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Sadhana of Dance

Whose limbs are the World

Whose speech is the all-abiding Sound

Whose decorations are the Moon, Stars and such

To that pristine Shiva, salutations.

Dance, as practiced today, may be best described as a marketable commodity. Most students learn this art to compete in the market place or use it as an ornament to add to their trousseau. Poverty, greed and a blinding race for fame seem to play a dangerous game that dictates the teaching techniques of many a teacher even the so-called traditional ones. We have lost the spiritual moorings of dance. Terms such Natyaveda and Sampradaya have lost their true connections to practice.

The pursuit of a fine art is the pursuit of an integrated discipline. The fine arts of India as envisaged by the rishis traditionally facilitate the teacher and the student to evolve while engaged in the process of art transmission and reception. This evolution takes place naturally if two conditions converge. The student must have his or her faith in the teacher's hands and the acharya must be knowledgeable yet clearheaded regarding the potential growth of the student. We are now part of a generation that accepts both the two-faced teacher and the bargaining student.

The sanctity of this art form, quite unlike the mock rituals that take place in theaters and sabhas today, was a significant and meaningful event in ancient times. In the Bharataarnavam there is a detailed description of a typical preamble to a dance performance. Here the teacher, the dancer, the musicians, and the instruments were sanctified prior to the performance. The entire arena thus became a holy kshetra. It is amazing that the Muslim performers of Indonesia who perform the Ramayana maintain this better than we Hindus do. The audience who were knowledgeable in the arts got blessed because of their sheer participation in this auspicious event.

The paddy field setting of Kerala with the ambiance of the coconut groves, the temple architecture, the gigantic oil lamp served as the only props highlighting the larger-than-life characters from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. This surpasses anything that can be produced in the best of auditoriums with the latest in the state of the art light and sound. Dance has moved away from the Natyamandapas and has comfortably settled in the Western Concert Tradition. Fancy brochures, programs, lengthy introductions and the wining and dining of reviewers are a vital part of today's productions.

The gifts yielded from the study of dance are not in the theaters nor is it in the academic halls of western universities. Here showmanship alone is the ruling rod. The gifts are still to be found in the small bare classrooms where the teacher and the taught, like the blacksmith at the forge, hammer again and again at the process of molding. The closest comparison is seen in how athletes train for the Olympics. The result is obvious. Unfortunately in dance training, this process is not allowed to flower in its own time, anymore. India is selectively choosing certain western attitudes of `get rich quick’, `instant food' and `substituting for the real ' thus adjusting the study of fine arts to suit Eurocentric standards. During the fifties, many traditional teachers of Bharatanatyam, for instance, would insist on a two to three-year study of the basic adavus or foundation steps. The target student was generally under twelve years of age. Contrast this to the scene where students study once or twice a week for three to five years and lands with an arangetram, or a mother in her thirties whose limbs are already set like plaster in a cast who gives her debut. Those dancers who underwent the rigorous training of the fifties can be singled out even today for their quality performances in spite of their age. Many of them did not get any funds that would pay them in the name of research to simply dip into an age-old tradition and emerge as an overnight expert. They did not have rich parents who would buy the teacher out. It was sheer love of the art plus a desire to make life a little better for themselves that propelled them. Often they did very menial jobs to help their guru. This, in turn, helped in the refinement of the student’s character. Today’s teacher is least concerned with how his personal behavior affects the student nor is he concerned with the overall growth of the student’s personality.

There was a time they say when an apprentice teacher would work at a single aspect of a selected talam for years in order to get siddhi in that. No wonder they could materialize visions of the Saptarishis, the Trimurtis and other celestials. The abhyasa of shareera (body) and manas (mind) through discipline, rigor, guru bhakti, and swadhyaya (self pursuit) are the main tools necessary for one's growth. Bhakti, Gnana, Karma, Hata yoga and tantra are all included in dance. The fine art of dance which takes its origins from none other than Lord Shiva, has in it all the ingredients for the making of a sadhana.

From a beginning of simply wanting to use the body as an instrument to project the beauties of this art one can grow to a stage when the center of the world coincides with that of the jeeva and even beyond dance his life becomes harmonious with the spheres. The shloka, whose English meaning is given at the outset of this article, is often studied by dancers. Herein lie the clues for the four basic types of expressive communication or Abhinaya that are seen in Dance. These clues are not merely pointers in the technique of dance but provide clues for a holistic growth of the sadhak.

Aahaaryabhinaya (Communication through Attire)

The donning of a costume suggests a change from the secular to the sacred. In the USA a remarkable change occurs in the psyche of the dancer when jeans and t-shirts are cast away and the traditional jubba and pajama or saree and choli are worn. An awareness of the body quite unlike the sensuous approach that they are accustomed to takes place. The hair tied back, the sash around the waist and the dot on the bare forehead is the gear that helps them enter the world of dance. The wearing of heavy jari sares and the overloading of jewelry takes away the demarcation of patterns of bodily movements. The day we started using elaborate backdrops, props, grand lighting, and sound effects, that day marked the eventual degradation of abhinaya. By using the term "ballet " as in Indian ballet, we have fallen into the western theatre trap.

The transition from a student to a performer takes place as soon as the appropriate costume is worn. Often items of decoration are reminders of other truths. For instance, the sun and the moon decorations that are placed on the head of a Bharatanatyam dancer correspond to the nadis, pingala and ida. In Kathakali before the kireeta, is worn a silent gesture of respect is shown by touching the crown and getting blessed by it. The noopura is often taken to the teacher for blessing. The culmination of this psychological transformation is seen in many art forms such as Yakshagana, Kathakali, Nangiar Kuthu and Bhagavata Mela where, with the first stroke of facial makeup, the artist stops all conversation. He then begins to contemplate on the role he is to play. Not until the last piece of ornament is removed will the actor descend to the level of his human identity. Unfortunately, the modern audience especially in the US, often lacking first-hand knowledge of puranic stories, returns home after seeing a program having gained only the superficial “jhootaniyan“ (leftovers) of the sacred meal.

Vaachikabhinaya (Vocal Communication)

The first response that is evoked from the student is for sound. Mnemonic syllables or cholkettu, vaithari or bols peculiar to the percussion instruments and dance, are accompanied by steps that match. The student learns to sort the sound patterns recognizing the stresses, spaces, and divisions. The inner akasa of the mind is measured and the resting point or sama where the finale and the prelude meet is the shayana sthana of the divine. The execution of these in the form of movements involves countless trials and errors.

The second response is to the notes of our ragas. Sensitivity is to be developed in order to recognize every color, shade, and tint of emotion that is suggested by them. The body portrays the subtleties thereafter. When the music graduates to one with words, then the highly specialized gestural and facial language is employed to suggest the meaning. Nuances that are peculiar to the vernacular has to be balanced with the contents of thoughts expressed.

The musical compositions of modern day programmes often lack the sensitive connection between the understanding of the text, the emotional thrust of the chosen raga and the abhinaya on the face of the dancer. Very often attempts are geared for the camera. If the music is not a cacophony then it is so good that it outweighs the capacity of the dancer. It is not unusual for the audience of the modern day to ignore the dance and just revel in the music due to this mismatch.

Aangikabhinaya (Communication through body parts)

If the created world represents god then the body of the dancer is its microcosmic counterpart. The geometric connections between the world and man are drawn by the karanas, the brahmaris and the charis. The cognition of the tandava and lasya in the portrayals reminds us of the male and female principles that exist everywhere. Aadinatha's tandava and Laasyeshvari's lasya keeps the world going for the fruition of our karmas. “Tavaadhaarey mooley saha samayayaa laasyaparayaa, navaatmaanam manye navarasa mahaataandavanatam.Ubhaabhyaam etaabhyaam udayavidhim udhishya dayayaa, sanaataabhyaam jagney janakajananeem jagadidam.” (Soundarya lahari)

The body is the instrument for expression. This body then is held different in the various classical dance styles of India. The straight stance of Kathak, with the dropped elbows, contrasts with the wide stance and raised elbows of Kathakali. The footsteps, the movements the stylized abhinaya of each style is tailored for that sampradaya. It is very hard to see the separation of sampradayas in performances these days. The best of Bharatanatyam has very often elements of Kathak in high-speed numbers. The best of Kuchipudi dance dramas has borrowed heavily from Kathakali's dramatic techniques. The best of Mohini attam mimics Bharatanatyam. Odissi has introduced gestures from Kathakali. Kathak and Manipuri have a hand and glove relationship with the movies. Kathakali technics have reduced so much that it has become a lazy entertainer for the western tourist who is fascinated by the colorful appearance, often considers this as tribal legacies.

The basic stance is often forgotten. For example, the floor length frontal pleats seen in the Bharatanatyam costume is a new trend. This has compromised on the knee positions and basic sitting stance that is crucial by sampradaya standards. Such a weight of fresh flowers and wigs are worn that young dancers cannot turn their necks efficiently. Thus ignoring the bhanga of the upper torso.

Hastabhinaya is so well developed in the Bharatiya dances that it is not just a mere vocabulary. These gestures have intricate connections with shilpa shastras and tantra. A simple example is that of the chinmudra, where the thumb and the pointer meet. This same mudra held different ways can represent mind, decision, forgetfulness, memory, and contemplation. The thumb represents parabrahma (Cosmic Divinity) and the pointer stands for ahankara.

The execution of the hastas (hand gestures) corresponds very closely to the nuances of the language that nurtured the particular style. The abhinaya of young dancers in the US is tinged with Anglicized nuances. This dichotomy is absent in young dancers in India who do not think in English even though they may speak it. However Indian dancers are beginning to reflect the mannerisms of heroes and heroines of the television and movie industries.

All dance styles have a twofold origin. One that is based on the shastras and the other that is based on regional customs. The best of any classical style is seen when it is rendered in its original language. Thus the use of Bharatanatyam or Kathakali gestures to Hindi bhajans can never bring the type of expression that one attains in the original Tamil or Malayalam respectively.

Mukhabhinaya is the exclusive domain of Bharatiya nritya kala. Every part of the face and every single muscle is excercized to portray the navarasas. The sthayi bhava and its various sancharis represent the entire gamut of human emotions. The student must reduce his personality to utter transparency so that the emotions of the character or the story can filter through. The time spent on this aspect of dance is vital to its survival as a Heritage-Art. Unfortunately, video, movie cameras, the glaring lights are all distractions to this sophistication. The human eye does not receive the same impulses as the eye of the camera. This has resulted in a drastic change in the role of dance. The demands made on classical dance is the same as that of the movies. It is the production techniques that seem to turn on the audience of today. Very few are interested in the actual style. To have the latter take place the audience should want to actively participate not passively look. This would mean that some education on the part of the audience is required. A Rasikapriya is an educated onlooker who has the sensitivity for the fine arts. It seems that only those who are in their sixties now and beyond are the only ones who seem to match that requirement.

The struggle to stick to the original intent of our traditional classical dance styles namely to bring scriptural truths to the common man in an aesthetically palatable form is a tough one. If it has to compete with the larger than life heroes and heroines of Indian movies and the trendy performers of the western world, it will have to dig deeper into its original form and reach man where Preyas ends and Shreyas begins. The gains will be everlasting only then. The artist and the audience will be an integral part of a Self-Refining processonly then. When classical dance styles are studied and performed with the original intent in mind then not only the performers but even the audience can be transported to mystical dimensions. This then becomes the prasad that we quietly ruminate. Its effects spread over space and time. Where the hand is, there the look follows. Where the look follows ,there the mind goes. Where the mind rests, there the emotion results. Where the emotion is portrayed there results the Rasa.

Yatho hasta tatho drishti, yato drishti tatho mana, yatho mana tatho bhaava, yatho bhaava tatho Rasa.

Saatvikabhinaya (Ethereal Communication)

When all previous forms of expressive communication have been mastered over years of intense discipline that began when young, maturity sets in. The artist becomes a repository of the wealth gained from the scriptures. Life's experiences mold him with a rare wisdom born out of acting so many a role. The essence of the itihasas and the puranas come to life, at the hands of such a mature dancer. He lends an ethereal quality to his portrayals then on. This pristine quality is not lost even after he leaves the limelight. With the mere glance of his eyes, a flicker of the hand, or a curve of the body an aging master can suggest to the onlooker a hint of the Divine Dancer himself. It is this satvic quality that remains in the memory of the observer, like a fragrance that lingers forever.

This article was featured in Tattwaloka magazine.

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