Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/From Love to Bhakti

The term ‘sringara’ in dance has had many meanings, definitions and connotations over the years. It has sometimes meant ‘love’, and at other times, it has meant ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’ and even ‘erotica’. It is a term in dance that has been historically redefined and often pitted against ‘bhakti’ or devotion. I argue that ‘sringara’ is not one or the other of the above terms, but all of them.

Before the onset of colonialism, which brought with it, an extremely Victorian idea of femininity and female sexuality – ‘sringara’ could freely define itself as all of the above. Whether it was the temples of Khajuraho, the Kamasutra or the devadasis that performed dance in temples – they all embodied this expansive fluid definition of ‘sringara’.       According to scholar Susan L. Schwartz, before colonialism, India was home to ‘some of the most erotic art the world had ever seen’. But this erotic art was equally about devotion, sensuality and love. After all, the Kamasutra is above all, a book about making love. Similarly, the Khajuraho temples, erotic sculptures aside, are built for in devotion to deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Vahana, Surya and so on. Finally, the devadasis too, it appears, did not make a distinction between love, sensuality, sexuality and devotion.

Due to several factors, this definition of sringara slowly became narrower, more codified and more rigid. It is incorrect to blame the entire change of mindset on the colonizers, but it is nevertheless important to recognize the monumental role they played in creating these divisions between love, sex and devotion.

The ‘sexual implications of the dancing body’ did not exist in India until western influence and sensibility pervaded the Indian mind, says Schwartz. The Victorian ideas of sexuality and womanhood changed the perceptions of sensuality and erotica and thus created the divisions within Indian dance between sexuality, love and devotion. According to Susan Reed, another dance scholar, local dances were viewed by the colonizers as ‘excessively erotic’ – the ‘love’ aspect of local dances, as well their inherently devotional nature were ignored. The seeds were sown for the redefining of the term ‘sringara’, which until now encompassed love, devotion and sexuality quite comfortably.

Post-colonial nationalists in India were provoked into responding to this portrayal of the native as sexually unrestrained and barbaric. But instead of fighting this view, they changed their own perceptions of Indian dance by appropriating the colonist conception. Therefore, they spoke about the need to ‘reform’ and ‘rescue’ Indian dance. The Devadasis, who became tainted with the labels ‘sexual’ and ‘erotic’, were slowly extradited from their own traditions, and a kind of ‘bhakti’ that distinguished itself from the Devadasi’s ‘sringara’ came into focus.

Some revivalists found the sringara of the devadasis to be very low sringara, unworthy of being performed by a respectable woman. They saw their goal as replacing sringara with bhakti. Those that were descendents of the traditional practitioners, however, felt that sringara was the supreme emotion. According to Balasaraswati, “no other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystical union of the human with the divine”. For her, sringara was union, sensuality, love and devotion – all at once. Indeed, it was a union of sensuality, love and devotion.

To conclude, it appears that until quite recently, sringara encompassed love, sexuality and devotion. Sringara encapsulated bhakti, which was not separate from it. And while some of the reasons for making this distinction were possibly a way to let the dance form thrive in a world where it was condemned to possible extinction, it is nevertheless important to recognize that there was a time when sringara meant love, erotica and devotion simultaneously.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/ In thought and Emotion

Must Indian dance choose between ‘secular’ and religious?

My previous article argued that Indian dance is secular and religious at once, especially when one examines and understands the Indian conception of secularism. The concepts of ‘Principled distance’ as conceptualized by Prof. Rajeev Bhargava and ‘critical respect’, both of which are essential to the Indian conception of secularism allow dance pieces within Indian classical dance to have a religious narrative, but be secular as well. In that sense, Indian classical dance can be of equal value to a religious and secular person.

However, I find that even a person who subscribes to the ‘western’ conception of secularism i.e. non religious can find watching an Indian classical dance performance to be an enriching experience. When a classical Indian dance form is performed in a secular manner in the ‘western’ sense, it does not mean the removal of the religious, spiritual or devotional aspect of it. It merely means that the focus shifts to other facets of Indian classical dance. Apart from being embellished with religious narratives and culturally deep-rooted mythology, Indian classical dance concerns itself with geometry and linearity of form in the body, experiments with gravity, uses mathematical calculations to create intricate patterns of movement, and deals with and explores a plethora of human emotions.

Any dance form, to begin with, must concern itself with the body. Every breath between movement, every hand gesture, position of the legs and feet, and every expression for the narrative is made through different parts of the body. The dance forms in India therefore cannot be exempt from being concerned with the body’s geometry, linearity and anatomy. Further, like every other dance form, Indian classical dance involves the use of gravity and weight. Every movement is either succumbing to or defying gravity. Every stretch or bend away from the center of the body while illustrating the narrative is a re-organisation and re-balancing of weight within the body.

Moreover, Indian classical dance forms utilize mathematics in a fascinating and complex manner. In nritta or pure dance, every string of movement put together involves complex rhythmic patterns set to intricate mathematical calculations. Dance 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, as do the different talams that several ragas are set to.

Finally, Indian classical dance forms provide various possibilities to explore emotions. Pieces from the Kamban Ramayana or from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda – they are, of course, stories about Rama and Krishna, gods revered by many. They are tributes to these gods by their devotees. They are in praise of these gods. But equally they are stories of love and union, of pain and separation. They are human stories about separation from loved ones (Rama and Sita getting separated when Sita is captured, or Rama’s separation from his family during exile), and the excitement and intoxication of being in love (pieces about Krishna, and the gopis and sakhis). Similarly, there are Tillanas in Bharatanatyam dedicated to Gods, but equally beautifully choreographed Tillanas exist that make no reference to the divine and instead speak of institutions and human beings such as Kalakshetra (Bilahari tillana) and Rukmini Devi (Natabhairavi tillana).

To conclude, in addition to the religious and mythological narratives, there are many ‘secular’ aspects to Indian classical dance that may arouse the interest of non-religious people. These secular aspects do not and indeed, should not impinge on the cultural memory of dance pieces which have significant religious, spiritual and mythological undertones. Rather, for the religious audience they enhance the enjoyment of the narrative aspects of the dance forms. As for the ‘secular’ (in the ‘western’ sense) audience, they provide other avenues to appreciate Indian classical dance.