Goudia Nritya & Mabua Mukherjee

When a botanist stakes her claim as a dance scholar and says her study covers a gap in dance history, one is apt to be somewhat sceptical, wondering if this would be yet another dreary attempt to build up a case without adequate premise. But, sitting through a lecture-demonstration by Dr. Mahua Mukherjee and listening to her answering queries raised by doubting Thomases are enough to convince the sceptic of the unassailable logic of the main burden of her thesis, which is: undivided Bengal had a classical dance-form of its own that had evolved around the fifth century onwards and withered away by about the 17th century.

Famine and economic instability and the 'Babu' culture which arose with the British making Calcutta their capital and the seat of their power, all contributed towards hastening the decline and eventually the disappearance of elite support for classical dance. When Raja Ram Mohan Roy led the fight for the abolition of sati, it was a very different Bengal from the one described in Kalhana's Rajatarangini where mention is made of a Kashmiri King entering the city of Paundravardhana in disguise, for the express purpose of watching classical dance. According to scholars like musicologist Swami Prajnananda, temple dancing was One may well ask: if Bengal did indeed have a thriving dance tradition, whatever happened to it? When many dance-forms have survived (some skeletally and others more substantially) in different parts of the country, why should all traces of a form have disappeared from Bengal alone . Dr. Mukherjee is convinced— and explains— that the peculiar socio-economic convulsions in this part of India were responsible for the complete disappearance of classical dance in Bengal. The Turkish invasion and the massive destruction of innumerable temples which were the patrons and centres of classical dance in Bengal, started a process which led to a gradual decline in the status of women. The practice of sati, female illiteracy, a significant part of the Bengali way of life between 600 AD and 1200 AD.

Dr. Mukherjee, who had received training in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohini Attam and Chhau, was intrigued by the plethora of dance attitudes seen in ancient temple sculptures in Bengal. She felt that no representation in art could be just a figment of the artist's imagination alone, that it had to have had its seed in reality. The Basudev temple and the 16th and 17th century terra cotta temples are full of Siva and Sakta images, many in dance attitudes. The Ashutosh Museum has a Ganesa statue with alapadma, kapita and suchi hasta-s, and with the figure in a distinct tribhanga hip deflection. There are dancing Vishnu-s as well. The nartaka and nartaki in the Pahadpur sculpture, and the temples in Bankura district showing terra cotta figurines with different sthanaka-s and hasta-s, are indicative of a flourishing dance tradition having existed here. A 10-armed Nataraja in a Calcutta museum has the Lord dancing on the back of the bull, with the animal, his head turned up, enjoying the dance. The dancing Nataraja bronze now in the Melakkadambur temple in Tamil Nadu, has been identified by scholars as a 10th century Pala bronze from Bengal, donated by Rajendra I who would appear to have acquired this icon as a trophy in the course of his expedition to the Gangetic delta. Is it possible that a people who portrayed the dancing Siva with such reverence, were strangers to classical dance

In Murshidabad, Hooghli and Malda districts, one finds mosques built on or from temple ruins and many of the pillars sport dancing figures. The figures in the Adina mosque of Malda and the 12th century Zafar Khan Gajir mosque are examples. References in ancient literature further testify to the fact that dance was an accomplishment, highly prized in society in Bengal. Substantiating the argument, Dr. Mukherjee points out that in the Tanjavur Saraswati Mahal Library's publication of Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam, there is a specific reference to Jayadeva's wife Padmavati as an accomplished dancer. Furthermore, she adds, Chandi Das' Krishna Keertan (14-15th century A.D.), Chandimangal and Manasa Mangal Kavya-s from the 11th to 18 th centuries, Sangeeta Damodaia by Pandit Subhankar who also wrote the Sreehastamuktavali (15th century), Narahari Chakravarti's Geeta Chandrodaya and Sreebhakti Ratnakara (18th century), are all full of references to dance. In addition, there are texts like Karamrita Sindhu by Roopa Goswami (15th century), who is also the author of Ujjwala Neelamani, the Vaishnavite text Govinda Leelamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj (16th century), Padamrita Samudra by Radhmohan Thakur (18th century) and other treatises which indicate that there was a strong classical dance tradition in ancient Bengal.

 As for the type of dance which was prevalent in Bengal, Dr. Mukherjee goes back toNatya Sastra (Chapter XIV) to cite the line: Anga- Vanga - Utkalinga - Vatsaschaib - Oudra - Magadha. She is quite firm that itwas the Oudra-Magadha style of classical dance that was in vogue in what was greater Bengal.

Dr. Mukherjee's theory and her practical reconstruction of what she believes was the classical danceform which Bengal nurtured, are based on painstaking, one step at a time research. She has included nothing which cannot be fully corroborated by references in treatises, archaeological findings, temple ruins, historical data and/or, most importantly, features and facets found in the still flourishing folk traditions of Bengal.

"People criticise my dance [Goudiya Nritya] as having elements of Odissi and Manipuri but I have received training in neither," Dr. Mukherjee says. "But the OudraMagadha group of dance mentioned Bengal as it was in Orissa. Please note that present-day Odissi is a neo-classical form resurrected in the nineteen fifties,” she explains. "Some scholars now maintain that Pandit Shubhankar [author of the famous Sangeeta Damodara and Sreehastamuktavali] belonged to Orissa, though a careful tracing of the lineage links him with the brahmin Lahiri families of Bengal. Anyway, there was so much of give and take amidst cultural streams that influences and cross-influences are difficult to pinpoint."

 She explains further: "When, during what we now recognise as a period of dance renaissance, interest in this art-form began to reemerge, people like the late Uday Shankar thought in contemporary terms of a new dance-form, a modern body language. A genius like Rabindranath Tagore, from whose works I have drawn tremendous inspiration, was more a visionary than a specialist in dance history. He was the first perhaps to discover Manipuri for the rest of India." But that the Manipuri tradition must have absorbed a lot from the Vaishnavite movement which spread from Bengal to the north-east would strike a dance historian or a research scholar and not a literary genius.

 Above everything else, Dr. Mukherjee's research has given her an insight into the manner in which different cultural strains intermingled, with a give and take amidst all forms. "Manipuri today may be the exclusive dance of the people of Manipur," she observes, "but the way the dancer gracefully lowers the body to a sitting position, then rises, resembles what from texts and other references I have interpreted as the way the movement was executed in the classical dance in Bengal too. Darshana of the Jhaveri Sisters and Kalavati Devi, Manipuri specialists both, also agree that Sastriya Manipuri Nartan was significantly influenced by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The spread of his religious cult also meant that the art-forms which exulted in its expression were carried from region to region. One even talks of Vaishnava tala-s. I have discussed this with Guru Bipin Singh and he agrees with my conclusions fully."

 Dr. Mukherjee has christened her reconstructed version of Bengal's erstwhile classical dance as Goudiya Nritya. She says she was guided by historical facts in choosing this name. During the reign of Shashanka (sixth and seventh centuries), Bengal was called Gouda Desa. During the Pala and Sena rule also, this name was frequently used. Literature too is full of references to Gouda desa. 'Pancha gouda' and 'Sapta gouda' are phrases one comes across often. Maheswara Mahapatra in his 15th century text Abhinaya Chandrika specifically mentions Gouda Nritya. Matanga Muni too mentions Gouda raga-s known as Gouda Kaisiki and Gouda Panchama in Brihaddesi. The land called Gouda included present-day Bengal, Bihar and parts of Orissa and the north-east. Dr. Mukherjee, who is quite convinced about the name, adds: "In fact, during my research, this word - Gouda desa' seemed to be thrown at me again and again. I was convinced that this was a fitting nomenclature for the dance I was working on, to the best of my ability. I discussed this matter in detail with Professor B.N. Mukherjee of Calcutta University and other Bengali professors and they fully approved of the name."

Still evolving but already consisting of well-defined movements, Dr. Mukherjee's version of Goudiya Nritya has the circle as a main stylistic concern, in terms both of the bhramari and the form of circumambulation or covering of stage space in a round. The circle is a prime concern in many dances of Bengal. For instance, the circumambulation, with the diya placed in the centre of the performing space as a symbol of the solar source and energy from which the dancer draws sustenance, is done even now in Dhamaila Naach. "The Kati Bhramari in Goudiya Nritya is very much like what is seen to-day in Bengal in Kushan Nritya and Bisharhari in north Bengal and in Baul and Nachni," she explains. "The way the dancer slowly lowers her body into a sitting position and then raises it, is, as I mentioned earlier, exactly as done in Manipuri. I learnt Kushan Nritya from two teachers: Lalit Kushan and Maya. The dance-form makes use of movements which I can easily trace back to the textual grammar, though dancers themselves have no technical terms to describe these movements. The Akasha Bhramari which is used in Goudiya Nritya is mentioned in the 16th century Govinda Leelamrita and also in the 15th century Ananda Brindavan Champu written by Kavi Karnapu. Whatever I have woven into the style can be seen in Dhamaila Naach, Chariapad Chakra Nritya, Pala and Dotra Nritya. I can trace all these steps to ancient treatises. Thejanau Bhramari or kneeling and circling the stage is another movement in Goudiya Nritya which again finds mention in Govinda Leelamrita. The dances of Purulia Chhau and the Raas dances of Brindavan specialise in this type of circling. The jumping step incorporated in Goudiya Nritya is again what is common to the Nachni dance of Purulia. Typically, the step has no technical name though it is referred to as 'ulfa'. Changing the weight of the body from one foot to the other in a springy fashion is again what one sees in Manipuri."

Dr. Mukherjee is not finished with her lecture yet. "The two hands in alapadma raised in the uchritabahu is a common stylistic feature of Goudiya Nritya. Sculptural representation in Bengal abounds in this pose which is common in Kushan, Dotra, and Nachni.

The half-seated square position— the chauka— and the bhangi-s, particularly the tribhangi, can be seen in all the sculptured panels. The hand symbols come from iconographic representation and from the Sreehastamuktavali which also discusses the viniyoga and usage of double hand gestures. Even the bol-s or rhythmic syllables I use are not arbitrary. Take the Dhatakina dhini dhadina dhina.

This bol is found even today in Dotra Nritya and even Keertan. When I marry the movement with the bol-s, I know that the synchronisation comes from common usage down the years in different dance traditions of Bengal."

 Dr. Mukherjee refers constantly to the surprising aspects of her research where odd bits of information suddenly provided links in the knowledge of the dance-form that must have been in existence. Crossreferences provided a fair idea of what must have been the practice. She gives an example. In Sylhet, which is where she hails from, there is a tradition called Gulal (64 lotuses) in vogue even today under which the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law compete in a dance. The saying in Bengal even now is Eksawpadma chhauhhattipakhhudi tomi chadi nacha domni bapudi— Dancing on top of the lotus with 64 petals is the domni (Domni is a reference to the caste of the Doms). In the course of her readings, Dr. Mukherjee came across information about Vidyut Prabha, the daughter-in-law of Nata Gangok (in the time of Lakshmana Sena) doing a bride's dance in which she competed with the mother-in-law. The connection established Gulal as the remnant of an old custom. Similarly, with respect to Behula Nritya, which is done now in front of an idol of Siva, there is a reference in Manasa Mangal Kavya to a nayika who is said to have done a similar dance.

 No dance can be conceived without its musical counterpart. And in this area too, Mahua, along with her husband Amitava Mukherjee, has taken pains to study the poetry and the various musical traditions of Bengal. Each language has its own gait and this gives the music also its special character. Dr. Mukherjee refers to the akshara dambar, a form of poetic metre common in Bengal, and says: "In Chhau, I was surprised that, even today, guru-s casually sing in this metre, which in their parlance is called  saadhu bhaasha', even though they do not dance to it."

Dr. Mukherjee takes great pains to explain that classical music has a long history in Bengal: "Treatises mention that Tansen's younger brother came to the Vishnupur court. Krishnadas Kaviraj was the teacher of Haridas who in turn was the guru of Tansen. The four dhrupad traditions namely, Khandaharvani, Goudiavani or Gaudharvani, Nauharvani and Dagarvani— are said to have been developed by disciples of Haridas. The Buddhist Chariapad songs and Matanga's Brihaddesi mention Bengali raga-s which however are no longer heard in Bengal, but they are mentioned in 18th century Rajasthani paintings as well. Pappu Venugopala Rao has in an article brought out the point that the Vangal (Bengal) raga, which is not in use in Bengal, is however used in the music for a dance-drama composition composed by Kuchipudi guru Vempati Chinna Satyam! Tyagaraja too has composed one kriti in Vangal raga. Pala literature belonging to the eighth century mentions raga-s like Sree andDesh. Lakshmana Sena's 12th century work, Govinda Leelamrita by Krishnadas Kaviraj and Sangeeta Damodara by Subhankar, are full of references to raga-s and musical instruments. Works of Sharan, Dhoik, Ummapatidhara, Govardhan Acharya, Jayadeva and the Vishnupur gharana-s all testify to the musical heritage of Bengal in which alap chari was reputed to be rich.

 The Mukherjees have also studied the keertan, bhakti sangeet, baul, ghumparani and bhatiali to get a proper understanding of the musical inheritance of Bengal. The dancer-member of the duo has also studied the connection of music with movement. The resultant observations include the following: Ancient literature talks of a small veena called 'bena' and this is found in Kushan Nritya music; ragas like Hemant and Khamaach are traditional to Bengal; one can find these raga-s now, not in vocal Bengali music but in the shehnai music of Chhau; Manasa Mangal Kavya mentions the padma pakhawaj as an instrument of percussion; and other percussion instruments mentioned are bhumi, dhundhubi, muraja vadya and khol which are all native to Bengal. (These are the instruments used to provide music for Mahua's version of Goudiya Nritya). Vaishnavites singing with the ektara in hand can be seen frequently even to this day in Bengal.

 Dr. Mukherjee has spared no effort to codify and bring under a grammatical system the movements of Goudiya Nritya.The problem in appreciating Goudia Nritya for what it is lies with the condition of mind of the viewer too, for all of us associate certain stances and movements predominantly with certain danceforms. A first look at Goudiya Nritya gives a hasty impression of a patchwork of movements drawn from different styles, but this is dispelled by the clarity of Mahua's arguments. One aspect is to be convinced about the logic of her argument and the other is to see its integrated buildup in the newly interpreted style. As far as the historical references of her theory go, Dr. Mukherjee is on sound ground. Even as early as the year 554 AD, the Haraha inscriptions of Isanavarman and the Dubi plates of Bhaskaravarman mention Gauda desa in reference to Sashanka's territory which had Karnasuvarha (also the name by which it was called) as the capital. Hieun Tsang also refers to it and it has more or less been established that this referred to the land which pertains to the present Murshidabad district bounded by the river Padma in the north and the Burdwan district in the south. The Midnapore grants of Shashanka of the year 8 and 19 of the earliest epigraphic records refer to 'Dandabhukti', a territorial subdivision created by the ruler of Gauda desa during his campaign of the southern territories. Epigraphic records as early as the latter part of the sixth century AD give clues to the Udra desa having included parts of Orissa and Bengal. Ganjam, Puri, Cuttackand Balasore known as Kaingoda, Tosali, Utkala, and Udra and Midnapore district in West Bengal all came under Udra desa. The contention of the dance researcher that the Oudra-Magadha type of dance pertained to the whole of Eastern India, is unexceptionable. Literary references, oral traditions, sculpture and architectural evidence cannot alone prove or disprove theories in the art field. Taken individually, any one of these cannot be cited as final evidence, for words and artistic forms can change in meaning from one time to another. A word meaning one thing at a certain period may acquire an entirely different meaning over time. So Dr. Mukherjee has to look for cross-references in all the intertwined bits of information she has assembled and this she is doing with great diligence. The problem is that no text, however reliable, gives a complete description of what this dance-form was or how it was presented; it is like trying to infer from the Silappadikaram, which abounds in dance references, the way the dance was performed in those days. Sculpture can only offer views of arrested movements in the flow of dance. The energy cycle and the reconstruction of what the movement might have been is left to the interpreter whose individual creativity alone can fill up the transitional points and make movement a flow. So any newly constructed dance edifice is bound to be an individual vision. To try and give flesh and shape to a lost tradition is not easy. That Dr. Mukherjee doggedly soldiers on in her pursuit, undaunted by the sheer range and scale of her task, speaks of her prodigious commitment.