Dance Traditions in Madhya Pradesh
¤ Dances of Madhya Pradesh
Tribal Dance Forms
Madhya Pradesh has been, and still is, to a large extent dominated by
its tribal population. So it is not surprising that the ethnic dance
and music of Madhya Pradesh is also tribal in nature.
Gond Tribes --Marriage Dance
The colourful Maria Gonds of Bastar celebrate almost every
significant event in their lives by dancing. One of their most famous
dance tradition is the spectacular marriage dance, the Gaur do catch a
performance if you can.
The head dress that the Maria Gonds wear for the dance is made of
bison horn, raw silk and feathers and is handed down from father to
son. Like the American Indians, the Maria Gonds attach great
importance to their head dress; a Maria may give a bullock in exchange
for a good pair of horns. The traditional marriage ceremony of the
Marias is simple - theres just the dance and the feast after it
Murias Tribes Drum Dance
Their neighbours, the Murias, are known for their tradition drum
dances called Mandri. It is mainly the dance of boys, who play the
drum along with dancing. Sometimes girls also join them, though they
appear grouped separately.
The dance movements and steps of the boys are often complicated,
involving kneeling, jumping, gyrating and the like, but at no time is
there a let-up in the playing of the drum.
All over India the harvest means celebration and dancing. So it is
for the tribals here. Women in the Bundelkhand region dance the
Jawara, in which they carry the newly harvested grains of the jowar
(sorghum) crop on their heads in baskets. They skilfully keep their
baskets balanced on their heads without using their hands even though
the dance is often quite fast-paced.
The Folk Theatre
The Maach of Madhya Pradesh is a folk theatre form presented largely
through traditional song and dances. Men portray all the characters
and the themes are generally historical or borrowed from folk legends
about kings and warriors. There is not much of acting, as the theme
unfolds mainly through song and dance. The singing is generally done
by the dancers themselves, but there are supporting musicians too. The
climax of the performance often shows the principal characters dancing
in a cloud of coloured powder.
The dances are to some extent influenced by the folk dances of the
neighbouring state of Rajasthan. The womens dances are full of swirls,
with one hand holding the ghunghat (veil worn over the face) and the
other poised on the waist
Other interesting dances of the tribals of Madhya Pradesh are the
Phag (a sword dance) and Lota (a dance performed by women who balance
full pitchers of water on their heads).
¤ Music of Madhya Pradesh
The Magnificent Tribal Music
Madhya Pradesh probably has the longest musical lineage among the
Indian states, both classical and folk. With songs to mark every
occasion these people truly seem to sing their way through life.
The tribals in fact can make music from anything you hand them:
leaves of trees, seeds of fruits, animal horns, sticks, pots, pans and
so on. The tribals of Bastar for instance swish around the dried pod
of a tree, the rattling seeds of which produce the most enchanting
Surprisingly, none of them are trained musicians. They are farmers,
blacksmiths or shepherds by day, but when the sun disappears into the
horizon, they transform into ace drummers, flautists and singers.
Preserved among these ancient communities are some of the earliest and
most primitive instruments devised by man.
The flutes and trumpets used by the tribals of Madhya Pradesh are of
the simplest kind, played as part of religious ceremonies or for the
sheer pleasure of it.
The singha could well be the first aerophonic instrument invented by
man. It is simply the horn of a dead animal, the tip of which has been
The ansingha is an S-shaped trumpet of brass, copper or even silver
used as an accompaniment to music performances.
Pungi or been is synonymous all over India with the community of
Jogis or snake charmers. It has two parallel bamboo pipes fitted into
a gourd, one of which gives the drone while the other has the finger
holes. Even Margot Fontaine cant beat the grace of a cobra dancing to
a Jogis pungi.
But you must be cracked silly if you think the snake is swaying to
the music of the snake charmer. Snakes are stone deaf and cant hear a
thing. The dance is actually defensive postures adopted by the snake
fearing an attack from us humans.
The Marias use a richly ornamented brass trumpet called the binnoor.
A horn-shaped variation of this is played in religious processions and
Mohuri is a cylindrical bamboo flute with seven holes that produces
shrill, piercing notes. Almost all the communities in the region play
The modern flute is called bansuri. Usually with six finger holes, it
is an integral part of every music and dance performance.
An older cousin of the modern flute, the bansari is a cylindrical
bamboo tube with four finger holes used by the folk singers.
Almost every self-respecting north Indian can claim to play the
dholki (a kind of drum). During marriages, the women of the house
gather together and sing songs to the lively beats of the dholki. But
you can find innumerable variations of the drum.
The khanjari is a small hand drum used by the folk musicians of
Madhya Pradesh. Using the thumb, fingers, knuckle and palm the
drummers produce the most amazing number of sounds.
Madal belongs to the cows tail shape of drums (called gaupucha
vadya). The conical clay shell is stretched over with monkey skin and
is struck with bare hands. Used by the tribals, it gives a lively
rhythm and linear beauty to their dances.
But nothing can drown the thunderous roar of the dhol, a mighty
single-face drum beaten with two sticks. Smaller versions of the dhol
are slung around the neck with leather thongs by dancers and theatre
The dholak is a cylindrical wooden drum stretched with animal skin
and beaten with sticks. It is especially common among the Pradhans and
The small bowl-like timki is also slung around the neck and played
with long thin sticks. The timki is usually played in company with the
dhol or any other main drum.
Pakhawaj, an asymmetrical horizontal drum played with both hands, is
an integral part of Hindustani or north Indian classical music. Its
deep, resonating sound is said to possesses a sobriety and dignity
that no other drum can match.
The pakhawaj is these days being replaced by the more common tabla, a
two-piece drum. The right one (called dayan) resembles a wide-mouthed
vessel and is taller than the left one (bayan) which looks like a
Clappers of various kinds struck to maintain the rhythm of the songs
are extremely popular all over India. The tribals of Madhya Pradesh
have devised ingenious ways of clapping two pieces of wood to produce
the most complex beats.
The most primitive of the wooden clappers is the tapri, a hollow disc
with two wooden clappers used by the tribals. The tapri was actually
hung around the necks of cattle to help the herders locate runaway
The Saila dancers and Korku tribals have mastered the art of jangling
the chatkula, an oval clapper of wood or bell metal. Tiny bells
attached to the two ends add a tinkling melody to the clang of the
Khirki is a bamboo rattle that the Gonds in the tribal district of
Mandala play dexterously.
The triangular, crossbar thiski is another popular rhythm keeper. It
has four round pieces of wood that move along a wire frame and clash
against wooden discs or plates.
Simple Stick Music
simple sticks are put to musical use by folk dancers. The Saila
dancers use a pair of sticks of equal length called danda which they
either strike against one another or with those of their partner.
Gedi is a pair of bamboo stilts with footrests that the Gedi Nritya
performers use. The dancers strike the stilts on the ground while
moving in a circle, producing simple rhythmic beats.
The shrill jangle of the manjira, a pair of circular metal cups held
by loops, leads the singing of devotional songs.
The tribal women wear large, hollow anklets with metal pellets called
paijani which produce delicate sounds when they walk. The grace of a
young woman is believed to echo in the music of her anklets. The young
men of the countryside pride themselves in being able to judge the
beauty of a maiden by the very sound of her paijani.
Stringed Instruments: The sculptures at Bharhut and Khajuraho portray
musicians playing a variety of stringed instruments. Though most of
these have not made the journey of a thousand years, variations of
these can still be seen among the folk artists of the state.
No performance is ever complete without the twang of the chikara, a
seven-stringed instrument played with a curved wooden bow attached
with little bells. The Pradhans are especially adept at playing the
The mendicant singers all over India use the single-stringed ektara.
The string is plucked with the forefinger, a hollowed pumpkin or gourd
acting as the resonator.
The tanpoora is essentially a classical instrument, providing the
drone to the singer.
The veena has always been a deeply venerated instrument in India. It
is played by Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and the
consort of Lord Brahma. (Check Religion
under India head for details.) The dhrupad singers of yore found the
deep, sonorous quality of the veena particularly suitable for their
style of singing. These days the veena is played solo as well as an
accompaniment to vocal music and dance.
Unlike folk music, which grew wild and unrestrained in the sal
forests of this region, the classical music of Madhya Pradesh was
tamed and nurtured in the comfort of royal courts. The Tomara rulers
of Gwalior, along with valour and bravado, had in them a deep passion
for music. Raja Man Singh in fact played host to several music
conferences, debates and duels between doyens of the era like Baiju
Bawra, Baksu, Mehmud and Lohang.
Believed to have been a great singer himself, Man Singh is also
touted to have created ragas or melodies like Gujari Todi, Gujari
Malhar and Mangal Gujari, all named, predictably, after his beloved
Gujari queen Mrignayani.
Great Composers of Hindustani and Indian Classical Music
Gwalior is in fact the birthplace of the two grand old men of
Hindustani or north Indian classical music: Baiju Bawra and Tansen.
Baiju was born in 1443 in Khanderi near Gwalior.
A prodigy, he joined Raja Vikramadityas court as a young lad. But
luck soon ran out on him. The king died and Baiju had to move to
Kalinjar and later to Gujarat to live on King Bahadur Shahs (the ruler
of Gujarat and not to be confused with the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur
Shah Zafar) benevolence. Here he was taken prisoner, along with
others, by the Mughal King Humayun. Baiju, it is said, won his freedom
by singing in the Mughals mother tongue, Persian. In between these
upheavals, however, Baiju managed to create two new genres of music.
The first of these is the dhamar, a song sung in a 14 beat tal or time
cycle (5+5+4 units). The other is the hori, simple lyrics sung in
varying rhythms but set to tal dhamar.
Unlike his shy predecessor, Tansens life is a string of legends. Born
in early 16th century AD in Behat near Gwalior, Tansen was
christened Tanna Misra. (Tansen was a title conferred on him by
Maharaja Vikramjit of Gwalior.)
The Legendary Tales
Myth has it that Tanna was born mute. His father, Makarand Pande
placed him under the care of the Sufi saint Mohammad Ghaus. (Check
Sufism in Religion under India head.) One day while running errands,
young Tanna savoured the remains of a paan (betel leaf) chewed by the
fakir. and lo and behold! He could not just speak but sing in a voice
that is said to have no parallel in the musical history of the world.
Others hand Tannas talent to his devotion to Lord Shiva, the third of
the Hindu trinity. While grazing cattle in the forest, Tanna would
milk his goats over the Shivalinga (phallic representation of Shiva)
in a nearby temple, in the Hindu custom of offering abhishek (ritual
bath). Pleased, Shiva granted him the boon of amarkantak or the one
with an immortal voice.
Yet another story links Tansens music to Swami Haridas, a Krishna
devotee and a prolific composer (credited with over a hundred
compositions). The saint heard the young lad mimic the sounds of birds
and took him under his wing.
Be that as it may, it is agreed by all that Tansen trained his voice
under Swami Haridas. He found his first patron in King Ramachandra
Baghela of Rewa. It was while singing here that he attracted the
attention of the Grand Mughal, Akbar. Incidentally, while bidding
goodbye to Baghela, the Rewa king gifted Tansen a diamond bracelet.
The singer vowed, "My right hand which has worn this ornament
will never receive any other gift from any other patron." His
left hand of course was not bound by any such promise!
Tansen Counted Among The Nine Jewels of Akbar Court
Tansen arrived at Akbars court around 1562. There are innumerable
tales about Emperor Akbar never missing his evening soirees when
Tansen rendered new compositions and created ragas (melodies) like
Darbari Kanada, Miyan ki Malhar and Miyan ki Todi.
and not to forget the legendary Rag Deepak, the singing of which is
believed to have magically lit up the lamps in Akbars palace,
prompting him to crown Tansen one of the nine jewels (navaratna) of
his court. Tansen spent his last years in Gwalior till he passed away
between 1600 and 1610. His tomb stands intact in old Gwalior, the
honoured venue for the annual festival held in the maesteros memory.
Tansen Composition Knwon As Senia Gharana
Tansens distinctive style is today known as the Senia gharana.
Popularised by his son, Bilas Khan and son-in-law, Sammukhan Singh,
the Senia tradition was alive till the early years of the 20th
century, the last representative being Ustad Muhammad Ali Khan. (Ustad
is Urdu for maestro.) But even today all classical singers zigzag
their lineage to the grand guru and claim to be the original
inheritors of the Tansen tradition.
Gwalior has maintained the high standards set by its prodigal sons.
Tansens legacy can be heard in the dhrupad form of singing, said to
have been invented by the virtuoso and synonymous with the Gwalior
gharana or school of music. Surprisingly, Tansen did not establish the
Gwalior gharana. The credit for this goes to Natthan Peerbaksh and his
two grandsons Haddu Khan and Hassu Khan who gave it a definite style
in the 19th century
Gwalior gayaki (singing) stands out for its clear and full-throated
voice production. Shorn of any ornamentation, its notes are large with
bold sweeps and are sung in slow and medium tempo.
Well-knit compositions with intricate phrases, called tanas, are
rendered masterfully in varied speeds.
Gwalior singers are acknowledged wizards of tappa and tarana. The
former are love songs of the camel drivers of northwest India, with
short, quick phrases; the latter are compositional works where the
libretto is made of non-semantic words like na, ri, ta, drum and diri
Apparently it was the 14th century court poet during
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahans reign who started the tradition of singing
taranas. A Muslim, he could neither understand nor utter the
tongue-twisting Sanskrit words of most compositions. Not to be fazed,
he found a quick solution: he simply replaced the difficult ones with
words of his own and mnemonics of tabla and sitar players.
The Pride of Gwalior Gharana
The pride of the Gwalior Gharana is no doubt the dhrupad. In fact
Gwalior can claim proprietorial rights over this genre of music. It
begins with a slow alap (extempore elaboration of a raga) in the lower
or middle octaves. Gradually, the singer increases the tempo,
simultaneously touching the higher octaves.
A song in the same melody follows this. The structure resembles a
massive wall, solid, straight and stately.
Gwaliors khayal is believed to have no match either. Khayal is the
Urdu word for thought and the khayal singer actually takes off on a
flight of fancy, elaborating and embellishing a raga as he desires.
Some of the famous names from the Gwalior Gaharana are Balkrishnabua
Ichalkaranjikar, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar,
Pandit Omkarnath Thakur and D V Paluskar.