India Feature


Indian Dance, Music, and Performing Arts

The appreciation of beauty, combined with a love of celebration and worship, is evident throughout India, especially in the realm of the performing arts.

Centuries of different cultural influences and religious traditions make for a rich array of delights when it comes to the performing and visual arts. Ancient styles and themes continue to flourish alongside growing contemporary movements, and there are also varieties of performing arts that bring together features from throughout the ages.

Whether you choose to attend a formal dance or music performance, go to a Bollywood film, happen upon a street musician, or find yourself in the midst of a religious celebration, experiencing the vibrant forms of Indian culture will bring you closer to understanding the Indian way of life.

Mumbai's National Centre for the Performing Arts is a particularly good place to see live performances, although there are all sorts of formal and informal venues throughout the country.


If you're in North India during the Navratri festival, try to see part of a Ramlila (literally, "Ram's play"). Actors—traditionally men and boys—wearing gaudy costumes and fake mustaches, dramatize the story of Ram, Prince of Ayodhya, who must fight the demon Ravana to rescue his kidnapped wife Sita. Some performances are makeshift, but others are hundred-year-old institutions. It's quite a spectacle.


Music is fundamental to Indian life, and it's almost impossible to walk from one end of a street to another without hearing an old Hindi film song crackling from a radio or the thumping bass of a gangster rap Bhangra mash-up from a passing car. Beyond this, however, there is a rich tradition of classical Indian music. Classical music is divided into Hindustani (predominately from North and Central India and heavily influenced by Persian traditions), and Carnatic (the melodic, formal tradition of the south). There is also a lively tradition of folk music, ranging from classical deviations to lusty rural songs about everything from the monsoons to migrant life. Nonclassical music can be boisterous—like Punjabi Bhangra—or steeped in refined sentimentality—like Bengali Rabindrasangeet (based on Rabindranath Tagore's lyrical works). Contemporary music ranges from Bollywood film music to Hindi (and other language) pop, rap, and hip-hop. In bars and clubs in the cities, it's not uncommon to find hard-rocking heavy-metal bands or classically trained fusion artists.


Hand in hand with music is classical dance, of which there are a number of schools. Performances are enhanced by unusual and colorful costumes. Among dance performances to look for are the silk-clad and jewel-ornamented dancers of the Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, and Mohiniyattam styles, which were once performed in temples; the exacting beat-driven Kathak, which evolved in royal courts; the grotesque and gorgeous makeup and wide skirts of Kathakali from Kerala; and gracefully delicate Manipuri from the northeast.


With such strong traditions of music and movement in Indian culture, it's not surprising that song and dance come together in Indian cinema. From the early days of sugar-sweet love songs and jaunty, jazzy numbers, Hindi films have absorbed and transformed many influences over the years, and these days the cinema produces endless pop and R&B-flavored film music. Independent cinema, once influenced by the New Wave movement of the 1950s and 1960s, continues to exist in the shadow of Bollywood but has also seen recent growth in experimental efforts and documentaries.


Theater is also an important art form, and you might see troupes who perform special street plays on religious occasions or public service plays on issues like child labor or female infanticide. Folktales told through puppetry and the Western-style staging of Indian and other playwrights' works are also on the agenda.

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