Dancing to a Forgotten Tune at the Khajuraho Dance Festival

Amidst the sculpted temples of Khajuraho, memories of a forgotten art resurface.  
A variety of classical dance forms like Odissi, kathak, Kuchipudi (in picture), Bharatanatyam, mohiniattam, as well as the folk form of Sarikela
chhau were represented at the Khajuraho Dance Festival earlier this year. Photo: Hritu Pawar
A variety of classical dance forms like Odissi, kathak, Kuchipudi (in picture), Bharatanatyam, mohiniattam, as well as the folk form of Sarikela chhau were represented at the Khajuraho Dance Festival earlier this year. Photo: Hritu Pawar

As the Manipuri dancers spun on stage, the music of their ghungroos made me a little wistful. My own ghungroos have not seen the light of day for about six years. Stored away in a large wooden trunk with my dance costume and jewellery, they represent a now neglected part of my life.

I was among a crowd of hundreds, at the week-long Khajuraho Dance Festival, which takes place annually in February in this little town in Madhya Pradesh. We watched the troupe from the Shadhona dance academy in Dhaka on an open-air stage, designed to look like a sprawling temple courtyard. The classical dance ballad they performed was set to the music of Manipuri instruments and the familiar words of a Bengali kirtan. Gentle but nimble, the dancers moved in sync with the drumbeats of the barrel-shaped pakhawaj—nothing short of art in motion.

The 11th-century Chitragupta temple, dedicated to the sun god, provided a brilliant backdrop, much as it might have hundreds of years ago. The courtyard-like stage with pillars, doorways, and steps carved with motifs, became an added element in the dance piece, with soft light illuminating the intricate work. The dancers could indeed be devdasis, and all of us the enthralled townsfolk.

Khajuraho’s golden sandstone temples, built by the Chandela kings between the 9th and 12th centuries, are its crowning glory, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the city’s 20-odd temples, the western complex has the most remarkable set, enclosed in a gated, sprawling garden with bougainvillea bushes all around. The stones and sculptures of these medieval temples are held together in an interlocking system, without any mortar or adhesive. They are dedicated mainly to Vishnu and Shiva, and every last inch of their walls is filled with intricate carvings. God, man, woman, beast, and nature are all depicted in different aspects. Soldiers prepare for war, teachers take classes under the shade of a tree, birds and beasts roam the forest, gods and goddesses are seen in august poses, men and women embrace, a king and queen make love.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the western complex of temples is the largest and most well preserved at Khajuraho. It is surrounded by gardens lined with colourful flowers. Photo: Body Phillippe/Hemis.Fri/Getty Images

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the western complex of temples is the largest and most well preserved at Khajuraho. It is surrounded by gardens lined with colourful flowers. Photo: Body Phillippe/Hemis.Fri/Getty Images

Of all of Khajuraho’s temple carvings, the most famous are of course the erotic sculptures. I was rather surprised to find that these actually form only a small fraction of the artwork there. My guide told me that the philosophy behind the carvings was to depict the engagements of everyday life, then gradually progress toward spiritual enlightenment as one enters the inner chambers of the temples. Indeed, as I walked deeper in, the figures change from human to divine. Outside, from love and family, to war, death, and learning, every carved panel tells the story of ordinary life. Once you step inside the temple, there is not a single erotic sculpture or depiction of war.

I found myself drawing a parallel between the temple’s sculptures and a lesson from my training in classical dance, when my teacher explained the form of a complete Odissi dance recital. It begins with a prayer or mangalacharan, goes on to a piece of pure dance or pallavi where the performer showcases all of their knowledge of the dance form—its rhythms, music and style. Then comes abhinaya, a piece of storytelling or dance drama, where a dancer explores feelings—of love, anger, grief, and jubilation—truly celebrating the spectrum of human emotions. Finally, the recital ends with moksh, or a hymn to the gods, a dance piece that is set in the style of the genre, but is free-flowing in rhythm and explores the concept of transcendence, being united with god, and the cycle of life.

One evening, I watched a young Kuchipudi dancer from Bengaluru perform both an abhinaya and a piece of pure dance, much like a pallavi. As with the jugalbandi between an Odissi dancer and a young Kathak exponent I had watched the previous evening, this performance made it look like the carved walls of the temple had been set in motion. In fact, I clearly recognised one of the dancer’s poses from a sandstone figurine souvenir I’d bought at the market that morning.

The market outside the western complex of temples has numerous shops that sell replicas of the temple figurines, made of the same stone from Panna that was used when the temples were first carved by artisans. The shops also sell a variety of other curios that feature temple sculptures—bronze and metal bottle openers, door handles, miniatures, plastic key rings—and for all of them, the erotic poses are the most popular. Erotic art has definitely found a niche in this historical town.

I saw many travellers like me bustling in and out of the shops—both performers and spectators, who had journeyed here from around the country, some from other parts of the world. The cold evening air did not reduce the fervour of this festival. By evening, a walk in the town and around this temple complex opened up a world of history, and stories from an era that was free of many of the social constraints to artistic expression that we face today. Obviously it wasn’t always taboo in this part of the world to talk about, and freely discuss or display erotica. Maybe that is why expressions of physical love and subtle eroticism have a place in classical dance as well, especially in the tales of Radha and Krishna.

Their tale came to life on the festival stage when well-known husband-wife dancer couple Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon performed a Bharatanatyam ballad accompanied by the music of a Marathi folk song. Radha and Krishna are engaged in a lover’s tiff. Radha is upset at Krishna for flirting with the gopis and he tries his best to pacify his beloved. I watched enchanted by Krishna’s poses and Radha’s graceful steps, as she wandered through the forest looking for him—at one point stopping to remove a thorn piercing her foot.

Like the longing, passion, playfulness, and devotion present in Radha-Krishna’s story, the many shades of romantic love also have a steady presence in the art of Khajuraho’s temples. The physical beauty of the male and female forms finds its place in the sculpted scenes on the walls of the temples just as it does in ballads performed at the dance festival: A woman drying her hair as her wet clothes hug the curves of her body, a lover adorning his female companion’s breasts with chandan (sandalwood paste), a man’s commandeering stance as he walks, or the care with which he dresses his lover with flowers and jewellery.

While numerous sculptures fill the temples, the scenes depicted and the characters portrayed change as one moves from the outer to the inner areas. Believed to depict the karmic cycle of life, the scenes shift from everyday ones like marriage processions (bottom right), erotica, war, and kings and holy men flanked by their subjects (left) on the outside, to gods and goddesses (top right) on the inside. This depicts the journey from the mundane to the spiritual. Photos: Atid Kiasttsaksiri/Contributor/Getty Images (door); Robert Preston Photography/Alamy/Indiapicture (trio); Alvaro Leiva/Age Fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (procession)

While numerous sculptures fill the temples, the scenes depicted and the characters portrayed change as one moves from the outer to the inner areas. Believed to depict the karmic cycle of life, the scenes shift from everyday ones like marriage processions (bottom right), erotica, war, and kings and holy men flanked by their subjects (left) on the outside, to gods and goddesses (top right) on the inside. This depicts the journey from the mundane to the spiritual. Photos: Atid Kiasttsaksiri/Contributor/Getty Images (door); Robert Preston Photography/Alamy/Indiapicture (trio); Alvaro Leiva/Age Fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (procession)

Apart from the western complex, I visited the southern complex, which has only a handful of temples scattered within a one-kilometre radius. On the other side of town, the eastern group of temples begins with a very rare Brahma temple. It further leads to a small cluster of Jain temples, with renditions of Hindu gods and goddesses alongside Jain deities and erotic human figurines, giving rise to an amalgamation of the two faiths. The outer walls of the Jain temples have Hindu statues, while the shrines are dedicated to Jain deities. Unlike at the western complex, these sculptures run higher up the walls of the temple. Standing in the shade, I looked up towards the spire and from my vantage point the sculptures cascading down the wall seemed like flower-laden vines tumbling down. Towards the base of the shikhara I saw statues of Saraswati seated on the ground like an Indian classical musician, few statues of Jain tirthankars, and of Yamraj, the Hindu god of death depicted with fangs and seated on a buffalo. The most intriguing was surely a figurine of Narsimha, the half-human, half-lion avatar of Vishnu—displayed most unusually in female form here. This was an image I had never encountered before in any mythological account, and I mentally applauded the free rein given to an artist’s imagination back when the sculpture was created between the tenth and twelfth centuries.

I also spent time at the vast, buzzing fairgrounds adjoining the main stage, exploring stalls with traditional handicrafts from Madhya Pradesh and beyond, and mini workshops where these artefacts were produced. I could see that all the accessories that accompany a dance performance are closely connected to a sense of culture and place. From saris worn by the graceful women to the instruments played on stage, all are made by local artisans and each has a long-standing tradition and history attached to it.

A wooden toymaker from Andhra Pradesh sat with his sculpting wheel; terracotta and brass workers baked moulds in the clay-oven behind him; on another side, sari weavers sat in a row with their handlooms. I sat by a Chanderi weaver, excited to try my hand at weaving a sari using a pit loom. It didn’t seem easy, but I was sure that with some motor coordination, I could do a fairly decent job. I was decidedly mistaken. Weaving involves a complicated set of coordinated leg, eye, and hand movements that help stretch the threads taut and pull on the string attached to the loom. As it moves from side to side, it weaves a straight line of the sari. I gave up after three tries.

The fairground was also a treasure-trove of cultural heritage. Young men sold drums that their fathers had taught them to make, a legacy passed down the generations. Musical instruments made of brass, silver jewellery, a variety of handlooms, folk paintings, women drawing traditional Gond tattoos, were some of the features that caught my eye. Each year one Indian state exhibits its culture in a dedicated area of the fairgrounds. This year it was Manipur that was highlighted at an exhibition tent, with clothes, jewellery, musical instruments and cultural artefacts displayed. Every evening, young dancers from Manipur graced the small ground-level stage in front of the tent, with enthusiastic folk dance performances. Visitors streamed out of the adjoining “Art-Mart” tent, an art exhibition of the works of more than 25 international artists, to watch the dancers in action.

While wandering the fairgrounds, I recalled how on an earlier trip to Odisha’s Konark temple, I had marvelled at the dancing figures on the temples, just as I was doing now in Khajuraho. Then, the carved poses and instruments all seemed like a visual record of the Odissi dance pieces that had been a part of my everyday routine.

Chitragupta Temple Khajuraho Madhya Pradesh

The illuminated facade of the 11th-century Chitragupta Temple enhances the experience of watching a graceful Indian classical dance performance. Photo: Pep Rolg/Alamy/Indiapicture

Just as dance may have inspired the temple carvings, these patterns in stone also reinforce certain ideas about life, and its various aspects. My guide pointed out that gods and kings are depicted standing a few inches taller than others, separating humans from deities, and commoners from the bejewelled royals. The contrast between social backgrounds was clear in a panel he pointed at, featuring a king and his non-royal beloved. This made sense. In dance performances too I’d learnt to stand taller or add an extra piece or two of jewellery when depicting royalty, while an attendant or maid was often adorned with flowers.

Another evening, watching Kuchipudi dancers expressing the beauty of the birds and beasts of the natural world made me realise that the ancient temples also demonstrate how to honour and respect wildlife. The message of man’s bond with animals is clear, with parrots, horses, deer, and other creatures becoming symbols of various human emotions, from love to greed. The elephant in particular holds a special place, having helped carry the stone from Panna to construct the temples. As homage to these giants, every temple has images of elephants carved into the bases, entrances, doors, or walls.

Different worlds came together by way of art at the Khajuraho Dance Festival. Architecture, dance, music, handicraft, social awareness all seemed to be linked by a thread that connects to the history of the place. While many visitors to the festival may not have had a deep connection to any classical form of dance, they found a point of entry through the folk arts on display, the rich history behind the temples, or simply the atmosphere of the celebration. From a Hindi-speaking Japanese man who I spotted sketching the temples, to the French couple that attended every dance performance, and the elderly British couple that wanted to go back to the temples for a second visit, all were there for an experience of cultural history very different from their own.

Dancers Khajuraho Madhya Pradesh

The dancers on stage at the Khajuraho Dance Festival are like live versions of the carved figurines that adorn the pillars, walls, and inner sanctums of the town’s temples. Photo: Hritu Pawar

For me, the festival experience was marked by nostalgia for my own past. Sitting at the open ground, shawl wrapped around me, I realised how much I had drifted away from the world that was once a significant part of my life. I remember the numerous occasions when, after an exhausting dance class, I would come home and tell my mother over a cup of chai that I wanted to perform at the Khajuraho Festival one day. The dance lessons got left behind somewhere between travelling long distances to college and a master’s degree outside the country, but a few years later, here I was at the Khajuraho Dance Festival. Though I was in the audience and not on stage, the magic was no less.

Every sculpture—every sinuous curve, lofty posture, piece of intricate jewellery, and serene expression I’d seen etched in stone had come to life in this week. The golden sandstone temple gleamed behind the stage, and seemed to stand proud, looking over the tradition and musical heritage that originated within it. Even the fairgrounds and all the crafts on display seemed to be watched over by the grand testament of art. I was transported back to when this rhythmic world was a large part of my life. This joyful endeavour was lost to me, but hopefully not forever. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to pursue lost threads.

Appeared in the September 2016 as “Dancing to a Forgotten Tune”.

The Guide

Orientation
Khajuraho is a small town in northeastern Madhya Pradesh. It lies about 380 km/7 hr northeast of the state capital Bhopal, and about 180 km/4 hr east of Jhansi by road.

Getting There
Khajuraho is well connected to Jhansi, Bhopal, and Jabalpur by road. Non-stop flights to Khajuraho operate from Delhi and Varanasi, so getting there from any other city requires a layover there. The airport is about four kilometres south of the main town. It is easy to reach Khajuraho by train as well. Khajuraho railway station, about eight kilometres south of the town, is well connected to most major railway junctions of north India. For those travelling from Mumbai and other parts of India, Satna (120 km/3 hr) is the nearest railway station. There are taxis and auto-rickshaws available at Satna station to take you to Khajuraho.

Getting Around
The best way to travel around this small, historic town is by cycle-rickshaw, autorickshaw, or private taxi. Visitors can also rent bicycles.

Khajuraho Temples
The western complex of temples, which is the largest of the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, is in the middle of the busy town centre (entry ₹10; guide from ₹750 for 1-4 hr). The smaller eastern complex is about a 20-minute drive away from the town but accessible by road. It includes a rare Brahma temple. The southern complex has a mix of big and small temples scattered within a one-kilometre area. It is about 30 minutes from the town. Importantly, make sure to engage only government-appointed guides, who are usually present at the complex gates.

The Festival
The Khajuraho Dance Festival is held in February every year, usually between the 20th and 27th of the month. In 2017, the festival runs from Mon February 20-Sun February 26. Entry to the festival, fairgrounds, and all dance performances is free. Apart from evening dance performances, there is a vast fairground that hosts the other parts of the festival. Nepathya is an exhibition space and outdoor stage showcasing Indian cultural arts and crafts—one state is represented here every year. Stalls display traditional handicrafts from the region and there is an evening folk dance performance. Art-Mart is a fine art exhibition space hosting national and international artists. Hunar is a large area with stalls selling folk arts and crafts, mostly from Madhya Pradesh. There are short workshops in the morning as well as demonstrations by craftsmen. Kala Varta and Chalchitra are spaces to hold discussions and watch documentaries about Indian folk and classical arts.

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    Rumela Basu is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves poetry and food, and travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself. One day she'd love to have a swanky kitchen, a large library and enough time to travel and drink lots of tea.

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