AND NOW WE ARRIVE AT THE FINAL LEG of this essay: how dance, drama, and music were used, perhaps as the most effective modes for transmitting essential education throughout the sacred geography of Bharatavarsha. As with other areas, even this topic alone has enough sinews to sculpt a fine, independent work.
If the Puranas have been likened to Suhrutsammita, these arts have been likened to Kāntāsammita, i.e., imparting sacred knowledge in the endearing manner of persuading and winning over the beloved. This tradition dates all the way back to Bharatamuni himself who clearly elucidates the educative, didactic and religious usefulness of drama (as comprising music, acting, poetry and dance). Every aesthetician who followed Bharatamuni have adhered to his immortal dictum that drama and poetry taught the same lessons that the Vedas and the Puranas teach. There’s a sublime reason why Rasānanda is known as the sibling of Brahmānanda.
In no particular order, we can mention a special class of mendicants and monks known as Mankhas who toured various Deshas putting up exhibitions of religious pictures including but not limited to vast canvases showing various episodes from the Itihasas and Puranas. They also carried painted scrolls displaying the glories of various Avataras and artwork of our Devis and Devatas.
Every temple had its own drama troupe performing all-night plays during festivals and other sacred occasions. The story of how Raja Raja Chola gave substantial endowments to the drama troupe (comprising actors, singers, instrumentalists, percussionists, danseuses, etc) dedicated to the Brihadeeshwara Temple has been narrated elsewhere. This endowment was known as the Nrityabhoga.
In general, this fount of divinity innate in all these performing arts birthed countless rivers, watering our cultural and social landscape. The Yakshagana and Kuchipudi Bhagavatamu can be cited as two euphonious examples. In its origins, Kuchipudi was an Agrahara in the Krishna District of Andhra. The burst of devotion among its pious dwellers birthed an exquisite and enduring branch of Bharatiya Natya. Its influence was so magnetic that the Tamil country took inspiration and germinated the renowned Bhagavata-mela-nataka that flourished in Thanjavur. Its offshoots and variants became famous in Merattur, Uttukkadu, Nallur, Sulamangalam, etc. Its dramatic expressions gave us popular plays like Prahladavijaya, Ushaparinaya, Rukmangada, and Markandeyacharita.
The realm of music and devotional lyric (both inseparable actually) was equally fecund, with the Kannada country as its unquestioned monarch. Hundreds of thousands of Devaranamas composed by (Vishnu) Dasas, Shaiva Vachanas, Padas, and Kirtanas have remained immortal. In fact, the school (roughly speaking) known as the Dāsa-kūṭa, founded by Achalananda Dasa dates all the way back to the ninth century Rashtrakuta era. Its later successors include the venerated Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa, Vijayadasa, Jagannathadasa, Sripadaraja, and Vyasaraja.
The concatenate atmosphere in the Telugu country was populated by the superb ascent of the Sankirtana tradition popularised by Tallapaka Annamacharya, his lineage and that of his disciples. He was followed by Bhadrachala Ramadasu, one of the greatest Rama devotees who composed and sang his Kritis from jail. The last summit of this tradition is undoubtedly Tyagaraja Swami. By his time, the entire Telugu country was exploding with Bhajana-Mathas, a later innovation of an existing tradition dating back to the Bhakti Movement. Dr. Raghavan gives us its contours and impact:
Harikatha was yet another extraordinary mode of spreading sacred education, especially in South India. It is one of the most singular, original and unique gifts given by Hindu Dharma to the world of art. Its origins are in a Sanskrit art form known as Akhyana mentioned by Bhojaraja. Harikatha is also known as Kathākālakṣēpa. Because the details of a Harikatha performance are quite well-known, further elaboration is unnecessary. However, its impact in shaping the spiritual, moral and ethical life of the Hindu society in South India over the centuries has been truly extraordinary. In fact, until the “company dramas” burst upon the scene, Harikatha was the most popular and the most effective vehicle for spreading sacred education in the nooks and corners of Dakshinadesha. Like so many such exalted art forms, Harikatha too, today stands on the verge of extinction.
EVIDENTLY, WE HAVE ONLY scratched the surface of an ennobling topic throughout this essay series. But something is certainly better than nothing.
Two awesome features of all these traditional modes of imparting essential education to the Hindus must be mentioned.
The first is the fact that tradition was also popular across space and time because the Hindus of those eras regarded tradition as a value. Tradition was the root. They were merely occupying a temporal branch which was naturally destined to break and fall down and merge with the cosmos. Tradition was the flowing river, its followers were streams of bubbles. The disfiguring of the colonised Hindu mind is responsible for regarding tradition and popularity as opposites, which is why the intrinsic and lasting value of such an education in essential knowledge has escaped us today.
The second feature is the fact that this education—in form, content, method and expression—was costless, free, accessible, flexible, malleable, creative, decentralised, institution-independent and above all, duty-bound.
We have sadly preserved only the wrinkled skin of the once-rugged body of this national phenomenon of essential education that gave us the spiritual strength and cultural resilience to withstand and triumph over sustained civilisational assaults of fatal proportions.
On the other side, our strides in professional education as impressive as they are, deserve scrutiny on a fundamental plane: the loss we have endured in the process.
I would be failing in my duty if I don’t acknowledge my debt of gratitude to a galaxy of brilliant scholars and writers whose material formed the raw material for this essay series. Foremost among them stands Dr. V. Raghavan followed in no particular order by Radhakumud Mukherjee, M. Hiriyanna, Ananda Coomaraswamy, A.K. Haldar, Rabindranath Tagore, Stella Kramrisch, and Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh.
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