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Boys and Girls Folk Dances

In India, theatre without dance could not be conceived. Theatre is called Natya in Sanskrit as also in many regional languages. Read more…

There are not many folk dances in which boys perform dressed as girls, but the tradition of female impersonation, especially in traditional theatre forms, is a custom that deserves discussion. In India, theatre without dance could not be conceived. Theatre is called Natya in Sanskrit as also in many regional languages. The verbal root of Natya is "nat" that means 'to dance'. There are more than 60 different styles of traditional theatrical forms in this country. In almost all the theatrical forms men play the female roles, even today. Since dancing and singing are integral part of the art of acting (abhinaya), all the actors who play female roles should have talent for dancing. This tradition of female impersonation in the field of dance and theatre started in India from around 16th century. There is a historical reason behind this.

Earlier dance was being considered as the best of all arts. Because art, like music exists only in time, not in space; whereas arts like sculpture and painting exist only in space, not in time. It is only dance and theatre that exist both, in time and in space. Again, the beauty of the human body can be enhanced in two ways : by makeup, jewellery etc, and by dance. While the former is superficial, dance wells up from within. Another most important reason is that Indian traditional thinkers were of the opinion that the artist engaged in creative activity can spontaneously experience the divine. Because of all these reasons dance was considered in ancient India as an art with which the God can be worshipped. Therefore, there was the tradition of consecration of dancing girls (devadasi) in the temples. There are a number of references that princes and princesses were learning dance and performing before an audience. This ethos underwent a transformation when India came under the rules of foreigners. Those who ruled had a different kind of culture and ethos according to which dancing was exhibition of the body and therefore decent girls should not dance. In a feudalistic society the values of the ruler are adopted by the landlords. Thus Indians began considering that decent women should neither dance nor appear on the stage. It became so ingrained in Indian mind that a saying became common that 'those who have some element of shame they only play musical instruments, those who do not have it they sing, but who is totally shameless dances'. In such an ethos, actresses were not available for playing female roles in a play. The theatre thinkers then thought that a character in a play is basically a symbol. A female character in a drama is the symbol of femininity, not the model of a women. Therefore, a talented actor can bring to life the symbol of femininity. Thus began the practice of female impersonation in the filed of traditional theatre. The tradition of solo dancing, especially the classical ones, was continued by male dancers. The girls who took to dancing were generally courtesans. This taboo of women dancing was observed by elite and the higher caste people. Fortunately, this did not percolate to the tribal communities or the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy. As a result, most of the group folk dances continue to be performed by these people. In the vast body of Indian folk dances there are a few specks of solo dancing by boys dressed as girls.


Counterparts of Bachcha Nagma are found in Orissa, Assam, and among the Tharu community of Uttar Pradesh. In Orissa the teenaged boys who perform the dance are called Gotipua. The Gotipua dance evolved around 17th century. In southern Orissa especially in the district of Ganjam, the dance is called Sakhi Nacha. The tradition evolved around 17th century. The temple dancers called Maharis could not get the enthusiastic patronage of royal court. As a result, their dancing started declining for lack of proper training in dance. The Raj-nartaki class of dancers who were dancing at the royal court and also for the public during festivals like Vasantotsava, also disappeared owing to lack of patronage, since the royal nobilities preferred more sensual dance of the courtesans called Baiji. To cater to the general public the tradition of Gotipua evolved. During 17th and 18th century a number of talented Oriya poets wrote countless lyrics and poems suitable for singing, on the theme of the love between Radha and Krishna. Although lyrics were written in a simpler language, the poems are highly ornate. Generally, the Gotipua sing these songs and poems and present expressional numbers with highly stylized gestured acting (abhinaya). During the later part of 19th century and early decades of 20th century some kind of decadence crept into the Gotipua dance and it became more sensual than sensuous. In the 1940s, when the Odissi dance was revived much was offered by the repertoire of the Gotipuas. Following the classicism of the revived Odissi dance, the Gotipuas discarded the decadent elements.At present, their dance has been much influenced by the revived Odissi dance. Musical accompaniment is provided by Mardala, a Pakhawaj like drum with two faces; Gini, small cymbals and Harmonium. The dancer sings the song which is repeated by guru and a supporting vocalist when the dancer elaborates on the meaning of the song or poem through gestured acting.


Dattriya Dance Assam at Indian Dance SchoolIn 16th century, Shankaradeva, a devout Vaishnava and a creative genius of Assam shaped a stylized theatre to give vent to his spiritual feelings. He wrote several Ankianats i.e. one act plays, the performance of which is called Bhawana, literally meaning contemplation or meditation. The Ankianats were performed in the Vaishnava monasteries called Sattra. In Bhawana performance, female roles are played by boys. The performance includes several solo dance passages which are performed by the boys. When these solo passages are performed not as a part of the drama but independent presentation, they are called Sattriya dance. The dance is accompanied by singing and percussion music of Khol, the drum with two faces much like the Pung of Manipur, and Manjira, small cymbals.

The counterpart in Andhra Pradesh is the Kuchipudi dance. Kuchipudi is actually a tradition of dance drama which has solo dance passages lie the Bhawana. When the solo passages are presented independently it is also called Kuchipudi. Since it has been accepted as a classical style of dance, it is not discussed here. In fact, both the Gotipua dance and the Sattriya dance are more sophisticated than most of the folk dances and have classical elements like the dance of Maibis of Manipur.


Among the Tharu community of Kumaon region of Uttar Pradesh, Tharuba dance is prevalent in which a boy dressed as a girl performs. The Tharuha dancers are also skillful as the Gotipuas and the Sattriya dancers. There are various kinds of dance movements, of which some have acrobatic elements. A dancer while dancing, at times, spins a large brass plate on the tip of the forefinger of the tight hand. The dancers are in a sense professionals since payment is made to them for their performance. They are accompanied by the drummer who plays Mridanga, a drum with two faces. He also sings while playing the drum. A few musicians play cymbals. The musicians form a circle and at the centre the Tharuba dancer performs.