In India a common distinction between classical and folk dance uses the Natya Shastra’s terms of Margi and Desi. Yet the definition of Margi dance, aspiring to a transformational spiritual or metaphysical experience is certainly not the aim of much of the classical dance we see, no is it out of the classical form if the rich vocabularies of movement are aimed at fine entertainment. Desi is the shastric term for dance that is entertaining. Chhau is officially folk or traditional, yet can be considered Margi if performed at the highest level. I’m not sure if the ritualistic, shamanistic Theyam is considered a folk form, but it is certainly Margi.
I have yet to come across a more meaningful definition than what I recall from a dance history or dance theory class back at the University of Michigan before I first came to India.
Classical dance is performed for an audience — whether King, public or gods. Folk dance is generally social, which covers everything from harvest dance celebrations to disco dance.
Classical dances have an elaborate movement vocabulary that takes years to master; folk dance can be learned pretty quickly as there are minimal varieties of movements needed to join in.
Classical dances require skills developed over time and not all will be able reach the skill level required to perform successfully. Folk dances are inclusive of pretty much everyone willing to join in. Of course some dances with a better kinetic sense may stand out, but others participate in the line, circle, square or dance floor.
It is not possible to generalise about the folk dances of India any more than anything about India as there are always exceptions. We can look at both function, as well as form as both are necessary for a holistic understanding. What I find most interesting is the meaning and significance of dance within its cultural context. As the dancer, whether classical or folk, uses his/her body and mind there is created a a sense of community unity and often the pleasure of camaraderie. This is experienced in everything from kirtan dancing to the undulating together, arms intertwined Santali tribal dances.
In general, classical or “art” dance has more scope for individual creativity, with noteworthy exceptions. There is keen choreography competition been teenage teams of Khamba — Thoibi dancers during Lai Haroba festivals.
Although there are some detailed categories of dance occasions and purposes, they are challenging to apply cross-culturally. I prefer Dance Anthropologist Anthony Shay’s six general categories: social or recreational, as an expression of secular or religious ritual, reflecting and validating social organization, psychological release, as an aesthetic activity and reflecting economic subsistence patterns such as harvest or reaping dances.
When we think of folk only in relation or opposition to classical dance genres, it is good to expand what fits into this overarching framework. Ritual dances include the Shamanistic Keralite Theyam dances and Manipur’s Maibi Jagoi as well as the Buddhist Cham of Ladhak and Arunanchal. Every nook and corner of the country has diverse dances expressing pluralistic Hindu ritual and social organisation, varying within Jatis as well as region.
Informal social and recreational dances typically require no exceptional level of skill and generally allow improvisation, whether Garba or wedding dances. However the range of skill in all categories grouped under “folk” progress from simple to highly skilled; from Bhangra to Kalbeliya and acrobatic balancing dances to the sophistication of the masked and unmasked forms of Chhau.
The inclusion of folk dances since the inception of Republic Day parades was a brilliant way to familiarize all Indians with the forms and perhaps a glancing idea of the functions of these cultural expressions. The five zonal cultural centers the central government’s Department of Culture have done much to identify and give support to many of these local dance traditions. For decades they collectively brought over 30 troupes to Delhi to form several regionally diverse programs to perform for days at the Talkatora Stadium and other venues.
For two decades I was able to coordinate with troupe leaders, choreographer, camp and zonal directors and culture ministry to bring 4 troupes annually to the American Embassy School to give expat children a taste of authentic rural and tribal Indian folk dance. Initially this was possible thanks to my girlfriend, Kiran Mathur, posted in the Dept of Culture who gave me information on which troupes were included each year, who was there with whom to coordinate and when rehearsals would be held for me to preview and select groups whose dance that would communicate best with non-Hindi speaking children.
After several years of these school performances being managed without impinging on rehearsals, similar programs were offered to schools around Delhi. Sadly, the temporary suspension during the Commonwealth Games has become a permanent end of these amazing programs that reached many thousands. I wonder if it was a conscious decision or simple bureaucratic inertia Perhaps “Unity in Diversity” and “National Integration” are less important these days or India’s traditional culture expressed through dance has no longer of value in the new homogenized global India .
Folk dance forms are still shared through regional Doordarshan channels. A friend was recently impressed by traditional two-person-in-a-tiger-suit folk dance of Odisha used in-a presentation encouraging protection of tiger habitats.
Perhaps the real question is “What is folk dance when form is divorced from function ” Garba and Bhangra have become urban folk forms, enjoyed across regions and communities. Has the gain as social and recreational dance been at the cost of the nuances inherent in their core cultural context As languages of dance disappear alongside world spoken languages, we lose irretrievable cultural heritage.
Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org