Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Worshiping the gods, dance of the planets

Neerja Srivastava, Jakarta

India has a very rich tradition of classical dance. The oldest surviving text on stagecraft, the Natya Shastra, tells us that in the ancient days of the theater, dancers would mime the story while vocalists would sing the dialog, all to the accompaniment of music.

It was the dancers who occupied a central position. For many centuries they were attached to the temples. This imparted a strong religious flavor to dance. Even today many traditional themes are religious and mythological.

Over the centuries, different areas have given their own color to the ancient classical tradition. Today the acknowledged classical styles are: Bharatnatyam of Tamil Nadu, Kathakali of Kerala, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Manipuri of Manipur India, Orissi from Orissa, Saltriya from Assam and Kathak from north India and Pakistan. Each of these styles has a strong regional connection and none can claim to be representative of the entire Indian subcontinent.

Dances differ greatly, from those that are deeply religious to those that are danced on happier, less formal occasions. While the classics are usually always spiritual in content, this is often also true of folk dances.

Kathakali and Mohini Attam from Kerala

Kathakali (literally "story-play") is an elaborate dance depicting the victory of truth over falsehood.

A striking feature of Kathakali is the use of elaborate makeup and colorful costumes, to emphasize that the characters are superbeings from another world. Their makeup is easily recognizable to the trained eye -- godlike, heroic or demonic.

Meanwhile, the theme of the Mohini Attam dance is love and devotion to god. Vishnu or Krishna are the most frequent heroes, whose invisible presence are said to be felt by the audience when the heroine or her maid details dreams and ambitions through circular movements, delicate footsteps and subtle expressions.

Through slow and medium tempos, the dancer is able to find adequate space for improvisations and suggestive gesture or emotions. The dancer's costume is simple, compared to that of other dances. The dancer of the Kathakail is attired in beautiful white with the gold bordered Kasavu sari of Kerala, with distinctive white jasmine flowers around a French bun at the side of her head.

Bharata Natyam from Tamil Nadu

This dance has been handed down through the centuries by dance teachers (or gurus) called nattuwanars and the temple dancers, called devadasis. The training traditionally took around seven years under the direction of teachers who were scholars and persons of great learning. The Bharata Natyam repertoire as we know it today was constructed by the talented Tanjore Quartet. They were the four great nattuwanars of Tanjore, who were the brothers named Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Vadivelu and Shivanandam.

Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh

This is the dance drama which can most closely be associated with the Sanskrit theatrical tradition, also known as Bhagavata Mela Natakam. The actors sing and dance, and the style is a blend of folk and classical. Arguably this is why this technique has greater freedom and fluidity than other dance styles.

It was always performed as an offering to the temples of either Merratur, Soolamangalam, Oothkadu, Nallur or Theperumanallur.

Odissi from Orissa

Odissi is based on the popular devotion to Lord Krishna and the verses of the Sanskrit play Geet Govinda are used to depict the love and devotion to God. The dancers use their head, bust and torso in soft flowing movements to express specific moods and emotions, concentrating on the division of the body into three parts (tribhang) -- head, bust and torso; and the expressions and specific gestures (mudras) are similar to those of Bharatnatyam.

Odissi performances are replete with lores of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Krishna. It is a soft, lyrical classical dance which depicts the ambience of Orissa and the philosophy of its most popular deity, Lord Jagannath, whose temple is in Puri. On the temple walls of Bhubaneshwar, Puri and Konark the dance sculptures of Odissi are clearly visible.

Kathak from Uttar Pradesh

This north Indian dance form is inextricably bound with classical Hindustani music, and the rhythmic nimbleness of the feet is accompanied by the tabla or pakhawaj. Traditionally the stories were of Radha and Krishna, in the Natwari style (as it was then called) but the Moghul invasion of North India had a serious impact on the dance. It was taken to Muslim courts and thus became more entertaining and less religious in content. More emphasis was laid on the pure dance aspect (nritta) and less on expression and emotion, or abhinaya.

Manipuri from Manipur

This dance style was originally called jogai which means circular movement. In ancient texts it has been compared to the movement of the planets around the sun.

It is said that when Krishna, Radha and the gopis, their company of charming ladies, engaged in the Ras Leela dance, Shiva made sure that no one disturbed the beauty of the dancing. Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva also wished to see this dance, so to please her he chose the beautiful area of Manipur and re- enacted the Ras Leela. Hundreds of centuries later, in the 11th century, during the reign of Raja Loyamba, prince Khamba of the Khomal dynasty and Princess Thaibi of the Mairang dynasty re- enacted the dance and it became known as Lai-Haraoba, the most ancient dance of Manipur.

Dance not only involves the body but involves the mind and emotion. The Indian classical dance is also a drama as well as a dance because of the different emotions or gestures. The dance drama performance is made up of four aspects; the devadasi with its emotions, mudras (hand gestures) rasa (feeling) and the rasika, the expression of romance.

After many centuries, the Indian dance remains an art of expression with drama and emotion, which is shared with the audience; however, it has evolved over the years. Today, especially in South India, Indian classical dance traditions are controlled by male Brahman gurus. The dance and the cultivating of interest in it will surely continue to grow. With the effects of cultural diffusion by westerners, dancers have been able to establish dance schools in the west, a move that will surely result in further innovations.

The writer is a dance teacher at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Center in Jakarta.