The Greatness of Traditional Music and Dance


By David Courtney

HOUSTON: India is a land of great diversity and this diversity is reflected in the traditional arts.  Yet for many years performers, connoisseurs, and art critics have muddle even the most basic definitions of traditionalism.

People tend to be confused as to what is traditional as opposed to what is classical.  Many people erroneously believe that classicism is defined by age.  But traditional arts may be just as old. For example the bura katha theatrical tradition of Andhra Pradesh is as old, if not older, than many classical forms. The distinction between classicism and traditionalism is to a great extent cultural.  Traditional art-forms are tied to particular ethnic groups while classical art-forms have the ability to cross ethnic lines.  However this trans-ethnicity must not be construed as implying any universality, for these arts are often associated only with the upper socio-economic groups.  (If one is looking for a good academic model for these social relationships, Robert Redfield’s work on “Great” and “Little” traditions is very applicable.)

Traditional art-forms meet with a mixed acceptance in India.  They are the first topics used to describe the cultural richness of the country.  But sometimes they do not receive the respect they deserve due to fundamental suspicions concerning regionalism. But appreciating the art of a people is very different from applying negative stereotypes. Sometimes people try to avoid these problems by applying a false label of “classical” to what ever is being discussed.  I have heard people innocently refer to topics such as “Gujarati classical music” without understanding that if it were truly classical, it could not be in the domain of any particular ethnic group.

So what is classical and what is traditional.  Hindustani sangeet and carnatic sangeet are truly classical.  This is partly from their social connotations, but more importantly from their ability to span disparate ethnic groups.  Rabindra Sangeet is clearly traditional because it is inextricably tied to the artistic soul of the Bengali people.  Dance is a bit problematic.  Although the acknowledged “classical” dance forms are Bharathanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Kathakali, Odissi and Manipuri; there are serious questions as to their ability to transcend any particular ethnic group.

But this brings me to the heart of this whole argument.  Would any art-form be diminished if it were to be considered traditional rather than classical.  I must soundly say that the answer is no.  The brilliance of the arts stand on their own, and are totally unconnected with any particular label.

David Courtney is a writer, scholar, and teacher of Indian music.  He and his wife Chandrakantha reside in Houston and have a number of students of the tabla, dilruba and voice.