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From snake-charming to dancing for the gods, the Indian arts is full of purpose, beauty and diversity. It’s no wonder why some of these classical and traditional art forms have survived centuries, even millennia.
If India is on your travel bucket list, here are some art forms that will give you more to look forward to. We take you across its regions with a showcase of some of its oldest, rarest, and most hypnotic art forms, all of which are taking place at Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts in 2017.
According to an Indian saying, “Western music moves the heart while Indian music moves the soul.” Indian classical music can be traced back to the age of the Vedas (1,500–500 BCE); it is also mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit text on the Indian performing arts, Natyashastra, written 2,500 years ago.
Since the 13th century, two systems of Indian classical music have emerged—carnatic and hindustani—each belonging to the southern and northern regions. Although both share the same framework of ragas (melodic modes) and talas (cyclical rhythmic patterns), carnatic is more oriented to the human voice, while hindustani music is the result of Arab and Persian influences in the north.
Ragas are integral to Indian classical music as they evoke emotional and psychological responses from the listener. When played at specific times, they are known to activate the corresponding chakras (psychic-energy nodes), which can heal or improve one’s inner balance. It is said that the ancient Hindus used it for its curative properties.
Nangiarkoothu is a solo dance drama traditionally performed by the Nangiars (the womenfolk of the Nambiar community) of Kerala. It is an off-shoot of koodiyattam, an ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition that dates back 2,000 years, believed to be the oldest surviving art form of Kerala. Like koodiyattam, nangiarkoothu is known for its dramatic make-up, elaborate costumes, and highly stylised facial expressions (abhinaya) and gestures.
Nangiarkoothu performances typically enact stories based on (but not limited to) the text, Sree Krishna Charita, which depicts the life of the deity Krishna through the eyes of a handmaiden. The female performer takes on different characters. Mastering the art is not an easy feat—performers undergo years of physical training and lessons in the ancient language of Sanskrit.
A millennium-old art form said to predate temples, mudiyettu is a community ritual dance drama based on Hindu mythology, centred on the battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. It is performed in bhagavati kuvus (Kali temples) in the Ernakulam and Kottayam districts (in central Kerala) every summer right after harvest. Performers don colourful costumes, elaborate make-up made from colourful rice paste, and intricate headgear depicting the face of Kali, all of which lend a touch of drama and the supernatural.
Their songs tell of the great rulers, conquerors, sages and saints of the past; their melodies are an amalgam of Rajasthani folk, Sufi and hindustani classical music, inspired by the dunes and the desert. This is the music of the Manganiyars, a small Muslim community of professional singers who are descendants of Mughal court musicians. In a way, they are the unofficial curators of Rajasthan’s history, keeping stories alive through their songs and music.
These hereditary caste musicians share a deep bond with music and perform at nearly every local occasion, belting out songs about the myths and fables, history and legends of the region. As their name suggests (Manganiyar means “those who ask for alms”), they have for centuries survived on the patronage of wealthy merchants.
Known as the Rajasthani gypsies, the Kalbeliya are a nomadic community who live in the deserts of Jaipur, North India, who eke out a living as snake charmers. The men are expert been (a wind instrument) players while the women are skilled dancers. For generations, the tribe has been catching snakes and curing snake bites, and they never keep a snake for more than 45 days.
Kalbeliya dance is performed in veneration of the cobra, which in Hindu mythology is the ally of Shiva. It is only danced by the women, who don floor-sweeping, black coloured dirndled-skirts which they make themselves. These skirts are embroidered with colourful thread, made to resemble cobra skin. Fast-paced yet graceful, the movements imitate the cobra’s agility and flexibility.