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Classical Indian Dance Forms

When the swaying of trees in the wind, the cascading of water down a hill and the gamboling of the fawn was contrived into the realm of the aesthetics, the art of dance was born. This pleasant form of human activity was an outcome of a divine intervention, for according to legend, the technique of aesthetic enjoyment was first devised by the gods, to while away their blissful idleness in heaven. They needed a medium that would enchant their eye, allure the mind and amuse the senses, while enveloping all time. This tall order had been purported by Indra, the god of heaven, who in turn, appealed to the Creator, Brahma and the Preserver Vishnu, to join hands in discovering such an art.

This novel activity, born of their joint effort, was termed Natya. Lord Brahma’s contribution to this creative technique was the tradition of Natya or the telling of a story through movement and gesture. The Sama Veda provided music for its theme. From the Rig Veda emitted the words of his Natya composition and the Yajur Veda was consulted for gestures, while the Atharva Veda was the source of the element of sentimental flavour. Once ready this Natya or dance drama was presented before the Great One, Lord Shiva. Was it then unusual that Shiva himself should break into dance and express his divine appreciation in an ecstasy of motion, imbibing the Cosmic activities of Creation, Preservation and Destruction? It is not surprising, therefore, that classical repertoire usually contains a representative number demonstrating the Ananda Tandava dance pose of Shiva.

According to a myth, related in the Koyil Purana, a group of heretic sadhus or ascetics had refused to recognize the presence of God. They continued their infamous activities in the forest, in open defiance, at Tillai, the present day city of Chidambaram. Lord Shiva, along with Lord Vishnu disguised as his wife, came to the forest of Tillai. The suspicious heretics, sensing danger, sent a fierce a tiger charging at the Lord, who tore off its skin and draped it as a mantle around himself. Next came a serpent, which Shiva coiled round his neck and locks and finally a black dwarf, Muyalam, was crushed underfoot by the Lord. The snake god, Adi Sesha, on whom Lord Vishnu reclines, in Vaikuntha, prayed to be granted the gift of seeing Shiva in true form and Shiva broke into his cosmic dance or Tandava pose, holding in one hand a damaru (hour glass drum), beating the time process of the universe. Another hand he help up, with palm upturned, protecting his devotees. The third hand held fire, denoting sacrifice, while the fourth one, stretched across his body and pointing to his upturned foot, signaling refuge for those who sought his love. Under his right foot the Lord crushed evil, in the form of the dwarf, Mulayam. A serene facial expression, completed the stance.

The three-eyed Shiva has the attributes of the sun, the moon and latent fire in his eyes. The serpents around his neck suggest diverse forces which the Lord tamed and the dance itself is the ever enduring cycle of creation, continuance and dissolution. Shiva, the dancer, is symbolic of the hearts of men, freed from the clutches of the ego that binds human souls to the world of illusion. When a classical dancer enacts the details of this legend, besides the appropriate emotional alternations, she depicts the image of Shiva with telling hand and eye gestures.

Other than the Shiva theme Lord Vishnu and his spouse, Lakshmi, are often depicted in dances. The goddess is described in the Pavai style, appearing before an army of asuras or evil beings, as a dancer with exquisite movements, and a rather seductive gait. The enchanted asuras gaped helplessly and, forgetting their battle with the gods, laid aside their weapons and pursued the enchantress, leaving the earth free of their evil influence.

Lord Vishnu, descended on earth in ten forms all of which have become the basis of celebrated dance themes. In the Kathakali dances, of the Malabar region of Kerala, the stories of Lord Vishnu add great dimension. It was while sage Manu, one of the progenitors of men, was performing an oblation, that he noticed a tiny fish. When he lifted the creature in his grasp, it grew in size till he had to put it down into the ocean, the symbol of human consciousness. The fish was none other than the Lord Vishnu. This story is dramatically presented in a Kathakali abhinaya.

With the employment of hand gestures, stylized gait and artistic movement of limbs, the performer also enacts the tale of Lord Vishnu in his incarnation of a tortoise in the ocean bed on which Mount Mandara pivoted as a churning stick to stir the waters of the ocean of milk. Yet another poignant dance theme, is that of Narasimha, or the lion-man form of Lord Vishnu who came to the rescue of h is devotee Prahlad is told. The boy Prahlad had refused to cower down to the demands of his proud father, King Hiranya Kashyap, who questioned the very existence of God. In the ensuing battle, which is stirred by loud musical accompaniments and vigorous dance steps, the dancer enacting Narasimha pulls out the entrails of the heretic, but in the next moment, his wrath changes to benevolence and he blesses Prahlad, and brings the dance to a finale.

The most commonly presented form of Vishnu is that of Lord Krishna. This man form of God who delighted is things that make men happy is used as a dance theme in all schools of classical performance. Among the well known of these themes is that of Kaliya, had poisoned the waters of the Jamuna river. Krishna’s ball had fallen into the river and the child god plunged into the water only to be involved in a mighty combat. The river waters were stained a deep red when finally, Krishna emerged above the mounted on the hood of the dreaded serpent.

A part from this triumphant allegorical account of the power of good over evil, what makes the Krishna theme so universal is the dalliance of the Lord in the groves of Vrindavan on the banks of the river Jamuna in the company of the gopies. Referred to as the Rasa Lila, or Rasa Mandala, it is a compulsory section of the kathak dance performance. The ardent dance of love, where Krishna enjoyed the company of the milkmaids of Vrindavan is a source of perennial inspiration. It is immortalized in treatises like the Geeta Govinda where the padavalli or verses are the basis of Odissi dance numbers enumerating Krishna playing upon his flute while the gopis dance in ecstasy as they became one with the Supreme Lover, Krishna.

While giving expression to this dance of divine love, the dancer draws upon a series of moods or bhavas, displaying a multiplicity of emotions, to exemplify the fervour of romance. The dancer expresses the longing of the beloved expresses the longing of the beloved changing to anxiety at the non-appearance of Krishna. Then the gopi is displayed as a person lost is her reflections of earlier encounters. As Krishna still does not appear on the scene, her mood changes to anxiety and distress, followed by lament. The mounting crescendo of feeling borders on insanity and she sinks into a stupor of dejection. These stage of emotion are fulfilled through a series of practiced facial expressions, common to all dancers and termed as Navarasa bhava. The erotic mood is termed as shringara, when the lips are parted in a half smile. The comic side, or hasya is distinguished by a tingle of grimace and in the karuna or pathetic mood, the outstretched hands the jutting chin and the yearning in the eyes, complete the pose. The other three poses reflect the manly moods of furiousness, heroism and the terrible. The shoulders are taut, the eyes are wide open, the jaw is stiff and the face expresses anger. Sometimes, the dancer gives in to a wondrous mood, and finally she blends serenity with studied calmness, to depict inner peace.

To render any theme in dance, therefore, the dancer enriches her presentation, not by charading the events of the story, but by interpreting a small portion of the story in several projections. Even a single line of the theme, like ‘O Krishna, come to me’, might require the dancer to show the lord playing the flute, or as a prankster teasing the gopis, or again, as a charioteer who drove Arjun’s vehicle into battle against the Kauravas. She can even enact Krishna as the saviour who lifted a hill to save his people from a deluge. As a dancer, her portrayal would require movements to convey the excitement of spotting a beloved at dusk.

These inventive and imaginative skills of the dancer come into sharp focus while performing the theme of the nayak and nayika or the hero and the heroine. Such role portraiture envisages every human mood, while the nayak or hero has been typecast into a fixed form of either being dhirodata or temperate and firm, or its opposite dhiraprashanta. The nayika can be portrayed in a thousand ways. She can be shown as swadheena bhartrika or contented one whose lover is at her beck and call or the vasakasajja nayika who adorns herself with care for her lover, to give him a fitting reception. The virahaholkantika woman is dressed at her temporary separation from her lover, in contrast to her unenviable sister, the khandita nayika¸ whose lover has been dallying with another woman. This latter nayika is mollified and commands her lover to return to her, or retrace his steps to the other woman. The kalahantaria nayika is left inconsolable a she has just quarreled with her lover. She is filled with anguish as the vipralabda nayika. She spends her time s the proshita bhartrika, who languishes with amorous longing when, finally as the abhisarika, she steps out to meet her husband bathed in confidence at having overcome all obstacle.

Relative to such portrayals of female emotions there are dance themes that choose to depict the escapades of goddesses, as symbolic of each mood. In all these tales womankind creates an element of completeness in the integrated whole. Thus, Parvati, the daughter of King Daksha and consort of Shiva, is also Shakti, the source of power of good over evil-the soft persuasion, that triumphs over arrogance and violence. As Lakshmi, she is the auspicious bestower of plenty on earth. That womanly charm, an enviable asset, is made positive in the story of Mohini who turned the demon, Bhasmasura into a heap of ashes by seducing him to dance. In due course, as pert of a dance gesture, the demon touched his vulnerable head and melted into a heap of ashes. The power of woman to foil inevitable death is the theme of the deeds of Sati, who wrenched her husband free from the depths of the kingdom of death. The ever patient, Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, is a depiction of the long suffering lot of woman while Kali is the avenging destroyer. The affectionate Radha is the gentle gopi who, like a devout soul, is forever seeking union with the divine. In maya we see the woman who veils all truth and abhisarika is the determind one who flaunts all obstacles, to reach her goal.

Thus dance themes are basically tools that lend themselves to gesture and language are capable of arousing fundamental emotions. Their varied themes, of earthly loves, heavenly battles, varied environments are but manifestations of ecstasy in motion. The dancer’s skill analyses from head to toe the harmony of spiritual being, with earthly passion. Their stories are salvos of human aspiration, expressed through the language of countless souls.