Kumari Somashekhari in a Classical Bharatanatyam Pose (above) and during a lively Kathak Dance Performance (below)

The Importance of Ghoonghroos (Footbells)
in Indian Classical Dance

by Guru-Bhakti-Ratna Kumari Somashekhari

“Ghoonghroos” or footbells are one of the most important requisites of an Indian Classical Dancer.

Indian Dancers who are conscious of the sacred purpose and content of their art, worship Ghoonghroos (footbells) as Goddess Saraswati Herself. Before tying the Ghoonghroos on their legs they first offer them to their Guru, so that He may bless them, then they put the footbells with a deep feeling of adoration and reverence to their forehead and heart and then only they tie them to their legs.

Traditional Indian Dancers who are fully aware of the sacred purpose of their Ghoonghroos never throw the Ghoonghroos after the performance on the floor or in some corner; this would be considered by sensible dancers as a sacrilege. In the contrary, after the dance performance or dance practice is over, a traditional Indian Dancer puts the Ghoonghroos lovingly on a special sacred place, ideally on an Asan (divine seat) in front of the altar of one’s Divinities.

When Ghoonghroos are purchased newly, first Pooja should be made with them and only afterwards one should wear them.

Ghoonghroos play an important role in all the major styles of Indian Classical Dance, except in the Northeastern style “Manipuri”. For all other styles, like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and specially for the North Indian Kathak Dance, Ghoonghroos are of utmost importance. In the contrary to the Western Classical Dance Styles, who try to defy gravity, the Indian Dances are heavenly and still strongly connected to Mother Earth, the Goddess Bhumidevi. The Indian Dancers execute beautiful rhythmic patterns while touching the Mother Earth with the full palm of the feet or the heel or toes. Special musical effects of interesting different rhythmic patterns executed by the dancer’s feet are very much enhanced and multiplied by the use of Ghoonghroos.

If Ghoonghroos are not worn by a dancer, the rhythmic sound of the feet can be suppressed by the loud sound of the accompanying music instruments like the Mridanga, Tabla, Pakhawaj and other instruments. So, in order to make the rhythmic play of the dancer’s feet properly audible to the audience and also to the musicians, the dancers must wear footbells. In the North Indian Temple Dance Kathak, the dancers wear a lot of heavy footbells on their feet, because this dance style emphasizes beautiful and complicated footwork. It is therefore of utmost importance that an Indian Classical Dancer is at the same time an excellent musician with feeling for exact and subtle rhythmic variations.

The ecstatic rhythmic patterns of the dancers feet can correspond exactly to the accompanying instruments like the Tabla or the dancers can spontaneously create individual rhythmic patterns within the fixed rhythmic cycle. The exciting beauty of this rhythmic play could not be enjoyed fully by the listeners if the dancers would not wear footbells. In Indian Classical Dance beautiful and graceful movements and beautiful music are inseparable. Dance cannot be thought of without music. Specially the rhythmic patterns of the Temple dance, made audible by the footbells add a powerful, ecstatic, elevating, divine charm to the dancer’s performance. The Ghoonghroos can be used by a skillful dancer to produce different sounds and it is a much liked, popular feature of Kathak Dancers to make their Ghoonghroos sound very loudly, like strong monsoon rain or very mildly, like a few tender raindrops or they can even reduce the sound of the tinkling footbells to the sound of one Ghoonghroo, one bell, only, and then again increase the volume of the resounding footbells from a mild, tender sound to a very strong, thunderous volume.

The footbells, which most of the Indian Classical Dancers use nowadays, are made of brass. They are quite durable and many great dancers are of the opinion, that the older and more used the Ghoonghroos are, the more valuable they become. Therefore much used Ghoonghroos should be preserved very cautiously, since their sound may become sweeter after using them for many years. Only broken Ghoonghroos should be removed and replaced by new ones.

Because of easy availability, reasonable cost, good durability and strong sound, brass Ghoonghroos are used by the majority of Indian Classical Dancers. Some dancers also like to use tiny silver bells in addition to their brass Ghoonghroos. Silver bells have a very sweet and attractive sound. They sound much more beautiful and heavenly than brass Ghoonghroos, but for getting sufficient loud sound, a lot of silver bells have to be used. Some experts are of the opinion that the sound of brass Ghoonghroos, which is quite powerful, attracts Gandharvas, whereas the sweet sound of silver bells attracts Goddess Saraswati and the sound of bells, made out of real Gold, attracts the Goddess Mahalakshmi.

Usually Ghoonghroos should not be shared with anybody, but it is considered a blessing and honour for the dance student, if one’s Dance teacher or Guru is wearing the Ghoonghroos and then returning them back to the student.

There are several methods of tying Ghoonghroos to one’s legs. The North Indian Kathak dancers use many Ghoonghroos (at least 100 for each leg) which are usually fixed on one strong long cotton-string. According to ancient Shastras Ghoonghroos should be fixed on one blue-coloured cotton-string with knots, not underneath each Ghoonghroo, but in between each Ghoonghroo.

It is nowadays the custom among many Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancers to wear Ghoonghroos which are not fixed on a long cotton-string, but on a leather, plastic or a thick cloth pad. Considering the purity and Ahimsa aspect (aspect of non-violence) of our sacred Hindu-temple dances, it is definitely better not to wear Ghoonghroos which are fixed on leather pads. It may be quite convenient to wear Ghoonghroos, fixed on pads, because it doesn’t take much time to tie them. But they have one disadvantage; they often don’t remain at one place but move around the ankles, which doesn’t look so nice.

Therefore dancers with much experience in different Indian Classical Dance styles prefer Ghoonghroos tied on cotton-strings. It is an art in itself to tie a long cotton-string with Ghoonghroos to one’s legs in such a way, that each Ghoonghroo can be seen and that the string doesn’t become loose or open during a dance performance. Such a Ghoonghroo string has to be wound carefully from down to up around the leg like a “snake” and it has to be fixed tightly on the upper most portion in such a way that it is neither too loose (so that the string will not fall down) and also not too tight (otherwise it will be painful).

The tying of Ghoonghroos on a cotton-string must be learned from a professional dancer. If the Ghoonghroos are not fixed properly the whole dance performance can be disturbed.

Indian Classical Dance and Music are of Divine Origin. They can cast a divine spell on the audience and transport it into a world of heavenly Bliss. The sweet sound of the rhythmic play of the Ghoonghroos of a skillful dancer can create a lot of joy in the hearts of listeners, it attracts and charms heavenly beings, human beings and the whole nature.

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