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Dandiya:The Great Indian Social Dance September 29, 2006

Posted by sumesh in Ancient India, Culture, Dandiya, Folk Dance, Folk Music, India, Uncategorized.

Dandiya is a mesmerizing poetry of human movements in tune to captivating rhythmic beats, intermittent jingling sound of bells and clattering of sticks, and electrifying flow of colours and light.  For those who have entered, even once,  in the magnetic range of its enticement, it is poetry par excellence.

No wonder then, from the tiny tribal pockets of ancient India it has reached every corner of the world, not just reached the divergent ‘pandals’ of our multi-cultural world; it is virtually conquering every cultural space it is allowed to unwind minds young and those try young, loudly.  [So loudly that the supreme court of India didn’t allow any concession to this eardrum-shattering-festivities happening at  every open places in dandiya lovers’ India and has ordered curbs on it on the use of loudspeakers after 10pm.  But that the geek youth are prepared to comply with the order by using headphones or moving into soundproof halls after the deadline is a matter one and it’s half!!].

The story of dandiya is like no other in that it has been successfully traversed the bounds of all human contrivances of nationality, religion, and other sectarian interests.  The art of the matter is that the western states of India, Rajasthan and especially Gujarat, have kept this art form alive, out of dormancy even while undergoing turbulent periods of historical contingencies.  The fact of the art is that in other states where it was performed with equal enthusiasm such as Andhra Pradesh it has under gone cyclic dormancy and resurgence. The vibrant culture of Gujarat [much  to say on Gujarat and Godhra, but in another blog] has played an anchoring role in giving this art form the popularity it richly deserves and the glitz and glamour it is rightly associated with.

I heard about it for the first time in my life, some ten years ago, I think.  But I got the first hand experience on the danda/the sticks only some eight years ago while I was at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi.  At that time, though it was a crowd puller of sorts, it was not so popular as it is today.  And it was still having much of the religious and ritual flavour it has amassed in its growth, from the cultural transitions of Gujarat and Rajastan.

In those days, in Calicut, Kochin, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Seattle, London, Tokyo, Bahrain or other places where there were a sizable population of Gujarati’s lived, outside the nearby areas of Gujarat-spread, dandiya never came out of the Gujarati pandals.  Things, however, are changing, and as the case is they are changing in interesting ways.  It is not uncommon now to hear stories about dandiya celebrations in places far away from India where there are no Indian participants, not just Gujaratis or Rajastanis, in the dancing groups.  People across the globe, not necessarily Indian faces, pay hefty entry fee to paint the town red and to revel dandiya nights.

Indian English If you still haven’t got any idea of what dandiya is, here’s an entry from a dictionary of Indian English: “dandia: n. [Gujrati] a Gujrati group dance form where men and women participate in pairs.  The dancers hold decorated bamboo sticks called dandias in their hands. At the end of these “dandias”, tiny bells or ghungroos are tied, which create a jingling sound when the sticks are struck with each other.  Dandiyas, along with garbhas, are very popular during the Navratri season in October.”

Dandiya, if the current pace of its popularity continues, may move out of the confinement of this definition to reach into the dictionaries of English and other non-Indian languages.  It is the first globalised social dance of India anyway! [Bhangda is also a claimant]

As a Great Leveler Some people dance, says Eagle in California, ” to remember” and, “Some dance to forget”.  Here, however, dance is not a personal affair primarily, and it does not culminate in complacency or disengagement from socio-political issues; quite the contrary, it plays important social and political functions.  It is an invisible tool of social restructuring, for people-largely middle class- come out in the open, making their way across the customs they follow at other-times.  It uncouples people from their passive habits and situates them at the locus of social and artistic intrigue. At a public forum like dandiya fest, there are no boundaries of class, caste, or religion.  (Even when some people from some sections of the society practised and preached untouchablity and other evil social customs wherever it made economic sense, at many dance platforms untouchability and other unjust practices were treaded upon by the preachers themselves.  The claim that dances, in the historical past of India, played important roles in setting up the idea of democratic, egalitarian societies has got many evidences, from across the country, in  its support.)  In a more consistent way dandiya is now performed by people who follow religions of different feathers, who do not follow any religion at all, who are from different countries  and so on.  Dandiya and other social dances are thus not just romantic engagements of revelers, they are great levelers of social divisions.

A few great images from The Hindu Daily are here just click here for a few copyrighted images Photo IDs, 5721455, and 5791448 show circle formation.

(Visit http://www.thehinduimages.com to buy this copyrighted image. Thanks).

Dandiya and similar dances

There are many other dances in the world that are very much like dandiya. Circle dance, which is one of the oldest dance styles, is a commonly performed dance of ancient Greece, African, South American, Asian, European and North American Indian.  In this dance participants form a circle while dancing .It became very popular in the new age, feminist culture of recent times, but differs from dandiya by being a dance done without partners.

Many participation dances are like dandiya in that they comprises of very simple steps that one can learn on the spot, and that they are done at the social functions of festivals, weddings and other gatherings.

Mixers but are strikingly similar to dandiya; they comprise of simple and repetitive steps, where one meets, from the other circle, a new person on the other side and clatter his/her stick with every move. In these dandiya-type dances, this surprise element is present at every single move.

The Indian Scene Closer home to the land of its origin, dandiya has a few close relatives. Kolyacha, a fisherfolk’s dance of the Konkan region of India is a social enactment dance. Both men and women take part in this dance of the western central India.

The social folk dance of Punjab, Bhangda/bhangra is very much popular all over the world.  It is so popular that even in dandiya fests, people start the eve with dandiya, but often end up with bhangda steps.  Popular at present is one thing, popularity growth another. I, for one, won’t be surprised if dandiya becomes the most popular dance of India in a few years. Bhangda is also a harvest dance mainly performed by men.(A few similar dances are mentioned in the following section)

Social and participation dances of regional origin are completely absent in most Indian states.

The Uniqueness of Dandiya

What marks out dandiya from the rest is its use of colourful, musical sticks, its dress code, the scope it offers for improvisation, innovation and creativity, and the massive number of dancers in any single programme.  As for sticks, they are traditionally made of bamboo, now come in a variety of colours and kinds. These sticks, clattering of which should be in tune with the music played and at rhythmic intervals, are the markers of time. These sticks are called dandiya, plural of the Hindi word “dandi” meaning a stick. There are many other dances in different parts of India as elsewhere which use sticks and even long bamboos to assist and invigorate measured movements in tune with the music.  For instance, northeastern states of India use bamboos and bamboos stick for a large number of dances, in some states of south of India bamboos stick are used for dance. For instance “Kolattam”(meaning, a play with sticks) in Andhra and “Kolkali”(meaning, a play with sticks) in Kerala Muslim traditions use sticks in dances.

Another identifiable feature of dandiya is its dress code. The dress code for women and men are different.  For women it is a three-piece ghagras (or chaniya, a type of skirt that flares around the wearer as she steps back and forth), cholis (blouse), and odhni (a veil or long scarf that covers the head partially and flowing down to the wearer’s back). [Sometime back when this was a fashion among young girls, I went with my niece to buy one for her.  But even after spending more than three hours and visiting most of the shops that sell ethnic wears we couldn’t select a single one! All the pieces were heavy with mirror and multi-hued embroidery work, in bright, luminous colour.  We couldn’t find a single one that is light and in neutral colour. Later she went to a different town with her father and managed to buy one.]  For the dance however, the dress not only adds charm but it makes the dancer’s move appear flexible.  Those who have long hair make it appear the fourth piece they are wearing, while taking positions back and forth..  Men dress up in matching colourful traditional dhotis and aangrakha or kurtas. With loads of mirrors on the dress, dazzling jewelleries the dancer outshines the new tech sound-active DJ lights and plasma balls.  Oil-lanterns or candles are sufficient for this kinda dress to instill psychedelic effects of lights and colours in the dancer’s minds. Its dressed-to-kill sorta effect.

Music of dandiya comprises of special tracks-you can hear a few of them here , some links are given below-traditional and fusion. A general pattern is that it starts at a slow beats, gathers momentum and culminates in the fast tracks of around 150 beats. Along with the music of the sticks, the musical tracks inject tremendous verve, sauce and pizzazz into the dancer’s movements.

Further, dandiya offers much room for improvisation and experimentation everywhere, in its rendition of songs, dance steps and so on. It’s a highly customizable product with movable widgets and edit buttons all over, to suit the needs of the user. In one of its simple form dancers move in two circles in three steps, one group moves on clockwise direction while the other takes the anti-clockwise path and clank the stick themselves and with that of their changing partners.  There are infinite number of steps one can follow in dandiya, like, Lehree (wave pattern), Trikoniya (triangular pattern), lotus, and butterfly patterns .One can try any step so long as it make some pattern and follows the rhythm of the song.  For the skillful it is like an open source software.

Another feature is that it is a participation, social dance.  Generally there are no professional performers in this art, no special artists. It is performed not for someone else and not on stages.  It is a performance that asks nothing in return.  Following the experienced or skillful anyone can join the group, and there is only dance, to take a Buddha-saying, there are no dancers!

Finally, if you look around, there is smile on every face, which is great treat to watch while smiling yourself!  Smile (Cheshire cat!) is an integral part of dandiya.

And once you are under the halo of these dances and if your steps are more or less right (otherwise your folded fingers will get beaten by the fellow dancer’s stick, and that’s fine! the occasional pain on your fingers adds to the euphoria, I’m told! It takes more time for the fingers to become swollen and for you to worry about. So don’t mull over the pain, go on when it rains and you are on cloud nine.), even before and without you noticing it you enter into the enthralling zone of ecstasy and a rhapsody of continuing elation.  It’s a general thing for dandiya dancers to have the euphoria-must-go-on-spirit even after three or four hours of non-stop fast dancing.

A few examples of dandiya raas songs are here just click for dandiya songs

The history of dandiya

Like many other dances of opulent ancient Indian culture, dandiya does not have any record of its origin or of its roots. Though there are a number of archaeological finds of the cultural activities of ancient India such as musical instruments, paintings, ornaments and so on, hardly there is an evidence of this specific sort of dance.  So it is not clear when dandiya became a part of the western folk dances of India.

However, some dance forms were depicted on the rock-shelters of Bhimbetka (near Bhopal) that dates back to ~3000 BCE in India.  And from this and other finds one can say that dance has been an important part of the cultural expressions of ancient Indians.

Around 1000 BCE many texts on different aspects of cultural life of ancient Indians, on personal and public life, duties, economics, philosophy, language and grammar, politics, poetics and dramatics, etc., were composed or codified.  And we get some information on the dance forms of the day from Bharata Muni’s opus “Natyashastra” which literally means ‘the art and science of dance’.  This text of dramatics classifies dance into four groups and tells about the cultural interactions of dance forms of different regions.  The classifications of ancient Indian dances, as per Natyashastra, are secular, ritual, abstract and interpretive.

Dandiya was secular in its origin and has intimate relation with the common man’s life of the day. The lore has it that dandiya was originally performed only by men with long sticks in their hands and was designed to serve as learning modules of and as practice exercise for, footwork for sword fighting.  This dance with fast movements was a dance of martial arts variety.  Further, it was accompanied by a percussion instrument ’meddale’ drummer who stands at the center of the circle and leads the dance with the rhythmic beats.  The public performance of dandiya, as it was the case with tribal/folk dances, corresponds to the agricultural cycle of the region.

[This high-energy dance form is still extant in some parts of Saurashtra, western Gujarat and Rajasthan.  In this particular form men clank their sticks around their body, above head and chests, in a variety of positions, standing, sitting, or lying, occasionally holding the sticks with their feet.  It abounds in grace, agility and vigour and as the artists move back and forth in their circles weaving varied designs and shapes offers kaleidoscopic patterns of artistic splendour.]

However, cultural transitions and regional interactions of successive periods made possible for women to join the dance. Then on both men and women dance together standing in two concentric circles moving in opposite directions and striking the short, decorated sticks, to which tiny metallic bells/ghungroos are tied, in pairs.  On the go, it became associated with new styles and stories, and merged different dance forms.  To mention, it merged with Raas-Garbha/Garbhi dances and turned out to be the well-known, and popular part of Hindu religious festivals of Basant Panchami, Navaratri and Sharad Purnima.   The musicians and drummers now stand outside the circle as the dance became ritualistic and religious and the idol of Goddess/deity (or ‘mandvi’ or a decorated earthen pot with holes in it and with a lamp/diya inside) took the place at the center of the circle.  And it is said that the sticks represent the sword of Durga, a goddess of power.

However, some tribal and folks of Rajastan and Gujarat still follow their distinctive style of performing dandiya. Many significant changes happened to dandiya in recent years, it has shed the narrow religio-ritualistic flavour and has acquired a cosmopolitan zing; it is now performed not just by religious/ritualistic people, but by everyone who wants to shake a leg; it is now not just a dance of seasonal celebration but a celebration that makes every season dance on its feet; it is not tied to a particular god or goddess, it is tied to the spirit of the youth that unties the ties of conservatism;

Many a time one finds that in place of old songs and music people are enjoying rock/pop songs as background beat.  In place of percussion instrument and shehnai player and singers, new age disco bands are rendering the song.

Not everyone is happy with these changes.   Some traditionalists and budding traditionalists make hue and cry of the new generations deviation from the path of the old.  They criticize vehemently, the rampant crass commercialization of the tradition. But they don’t remember that what they think was their tradition was not the tradition of their immediate predecessors.  They themselves have modified ‘the chaste traditions’ of their predecessors.  And they were scorned of by their elders exactly like they scorn the new generation. [Young Plato and his friends were scolded for not keeping the tradition of their society by their elders.  That was around 300 BCE] they like to believe that things are certain, unchanging, and codified.  What do you call this?  Getting old?

It is the level of sophistication that you reach, which empowers you to accept, whole heartedly, changes and looking for new variations and varieties.  It is the sophistication of the culture and the minds that let you do things in different ways, rather than sticking to the one single so called ‘traditional’ method of doing things. As we grow, technically, culturally or otherwise we realise there are multiple truths and multiple rights.  So if someone still instructs everyone to follow the ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’ dandiya, sense your level of understanding and follow the steps of your own.  And if you dance,…..dance just like YOU do.

Some new moves from Yahoo answers is here just click here for some new moves &
here for some basic moves

The Philosophy of dandiya

After all these notes on dandiya, I end this blog with this title with the hope that you will think/write about it someday.  Next time, if you get an opportunity to take part in dandiya and if you have time, pick up the sticks; and sport it on your face, a smile!  Sometime you may enjoy the experience and realise that there’s more to daniya than this blog tells you.  Sometime you may wonder that how many things are there in the world you have nothing to do with, as Socrates wondered once when he went to a market place (He said, “how many things are there in the world that I do not need!”)

(Watch the video in HD for better quality. Thanks.)


So dandiya offers you this legendary opportunity. —”Wanna Play? …You’ll be happy or you’ll become a Socrates!”




Audio : nav-ratri.tripod.com/ (for songs)

Image : http://www.thehinduimages.com (the images added above for informational purpose are copyrighted. if you like any of them, buy it from them.) http://www.thehinduimages.com

Information: Internet and the links mentioned in the text above.

Video : www.invismultimedia.com, www.indiavideo.org (thanks to youtube. rediff.com),