Thursday, December 29, 2011

Indian Dance and the 'Western' Rasika by Donovan Roebert

‘It is always the westerner who keeps harping on our glorious tradition. That is because the West would like to see us as Oriental Barbie dolls while admiring our classical arts. Dance, especially, is prone to this Asian Kama Sutra babe phenomenon. The classical can exist but contemporary India is bursting free with ideas and expression…and that is not contained in the classical form. (sic).’

The above is a comment recently made by a well-known Bharatanatyam/ contemporary dancer, much of whose work, incidently, I admire. The comment itself is disappointing. It raises a number of questions about the negatively perceived relation (or misrelation) between the ‘western’ rasika and the Indian classical dance forms, and implies a certain ‘western’ crassness of approach to the dancer, and to the Shringara Rasa.

To confine myself only to Indian classical dance (leaving out the broader ‘glorious tradition’), three central questions seem to be asked here: Is the ‘western’ rasika capable of appreciating the dance on its own terms, and for what it inherently is? Does the ‘western’ rasika have a right to assess and comment on its nature and value? and: Does the ‘western’ rasika view the dancer only as a ‘doll’ or ‘babe’?

In this case these questions are compelled out of an unfortunate cultural prejudice, a sort of dismissal of any ‘western’ interference, or even only a point of view, on the dance. The easiest way to deal with this bias is to assert at once that the dance and the dancer are as liable to be misperceived by an Indian as by a ‘western’ rasika. Both would be equally incapable of correct assessments if they lacked adequate insight into the philosophical and technical elements of the dance, as well as of its history.

But there’s also a more subtle aspect to consider. I once heard a dancer from Chennai doubting out loud whether the ‘westerner’ is humanly equipped to experience rasa at the deepest level, that of the transmission of the tejas. Some Indian dancers, it seems, view ‘westerners’ as deficient in this regard, as though there were a specifically Indian ‘spiritual’ or aesthetic gene that ‘westerners’ are born without.

To tackle the most annoying question first – the assertion that the ‘westerner’ is disposed to view the dancer as an ‘Oriental Barbie doll’ or a ‘Kama Sutra babe’ –  it would be helpful to remind ourselves that the Natyashastra itself prescribes certain standards of physical beauty for the aspirant shishya. Second, there are prescriptive details of costume and make-up intended to heighten the aesthetic-erotic effect. The performing female dancer, clearly, is intended to represent a prescribed, classical ideal of feminine beauty; an ideal that is universally recognisable.

The dancer, that is, ought to transcend the projection of her own individual beauty in order to place before the rasika (whether male or female) an ideal that is immediate and universal, and which invokes an inward response to a notion of beauty separate from individuality. The quality of eroticism also becomes transformed and idealised in this process. One might say that it is returned to its essence, as an energy of bhakti. This is, of course, a simplification which will have to suffice for my purposes here.

Is the ‘westerner’, then, capable of entertaining this sort of transcendent or essentialised experience? My answer would have to be, ‘Yes, very obviously, because the experience is not an exclusively tribal or cultural one, but one that is connected with our common humanity.’

Every human being can, through cultivation of the necessary insights, learn to make the connection between the aesthetic-erotic experience and the ‘spiritual’ one. And this is certainly not foreign to ‘western’ culture. The highest products of ‘western’ art have always been viewed in this way, from the earliest epochs of Greek, Norse, Celtic and other mythologico-artistic expressions. The Grecian Dionysian and Eleusinian rites, as well as the choral odes which form an integral part of classical Greek tragedy (whose purpose, as drama-natya, was religious) are full of the notion of ‘tejas’, achieved through the combination of music, song and dance.

As for understanding classical Indian dance in terms of its grammar and the elements of structure, geometry, flux etc., these are not supra-intellectual exercises. Anyone from any culture can study and understand them. Even the more esoteric aspects, whether seen and experienced as ‘spiritual’ or merely mythological qualities, don’t stand outside of the common human experience.

This being the case, it seems hard to argue against the view that ‘western’ rasikas (or, more plainly ‘educated audiences’) are as qualified and have as much right to assess, evaluate, and indeed fully appreciate Indian classical dance as Indian rasikas do. They have at least as real a right as Indian commentators have to comment on and appreciate ‘western’ art forms and culture. This sort of exchange seems to me fundamentally valid, useful, good and necessary.

In a more general way, I would have to say frankly that I find it impossible to discover a clear dividing line, an absolute hiatus, between Indian and ‘western’ culture as a whole. Anyone who cares to study these matters in sufficient depth and detail would, I think, have to agree that there are far more similarities than differences in these two cultural spheres.

As for the last point, that ‘free ideas and expression are not contained in the classical form’ – with this I would have to disagree vehemently. The most cursory philosophical insight will make it clear that there’s nothing either completely ‘new’ or completely ‘free.’ Every new phenomenon arises as an innovation derived from a pre-existing condition, every novelty has its roots in the classical seed. This can easily be demonstrated by tracing it back to its source.

As a clarification for my regularly placing the epithet ‘western’ between quotation marks, I must point out that there are really no such things as ‘western’ culture or ‘westerners’. This label is convenenient, but often as artificial and misleading as it is prone to be put to mischievous uses. The ‘West’ is made up of hundreds of tribes and cultures, with as many differences and similarities between them as there are between them and the varieties of Indian culture. I think it may be useful to bear this in mind before entering on glib inter-cultural judgements.

Lastly, I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to all the Indian classical dancers who have brought so much joy to so many of us ‘westerners’ through the performance of their beautiful art.

Donovan Roebert is the founder and coordinator of the South African Friends of Tibet. Born in East London, South Africa, he is a painter whose works are sold internationally. He is also a devoted practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism and is an author. Amongst his publications are - Samdhong Rinpoche Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World: Tibertan Buddhism and Today's World; The Gospel for Buddhists and the Dharma for Christians (Wipf & Stock 2009), Lama Charlie's Big Bang and Whimper (Contact Publishing 2010) and The Odissi Girl (Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2011)


  1. I will respond to this shortly. Everyone - please feel free to do the same.

  2. Thanks for this post. There are many aspects to this topic. The inherent need for the indian psyche to hear appreciative words from people in the west since a long time (The craze for foreign). Also, It is a bit difficult to differentiate a rasika whether they are fraternizing or truly appreciative of the art form (not always, but in many cases it does happen). The comment in the beginning of this post is of course depreciating since it undermines the qualification for a human being to be a rasika, even if they are not well acquainted to the art form and it also means that the concept of rasanubhava is geographically localized and cannot transcend barriers, which is hard to comprehend. So, I am wondering what made the dancer to comment (past experiences riddled with misunderstandings?)

  3. One can only ask the dancer that. Personal experiences and misunderstandings do not justify such a sweeping generalized statement in any case, I would say. Secondly, The objectification of the Indian female dancer's body is very much a part of the Indian mindset, whether or not the 'west' is guilty of doing the same.

  4. Re: Objectification:

    The dance is a transmission of information - aesthetic, mythic, energic etc. It's like a poem which has both a form and a textual content presented to the reader. The reader ought to objectify the poem as a self-sufficient object, without searching for the poet in it. 'The Waste Land' is a poem by Eliot, it isn't Eliot himself. In the same way, the rasika ought to objectify the dancing body but not the dancer's body. This is a crucial difference. The error of wrong objectification can be due to mistakes both on the part of the rasika and the dancer. If the dancer, through insufficient training, places his or her own body on the proscenium, this is a mistake similar to that of the poet who intrudes himself into his poem. The remedy is flawless technique. Faultless technique makes it impossible to objectify the dancer's body, just as it makes it impossible to locate the poet in a flawless poem. At the same time, the rasika should be educated enough to be able to enter into the 'text' of the dance - mudras, bhedas, abhinaya etc. rather than remaining focused on the form only, which is like staring at the shape of a poem without reading the text. This is why it is also so important to attend performances in good venues, where the full dancing body can be viewed without the distraction of the bobbing head in the seat in front of yours, obscuring part of the dancing body. In filming dance this error is also often made: the camera focusing only on the footwork, or the torso, or the face, thus breaking the unity and completeness of the 'text.' There is a thin line which separates the dancer's body from the dancing body, and all of these and other factors, are necessary to keep the rasika and the dancer on the right side of that line. There should be no distraction from the real object, in other words. (Apologies for another long post. The dance is one of the most fascinating subjects to consider in all its aspects).

  5. No apologies required. You make brilliant points - so obvious is your distinction between the dancer's body and the dancing body - its a shame that it even needs to be explained. But it does, and you've done it really articulately.