War and dance now appear antithetical, but it was not so in ancient days when there were no airplanes, no bombs, no ballistic missiles and even no guns. The weapons like sword, club, spear, etc. were quite heavy and to wield them with consummate artistry required such pliability of the body as a dancer only could have. That is why probably in the Mahabharata, Vyasa advised Yudhisthira to learn the art of dancing, and Arjuna, the greatest of the heroes of that time, was a dancer of considerable caliber. While he, with his four brothers and wife; had to remain incognito for a year, under the name of Brihannala, he was teaching dance to Uttata, the princess of the Virat kingdom. At the time of that antiquated past, men at arms used to parade the artistry of wielding the weapons to the beat of drums. Out of this practice originated several forms of dance which are still surviving in many parts of this country. Every game has an inherent rhythm of its own. In most of the cases it is so covert that unless very carefully observed it is not perceptible. In India several traditional games evolved in which rhythm was taken as the base. They are, therefore, both game and dance.
Among the martial dances some are not much stylized and their martial character is obvious. Some are so stylized that careful analysis only reveals their martial character. One of the martial dance of former kind is Thang-Ta of Manipur. Thang means sword and Ta means spear. The dance is performed with other weapons also. It is basically a mock fight of attack and defense. Traditionally various kinds of martial dances are performed on the concluding day of the Lai Haroba (covered at page Ritual Folk Dances) festival. The tradition is very ancient and its reference is found in many myths peculiar to Manipur. The myth connected with the martial crafts is as follows: A progeny of Teen Sidaba, who is the progenitor of the ancient Manipuri race called Mata, was lost having been caught in the ancient fish trap of Thongnang and the various parts of his body became different kinds of sword, knives, other weapons and tools. Teen Sidaba is an aspect of Pakhangba, the God. When Pakhangba springs into the core of the sun and remains there inside the golden casket, he is known as Teen Sidaba. It is Pakhangba who originated the Thang Ta.
There are two kinds of swordplay : the make-believe kind is called Leiteng Thang, and the actual fight is called Yanna Thang. Generally, the former kind is performed as dance.
In Kerala the basic martial art is called Kalaripayettu. The influence and elements of this martial tradition are found in many dances and theatre forms of Kerala. In some forms of dance and theatre the elements of Kalaripayettu is obvious, in others though not so evident, it is not also totally transformed. Kerala had a very long and rich martial tradition. The heroic warrior displayed prowess, heroism, courage and other traits display the ethos that shaped Kalaripayettu and it became a dominant aspect of medieval Kerala culture. The main aspects of this martial art are: (a) A distinctive kind of oil massage of the whole body to make it supple and extremely pliable. (b) Typical exercises to make the body stronger and pliable. (c) Practicing some yoga - like postures named after animals like horse, cat, elephants etc (d) Wielding of weapons like sword, shield, spear, etc, together with the techniques of attack and defense with appropriate stepping, jump, turn etc.
These aspects, either all of them or partly, are found in several forms of dance and theatre including Kathakali, the classical theatre form of Kerala. Some of the main dances that evolved out of Kalaripayettu are : Kolkali, Parichhamuttumkali, Velakali, Oachirakali and Yatrakali.
It is interesting to note that not only Hindus, but Muslims and Christians also learn and perform Kalaripayettu as well as some of the dances mentioned above. For instance, the Kolkali dance is performed by both Hindus and Muslims. It is a vigorous dance in which dancers wield two feet long sticks and move in circular formation attacking and defending with the sticks. While dancing they sing particular songs in a lusty folk style. The songs are called Bhadarmuni Pattukal, ie. Sword fighting Songs. Generally, middle aged men, who have perfected the techniques participate in the dance. The group consists of twelve to twenty dancers. Small cymbals and smaller kind of Chenda, the drum provide the percussion music for the dance.
Parichhamuttumkali (shield-hitting dance) is another dance which is performed by both the Hindus and the Muslims. The dancers hold a stick and a shield in their hands. Most probably in earlier days dancers used sticks in the dance instead of swords. The training of this dance is much similar to that of the Kalaripayettu. The dance is similar to Kolkali, but the songs are different and are sung to the rhythm provided only by the cymbals. The performers strike stick against stick or stick against shield. The deep bends and body extension required in the performance, as also the leaps and turns, have great similarity with those of Kalaripayettu.
In the Alleppey district of southern Kerala, the Nair community traditionally perform the Velakali dance. It is generally performed at the time of temple festivals held from March to May. But the most important and impressive performance of the dance is presented at the time of the ten-day Utsavam festival held in honor of Lord Padmanabhaswami of Thiruvantapuram. Some hereditary families of the Nair community have exclusive rights to perform in front of the temple at the time of Utsavam which is held in the lunar month of Phalguna corresponding to March/April. Velakali is customarily danced under the supervision of Mathu Pamkkar. Before the dancing begins, a flourish of trumpets and kettle-drums gives the call. The dance has elements of theatre, since it depicts the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas of the epic poem Mahabharata. The dancers represent the Kauravas. The Pandavas are represented not by men but by dummy figures. The dancers dance around these dummies flourishing the sword and shield held in their hands. The symbolic fight lasts for about an hour during which the dancers dance and jump vigorously around the dummies. Since the Pandavas were the victors, the dancers at the end of the dance retreat hastily to the steps of the temple. This kind of enactment is riot done in front of smaller temples in the district of Alleppy. There, the dance does not have the grandeur of the Velakali performed in Thiruvantapuram.
Oachirakali is another dance in which mass mock combat is performed. The dance is named after the village named Oachira which has the temple of Lord Parabrahma. A five-day festival is is held every yeari around the middle of June. The festival is quite popular and thousands attend it either as spectators or as worshippers. It is believed that if worship is done here childlessness and a score of diseases will be cured. Several troupes of Oachirakali come to perform during the festival. Each troupe has a leader and the dance is performed to the leader's verbal commands called Vayttari. The commands are in the form of nonsensical syllables which the dancers repeat loudly and perform the set movements. The group mock fight is the enactment of a legendary war. According to a local legend Kayamkulam Raja, a medieaval ruler of the kingdom in which Oachira village is located, fought a battle with the then king of Tranvancore. The dance is re-enactment of that battle.
Yatrakali is performed by some of the sub-groups of Brahmins who are slightly lower in rank in the hierarchy of caste system. The dance is known through various other names like Sanghakah, Shastrakali, Chattirakali, Panankali etc. Many kinds of martial movements and exercises of Kalaripayettu are performed in this dance.
The martial dance of Tamil Nadu is called Silambattam. The dancers do mock combat with various weapons, such as sticks, clubs, sword, horns, daggers etc, one kind of weapon at a time. The mock combat is done in pairs. In fact, a kind of competition takes place between the combating pairs. The dancer who outsmarts the opponent dancer is lustily cheered by the audience. The drum music for the dance is provided by Sendai Melam, i.e. group of three to four drummers playing the drum Sendai in unison.
In Orissa two kinds of martial dances are prevalent. In the Khurdha region of Puri district Paika Nacha is performed. In Oriya, Paika means a soldier. Paika Nacha is not much stylized. The dancers perform various kinds of physical feats rhythmically to the beats of the drums. Some of the dance movements have acrobatic elements. On the other hand the Paikali dance which now survives in northern Orissa, especially in the districts of Mayrubhanj and Keonjhar, is a much stylized form of dance. It is marked for its leg extensions and stylized gaits which are very much similar to those of the widely known Chhau dances. Each of the Paikali dancers hold a sword in the right and a shield in the left hand. While dancing they also sing in a recitative style. They smear their bodies with a whitish kind of earth called Kaimati. A major segment of the dance is mock attack-and-defense called Ruk-maar-nacha which is the foundation of the Chhau dances. The orchestral music that accompanies Paikali is as rich as appealing. The orchestra consists of three kinds of drum, such as Dhol, a barrel shaped drum that dominates the music, Dhumsa, a huge kettledrum made of wood and Chadchadi, somewhat like snare drum. The melodic music is provided by Mahuri, a reeded wind instrument like Shehnai but with a sharper timber. The much evolved Chhau (see our Recreational Folk Dances) comprises the same musical instruments. Watching Paikali one will be convinced that it is the precursor of Chhau dances.
The Chholia martial dance is prevalent in the Kumaon region of Uttar Pradesh. Although it is unmistakably a martial dance, now it is performed usually as part of marriage procession, especially of the Rajputs. They dance in pairs holding sword and shield. With complicated steppings the dancers perform a mock combat of attack and defense. It requires great skill and practice to perform the dance with proficiency. The dancers are all male, but when it is performed at the time of Kriji-Kumbh festival women also participate in the dance. Because, according to a legend the kingdom named Swarnagotra, of which this region was a part, was ruled only by women and the festival is held in remembrance of that golden era. Kirji is an extremely poisonous flower that blossoms once in twelve years. As soon as the flower blossoms villagers go in a procession to destroy the flower so that its pollen or petals do not make the water sources poisonous. The Chholia dance is performed as part of this procession. Drumming is the main accompanying music embellished with the sounding of Trurhi, the U-shaped trumpet and Ransingha, a kind of horn.
The Rengma Naga tribal community of Kohima district in Nagaland perform the martial dance called Teri Chha. Actually it is a kind of training to prepare the young men of the village for a war. It is performed on important festive occasions so that the trained ones do not forget the techniques of war. The dance has three phases. In the first phase the dancers depict the war preparations. In the second phase the techniques of attack and defense are executed. The third phase depicts victory over the enemy and the dance ends with a ritual ceremony.
There are several martial dances prevalent in almost all the regions of the country. All these dances have in common the following aspects : (a) Rhythmic display of the techniques of wielding weapons in a skillful manner (b) Mock combat in pairs or a group divided into two and when one group attacks the other defends and vice versa; (c) Incorporation of acrobatic elements; (d) In the accompanying music drums dominate.
As said earlier when a game is played to the rhythm of accompanying music, which may be only vocal or only instrumental or both, it acquires the character of a dance. Such a dance is Lezim prevalent in Maharashtra. The dance is named after a wooden idiophone to which is loosely fitted thin metal pieces that produces a sonorous sound when shaken by the dancers while dancing. It is a vigorous dance performed traditionally by men only. Various kinds of physical feats are performed in the dance. Since the dance is good for body building, it is not only practiced in gymnasiums but also in many schools of Maharashtra as drill. Earlier no song accompanied the dance and a Dholaki was providing the percussion music. Nowadays, at times, Ranbalgi, a kind of frame drum, with other kinds of indigenous drums like Varandi, and Ghumke, are being used with the dance. Specially written songs are also accompanying it.
The game dance of Orissa is known as Puchi. It is also a kind of artistic drill performed by girls, especially by those who are unmarried. This dance helps shape the waistline, legs, and hips. There is no choreography for the dance. A group of girls squat on the ground and begin singing particular kind of songs. To the rhythm of the song the girls stretch out alternatively the right and the left foot while maintaining the squatting position. The girls perform Puchi with a competitive spirit to see which girl can outdo everyone in the group. No musical instrument is used with this dance. Although the girls perform Puchi any day and at any time, customarily it is performed on the full moon night of the lunar month of Ashwin. In Orissa this night is celebrated as Kumar Poornima. All the unmarried boys and girls wear new clothes and worship the rising moon. It is believed that if the moon is worshipped later than the time of rising, the marriage will be delayed. The unmarried boys and girls generally do not sleep at night and enjoy themselves by playing different kinds of traditional games. The girls on this night play Puchi, in batches, almost all throughout the night.
There are many game dances in different parts of this country. In Punjab and Kashmir the girls perform Kikli which is somewhat similar to the Phugadi and Jimma of Maharastra. In fact, there are different kinds of Phugadi dances.