Bharatanatyam is a culturally rooted, traditional classical dance form from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It is a highly complex movement language that is an amalgamation of multiple layers of melody, rhythm, emotions, story, mime, philosophy, poetry, physical energy, tempo etc. And yet, beneath all these layers, lies the innermost core of the art – a merging of physical energy with spiritual ideals. It uses a sophisticated vocabulary of gestures or Hastas, rhythm or Tala and expression or Bhava and is composed of two distinct aspects, Nritta (Pure Dance and Abstract Movements) and Abhinaya (Mime or Facial Expression). Nritta is intricate rhythmic footwork synchronous in time and tempo to the music and Abhinaya visually interprets the narrative of the lyrical composition. When the flare of Nritta combines with the shades of Abhinaya, the sheer communicative beauty of the form emerges which takes on myriads of colors that rouse a Bhava (expression) creating a Rasa (aesthetic experience), soaked in the beauty of the form and the mood.
Looking beyond the music and the drama, the rhythm and the poetry, Bharatanatyam is really moored in something more profound and spiritual. It is very easy to simply appreciate the outer beauty and glamor of the form, but for the audience to experience a Rasa that exists beyond this physicality is the true test for an artiste. Bharatanatyam isn’t meant to merely entertain. Every performance is an experience, for both the artiste and the audience… a spiritual experience of sublime aesthetics.
Bharatanatyam was originally an art form practiced by dEvadAsis or women who were married to the Gods in the Temples, who made their offering to the Gods through their dance. However, due to colonization in India, the art lost its original sanctity and women who practiced the form were known as nautch girls of the East. Thanks to the untiring and pioneering efforts of the great Rukmini Devi Arundale (Founder of Kalakshetra, Chennai), the status of the art was resurrected in society during the mid-1900s and is now a widely practiced and respected proscenium stage art form. Though practitioners of the form have proliferated throughout the world in large numbers, the art is still battling the stereotype of being a exotic form from the East, though in it’s idiom it goes beyond several mainstream dance forms.
Over the last decade or more there have been huge concerns and questions raised by young professionals and rasikas (connoisseurs) of the art about the relevance of Bharatanatyam in today’s world. And in our attempt to make Bharatanatyam “relevant” and “contemporary” numerous experiments and improvisations have occurred in terms of the themes portrayed through the dance, many of which haven’t been successful. Why is it that we are trying so hard to make it “relevant”?
The core essence of Bharatanatyam is it’s inherent spirituality – in the movement language, in the philosophy portrayed and in the music used, which is its very backbone. Bharatanatyam shares an inextricable link to Carnatic (Indian Classical) music. The dance has always been a literal form, as opposed to the more abstract styles of dance practiced in the West. It is a literal interpretation of the lyric making the dance visual moving poetry performed with grace, expression and beauty. Just as a Carnatic musician gets to improvise and elaborate within the melodic structure of the composition, the Bharatanatyam dancer elaborates and improvises within its lyrical structure. Performing Bharatanatyam to anything other than Indian Classical music, though definitely do-able, will always appear as works of fusion, some that might work and some that might not! The recurrent themes in Indian Classical music are that of philosophy, mythology, love and sensuality. Thus, improvising within this traditional structure that has little room for creativity in terms of themes presented, requires a thinking mature artiste. To “contemporize” the traditional requires consummate artistry combined with contemporary thought.
Is philosophy outdated?
In today’s material world, philosophy is relevant, more than ever! We may need to use contemporary and more meaningful metaphors to interpret the philosophy, however, conveying the core thought is still pertinent.
To quote my Guru’s (Sri. V.P Dhananjayan) masterpiece choreography, a varnam in praise of Lord Rama, where the poet says, “rAma, nEvE nA rakshakudavani namminAnu” (Oh, Rama, it is you who I believe is my savior). Although just a simple line that conveys a simple thought, it is so open to interpretation. Sri. Dhananjayan chooses to interpret this such – Man is constantly fighting the six enemies within himself – kAma (lust), krOdha (anger), lObha (greed), mOha (attachment), mada (pride), mAtsarya (envy), and is embroiled in these worldly emotions unable to break free. But by reciting rAma nAma he is able to conquer these senses and is able to attain salvation.
How is this thought any less relevant than centuries ago? Every human’s life quest is to understand the absolute, to attain peace to experience the ethereal silence within. Times have changed; lifestyles have changed; yet the human quest to understand divinity remains unchanged.
In today’s world, there are so many products, yoga and meditation techniques being “marketed” to alleviate stress, I am wondering if Bharatanatayam also needs to be marketed as a “stress buster” to make it relevant to today’s youth? I hope not!
Mythological stories are nothing but metaphorical analogies of complex and esoteric philosophies created to make the philosophical texts accessible to the lay man. Numerous thinkers, philosophers (eg; Anand Coomaraswamy), marketing professionals (eg; Devdutt Pattnaik) and scientists (eg; Frijtof Capra) have drawn parallels with mythology. To quote Frijtof Capra from his book, The Tao of Physics, “For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos. The metaphor of this cosmic dance thus unifying mythology, religious art and modern physics. It is indeed as Coomaraswamy said (in his book, The Dance of Shiva), “poetry, but none the less science””.
In Indian aesthetics, shringAra (love, devotion, sensuality) reigns as the supreme emotion experienced by a human. When performing lyrical compositions pertaining to such themes, the artiste aims to take the audience on a journey at the human level, with essential human emotions being presented in their myriad hues! Though most padams, jAvalis, ashtapadis are soaked in erotic and sensual poetry, the maturity of the artiste lies in their ability to transcend this corporeal erotica, making it an experience where the beauty of every emotion is seen and experienced for what it is – whether sensual love, infidelity, yearning for union, or remorse… all without being judgmental. For it is when this aspect of human life is portrayed, bringing out the differences between the doer and the deed, the emotion and its outlet and the stage that one needs to cross to attain brahman (supreme consciousness) – that the doer, action and divinity that exist in all, merge!
Proliferation of mediocrity and the arangEtram craze!
At the surface level, most people are taken by the sheer beauty and the glamor of the art, making everyone want a piece of this pie. Often times people with limited exposure to the art and without the required background and expertise, are teaching and practicing the art, thus bringing in mediocrity.
Traditionally taught in a Guru-Sishya paramparA, it is a very complex art that takes years and years of sAdhanA (devoted practice and submission to the art) to master. However, as with everything else being commercialized in the 21st century so is the art, unfortunately. With the pressure of having to complete an arangEtram (solo performance debut) within 4-7 years of learning, without a consummate understanding of the art and it’s many facets, mediocrity is on the rise. Although on one side it is heartening to see so many young practitioners of the art, the flip side is that the quality suffers. When young children start turning into performers, with no initiation into the philosophic core of the art or the intricacies of Classical music, people are starting to look for so called “novel”, “contemporary” and “relevant” themes blaming the very backbone of the art as archaic. Thus not only corrupting an art that is so profound but also making it harder for serious professionals of the art to make their own in this rat-race. For an art that can be only truly savored through a full-length two-hour performance from Alarippu to Tillana, unfortunately in today’s world of instant-gratification, a dancer’s artistry is judged by the number of “hits” on her 2 minute YouTube video!
I feel that the 21st century is an exciting time for Bharatanatyam and it’s practitioners on a global scale. It is time to celebrate the versatility of Bharatanatyam in all its glory. Contemporizing one’s practice need not necessarily mean choosing contemporary themes, of abuse, drugs or war… Contemporizing can be in approach, training or presentation, but most importantly, in thought.
Bharatanatyam, unlike Ballet or Contemporary dance, has a very literal approach as opposed to an abstract approach and yet can be used to portray just about any theme… from the loftiest of advaita philosophies to the most nuanced of human expressions, it’s range and grammar goes far beyond.
How Bharatanatyam goes forward is in the hands of its practitioners today. If we choose to highlight it’s athleticism and lose its core in the process, it is our making. For serious professionals to be fully understood and appreciated, the onus is entirely on them to make their art relevant and reach out. It is not only what you are saying, but also how you say it, that makes or breaks it for the audience. It is important as an artiste to be fully convinced and absorbed in the theme being performed rather than blaming the art. The difference between a mature and immature dancer is simple – their understanding of the lyric and their thought process as an artiste.
Bharatanatyam will and always be about transcending the physicality of movement… of celebrating the dance within.