It was actually a sanskrit scholar at the Abhinavagupta conference in Shimla who said that what makes Indian classical dance stand out and differentiates it from western dance is that Indian dance is all about spirituality and devotion, and isn't concerned with the body. I found this problematic. I always have. And to hear an 'expert' say this alarmed me.
If one really thinks about it, it becomes quite clear that this is simply not true. A dance form like Bharatanatyam is, of course, about spirituality and devotion. But is that all there is to it? First of all, beyond the religious narrative, as I have argued many times before, lie the wonderfully diverse range of human emotions. But even if one is to argue that these human emotions, in many cases, take the form of Rama or Krishna or Shiva's emotions, there are other narratives about love and lovers that do not mention gods or goddesses.
That aside, I contend that there is much much more to a 'spiritual' dance form like Bharatanatyam than spirituality and devotion. At the very basic level, I find it ludicrous to argue that Indian dance is not concerned with the body. How can any dance form not be concerned with the body? Dancers use and abuse their bodies everyday. Every dance position, every hand gesture and every expression is made through the use of our bodies. Isn't that obvious?
It is about the body in another essential sense - gravity and weight. Dance involves physics. Even in a spiritual form like Bharatanatyam, dancers are either succumbing to or defying gravity. After a good dancer strikes his or her foot, the aramandi often deepens ever so slightly. Arguably, he or she is flirting with gravity. What makes a leap really spectacular is its ability to lift off the floor effortlessly, as if defying gravity. When a dancer, even as a distraught nayika, leaps and falls to the floor in distress - that's also a dancer defying and giving into gravity. This also involves giving weight to the floor. Indian dance (because of its largely solo format and because solid physical contact even with your own body isn't encouraged) doesn't deal with weight in the same way as something like contact improvisation of course, because there aren't other bodies to give your weight to or take weight from. But Bharatanatyam definitely deals with weight in its own way. Every bend and stretch away from the central core of the body is clearly a reorganisation and re-balancing of weight within the body.
Further, dance involves mathematics. Can we really argue that dance in India is only about spirituality when there is such precision in the geometry and linearity of the form? Again, its so obvious. One look at the form confirms the fact that Bharatanatyam focuses a lot on these things. Dance critics in the past have even ridiculed the precision of the angles of the arms and legs, and the painful particularity of lines in the movement. An aramandi position is not correct if the feet are too wide apart or too close together. The diamond shape that the legs form in this position is part of the dance form's geometry. Similarly, the arms are constantly drawing lines in various directions, begging for linearity.
Taking the relationship between dance and mathematics further, every string of movements put together involves complex mathematical calculations. Just like music involves mathematics, dance also needs mathematics to make these strings of movement dynamic and interesting. The five jatis in dance - chatusram (4), tisram (3), misram (7), khandam (5) and sankirnam (9) - facilitate these mathematical calculations. So do the various talams that the ragas are set to.
Knowing all this (and I presume dancers and scholars of dance know these fundamental principles of dance), how is it possible to argue that Indian dance is just about spirituality and devotion? I insist that Indian dance goes beyond bhakti. It is, indeed, about the body. And let us not forget its other essential components - dance would not be dance without its physics and mathematics.