On Spirituality in Art and Dance

Editor’s note – the best part about discussions with Bhanu mam is the reflection of her conviction towards art and dance in every word she speaks! She is a Guru who is an embodiment of humility. Surely, it is this trait and her childlike innocence that captures the heart of every person who has ever been privileged to interact with her. Attributing all her success to God, her Mother and her Gurus, she shows us the true path of spirituality through her powerful beliefs and thoughts. This article is only a meagre and humble attempt to convey the grandeur and depth of her Godliness!

The most fundamental question that needs to be answered is whether art, specifically dance, is spiritual; Yes it most certainly is spiritual! And what better way to recognize this fact other than the historical lineage of dance. The origin of art itself is of a divine nature since we know that Brahma created the Natyaveda and he is none other than the God of Creation himself. When we look at the Gods we find the ever-loving and graceful Saraswati to be an artiste, the Goddess of art; Shiva-the Lord of dance and Parvati, who, as his half represents the lasya element of dance. There is also Krishna who is loved as the undaunted dancer with reference to his dance on the Kalinga serpent. As the story goes, the Devatas, tired of the constant chaos in the world, requested Brahma to create a form of entertainment – but is it not true that the entertainment of the celestials is not mundane but divine? The created art form was then passed on to Bharatamuni who was a sage, a spiritually evolved soul who was responsible for the documentation of art, of dance, through his Natyasastra. Even when dance came to earth, it nested in the Temples. The dancers, then known as Devadasis, were in every way attached to the temple and the deity was her husband. Amongst those who follow the path of religiousness, we find all the Acharyas of various philosophies to be art lovers. . So we see that at every level of art creation and transmission, there is divinity, spirituality and sanctity attached to art, to Dance. Clearly, even for a moment one need not doubt the spirituality of dance!

When we say art or dance is spiritual or divine, what do we define as Spirituality or Divinity becomes an important question. The feeling of a spiritual experience simply means unbounded bliss and joy! That which gives peace, happiness, contentment and ecstasy to the soul is spiritual. It is important to understand that all these superlatives are referred to the soul and not mundane body or mind alone. A spiritual experience is possible only when art pleases the soul and not merely the senses. This itself becomes the true purpose of art. When the dynamic soul is fed with joyfulness & elation through dance, that art experience becomes a divine experience, a spiritual experience.

Let us try to understand the spirituality in dance through different aspects. The foremost aspect to be considered is the purpose of art itself which is to elevate one’s conscience. The idea is to impress upon the spectators in such a way that they have something to take back, something that will last them for a long time. Late Padmasri K.N.Dandayudha Pani Pillai says in his Tamil composition, Ulagam Pugazhum, that when one sees good dance, “paarpavar manadil kavalaigal irundaal parandodum, maaraada inbam tarum” (if there are any worries in the hearts of the spectators it will fly away, and give endless happiness). This magic is possible only when the artiste is able to elevate himself/herself first and then the audience through dance. It is certainly true that the easiest way to attain God is through music and dance; simply because it is like meditation-your mind is fixed on the art and is not allowed to wander. It demands a certain perseverance & concentration and achieving this will help one connect with the supreme spirit.

When we look at the repertoire, we find that a majority of the dance literature is based on epics and religious texts. Stories belonging to the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata etc. were brought into dance narration. Even the pieces of Shringara (love) have been based on the soul longing for the Supreme soul, i.e. the Jivatma longing for the Paramatma where the Jiva is the Nayika and the Paramatma is the Nayaka, the God. Great poets like Jayadeva and Kshetrayya base their Shringara compositions on a deity, Krishna or Muvvagopala in this case. One can find many such padams where the hero and heroine are none other than the jiva and parama. Also, from experience it can be said that generally the spectators are able to associate themselves with Bhakti pieces. In philosophical kritis, devaranamas and stories related to various gods, the dancer is able to carry the spectators through the piece with ease. This probably happens because most people relate their personal state of existence to that of various characters in relation to God. For example, a piece that extols the devotion and love of Shabari for Rama instantly brings tears to the eyes of people because they see themselves as Shabaris, as souls, longing for a divine union with their Lord and the feel of dasya bhakti becomes most predominant. However, in the case of Shringara compositions not every individual is able to understand the love of a Jiva for the Paramatma, not every person can see Lord as their Nayaka, the feeling of love is too personal for comfort. Most often, people are able to associate their personal relationship with God in the lines of dasya bhakti rather than madhura bhakti.

This however does not invalidate the dance numbers that aren’t based on Gods stating that they lack spirituality. Pure nritta or Shringara of human Nayaka-Nayika is not any less divine! It tends to become a common misconception that if there is no theme of God then art is not divine. This is not true! As we have already seen, divinity is felt through joy and ecstasy! A wonderfully presented Alaripu, Thillana, Jati or a well conceptualized and presented Khandita nayika can also be equally divine if it is aesthetically high. The soul does not know if the enjoyment that got triggered is because of Nritta or a Devaranama or a Shringara padam; as long as it is aesthetic and is at the level of supreme joy, the artiste’s as well as spectator’s soul can relish the dance! Any form or piece of dance that touches the soul is divine!

One must also remember that if there is a situation where there is a lack of spiritual experience then it is the fault of the artiste and not the art, for Art is always divine. We as artistes have the responsibility and capability to create the dance which gives a spiritual experience or does not give a spiritual experience.

Every dancer undergoes a few stages throughout their lifespan at some point in time or the other. In each stage, one must try to connect to that divinity!

How can one orient themselves towards spirituality as a Learner? To begin with, there must be surrender to the art. Wherever there is surrender, there is a spiritual experience. The next step is to surrender to the Guru. Having complete faith in the Guru and his/her ability itself brings in a sense of spirituality. Clarifying doubts enhances the learning by clearing the mind which in turn gives the ability to think about what is right and what is wrong.

How should spirituality be approached when one is a Performer? Firstly, one should shun ego. The dancer should let go of ego and work towards the higher goal. When there is no ‘I’, divinity is present. Vivekananda said that each soul is potentially divine. All it needs is a trigger and the soul reacts. The performer must himself/herself rise above the ‘I’ in order to touch the soul of the spectator and there lies the difference between a performer who has realized the true purpose of art and any performer who merely glorifies the form. The performer must be thankful for the God-given abilities, thankful to the parents who have nurtured it and to the Guru who has inculcated the art. Humility in this manner will allow for surrender to the art and thus help tap the spirituality within oneself. It is in this stage is where it is most difficult to understand spirituality as one can easily get carried away by the fame and applause. Thus it is the duty of a performer to retain confidence, but never allow it to become arrogance. Many dancers feel a certain attitude is necessary for a dancer, but that is absolutely false!

“I am against it! No attitude is necessary, just confidence is enough. If it was true that an attitude of nose in air was necessary then why do people look up to Dr.Kalam or M.S.Subbulakshmi? They have been public figures and performers, yet with utmost humility and simplicity! If you are really elevated with saadhana in your art then you will feel no need for any attitude. When the art incarnate Goddess Saraswati herself sits in penance for higher learning, who are we to have an attitude?” – believes Guru.Bhanumati.

How can one hone spirituality as a Guru/teacher? A Guru needs to look beyond a learner and performer. He/She should not have anything to gain from the student and must not expect it either. The only duty of the Guru is to pass on knowledge generously. Seeing even ten out of thousands of students being moved by art or being able to touch the hearts of spectators through their dance is a huge victory to the Guru; therein lies the spirituality. When you feel you have inculcated your beliefs in the student, when you see a reflection of yourself in your student, when they succeed in different allied areas of art, all this gives immeasurable happiness which is so divine and so pure – it makes you feel one with God.

You should be able to see God in every student that you teach; then there will be no room for jealousy or possessiveness, you will only be proud and happy for the child.

A spiritual outlook towards art will ensure that you don’t have any frustrations and that you face obstacles with the right spirit. Love for the art, not expecting material benefits from the art, loving art for the sake of art itself – all this will make you peaceful. After all, isn’t that the purpose of art? Inner peace, contentment…silence! And when there is immense happiness inside of you, you are able to generate peace outside you, in your dance class environment, in your students, in your spectators, in your well-wishers, and all around!

With great humility, Bhanu mam articulates – “Whether I am right or wrong I don’t know, but all my life I have been true to my conscience, I have held my principles and have passed it on to my students as well; and I will continue to do so. People may feel I have not gained a lot of success or have not been worldly-wise, but I am happy and peaceful with my art. I am able to experience God through dance, in my students and in my class. Just like how Krishna was a magnet for all the gopis, I believe spirituality in art is a magnet that has the power to attract every being – provided you pursue art with that intent. If you have faith in the Almighty, believe that art is spiritual, believe in spiritual experiences, then wonders can happen to you! I can vouch for everything I have said since I have experienced every nuance of it. If you do the same, you will also have a spiritual experience with art, with dance!”

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