Traditional Dance in South Asia

Dance and music are the oldest and most original art forms in the world and especially numerous and developed in South Asia. Thus the present-day practice of dance relates to the most ancient past; one could say that it is contemporary and traditional at the same time. Traditional dance is an integral part of the music culture in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and exists in numerous incarnations.

One could group South Asia Dance culture as follows:

  1. • The Adivasi – the indigenous communities of south Asia sometimes also called ‘tribal’ – community dances. Although there are some common cultural traits within the tribal communities in south Asia, there are, for instance, huge differences between groups in south India, the central tribal belt of India, the north-eastern regions of Pakistan, different parts of Bangladesh, or the north-east of India.
  3. • There are the rural community dances genres. These art forms – like the Adivasi dances – are nearly always related to life-cycle events (such as birth, puberty, marriage and death), to the cycle of the agricultural year, or are ritualistic as they relate to local religions, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism. In contrast to the tribal dances, professional or at least specialised artist groups often perform rural genres.
  5. • Some dances, for instance the Chau dance of central and east India, have reached a regional importance and are generally more stylised than the village dances.
  7. • Finally there are highly stylised, specialised and structured art dances such as Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, Kathak, Odissi, Sattriya, Kuchipudi, Kudiyattam or Mohiniyattam. All of them have a regional origin, but they are regarded as national, ‘classical’ or ‘south Asian’ dances.

Especially within the tribal and rural traditions, musical performances often feature specialised dancers and community dance. In nearly all tribal villages, men, women and children dance together on many occasions. As with singing and the playing of musical instruments here the average knowledge and skills are generally higher than in any other south Asian communities.

Even in rural and tribal villages one can observe that participation in dance has been declining due to the impact of the massive film industry and television. Therefore most of these sophisticated dance genres can be considered endangered and, if no further steps for protection are taken, will become extinct in the near future. Even the well-known art dances are neglected by audiences and funding bodies. There are also positive developments such as the growing public interest in rural and tribal music and dance and an interaction of contemporary and traditional dancers and dance genres.