Revival Of Cambodian Traditional Dances

Quite recently, in late June, Phillippe Agret of the Agence France Press sent a detailed report about the revival of Cambodia's classical dances. These were kept alive, for centuries after the defeat and deposition of the last Angkor king in the 15th century in the smaller royal courts. In 1965, King Sikanouk founded the University of Fine Arts to continue the tradition. But the inglorious Pol Pot regime set out to destroy the dance as part of an old oppressive feudal system. Eight out of every ten dancers died in the infamous "Killing Fields" betrayed by their artistic postures and most manuscripts dealing with the art were destroyed.

 But a few instructors survived the ordeal and started reviving the tradition from 1979 in various refugee camps near the Thai border. Preung Chien, a former royal palace dancer who survived twenty years of labour in the paddy fields started reviving it in the university of Fine Arts, with the help of Chea Samay (a sister-in-law of the hated dictator Pol Pot!). The University also came under the direct patronage of princess Bhopa Devi, daughter of King Sikanouk, and minister for culture. The ballet troupe has now grown to fifty teachers and 300 students. According to Chieng, it was a miracle that the; dance survived at all during the most unbelievable period of madness in history. Now the real danger according to him is not lack of patronage but globalisation of culture.

The revival of those traditional dances is good news for all lovers of the performing arts and in particular for Indian connoisseurs and Indophiles. They know about the Indian origins of Cambodian dance in a vague general way and they have also noticed some resemblances and differences vis-a-vis current Indian classical dances. They like to attribute the differences to severance of cultural contacts. It is however interesting to explore the deeper reasons, namely the historical context of the emigration of Indian arts and their differing development in South East Asia and India thereafter.

The classical dance system of India was taking shape centuries . before Christ and seems to have settled its firm outlines between the second and fourth centuries after Christ, as detailed in Bharata's Natya Sastra. But after that and particularly from the seventh to the tenth centuries, it underwent two broad changes (a) through the division of the holistic theatre into separate arts and (b) the evolution of bhakti sringara. The holistic theatre discussed by Bharata spawned three separate art-streams namely music, dance proper and rhythm. Along with the evolution of bhakti sringara, it promoted the individual female dancer to a central position.

Holistic theatre went into the background, more through the emergence of bhakti sringara or erotic devotion, in South India from the 7th century onwards and its spread over the rest of India. It evolved in Tamil Nadu under the most favourable conditions; the dominant erotic romantic genre of ancient Tamil poetry called Akam supplied the model when the devotional cult was evolving; the idea that the deity in the temple should be treated as a king in his palace to be worshipped through the sensuous arts, also derived from the Arruppadai genre of Tamil literature, took root and legitimised the offering of music and dance in the temple. As a result the lyrics for a dance came to be based on "bhakti sringara" proclaiming a woman's love for the Lord. This virtually pushed the holistic theatre format into the background and entrenched the single lady dancer interpreting devotional lyrics. I have elaborated all this in detail in two earlier articles [From Bharata to Nandikeswara in Sruti and The Origin of Bhakti in Tamil Nadu, Chap. 1 in Bhakti Studies (edited by Bailey & Wilson, Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, 1989).

Indian emigration and the consequent cultural transformation of South East Asia took place mainly from the seventh to the tenth century. During this period South East Asians took over Bharata's holistic theatre and made their own adaptations, even as the Indian classical system went through important changes by itself. As a result, there have arisen differences between these cultural cousins. These were based not so much on artistic factors but were more influenced by socio-economic and practical factors.

The most striking difference is that the south East Asian dances have retained the holistic theatre format and developed as group dances (i) either as dance-dramas of say the Ramayana or as (ii) collective tableau dances like Apsara, while Indian classical dance of the major schools had since then developed essentially as an individual dancer's performance, based on bhakti sringara.

In South East Asia, the older holistic theatre format was not affected by the new devotional erotic tradition. Buddhism as the dominant religion of South East Asia did not encourage that but supported the non-erotic Bodhisatva cult of devotion. Dance retained its holistic format, also because the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata had become popular and were presented as dancedramas. Moreover in Cambodia, the development of the Devaraja cult of equating the 'Varman' kings with Siva encouraged a tableau group like 'Apsara' which developed it as part of royal and temple pageantry (supported by the God King and King God concepts). Thus the South East Asian countries which absorbed the pre-devotional theatre format of Indian dance have retained and developed it.

 The second most noticeable difference between the South East Asian and Indian classical dances (in particular Bharatanatyam) is the continued use of some karana-s in the former, while these have been mostly phased out over the centuries by the system of adavu-s. This is more difficult to explain as historical material available is scrappy and discontinuous. One can however make intelligent guesses towards an explanation.

The fourth chapter of Natya Sastra describes the 108 karana-s in the first half and angahara-s and a few related topics in the second half. The description of a karana literally interpreted, includes details of the disposition of foot and hand and facial movements towards a final interesting artistic pose. Whether karana denotes the final artistic pose or the successive movements leading to it is a practical question. The actual wording in the text is capable of a static interpretation for some karana-s and a movement interpretation for some others. In practice, a static-sounding karana 'pushpaputa' (the very first karana) is currently employed with the addition of simple foot movements as Pushpanjali. Similarly some other karana-s are being executed with repetitive and consecutive movements according to the beats of a tala— (as used for example by Padma Subrahmanyam, in portraying Kaliyamardana in her Kiishnaya Tubhyam Namaha). But looking at the description of karana-s, as a whole and as such without commentary, some would best represent static poses— while some others would qualify as a series of consecutive movements.

 The real question however is why the karana-angahara system went into the background over the centuries in India while a part of it has survived in Cambodian and Thai dances, in which at least a dozen karana-s can be identified (for example Mayuralalitam and Garudaplutakam). It is plainly impossible to trace the history of the intervening centuries comparatively to establish the causes for this firmly. But an important cause may be the high development of the musical system in India and its dominant influence on dance.

In Bharata's Natya Sastra, music is inseparable from dance and is already quite developed along melodic lines, though there are doubts about the 22 sruti-s and the concept of jati. Over the later centuries, a sophisticated raga system and a more and more intricate tala system took shape. As dance became independent of holistic theatre, it became even more closely tied to the music and tala system. Thereafter, the rhythmic movements or nritta had first to be harmonied with a tala format and secondly, they were to be executed in pairs right and left and also had to be serialised with variations to form a jati. This type of nritta passage could not be easily derived from the complex karanaangahara system to be executed to harmonise with the increasingly sophisticated tala system. Ultimately, the system of adavu-s evolved and was set down in Tulaja Maharaja's Sangeeta Saaraamritam.

 We know little about the history of the intervening steps. There was probably a concerted effort to stabilise the karana-s and the general framework of Bharatanatyam from the tenth to the thirteenth century, under Raja Raja and Rajendra Cholas, the Kakatiya Kings of Warangal and the Hoysalas of Dwarasamudram. The carving of the karana-s in the Brihadeeswara temple and the commandeering of 400 dancers from different temples and settling them down in the four streets round the temple were all crucial steps taken by Raja Raja in this direction and this was followed by the carving of karana-s in other temples such as Chidambaram. The idea of the nritta mantapa, was taken from the Chola temple but was more fully developed by the Kakatiyas. All Kakatiya temples have larger nritta mantapa-s as the most important part of the temple with dance related sculptures. The mantapa facing the sanctum in the famous Ramappa temple, includes a sculpture of amrita-manthan reminiscent of the fourth chapter of Bharata's Natya Sastra in addition to several dance poses. Two smaller temples on the lakeshore include only the mantapa and the sanctum. The Hoysala temples followed suit with the mantapa facing the sanctum.

All these built up temple dance as an institution but they don't seem to have helped in preserving the karana-s as an integral part of dance. The next period witnessed much development in pure rhythm or suddha nritta. Rhythm-centred dances like Jakkini and Perani took shape in this period as well as works on rhythm like Jayappa's Nritta Ratnavali. Ultimately, by the eighteenth century, out of the various rhythmic movements that evolved, some were selectively incorporated into adavu-s.

South East Asian countries took over the melody based system of music but they did not develop a raga system or an elaborate corpus of tala-s. Even now their melodies are mostly pentatonic and their rhythms are not too complicated. Possibly this enabled them to preserve and use complex karana-s without any challenge from complex rhythms for footwork needed in executing the steps of a complex karana in tandem with the tala.

 The thrust of this brief effort at comparison is to highlight some" socio-historical factors in the evolution of classical dances, and to correct a tendency particularly in India to regard all art as selfcontained and as propelled by internal-religious factors alone in its evolution. The importance of external societal factors in the development of the arts is quite well recognised in studies of Western art in Western Universities. Indian scholarship in art needs to develop a more sociological orientation for a deeper understanding of artistic development.