Friday, June 03, 2011

Beyond Bhakti

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.


  1. There are also so many beautiful old padams that speak about love, also physical love as aspect of life. if i remember correctly - mysore style dancers danced mostly in the court, and thus lots of items they had were danced in praise of king not god.

  2. I think the same about Indian classical music. Actually there's a tendency to let religion dominate most aspects of the culture.

  3. yes. its sad, really. Because all the other intricacies are then forgotten or cast aside as less important, whereas they are actually essential to the art.

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  5. I hear your point, one has to understand one's body and instructions given to it by the mind clearly in order to depict a particular movement, for things that are not a routine motion, like dancing, aerobics, gymnastics etc.

    Simple walking, or getting up to go to the washroom and things like that come naturally, because of how the mind is tuned to need for the action at that point, which is also science, but because its a matter of daily activity we tend to not notice it.

    In any art or even sport form, we have practiced so much for perfection that the cues have been carefully registered in your mind that your body automatically performs the required. This comes with HARD WORK- Only. Like the diamond shape for "aramadi" When you were taught, they did not say "posture like parvathi or padmavati"all that must have been taught to you was a squat at this angle and feet at this... right???

    Ok, lets go to the expert's comment about spirituality and devotion. I would look at this as Spiritual connection to the mind and devotion to the body. Firstly "spirituality and devotion" are not religious. Very often people relate to religious activities and god's with these terms.
    They go to the power ruling oneself. Which is your MIND.

    When you are trying hard to express your love for the prince charming, which religiously could be Radha for Krishna or Sita for Rama etc, you only use them as role models to bring the feeling out if you do not have a prince charming for yourself...ehhe

    All your physics and chemistry is being taken care of by the body by the mind, now for the heart to work you need to emote the expression through some form that would inspire you, one may call that form "passion" another may call it " love" another may call it "bhakthi" or some might go back to stories told to them about Radha's intense love for Krishna and they might bring that moment in them, which is science, they trans themselves to Radha at the moment.

    If i scientifically sing " krishna ne begane baro" it will be technically right, but in order to leave a lasting impression about my voice, i have to emote the anxiousness in awaiting Krishna, this can be done with Bhakthi or can be replaced Krisha with my soul mate and let my heart melt over my waiting for "him"

    Call me if I have confused you...hehe

  6. Barbara Harriss-WhiteJune 7, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    Excellent blog!
    One thing you left out: dance is not about the body beautiful in BN. It certainly requires a stylised kind of facial beauty.
    But BN dancers can work until they are 'old' , 'fat' , unsylph-like so long as dancers are vigorous , graceful and have the stamina.
    That's one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
    Perhaps that was what was being meant. Otherwise you are 100% right by my book.
    all the very best

  7. I wanted to suggest whether it might be possible to challenge not just the answer, but the way the question is posed by that gentleman - why do we have to think in terms of a dichotomy of spirituality and something else (the body, mathematics....)? Is it necessary to conceive them as two different categories, or can the body itself be seen as spiritual? Spirituality as something which needs the body, because we cannot even perceive it outside of its embodiment?

  8. Barbara - I certainly do hope that the scholar meant what you suggest he might have meant. I suspect not, though.

    I totally agree that BN is enjoyable because it has a long shelf life, but I have to say that its entirely possible (and perhaps likely) the reason dancers are 'old' and 'fat' and still dancing is not because BN is not about body beautiful. It's just that the BN world is very hierarchical. These 'old' and 'fat' dancers were at some point 'fair', 'thin', 'beautiful' and 'young', and that is when they became famous.

    Now they are 'senior' dancers or 'gurus', and cannot be asked to step down for younger, more 'body beautiful' dancers. The training, in some cases, has engrained in these senior dancers the rigour, grace and stamina that BN requires, but in many cases, the senior dancers lack that and that is overlooked because the focus becomes the maturity of their abhinaya.

    But I feel that unfortunately, there is a lot of emphasis on the body in the terms in which you speak. A young dancer stands a far higher chance of success if she is 'pretty' (i.e. fair and thin) than if she does if she "does not have the face of a dancer" (a dance critic actually reviewed a chubby, dusky dancer using these very words). It's sad, really.

    I'm glad you brought up this point though. Calls a whole other important discussion on BN and the body!

  9. Margrit (and Gai - I think this will respond to your comments partly too) -

    The question of the body-spirit dichotomy is very complex indeed. And I certainly agree with you that in some senses, body and spirit are one. The body is certainly seen as spiritual, and I am sure it is perceived in this manner by the sanskrit scholar in question. In fact, I think that fact is taken so for granted that people don't even feel the need to mention it. I am guilty of the same, perhaps.

    But in some senses, the body and spirit are different. This is not to say they are in conflict with each other, but they are important in their own right. The body and spirit must be given equal weight in importance, as far as a dance form is concerned. When the scholar said that we are not concerned about the body, he was comparing Indian classical dance (which he saw as 'spiritual', 'religious' and based on mythology) and to western forms of dance where he saw the focus being on the body in terms of its weight, its relationship with gravity, the focus on the spine, a 'secular' (again, another problematic term, i know) and 'anatomical' approach to dance.

    In this sense, its not quite so easy to say body and spirit are one. I mean...yes, they are 'one', but they are two different things as well. When the two work together, in synergie, then we can say that they are one. In that sense, when body and spirit are one in their coming together, then the dance becomes whole.

    It is in this sense that I say that Bharatanatyam goes beyond Bhakti. To put it in a nutshell, I am saying that Bharatanatyam is of course about bhakti. It is certainly a spiritual dance form. And the body is spiritual, and in that sense, the scholar contradicted himself. But there is a sense in which the body and spirit can be differentiated. This is done to enhance the importance of BOTH. Moreover, what troubled me the most about his statement was that he said - Indian classical dance is 'all' about spirituality and devotion, thereby casting aside all other aspects of the dance form. Within India and also internationally, Indian dance is stereotypically viewed as portraying stories of gods and goddesses. It is almost as though there is nothing more to it! When I found that a scholar of dance subscribe to this view, it became imperative for me to say that Indian dance is also about physics, mathematics and about the 'anatomical' body.

    Yes, one can argue that physics, mathematics etc are also part of spirituality of dance, but they are not seen as being that. In their definition of spirituality, physics, mathematics, anatomy - do not figure anywhere.

    I know I've said a lot of convoluted things, but I hope i made myself clearer!

  10. I think the 'expert's comments a little off hand. There's more to both body and Bhakti in Indian traditions than is given weight in the arguments here. Also maybe the analysis using devotion as one of the primary categories for talking about dance is something particular to some dance critics from India!