Experiences with Art: Some Reflections

Dance is an art form which introduces its sensitive students to a special kind of spirituality. It is a heightened state of being, an overwhelming experience for both, the dancer and sensitive spectators. Here, I am trying to reflect on my experiences with Indian Classical Dance, especially Bharatanatyam.

Dance is an art form that transcends yet communicates the ‘physical state’.This transcending of the physical state of being then becomes a spiritual experience for the dancer, as well as the spectators. This ‘transcending’ is achieved through the practices and the experience of the ‘navarasas’ or the nine essential emotions beginning with ‘Sringara’ (the erotic) to the ‘Shantha’ (the tranquil).

Indian Classical dance presents women’s sensuality in its own vivid sense but controlled well within a framework of the ‘sensual’- not to extend into vulgarity. Though it does express various nuances of erotic love or sensuality, it is achieved mainly through deep expressions from the eyes complimented with graceful controlled movements of the body (with an appropriate rhythmic music)

This present format of Bharatanatyam that we see today is the result of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s work. She modified most of its aspects, right from costumes, jewellery to its very form and style. She also re-interpreted all the erotic love songs and literature as being addressed to the Lord/God up above the horizon. There was no scope for a real ‘Sringara’ to evoke any impure, so-called ‘wrong’ emotion; only Bhakthi dominated. Her interpretations of the literature used were thus extremely spiritual, to the extent where Dance should evoke a feeling of respect for art and the artiste. She wanted art to project the ideal of platonic beauty and love along with spirituality.

While other dancers like Dr Padma Subrahmanyam believed and thanked her for the ‘refinement’, she also experimented with her study of temple and sculpture art. She received her doctorate for reviving and reconstructing the most ancient form of dance which referred to the Karana system of Natyasastra through the help of sculptures, literature and art history sources. She practices and teaches a very intense and tough but extremely graceful style of dance called Bharatanrityam.

One more very important Guru in the field of dance is Padmavibhushan Kalanidhi Narayan – very famous for her lessons and compositions concerning the “Abhinaya’- the expressive element of dance – especially ‘Sringara.’

But here again, ‘the erotic’ is understood in a very spiritual sense- where the ‘longing’/’attraction’ is between what we can call ‘soul’ and ‘oversoul’ (or God). Strangely, of course fortunately too, she does not denounce ‘the erotic’, neither does she hold it superior to other emotions. Anything in art has to be aesthetic. Its divinity lies in its aesthetics. If at all it is not aesthetically divine and spiritual, then there has to be a mishandling by the artiste’- thus says my Guru Smt B. Bhanumati. Both the senior Gurus opine that ‘the erotic’ is an important part of nature which perpetuates the creative process of reproduction. In her compositions, Smt Kalanidhi, stresses on the importance of balanced emotions. All these finally depend on the learning student and the teacher involved.

I strongly believe that a good presentation of dance should allow the dancer to express herself, through various emotions. Only then will there be a spiritual experience and a kind of catharsis- both in the dancer herself and the spectators. The same pieces of literature when sung or set to tune, along with the accompanying musicians in a performance, with set rhythm and choreography, comes out as a totally different experience. It works as a catalyst to not only the experience of the dancer but also the viewer, who tends to emote/reciprocate and respond emotionally to the dancer and the situation depicted.

When on stage, in a performance, drowned in the beauty and joy of dance, a dancer is probably not ‘herself’. Yet she is conscious of her presence on that elevated platform and the spectators in front of her. It is like a meditative state of being, a kind of experience of delightful beauty, by the subconscious self.

The dancer may smile, laugh, feel shy or even shed tears in pain or anger, as required by the character, but she does that in her own individual manner and style. It is her own self expressing those emotions. She gives form to the literature and music; to the imagination of the people listening to the song/lyrics. It communicates the varied possibilities of interpretations of the song depending upon the creative and the expressive abilities of the dancer. It provides aesthetics to the emotions experienced by a viewer. The dancer’s emotions and expressions move the sensitive spectators who then respond accordingly.

‘Jagadodharana;- a song by Purandaradasa explaining the ironies of the way of God. Yashodha, mother of lord Krishna, does not know that he is a divine incarnation. For her, he is just her son- who she plays with, punishes, pacifies and takes care of. The whole song describes the ultimate causeless existence if God. But when it is composed for a dance sequence, it is depicted in such a way that its meanings multiply. It is built with paradoxes, ironies- which work like ‘visual conceits’, which when presented to the spectators, is understood, appreciated and reacted to. All that happens between a mother and a child cannot be communicated by a song. It can be explained by the imaginative presentation of a dancer who creates a make-believe world of a child and a mother. This requires a sensitive, deep understanding of the aesthetics of dance, a proper training in the ‘Abhinaya’ aspect and above all the ability to enjoy and drown oneself in the beauty and the world of art.

Dance is a personal experience. I have been learning it and am involved with it since I was eight. I was not sure about my inclinations towards art, nor was I drawn towards its beauty. Unlike other girls, I started learning Bharatanatyam because I was attracted to the jewellery and costumes that a dancer gets to wear. But now, I don’t remember how, through my growing years, Dance became a part of my existence. Training in Bharatanatyam began with rigorous physical work for achieving the right postures, with strength in the body along with a balance between stiffness and grace. Any Indian Classical dance form has two important aspects. One is the element of ‘joyful dancing without any particular thematic expression’ – Nritta, other is the ‘thematically expressive’ element- Abhinaya. A student is first trained in the Nritta aspect, with specific techniques and mastering the step movements in different speeds. Gradually the student is introduced to the aspects of Abhinaya- through short pieces of literature like ‘shlokas’ or recitals on God.

Later the student learns the finer, tougher aspects of the Abhinaya including experiencing and expressing the navarasas. This requires a certain mental maturity along with keen observation of human emotions and sensitivity.

Our dance classes are experiments with our minds and bodies. Teachers encourage exploration of our bodies with respect to stamina, the possibilities of balancing the body, postures- all of which concern ‘Nritta’. The classes for Abhinaya also initiate us to look within. It leads us to explore our own emotions, the extent to which and how we react to situations. The ‘padams’, ‘ashtapadis’, the ‘javalis’ all work as those experiments on ourselves which bring us to a closer understanding of ourselves.

Art thus provides ‘Rasaanubhava’ – the artiste’s emotions evoke the experience through the nine rasas. It is through the state of mind and body lost in contemplation, when time stands still, that there is a connection between the self and the work of art. It leads to the communication with eternity and the spiritual experience that elevates the mind, body and soul of the artiste. This experience is what I would call divine.


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