Unpacking The Symbiotic Relationship Between Culture & Performance Art In India

Unpacking The Symbiotic Relationship Between Culture & Performance Art In India
L: Shanker R: Mike Oransky

The flourishing cultural landscape of India is rooted in performing arts and by design, it is woven into the very identity of this country. It is through this that communities have flourished and essentially communicated native stories of belonging. The historical text of Natya Shastra written in the 2nd century elaborated on these customs of dance, music and drama to evoke emotions of love, humour, pathos, anger, heroism, terror, disgust, wonder and serenity also known as the nava rasa (nine emotions).

These unique performances have had a substantial influence on the many cultures that exist in India and also tie into numerous religious practices as well. 

Dance As A Form Of Expression

Our artistic ethos is deeply rooted in an understanding of movements and aesthetics, and are often that much more pronounced in the performance of nritya or dance. While historically the practice of dance was only relegated to a subsection of society in the West, it was embraced as a means of worship and storytelling to be practised by all in India. Classical dance is widely prevalent across the nation and has connections to different periods in history. Kathak for example was heavily practised during the Mughal reign by courtesans whereas other dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and Odissi are often utilised to express religious themes. Aboriginal tribes have also found dances that communicate their unique characteristics and experiences as a community. Chang Lo also known as Sua Lua from Nagaland was meant to celebrate the triumph over enemies in olden times and still followed as a custom in their celebrations. Additionally one of the most popular tribal dances from India Raut Nacha closely resembles Raas Leela but is performed in the honour of Indian deity Krishna. 

ThirayattamCulture Trip

Theatrical Performances

India is also a country where theatrics are a valued entity of public life. Thirayattam from Kerala is an ethnic art that involves dramatic costumes and plays. This satirical production is performed in sacred groves and village shrines and incorporates body painting, masks, martial arts, and rituals. It involves embodying a deity by exhibiting grand, representative gestures and mannerisms. Another traditional theatrical performance involving an open stage is Jatra from Odisha. It is a long meaningful narrative divided in multiple plots including dramatic characters that interact with the audience, highlight the different community issues and deliver vital social messaging.

Cultural Melodies

While Indian films have always garnered cultural influence and significance for the musical gems that become an intrinsic part of the cultural landscape across every decade. Many are oblivious to the fact that they remain heavily inspired from the folk music of different regions. The diverse art form varies in every state and community, becoming a means for individuals to communicate ideas of change, connection and pride. These performances often include a vibrant attire and involve the audience in their storytelling. While the folk tales from Punjab are synonymous with the cultural experiences of its natives, they naturally will vary from Rajasthani folk music in both instruments and narratives. Almost every state in India has their own folk music that is religiously performed in front of large audiences. The art form has survived the advent of new age music and is still the preference of many individuals across the country. 

Maya Krishna Rao in a 'Loose Woman'
Maya Krishna Rao in a 'Loose Woman'Amrita Johri

Contemporary Context

India is slowly finding new ways of engaging with art and while many struggle to stay connected to these historical art forms, the younger generation is employing new means to convey important messages. Breaking new ground in India, many artists are experimenting with subversive themes and continuing vital conversations through performance. India Art Fair saw a number of young artists playing with new age narratives including, feminist theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao who plays with the notion of the ‘loose woman’ in a solo performance of the same name and a British-Bangladeshi artist Raisa Kabir who draws on the violent history of textiles and Indigo dyes in her work. Protests have also provided space for individuals to expand on important conversations. So, while as a nation we are still holding onto certain historic narratives, our communities are also evolving in order to engage with contemporary themes and in the process allow culture to move in lockstep with changing times. 

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