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The Revival of Classical Indian Dance Forms in the 1900s

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The revival of classical indian dance forms in the 1900s was closely linked to lndia’s struggle to overthrow British rule. Through the non-violent, spiritual leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, freedom became a reality and democracy became the political choice. Indians increasingly transformed from their medieval, feudal past, and had taken steps towards a new national identity. In the midst of this turmoil, the future of Indian dance was jeopardized. Under British rule, propaganda prevailed against Indian art, misrepresenting it as crude, immoral, and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization.

In South and East India, the devadasi tradition (temple dance) had degenerated into de facto prostitution. Devadasi means “servant of God”. These women were dedicated to God and were considered as married to God, meaning that they could therefore not marry any human. Nevertheless, they were free to choose partners and have relationships. These relationships could be long and stable, or just for a short period of time. But in no way were these women economically dependent on their partners. They would dance and sing in temples or in front of royalty and earn gold and land as a reward. The British could not understand this system and started regarding the Devadasis as prostitutes. They also found the moves very erotic and therefore banned the temple dance.

Likewise, in North India, the traditions of Kathak dance was held in low esteem by the public. In North India, Kathak was performed by storytellers in temples as well as in courts to please the Nawabs. Again the Victorians publicly announced that the art form was overtly vulgar and termed it as “nautch”, which meant “dance performed by a girl to seduce a man to obedience”. It was a period of hardship for the art-form as it was looked down upon and considered a means of livelihood for women of very low status in society. Indian dance no longer represented as being able to give symbolic representation to abstract religious ideas and was unable to represent stories of gods and heroes through graceful gestures; it was merely obscene.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social reformers under Western influence took advantage of these circumstances, launching an Anti-Nautch campaign to eradicate not only the prostitution that had come to be associated with devadasis, but the art itself, condemning it as a social evil. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the classical dance of South India was almost wiped out, even in Tamil Nadu. The status of dance and those who practiced it had sunk so low that it inspired little confidence in the public seeking national culture.

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