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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | October 2010  





              Indian Classical Dance and Spirituality



                        Shruba Mukhopadhyay




    From a mere gesture expressing feelings to a sublime experience, from a source of amuse­ ment and pleasure to a means of spiritual uplift, dance is that divine thread which connects the in­ dividual with the universal. Even though all Indian art forms have a spiritual aspect, perhaps dance is the only genre where the artist has the unique privilege of portraying through abhinaya, expression, not only devotion but the deity himself.



    Origin and Purpose of Indian Dance



    Legend has it that dance originated from Brahma, the Supreme Creator, when he was approached by Indra and other deities to provide a means of amuse­ment that could be seen and heard by all. ‘The re­sult of this was the fifth Veda, which took words from the Rgveda, gestures from the Yajus, music and chanting from the Sama and sentiments and emotions from the Atharvaveda. Unlike the other Vedas, this Veda was not taboo to the Sudras and its main purpose was to provide pleasure and delight both to the ear and the eye irrespective of caste.’ (1)



    This theory put forward by Bharata in his Natya-shastra may not be regarded as a historical fact, but as Kapila Vatsyayan points out it could have been conceived only in a society where dance enjoyed prestige and honour. ‘Through this theory, Bharata attributes to dancing a divine origin, a literary and religious heritage both in thought and technique and an aesthetic secular purpose. The story of the handing over of this art by Siva to Tandu and then to Bharata asserts the religious, literary and secular aspect of this art’ (ibid.).



    Humans realized that they could express their emotions - joy and sorrow, anger and love - through disciplined movement. They noted that just as discipline and discernment were essential to organize a society that places universal happiness on a higher pedestal, far above individual happiness, the disciplined movement of dance ought also to be formalized in such a way as to transcend the barriers of mind and body for accessing a higher realm. Thus, dance was conceived as a means of dedicating oneself to the higher Self.



    A God-­centred character is a common feature of all dance systems of India: Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, Kuchipudi, and others. All Indian dances are grounded in bhakti; a majority of them originated as temple dances and were performed by devadasis, God’s servants, for praising and pleasing God. In fact, bhakti is at the centre of all Indian arts. Indian music and dance are two important offerings to God. Though it is accepted that there are many ways to reach God, music and dance are believed to be the easiest and most dependable of all paths.



    From time immemorial dance has been in India an important part of any ritual - an essential of­ fering. Music and dance are offered with the same spirit of devotion and surrender as other materials of worship: flowers, incense, camphor, sweets, and the like. And it is not only the devotee who dances before God, the Indian mind was so captivated by the beauty and serenity of movements that it also had the gods themselves dancing. Besides, later thinkers sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of dancing, problems of the world through the symbolism of rhythmic movements, and even questions pertaining to the Atman and the jiva in the vocabulary of dance, as is seen in the Bhagavata.



    From Indra, who has been called the leader of dancers in the Rig Veda, all the divinities of the Hindu pantheon have themselves danced on one occasion or the other. Most of the gods - Ganesha, Murugan, Kali, Saraswati, Krishna - have their nritya-murti, dance forms. To top it all, there is the Supreme Bhagavan Shiva as nataraja, king of dancers. The story of the gopis dancing with Sri Krishna is nothing but an allegory of the humane soul dancing with the Infinite. Radha’s dance with Sri Krishna is nothing but the jiva’s union with Paramatman. Dance was an integral part of temple rituals and there were temple dancers as well - this is not something that happened by chance, it was the direct result of a continuous process of thought and living. As Vatsyayan observes:



    Nowhere are we made so aware of the rich reli­ gious background, the vast literary heritage and yet entirely aesthetic purpose of an art form, as we are in a classical dance performance, whether it is Bharatanatyam or Kathakali or Manipuri or Odissi. The artist of this dance never seeks to express personal human emotions or subjective states of mind; he or she is constantly represent­ ing themes relating to gods and goddesses - Siva and Parvati, Krisna and Radha and the apsaras - and the pangs and yearnings of these supernat­ ural beings who pine more than the human beings. If the human or the subjective is represented at all, it is only the devotees’ love for the One, the Almighty, not the separation of the mortal lover from the beloved. The themes of dance in which­ ever style invariably relate to the lives of divine beings, their battles and epic conflicts; never are they the sociological problems of the day (ibid.).



    But the ultimate tribute to the art of dancing is provided by Bhagavan Nataraja performing the cosmic dance. As Ananda Coomaraswamy says:



    Whatever the origins of Siva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.’ (2) The essential significance of Shiva’s dance is threefold: First, his dance is taken as the source and image of all movements within the cosmos; second, the purpose of his dance is to release the countless souls of human beings from maya or illusion; third, the place of the dance, Chidambaram, the centre of the universe, is within the heart.



    Of the various dance performances of Shiva, Coomaraswamy has written about an evening dance in the Himalayas where ‘Saraswati plays on the vina, Indra on the flute, Brahma holds the time­marking cymbals, Lakshmi begins a song, Vishnu plays on a drum and all the gods stand round about’ (ibid.). The other well­known dances of Shiva are the Tandava and the Nadanta. While the Tandava is performed in cemeteries and burn­ ing ghats, where the ten­armed Shiva dances spiritedly with the Devi, the Nadanta is held before the assembly in the golden hall of Chidambaram. ‘The dance, in fact, represents His five activities (Pancakritya), viz: Shrishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), Sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tirobhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion and also, giving rest), Anugraha (release, salvation, grace). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshvara and Sadashiva’ (87).



    Dance as a Spiritual Practice





    Can dance be defined? Experts believe that if taken to a level of perfection dance can become a symbol of the universal energy, the voice and movement of God. Eminent Bharatanatyam dancer Balasaras­ wati says: ‘Dance is the natural and therefore uni­ versal activity of the human species through which it finds unity with the cosmos and its creator. The cosmos is the dynamic expression, in orderly and beautiful movement, of the static source, the one supreme spirit.’ (3)



    For her, Bharatanatyam is a yoga, a spiritual dis­ cipline to control the wayward mind and perfect it to thought­free serenity. The expertise of the artist enables him or her to gain the equipoise of yoga in a rapid change of differing moods. Single­minded contemplation is difficult even when there is no activity. In Bharatanatyam actions are not avoided, but it is the harmony of various actions that results in the concentration we seek.



    The Kuchipudi dancer Kaushalya Reddy says that the act of standing on a plate and dancing on it symbolizes detachment from all earthly connections. ‘The dancer gets so engrossed in the rhythm as she has to produce the sound the percussionist is playing and concentrate on her balance that all other worldly thoughts simply disappear from her mind.’



    Balasaraswati also refers to this concentration amidst intense action when she says:



    The feet keeping to time, hands expressing gesture, the eye following the hand with expression, the ear listening to the dance master’s music and the dancer’s own singing - by harmonizing these five elements the mind achieves concentration and at­ tains clarity in the very richness of participation. The inner feeling of the dancer is the sixth sense which harnesses these five mental and mechanical elements to create the experience and enjoyment of beauty (ibid.).



    It is this spark which gives the dancer a sense of freedom in the midst of the rigid discipline of dance. Comparing a dancer with a yogi, the danseuse says that the dancer brings together the feet, hands, eyes, ears, and singing into a fusion that transforms the serenity of the yogi into a torrent of beauty. Just as in yoga exercises, the dancer’s body, in the process of making rhythmic movements, is cleansed of its human weaknesses and is purified into a conduit of the spiritual and the beautiful.



    Revealing her own experience during performances, Balasaraswati further says:



    Even for an ordinary being like myself, on some occasions and in some measure, dance and music have enabled a deep experience of the presence of God. This experience may occur only once in a while but when it does, for that little duration, its grandeur enters the soul not transiently but with a sense of eternity. As one gets involved in the art, with greater and greater dedication, one can con­ tinuously experience throughout the few hours of the dance, this unending joy, this complete well­ being, especially when music and dance mingle indistinguishably (10).



    To eminent Bharatanatyam dancer and researcher Padma Subramaniam, dancing is like meditation. She says: ‘When you are learning Bharatanatyam you have to train each and every limb for that perfect movement. But when you are dancing, you have to forget your body. The body consciousness is simply not there.’ Recalling her experience in one of her village shows where she injured her foot while dancing, Padma says she did not even feel the pain, ‘it was a big nail and it [her foot] was bleeding, but I did not feel it. Only after I finished my performance, I could see it and feel the pain. It happened because body consciousness was not there’ (ibid.). Dance can give wings to an aspiring soul to soar higher; and for Padma, her research on Bharata’s Natyashastra was not just an intellectual exercise but a spiritual journey.



    It is also the responsibility of the performer to allow the rasika, the well­informed audience, to get a feel of this spiritual transformation. In their shared involvement, the dancer and the spectator are both released from worldly woes and experience the divine joy of the art with a total sense of freedom. ‘That is why’, Kaushalya says, ‘several times I have seen spectators being moved to tears after our dance on vishwarupa darshana or Krishna Lila, as if they have viewed the Lord himself on the stage.’ However, it all depends on the calibre of the performer.



    According to Natyashastra, every place where dances are staged is transformed into a temple because all devatas, gods, congregate there to appreciate the performance. That is precisely the reason why avahana, invocation, is such an important part of classical dance.



    Every performance of Kuchipudi will start with vandana, adoration, of Ganapati, Shiva, or Vishnu. Through this dance form the artiste narrates a story either from mythology or the Krishna Lila or the Draupadi Chiraharana (Disrobing of Draupadi). Kaushalya says: ‘Kuchipudi is unique in the sense that here the dancer is not only portraying a character, he or she is actually living it. Thus while performing Krishna Lila, the artiste is not only referring to Vasudeva, but actually becoming the Lord himself. It is a complete transformation as the dancer forgets his or her personality, the lesser self.’



    While choosing a theme Padma is always selective - she picks up ideas from the Advaita philosophy or the Bhagavadgita. Her favourite subject is Sri Krishna as purna avatara, the perfect incarnation, where she seeks to portray the multifaceted personality of the deity. But how can a dancer experience freedom in the midst of the constraints and discipline of classical dance? ‘Dance is like language,’ says Padma, ‘you learn the grammar and then what you write is your choice. Surely, you cannot write poetry by looking into a dictionary. In dance, the rules are like grammar and having a thorough proficiency in grammar will help one to become more creative.’



    In sum, from the Indian perspective, dance is not merely an art or even an expression of emotions. It is a sadhana to bring an aesthetic order to an otherwise haphazard life. Through this sadhana the dancers commune with the Divine. Therein lies the fulfilment and perfection of dance.    








    1. Kapila Vatsyayan, Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1968), 142.



    2. Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1970), 84.



    3. Bala on Bharatanatyam, comp. and trans. SGuhan (Madras: Sruti, 1991), 9.




International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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