i. The early period comprises the evidence found in the cave paintings, engravings, the evidence of Harappan civilisation and the literary evidence which can be had from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Brahmans, and the epics.
ii. The second period is from the second century B.C. to the ninth century A.D. This includes the evidence available from Buddhist stupas such as those at Bharhut, Sanchi, Bhaja, Amravati, and Nagar- junkonda, and the caves of Ellora and the temples in different parts of India from Kashmir to Orissa, specially, the early Gupta temples and those of Bhubaneswar.
iii. The third period – from the tenth or eleventh to the eighteenth century A.D. – includes early medieval and late medieval monuments. While there are no literary records of the pre-historic period, in the latter half of the first period (Vedic India) and in the second period, Sanskrit exercised outstanding influence on the intellectual and artistic life of the people and its rich literature manifested the all-round development of the arts in the country.
This may be considered as a period of unity along with the emergence of some* regional styles. In the third period, there was a marked development of regional architectural, sculptural, and pictorial, music and dance styles along with the development of regional literature.
It was in the second period that there was the first articulation of a self-conscious understanding of dance as an art. The compilation of Natyashastra confirms it. There was an effort at stylisation although none of the monument and the sculptural reliefs show that they had arrived at a stereotyped convention merely to be followed or repeated.
The motifs in the sculptural tradition were those of the tree and woman, the Yaksha and Yakshani and many others; all these finally crystallised into the dance of Shiva and that of Krishna. In Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura and elsewhere there are innumerable Yaksha and Yakshnis who stand against tree and pillar, hold branches or birds etc.
Each of these men and women are seen in the dance pose. Alongside are dance scenes with full orchestra. This is also the period of the emergence of the sculptural figures of gods and goddesses especially Shiva, Durga, Saraswati and Ganesha. Each has a dance aspect popularly called, the nrittamurti. From this sculptural evidence of the second period, we realise that the dance must have been central to the culture for the sculptor to feel inspired and arrest it in stone repeatedly.
To this second period also belonged the construction of stupas and temples. Different aspects of life have been depicted on the railings and gates of stupas, and the walls of the temples. Amongst these are the motif of dancer, the dance recital as also the dancing aspect of god and goddess.
The Orissan temples of Bhubaneswar and even earlier the stupas of Ratnagiri tell us of the pre-occupation of the sculptor with the image of dance. The temples of Raja-Rani of Parasura- meshwara, and of Lingraja – all reverberate with music and dance. Innumerable figures entwined with trees or pillar holding birds, standing on animals or dwarfs smiling or more serious, are depicted in panel after panel on the outer walls of these temples.
Looked at closely, one is impressed by the fact that the sculptor was not only a keen observer of movement, but was also a self-conscious illustrator of the basic positions i.e. the sthanas and the fundamental movements called the charis described in the Natyashastra.
The monuments of Central India especially those of Khajuraho built by Chandeles and, Udayeshwar of the Parmaras belonging to the 11th and 12th centuries also present a wide array of movement patterns from solo standing figures to figures in ardhamandali, to groups and finally to the most impressive series of flying figures, leaves a staggering impression of the popularity of dance. The evidence of dance in mural paintings ranges from the famous dance scenes of Bagh caves to Ajanta, Ellora and Pannamalai.
This impression of the universal popularity of the dance motif is further reinforced by the evidence available in Sanskrit literature of the classical period.
In the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharat, many dance performances are prescribed. In the works of poets Bhasa, Kalidas, and others, until the time of Harsha, we encounter many precise descriptions of dancers and dance recitals. From this, entire one can gather that the poet and the dramatist were equally well- versed in the technical intricacies of dance. They appreciated the aesthetic beauty and drew upon this art to structure their play on poetic or dramatic edifice.
From the 13th century onwards one can find manuals on dance from practically every region of the country. Even a superficial study of these manuals emphasises two broad facts; first, that despite regional variations all schools subscribed to the basic principles of the Natyashastra tradition.
The dance continued to be divided into natya and nritta on one hand and into tandava and lasya on the other. The second is that, although they continued to follow these broad principles, many distinctive regional styles evolved and each region ultimately developed a distinct vocabulary.
This second fact led to the formulation of different classical styles in India. The beginning of the contemporary classical styles – be it Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, or Kathak – can be traced back to developments in the medieval period, roughly dating from 1300 A.D. to 1800 A.D.
The recent revival of interest in dance, developed as a sign of national pride in the glories of indigenous art and culture, helped the development and popularity of our various dance styles. During the past five decades many layers of the past artistic glory have been uncovered. The digging continues and each time one delves deeper, a greater treasure is discovered.