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The Role of Dancers in Society

The Role of Dancers in Society

Note: I have updated the section on Vatsyayana to add some more detail that definitely changed my initial perspective after some invaluable feedback from Dr. Sumithragaru. 

My second semester has begun at the University of Silicon Andhra, and I am back to thinking about the role of dancers in society, but this time, from the perspective of Sanskrit texts. 

Dr. Sumithra Velury was discussing the primary treatises for the four Purusarthas, or human pursuits and how they each answered this question. First, here are the Purusarthas:

  • Dharma - righteousness
  • Artha - livelihood
  • Kama - desire
  • Moksha - salvation

The Manusmrithi, one of the Dharmashastras, is believed to be from between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. It is one of the first Sanskrit texts translated into English by the Colonial British. It is best known for its discussion of dharma and for codifying the responsibilities of the four varnas, or categories, of people. Specific to dance, per Dr. Sumithra, the author had this to say: women are not to dance. They are also not to speak with men on the streets. The wives of dancers, however, are permitted to speak with men on the streets. The implication is clear, and it is unsavory. 

Kautilya's Ardhashastra is a treatise on statecraft, discussing political, economic, legal, diplomatic, and military affairs. It is also dated between 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, but predated the Manusmriti. Its perspective on dancers was very pragmatic, if unflattering. Dancers were included in the same strata of society as sex workers, and it prescribed the following policies for them:

  • Dance performances should only be held at night. Since it is a form of entertainment, performances at any other time would impede a society's productivity. 
  • Dancers need to be licensed and should have an income tax rate of ten percent. 
  • Dancers need to live on the outskirts of society, secluded from others, because (he believed) they have no ethics.

Frankly, these perspectives on dance - from some of the most well-known ancient Sanskrit texts that have formed the pillars of our society - are extremely cynical and dismissive of our arts. So, I was very grateful to hear the next two texts hold a much more positive view.

Amorous temple sculptures reflect the Vatsyayaneeyam (also known as Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra), which is a treatise on the third purusartha. This text is dated somewhere between 400 BCE and 200 CE. Vatsyayana advised that newlywed couples watch dance performances at the Saraswathi temple presenting abhinaya for sringara rasa. Here, the dancer's role in society is entertainment. However, by his treatment of artists, it is clear that he sees them as more than merely entertainers. 

He also laid out that artists from across the lands should be invited to perform at the Saraswathi temple for the 10 days of Navarathri and Dusserah, and that the village needed to host the artists and treat them well. If any artist was delayed in their travel, a local artist should perform for the scheduled slot to ensure that the audience did not leave without enjoying the program. However, they should allow the traveling artist to perform as well, at a rescheduled time, and allow them to perform on the next day as well, if the audience demanded so. Such courtesy and respect for the artists as well as the audience is truly heartening.  It was interesting that he also insisted that performances be at the temple of Goddess Saraswathi, not on just on any stage.  

Texts addressing Moksha, or salvation also unequivocally supported the arts. The Vedas, Brahmanas, and puranas established a higher plane for Indian fine arts: one can attain liberation by performing dance

Dr. Yashoda Thakore's lecture the next day began to delve into another exalted Sanskrit text from this period, the Natyashastra, which is attributed to Sage Bharata. Believed to be written between the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE, this treatise on drama, dance, and music has formed the foundation of many Indian classical dance forms, and has been analyzed, referenced, and celebrated by numerous scholars and artists across the centuries.

It proclaims the divine origins for our performing arts traditions and asserts that they form the fifth veda, drawing from the four vedas and making them accessible to all of society.

Jaagraham paathyam rigvedaat
Saamaabhya geetamevacha
Yajurvedam abhinayaan
Rasa atharvanaadapi

It asserts that the performing arts encourage audience to dharma, artha, kama, and that the arts are a path to moksha. In fact, it says that natyam encompasses all art, sculpture, and knowledge of this world: 

Nathagnyanam nathacchilpan
Nasa vidya nasa kala
Nasa yoga naseth karma
Natyesminenna drisyathe

So, what happened? The Natyashastra also answers that in hauntingly stark terms in its last two chapters. In various parts of the text, Bharata had mentioned his one hundred sons (students) with fondness, referencing their own academic works (which have not survived to modernity). Per Dr. Yashoda, Bharata revealed that because of these sons' arrogance and because they mocked sages, they have been cursed: 

... Due to pride in your knowledge (jnana) you have taken to arrogance (avinaya), your ill knowledge (kujnana) will be destroyed. In the community of sages and brahmanas you will appear as being no followers of the Vedas and will attain the character of Sudras”
— (XXXVI.38) M.M.Ghosh’s translation of the Natyashastra

He set forth the path to redemption: perpetuate the art. Practice it and teach it. He also set forth the necessity to do so. 

He who hears the reading of that (sastra) which is auspicious, sportful, originating from Brahman’s mouth, very holy, pure, good, destructive of sins and who puts into practice and he who witnesses carefully the performance will attain the same goal which masters of Vedic knowledge, performers of sacrifices or givers of gifts will attain.
— (XXVI.79) M.M.Ghosh’s translation of the Natyashastra

Performing arts always had a complicated, at times controversial, role in society, even during the time of these texts, two thousand years ago. In Indian society - and in Western societies - we hear the derision with which the humanities and arts are seen. (We've all heard jokes about theater majors and art majors). Yet, great artists, like the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who was being memorialized as I was writing this, and the stalwarts of our own arts, such as Mastergaru, have been celebrated and revered. I guess, in many ways, we have the same tensions and challenges within society today that have always existed, and we must continue to overcome these schisms. 

Note: I selected the cover photo from the second performance our school did of "Maithreem Bhajatha", for the occasion of a talk by Sri Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi for the"Love as Light" tour's program in Richmond, Va. The song is an incredible benediction composed by His Holiness Paramacharya and presented by Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi at the United Nations in 1966. It is a call to action for all people to come together. This particular choreography is by my mother and guru, Smt. Sarada Jammi. I was awestruck because the exact themes in her choreography were the topics of Gandhiji's talk. What made this all the more poignant, was that the local event had been organized by an American church, Unity of Richmond. This evening was example of the role of dance in our society, as well as the completeness of art. 

Thoughts about approaching a sacred art

Thoughts about approaching a sacred art

Narrative and perspective in choreography

Narrative and perspective in choreography