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Comparative Study of Iranian and Indian Dancing Figures Painted on Pottery as an Indicator of Agricultural Ritual

Dr. Ozra Rounaghy
Art and Architecture Faculty
Archaeology Department
Bu Ali Sina University, Hamadan, IRAN

Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Neolithic/Chalcolithic period represented a settled, food-producing way of life with limited use of copper. There was a very slow and gradual change from food collection to food production that took several millenia. Methods of food collecting such as hunting, fishing, and gathering of plants/fruits were gradually replaced by animal husbandry and agriculture. Although agriculture seems to have come late to India, it was one of the first regions in the world to give birth to civilization.

Amateur Archaeologist Journal Agriculture-based Neolithic settlements have been known for decades from sites like Rana Ghundai and Kili Ghul Mohammed in the hilly terrain of Baluchistan. Their beginning was dated to the fourth millenium B.C. However, excavations at Mehrgarh by the French Archaeological Mission to Pakistan under the direction of Jean-Francois Jarrige since 1974, have pushed back the antiquity of settled village life in the subcontinent to the seventh millenium B.C. They have also provided excellent evidence of technology, economy, material culture and social organization of the pioneering farmers of South Asia. During the last two millenia (5,000-3,000 B.C.) northwestern India witnessed not only a transition from the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic stage but also a great expansion of agrarian settlements. After the initiation of food production, there was an increasing number of domesticated plants and animals (Shinde 2001).

Area and Era of Study
Amateur Archaeologist JournalCentral India — a semi-arid region — was one of the most important regions to witness the development of early farming communities from the sixth millenium B.C. Central India is bounded by Rajasthan on the west, Uttar Pradesh on the northeast, Gujarat on the south and southwest, Maharashtra on the southeast, and Orissa on the east.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalCentral India consists of two major geographical units, namely, the Malwa plateau and the Chambal valley. It includes the northeastern part of Rajasthan (Mewar region), which, in fact, is an extension of the Malwa plateau (Shinde ibid.). Central India, which is east of the Indus and south of the Ganges basins, has a dry, monsoonal climate in most regions. Early farmers raised millets and grams, rather than rice, in combination with Southwest Asian cereals. Many areas have required irrigation for successful farming, and in some of the drier regions cattle pastoralism developed. Also, there was a long-term survival of hunter-gatherers in symbiotic exchange/contact with farmers.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe full significance of the Chalcolithic culture of central India was first realized during excavations at Navdatoli, Khargon District, Madhya Pradesh by Prof. H. D. Sankalia. A total of 108 Chalcolithic settlements have been reported from Malwa and 106 from Mewar region of Rajasthan. The major part of this region is covered with black cotton soil, which was exploited by Chalcolithic agricultural communities.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe Chalcolithic succeeded the Neolithic period. The general pattern of life did not change during the Chalcolithic although there were some significant developments. These developments include: 1) a marked increase in the number of settlements; 2) introduction of copper-bronze; 3) the manufacture of painted pottery; 4) diversification of tools, weapons and ornaments; and 5) improvements in architecture.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThree different Chalcolithic cultures — Kayatha, Ahar and Malwa — have been discovered in central India. Of these cultures, Malwa has been studied in relatively great detail due to the excavations at Navdatoli. Over 600 different motifs were executed on Malwa ceramic wares, and they include primarily geometric designs such as triangles and linear patterns. In addition there are some naturalistic motifs such as animals, birds, dancing human figures and plants. The finer variety of Malwa ware found at Eran is called Eran Fabric. Painted designs include linear and geometric patterns and a few naturalistic motifs (stylized bull, deer, running dog). The important types associated with the Malwa culture are: The Indian lota with its slightly flaring mouth and round, bulbous body; the concave-sided, carinated bowl; the globular vessel with beaded rim; and the spouted jar with wide mouth, flaring rim and tubular spout.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe painted pottery of the Malwa culture, called Malwa Ware, is very rich in forms and painted motifs. It is treated with a buff or orange slip and decorated with designs in black pigment. This ware is made of very coarse clay and is slightly ill-fired. Characteristic forms are globular pots with high neck and round base; the Indian lota with slightly flaring sides and squat, bulbous bottom; and concave, carinated bowls. In addition, there are bowls on stands, footed cups, channel-spouted cups, and a variety of lids. The repertoire of painted designs is rich and varied. Designs are mostly linear and geometric, but plants, animals, and human figures do occur — being mostly confined to the upper half of the outer surface.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAmong the many Malwa sites, Navdatoli, located on the left bank of the Narmada River, is the largest known in the region and occupies an area of about 10 hectares. Other sites are small, ranging from one to four hectares in extent.

Analysis of the Motifs on the Pottery
Amateur Archaeologist JournalStudying prehistoric man's creations helps us discover what was his interest in making beliefs known. Drawings of the sun, animals related to the sun (such as the eagle, lion, cow, deer, mountain goat, and birds), and other symbols can be seen on pottery. A methodical analysis and thematic classification of pottery motifs and designs for this Chalcolithic culture give the following:
1. Human figures
Amateur Archaeologist JournalA. Dancing figures
Amateur Archaeologist JournalB. Generalized figures
2. Animal figures
3. Geometric and Miscellany
The majority of pots, seals, etc. were decorated with dancing figures, making this motif one of the most important that we may consider in the evolution of human society.

Dancing Human Figures
Amateur Archaeologist JournalDancing is the oldest and one of the most persistent themes in Near Eastern prehistoric art. This theme spreads with agriculture into surrounding regions of the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, the Balkans, Greece, the Danube River basin, and Egypt. Dancing is found among every form of human social and economic organization — urban, rural, pastoral, hunter-gatherer, etc., etc. communities.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalHuman figures painted upon the pottery of Chalcolithic cultures were highly decorative, impressionistic, stylized, but powerfully symbolic. Dancing figures constitute the most attractive and aesthetically pleasing motif on Chalcolithic pottery. More than any other motif, they express pure joy and good feeling, and must have injected an "essence" into ancient social and religious beliefs.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalNavdatoli potters represented three basic dance forms and the interaction of figures with space, namely, 1) the circle dance, 2) the line dance — figures all in a row with their arms interlocked, and 3) dancing couples.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalHere we commence with some dancing figures found at Nagda. In this Red Ware pottery piece (see Figure 1) the potter has captured in a beautiful manner the cheer and festiveness of two dancing human figures. Solid triangles joined at the apexes form the bodies of the dancers. Straight lines denote the legs; while, a short, thick line and a filled circle depict the neck and head. Flowing festoons tied around the waists of the dancers show that every part of their body is engaged in the rhythm and tempo of the dance. In other painted pottery from Nagda depicting dancers (see Figure 2), one may see different body ornaments or supplementary objects.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn Figure 3 we have a simple drawing upon a sherd of Cream-slipped Ware from Navdatoli showing dancing human figures in good spirits. The head is shown as an empty circle, the legs are in different positions, and arms are raised high. The dancers are moving in harmony. Another version of the whole body in activity, expressing joy of the moment, is shown upon a sherd from Navdatoli (Figure 4). Legs and arms depict motion and thick lines represent the pelvis distinctly.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOur arguments are persuasive only for some of the scenes where groups of human figures are arranged in lines or rows. Some of the best examples occur on painted ceramics of the Iranian and Indian Neolithic and Chalcolithic. In Figure 5 all the human figures are somewhat similar except for those where the painted lines are thinner. The figures stand with interlocked arms in a straight row — possibly demonstrating a traditional dance or a ritual dance connected with agriculture. Although the depiction is crude and the heads/faces are indicated only by solid dots, there is nonetheless a faint attempt at showing facial features, like the projection of a nose or the hairstyle. The position of the dancers is such that they form a half-circle.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn Figure 6 we also can see dancing figures interacting with each other. The basic compositions are freestanding figures holding hands and shoulder to shoulder, but these two particular figures are shown standing apart. Both of them hold a tuft-like object in their right hands. Interestingly, the figure on the left, which has survived almost completely, wears a short skirt or like garment. In all probability the figure is female and is a clear example of gender identification.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalDance is created out of culturally understood symbols within social and religious contexts, and it conveys information as ritual, ceremony and entertainment. Figures 7 and 8 depict dancing of communities — not just one or two individuals. For dance to communicate, its audience must understand the cultural conventions dealing with human movement in time and space.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn Figure 9 the position of the bodies, the arms and legs in particular, indicates the dance gesture, which is obviously a highly dynamic movement and a very skillful dance step. Empty circles depict the heads, and thin lines going obliquely upwards from the shoulders suggest arms. The figure on the left seems to be a female facing left. She is being lifted into the air by her partner.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalFigure 10 is from Navdatoli Phase II. We observe that it is a standard raised on either a table or platform — the top of which is either an anthropomorphic head or a globular pot. On the right side of this pole (as seen by the viewer) there are two projections that might be long, flowing pieces of cloth; while, on the left side there are two shorter projections.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIf we compare Figure 11 (from Cheshmeh Ali) and Figure 12 (from Daimabad), we will note that way the legs have been depicted are similar and unique. Male and female dancing bodies are shown in an obvious festive mood, and these depictions are more realistic compared to the Navdatolian dancing figures. The entire body is rhythmically engaged. A spike is shown on a male's head; whereas, a similar projection is behind the head of a female. In Figure 11 the dancing figures are linked hand-to-hand in a line — just like the Navdatolian figures. If we accept the possibility of ancient interaction between Iranian and Indian peoples, then we can understand these similar portrayals of shape and perhaps meaning.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalContrast the manner in which the legs are depicted in Figures 11 and 12 with the legs in Figure 13 (a row of stylized people engaged in a group dance) and Figure 14 (a degenerate depiction of a row of birds). The latter painted sherds are from Tepe Hissar. The similarity of the human and animal depictions from Tepe Hissar suggest a close relationship and development of animal domestication — a condition also suggested by Figure 15. Here is shown a ceramic vessel with two horizontal panels. The upper register is painted with a human figure and stylized deer, peacocks, etc. to either side that are paying obeisance to the central human figure. The entire vessel is so richly decorated that we are led to believe it may have been intended for use during a ritual.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAnother motif that supports a continuity of cultural traditions straight from Harappa with various phases of the western Indian Chalcolithic is one that shows an anthropomorphic figure on the left and a strange animal figure to the right (Figure 16). The figure may be identifiable as a male panther.

Other Dancing Figures
Amateur Archaeologist JournalDancing is not limited to human beings. As a means of communication, it has been observed among insects (the bee dance), birds, and various mammals. Ancient human dancers probably mimicked the movements of birds and animals in an attempt to acquire or depict their unconscious grace and freedom of form and motion.

A. Dancing Peacocks
Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe peacock is an elegant and regal bird and rightfully is the subject of the potter who paints it on his vessels. This bird was used symbolically by Indian potters and artists at different times in the past. In India the peacock was believed to have a thousand "eyes" among its feathers. Peacocks are considered to be birds of protection and guarding, and is thought to be protection of the psychic self (Bosch 1994). Large numbers of peacocks have been depicted at Navdatoli representing numerous styles, viz., the impressionistic mode, abstract, geometrical, filled-in highly bold work, thin line decoration, etc. The majority of peacocks from Navdatoli, however, are in line work.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe bird has a distinct identity of its own. The peacock brings harmony and joy to mind. It is majestic and proud with much expression particularly when the male bird walks around and dances to the female during courting. It reminds us of the celebration of life. For example. Figure 17 depicts the joyous expression of this favorite bird of the Kayathians. Its feathers are in straight lines with dots on part of the body. It appears to be the archetypal peacock dancing in the rain (Wakankar 1967).

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalFigure 18 shows an elegant, prideful dancing peacock from Navdatoli that has been painted on Cream-slipped Ware of Phase I. The peacock appears to be looking backwards, its head turned around gracefully. Dots are shown along the outline of the bird. Another graceful peacock, also painted upon Cream-slipped Ware from Nadatoli, Phase I, is given in Figure 19. The crossed dumb-bell design behind the bird might be a symbol of the sun.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAmong the grouped peacocks (Figures 20-24) may be seen a number of symbols for natural things, such as the sun, flying birds, and a possible honeycomb (to the right of Figure 20) that may depict prosperity and sunshine. A highly stylized peacock faces a rising sun. The peacock in Figure 21 is carrying something in its beak. This depiction is solid and a bold abstraction on Malwa Ware of Navdatoli Phase III. Note the flying bird in the background of Figure 22, the symbol may express happiness. The stylized peacock shown on a pot of Malwa Ware, Phase II at Navdatoli (Figure 23) is in a linear mode with exaggeratedly extended neck and body with feathers and legs indicated by a checkering. The plume on the head ends in dots. The bird stands near a honeycomb pattern that is a symbol for sunshine and prosperity.

B. Other Birds
Amateur Archaeologist JournalFigure 25 shows in a very aesthetic manner slender, stylized cranes all in a line on a sherd of Burnished Red-slipped Metallic Ware from Phase II, Navdatoli. The lines under the cranes suggest that they are standing at waterside.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalA row of quacking birds (ducks?, geese?) Is shown on a potsherd of Jorwe Ware (Figure 26). The upturned heads and open mouths convey happiness and good cheer.

C. Dancing Antelopes
Amateur Archaeologist JournalAccording to J. E. Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols, the goat symbolizes male fertility, and mountain peaks represent the active male sexual aspect of nature or malkuth. Each ancient tribe considered the mountain goat to be the symbol of one of the natural, beneficial elements. For example, in Lorestan it symbolized the sun. Sometimes also it symbolized rain as in ancient times the moon was linked to rain; while, the sun was associated with heat and dryness. There was also a connection between the mountain goat's twisted horns and the crescent-shaped moon, and it was believed that mountain goat horns could bring about rainfall. In ancient Shush and Elam the mountain goat was a symbol of prosperity and a god of vegetation. The transformation of gods into animals makes drawings of them sacred, and they became a subject for ancient artists and potters.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe antelope was a favorite subject of the Chalacolithic artist as it possibly symbolized fertility. Chalcolithic artists also may have been attracted to antelopes because of their aesthetic form with graceful limbs and sleek, flowing horns. Antelopes were painted on pottery at Navdatoli, Songaon, Dangawada, Nevasa, and Nagda.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalFigure 27 depicts a circle of antelopes in motion in a most artistic manner. The figures are drawn with fine lines very aesthetically. The depiction is rhythmic and cheerful with beautiful horns and four (or more) straight legs (Banerjee 1986).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAnother way of depicting antelopes is shown in Figure 28 where solid triangles touching at an apex have been used for their bodies on pottery from Inamgaon. Two pairs of antelopes have been painted against a relatively well-decorated background. They are walking in a circle and impart a festive, cheerful feeling.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThere are similar representations of antelopes on the Chalcolithic pottery of Iran (site of Sialk) dated much older than the depictions on ceramics of the central Indian Chalcolithic. It is quite likely that this concept traveled from the Persian Gulf via the Harappan region to central India. (See grouped Figures 29-31, 32-34, 35-37) These regions share a semi-arid environment where rainfall is erratic. It is not unlikely that both dancing human beings and animals are connected with rain-making festivals. People may have prayed for rain and hence used these symbols on their pottery in order to find favor with the gods who controlled rain. Some use of these symbols may also be connected with harvesting of crops, celebrations of the changing seasons, rites of fertility, and general prosperity or good fortune. Traditional practices of these sorts still occur today across parts of India and Iran.

References Cited

Banerjee, N. R.

1986Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Nagda Excavation Report. Delhi.

Bosch, F. D. K.

1994Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Golden Germ: An Introduction to Indian Symbolism.

Shinde, V. S.

2001Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Chalcolithic phase in Western India (including Central India and the Deccan Region. K. Paddayya (ed.) Recent Trends in Indian Archaeology. ICHR publication. New Delhi.

Wakankar, V. S.

1967Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Kayatha Excavation Report. Vikram University Journal. Ujjain.

Captions and Figures

Figure 1. Dancing human figure, Nagda.

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Figure 2. Dancing human figures, Nagda.

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Figure 3. Dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 4. Dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 5. Dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 6. Dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 7. Circle of dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 8. Line of dancing human figures, Navdatoli.

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Figure 9. Dancing human couple, Navdatoli II.

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Figure 10. Standard on a platform (or dancing human figure?), Navdatoli II.

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Figure 11. Human dancing figures, Cheshmeh Ali.

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Figure 12. Male figure, Daimabad Phase V.

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Figure 13. Dancing figures, Tepe Hissar.

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Figure 14. Dancing bird figures, Tepe Hissar.

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Figure 15. Dancing human and animal figures, Daimabad Phase I.

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Figure 16. Dancing human and animal figures.

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Figure 17. Dancing peacock, Kayatha Period III.

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Figure 18. Dancing peacock, Cream-slipped Ware, Navdatoli Phase I.

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Figure 19. Peacock, Navdatoli Phase I.

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Figures 20 to 24. Group of peacocks and associated symbols.

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Figure 25. A row of slender cranes, Navdatoli Phase II.

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Figure 26. A row of quacking birds, Inamgaon.

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Figure 27. Dancing antelopes, Nagda Period I.

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Figure 28. Late Jorwe Ware, Inamgaon Period III.

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Figures 29 to 31. Dancing antelopes group, Harappan Wares in Sind.

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Figures 32 to 34. Harappan Ware in South Baluchistan.

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Figures 35 to 37. Chalcolithic pottery from Iran-Bampur and Sialk.

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