Dr. S. Gurumurthy
Head, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology,
University of Madras
Research Scholar, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology,
University of Madras

Dance and Music from the Proto-Historic Rock Paintings

The aesthetics and the sense of music and dance are instinctive to human. Man’s attention towards lovely natural sound (i.e. music of nature) nurtured his musical taste and is the root cause for the development of music. Simultaneously, this has propelled another art in man i.e. “dance”. In a way, the development of the art of dance can be attributed to the War-Dance of the Gorillas. Nobody can deny the fact that some animals do dancing on special occasions, especially before mating. Hence, the art of music and dance is evolutionary. Though man with his extraordinary perception and vision developed these two twin arts to perfection, this is the right occasion for every one of us to think about the beginnings.

This study is made to focus the presence of music and dance as evidenced from the rock paintings of the- proto-historic times to the early historic period1.

The wonderful and enigmatic rock art of Sahara, especially the priceless Tassilis works, clearly show that there was the group dancing among our ancestors who lived well before 6000 B. C. Likewise, the Archaic Egyptian paintings, the archaic Greek Paintings, Etruscan Paintings etc. depict men and women performing dance as well as playing musical instruments. Similarly, the protohistoric rock paintings found largely in Central and Peninsular India depict various dance scenes and musical instruments. The study of rock paintings in India is still in its initial stage. Nevertheless, a few scholars like V.S. Wakankar and Erwin Neumayer have inclined to compare some of the scenes in the Proto-historic paintings with the group dance or row dance.

Dance co-ordinates the link between the nervous system and audible sound (music) through the muscles. The total muscle co-ordination is very effective when the body and limb movements synchronise with the music heard. This emphasise the fact that music and dance complement each other and it is difficult to disclose which is born out of the other.

The proto-historic paintings on the walls and ceilings of the caves or rock shelters depict hunting scenes, scenes with magico-religious theme and other day-to-day life of the people. The depiction of dance and musical instruments attract everyone instantaneously. They serve as direct evidence for the presence of some musical instruments and dance forms in the bygone era.

Dance, music and chants are the most widely recurring cultural symbols. These paintings show that rhythmic movements to a uniform beat were used to forge a number of people into a unified mass sharing a homogeneous psychological condition. They highlight the primitive form of dancing especially the group dancing or row dancing2. The dance scenes found in these paintings depict a ritual celebration of a hunt or a War-procession etc. These dance scenes vividly portray the body and limb movements which cannot be attained but for the rhythmic music. The presence of the musical instruments VIZ. stringed instruments, drums, wind instruments vouch for it.

The leg and arms thrown at various angles with the simultaneous body movements, performed with a remarkable consistency by the men and women make these choreography very interesting. Even now the tribals of India practise these dances with enchanting drums and vociferous sounds to mark a ceremony.

The dancers are in most cases adorned with loin cloth but sometimes with special ritual dress. They are painted with green and yellow colour. The decorations like triangles, circles, trapezoid and oval or lanceolot forms are either designs on the garments or body paintings3. It is really amazing that even in these remote times, dancers wore loin cloths in such a way, so as to facilitate the intricate movements while dancing4.


At Lakhajoar, under several layers of red paintings one can find the long group of dancers painted in green colour, many of whom were doing complicated steps with legs in intricate positions and bodies in S – shape. This earliest style masterfully captures the sense of movement. The execution of the lines is extraordinarily fine even to the smallest detail. A painting in Kathotia shows more than a hundred dancers in a row. Such row dances, in which one often finds a complete village society participating are still practised among some Indian tribes. The heads of the dancers are often shown Kidney-shaped. But, there are certain paintings in which the head is shown square shaped. Usually a leader of the dance group is shown with an exclusive head dressy. A Kathotia painting show two dancers throwing their heads back and forth. The head of one dancer is shown like U sign. Often there is a small circle in front of the mouth which doubtless indicates that the person is singing.

In a painting at Bhimbetka, a dancer wears a necklace with small sticks radiating from it. The early dance depictions give a clue or two regarding the masks used by the dancers in fact, some depictions dwell lavishly on masks adornment and perhaps also body paint neglecting the human form altogether.


The dancers are shown performing some of the popular dances like Puliattam, Gummiattam, Kolattam and the Poikalkuthirai. The dancers with their painted body can be attributed to the puliattam which even now is very popular in villages. Hence the antiquity of these traditional dances can be-taken well back to the Mesolithic period.

There are few dance depictions which can be compared with the modern classical dance too. It is very interesting and rather unique that two paintings at Bhimbetka depict the Nataraja pose. According to V.S. Wakankar, the dancing Lord, “Nataraja is depicted in a painting with a masked head hair shown flying holding a trident like staff in the left hand. Body is shown in three bends and both the arms are profusely decorated. Another figure similar to this is also found in the same shelter. These figures may be considered as the “proto-Nataraja”. This ironically is considered to be the earliest depiction of “Nataraja” form in the iconographic world.

Music is an integral part of dance and vice-versa. There are some paintings with men playing musical instruments like drums, pipe harp etc. These instruments are shown played mostly by men and very rarely by women. But the dance was performed by both men and women. The presence of musical instruments in these paintings not only prove the existence of these twin arts but also painting technology behind the construction of these instruments6.

In a painting at Lakhajoar, a group of five dancers can be seen, with one holding a comb-like rhythm instrument. Aarp-like instrument7 is also depicted in one Mesolithic painting.

In the Chalcolithic rock-paintings, gongs and drums are depicted. In the early historic rock paintings, drums are the most frequently depicted instruments. But a few paintings also show wind instrument or trumpet and the harp. An outstanding painting from Pachmarhi shows a man playing on a harp as his family leisurely enjoys his music.

From the above references, it is inferred that the proto-historic people are the forerunners of the modern musicians and choreographers.

 Foot Notes

  1. The problem of dating Indian Rock Paintings is as old as their discovery. But recent studies by many scholars have generalised some norms for fixing the chronology of these paintings. The general opinion of the scholars is that the proto-historic rock paintings of India can be classified as follows:

Mesolithic       4000 B.C.
Chalcolithic     2600 B.C.
Iron Age          1000 B.C. – 500 B.C.
Early Historic  200 B.C.-400 A.D.

  1. The group dancing can be classified into three groups on stylistic grounds. They are:
    a. Group dance performed by men alone.
    b. Group dance performed by women alone.
    c. Group dance performed by both men and women.
  1. This is very similar to the totem practiced by the aborigines of Australia, Africa and few tribals of India.
  1. The cloths are made from some woven material.
  1. The dancers are often depicted with extended head dresses. Feathers are also used to decorate head dress.
  1. The musical instruments of classical music of the recent times like the veena, tambura, citar are not found in these proto-historic rock paintings. These instruments can only be improved versions of the archaic musical instruments. The Sangam works and certain Sanskrit works mention many musical instruments and some of them are unknown to the modern period.
  1. The harp – like instrument has a great antiquity. This is shown in rock paintings all over the world besides being very popular sign in Indus script, they occur as graffiti on the ancient Indian pottery too. The very same harp is shown on the coins of Samudra Gupta. This instrument can be the predecessor of all the modem stringed instruments.

Reference Books

  1. Pre-Historic Indian Rock Paintings. Erwin Neumayer Oxford University Press, Delhi 1983.
  2. Stone Age Paintings in India. Wakankar W.S. and Brooks R.R.R.- University of Cambridge,1976.
  3. 3.”Rock Art in India”. Indian Archaeological Heritage Vol. I.PP.63-90.
  4. The Pre-History of Africa. Alimen H. PP. 353-358.
  5. “Rock Art in the Sahara”. Lahore, National Geographic Vol. 172, No. 2 August 1987, PP.180-191.
  6. 6. Recent Archaeological Discoveries in India. Thapar, B.K., Unesco, Paris.
  7. Encyclopaedia of Art.

 Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 1996, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Chennai.

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