DICTIONARY OF INDIAN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY : DANCE
Dr. Francis Barboza svd.
The impulse or urge to units with God through dance has a long and involved history. It is found animism of primitive people, in the Gods of Egypt, Greece, Rome, India and finally in Christianity. Here, Religion and sacred dance "becomes a sacrificial rite, a charm, a prayer and prophetic vision. It summons and dispels the forces of nature, heals the sick, links the dead to the chain of their descendants, it assures the fields and the tribe. It is Creator, Preserver, Steward and Guardian". 1 According to Christian Scriptures, dance is referred to as an integral part of worship and it helped enliven the community spirit of the believers. The early Christians also had dance in their religious and social life. There are references to this effect in the writings of the early Fathers and in Church history. The gnostic writers of the 2nd century consider Jesus Christ as the leader, who leads his followers in the dance. In India, Dance, especially classical, has always been a religious expression and experience of God. It has also been called temple art, not just because it is found in the temples of India but because its origin, aim, goal and purpose is for communication. Communication to God and man on the surface, one does not find a great deal of dance in practice among the Indian Christians, but a closer, critical and historical survey reveals that dance has been part and parcel of the religious and social life of various groups of Christians in different regions of India. In fact, there are a few dance-forms exclusively practiced by the Christians in India, which have a long standing history of many centuries. Further, it is to be noted that Christian themes have also been introduced in many other Indian dance-forms. Christianity and Indian Dance-forms could be studied under two categories : (a) Dance forms exclusively practiced by the Christians, that comprised mainly Christian Themes but at times included social and historical episodes as well. (b) Christian Themes depicted in other Dance-Forms of India, (i) Ancient or Traditional (52 A.D.1599). The worship pattern art-forms, Church architecture etc. of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian 2, and Knanaya Syrian Christians 3, were similar to those of the Hindu brethren of that time. Their art-forms were least affected by the foreign influence and were very much Indian in form and spirit. Dance-forms such as Margamkali, Vattakali and Parisumuttukali practiced by these Christians survive to this present day. (ii) Medieval to the Contemporary (1599-1947). With the Latin Christians 4 a number of new dance-forms came into existence since medieval times. Of course, they were greatly influenced by the western theatre especially in the aspect of the customs and presentation, though less affected in the technique. Cavitunatakam and Parisumuttukali of the Latin Christians in Kerala is a typical example of this new development. These dance forms are still practiced by people in this region. In the district of Palghat, the Tamil-speaking Christians have a theatre traditions of their own which originated in the 19th Century. Kuthu (i.e. Munrurajakuthu) Natakam (Allesu Natakam, Kunkunammal Natakam etc.) and Kummiattam are still in practice among these people in Tamil Nadu. Pasca or Passion play , at times called Siluvaimaranam, is prevalent in the style of Kuthu in some places and Natakams at other places. In Goa, Mussal Khel, Gauda Dhalo, Dekhni, Christian version of Jagar, Mando, Kunbi Khel, Gauda Dhalo and Carnival are still practiced by different communities of Christians. All these dance-forms greatly veer towards the social and entertainment aspect rather than purely religious. However, most of them are performed a per the religious calendar and feasts. Inspite of pressure tactics of the Portugese the great influence they exerted and their way of life, these dance-forms have survived. Some of them may not retain the original nature and form, yet they continue to be part of the fabric of life. In Andhra, efforts have been made to have Burrahkathas on Christians is almost a story of the past. In the north, in many of the Adivasi and tribal dances, Christian themes have been introduced, retaining the same format of their original is the Christian version of the traditional Hindu Dondo-Nato. (iii) Post-Independence Period (1947 onwards). In the post-independence period a few attempts have been made to depict Christian themes in other classical dance-forms of India, i.e. Kathakali, Yakshagana etc. Many institutions and individuals have tried to depict Christian themes borrowing and making use of one or more dance-styles for this purpose without are retaining a particular style and form. As a result hardly any form or tradition has developed in this direction. Hence continuity and followup of these efforts has not been attempted. The new trends have over stressed the themes to such an extent that technique has been neglected, if not completely lost. The primary purpose and aim of these attempts according to a survey and a questionnaire conducted by me is for the proclamation of the Gospel preaching, adaption, adoption inculturation etc. Some use phrased like presenting the Gospel Dance, others proudly talk about promoting the use of indigenous artforms for the proclamation of the Gospel. This area somehow contrasts with the earlier dance-forms of the Christians. Margamkali, Parisumuttukali, Natakams etc. were developed in the Christian Community to understand, experience and comprehend the Christian message. But the present trend tends to be utilitatiran, using art-forms for delivering Christ’s message. Further this sort of understanding also gives the impression that the Gospel is a ready made product, neatly bound and packaged. We should now begin to speak in terms of a cultural comprehension and realisation of Christ and his Gospel, rather than just ‘propagation’, ‘proclamation’ and ‘presentation’ of the gospel through indigenous art and art-forms 5. That kind language speaks of an exploitative use of art and art-forms. In the light of comprehending, understanding and realising Christ’s message in the Indian at-forms, especially Indian dance. It is only then that one can give or share that God experience with others. Here the communication goes more deeper than just imparting Christ’s teaching on a superficial level which is done in most cases in contrast to the dance practices of the Ancient and Medieval period. Many people working in the field of dance want to communicate a ready made Gospel, a static one which is self-defeating in its approach both in relation to the Gospel, which should be dynamic, moving and life-giving, and to Indian dance which speaks for itself as regards its origin, nature and goal. Keeping the above principles and spirit in mind, in this context, I have adopted a scientific approach in depicting Christian Themes in Bharata Natyam. New Deva Hastas and Postures for the Bible personalities have been invented on the basis of Christian Theology and a study made on the different dance-treatises. Without comprising with technique, I have strived to make dance an experience, truly Indian and Christian, at the same time stressing the aspect of understanding, comprehending and experiencing the Christ message rather than delivering it. It is revealing to observe that in India to all the early dance forms of the Christians were performed in groups and no individual dance is to be found. This feature is the reflection of the Christian Theology where God is mainly encountered in a group. And people worship and praise him in a congregation. It is interesting to note that the traditional dance-forms of the Christians are all done in a circular pattern, keeping a lighted lamp in the centre symbolising Christ. In the medieval times two parallel line choreography came into existence may be due to the influence of the Portugese and the religious processions which were very common at that time. Finally, the ghost of the Synod of Diamper still haunts the church of India. Here the church hesitates to value the ar-forms, especially dance for understanding, comprehending and experiencing the Gospel in a new way rather than simply using them for the proclamation of a ready made Gospel message. 1. Sachs C. World History of the dance, New York, W.W, Norton and Con.Inc. 1963. 2. The descendants of the group of people who embraced Christianity through St. Thomas who landed at Maliankara near Cranganore, Kerala in 52 A.D. 3. The descendants of Thomas of cana (kannai Thommen) a certain merchant who migrated to malabar and Cranganore in 345 A.D. 4. On May 14, 1498 Vasco da Gama landed at kappad near Calicut on the Malabar coast. With the coming of the Portugese a new group of believers called latin Christians came into existence. The Portugese kept a strict control over the religious and social life of all Christians in kerala. Their political dominance gave them superior advantage over other groups of Christians already existing in kerala. The made various attempts to westernise the church in India. The westernisation of the church was intensified by the Synod of Diamper in 1599 which practically suppressed and forbade the existing art-forms of the Christians as superstitious and scandalous. However, the people could not suppress their artistic instinct to express religious experience in different artforms.