performs a series of vignettes at the annual Chaitra Parva festival in April. Chhau masks have predominantly human features slightly modified to suggest what they are portraying. With serene expressions painted in simple, flat colors, they differ radically from the elaborate facial makeup of Kathakali or the exaggerated ghoulishness of the No and Kandyan masks. His face being expressionless, the Chau dancer's body communicates the total emotional and psychological tensions of a character. His feet have a gesture language; his toes are agile, functional, and expressive, like those of an animal. The dancer is mute; no song is sung. Only instrumental music accompanies him. In another form of Chau, practiced in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, the actors do not wear masks, but through deliberately stiff and immobile faces they give the illusion of a mask. The style of their dance is vigorous and acrobatic. It is among the most popular and most beautiful examples of the masked dances.
Though it is almost impossible to include all the dances finding an inherent place in Indian culture, it is a fascinating to dig the many dances from the realms of obscurity and scratch beneath the surface to see the beauty of each form emerge unsullied and unmitigated through the passage of years. Amazingly enough each form manages to retain it's old world charm yet remain very much in sync with the present day. It seems to have carved a permanent niche for itself in the society.