Indian Dance

Jagriti Khoosal, Australia

'Ta ka di mi, Ta ki ta...,' recites the dance teacher while the student rehearses the art form of Bharata Natyam, an Indian classical dance style which originated in the south of India. Bharata Natyam derived its essence through the celestial times of the Indian culture, being taught to sages who then taught mortals. The dance style later blossomed in the temples of India, mainly in the South through an academy of maidens known as devadasis. These maidens were attached to the temples of India and their sole purpose was to honour and provide entertainment for Lord Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe.

The technique of Bharata Natyam took centuries to evolve and develop. The dance derived its technique from Natya Shastra, the dance scripture, which was written by sage Bharata between 200 BC and 200 AD. Bharata means emotion, expression, rhythm and natya means dance. However it was attained by four masters known as the Tanjava brothers. These four brothers, masters of dance and music, not only systematized and established the final dance form, but also devised its present repertoire.

According to the Natya Shastra, there are six different styles of traditional dance, of which Bharata Natyam is one. Bharata Natyam is a rich and varied repertoire which acknowledges three aspects of classical dance – natya or dance, natika or drama and nritika or story-telling. The three aspects all fall under the term abhinaya, an element of dance, drama and storytelling performed with emotion and expression, using body movements, hand gestures and facial expressions. Bharata Natyam is a semi-dramatic dance form with bhava, emotional projection, raga, melody, and tala, rhythm. The dance technique is described as sharp, angular movements performed with speed, exuberance, precision and passion.

The technique of Bharata Natyam is usually performed by a solo dancer, male or female. The dancer acts out several roles through mime, body movement and gesture, stressing the beauty of spirituality. To perfect the technique of Bharata Natyam, a recital from start to finish aims to make the body bodiless. All the movements and steps include a range of bends, extensions and leaps to radiate the speed, precision and excitement of dance. Equal importance is given to both sides of the body. Every part of the body has a significant role to play in the dance – the eyes, eyebrows, hands, neck, hips, shoulders and, most importantly, the feet all portray distinct movements.

In the Natya Shastra there are 23 single hand gestures and 13 double hand gestures, known as mudras. These mudras contribute to the understanding of the dance, accompanied by the footwork, bodily movements and posture. Just as poetry is a language of words and imaginative beauty, mudras weave together a dance poem. Mudras are important in Bharata Natyam as they express certain attitudes of the character being portrayed. The hand gestures and feet are then correlated with facial expressions. Once the dancer has mastered this technique of Bharata Natyam, he/she begins to learn items from pure dance to dramatic acting.

One main feature of Bharata Natyam is that of the dancer impersonating a deity. When portraying the deity, the emotions and expressions, sattwic abhinaya, play a significant role. It is often a quality of dance learnt last, as the dancer must have complete control of the bodily movements in order to express certain attitudes. Only then can the dancer live the character that he/she is portraying, losing all self-individuality and identity; for example, if the part is Lord Krishna then he/she must become Lord Krishna, cheeky, smart and playful, using facial expressions especially coordinated with bodily movements. Only when this aspect is accomplished is the dancer acknowledged by the audience. Now he/she has mastered the technique of sattwic abhinaya.

The element of discipline is equally important. In yoga, you lose your individual self and merge with the cosmic self through many techniques of meditation and awakening of kundalini. In dance the same concept is mastered through the discipline of every aspect of dance – music, expression, mudras, body movement, emotions and footwork. Therefore, with justification, Bharata Natyam can be called a yoga, as it is a sadhana of spiritual discipline which aims to harmonize the mind and body.

Though this art form is God-centred, the dancer also portrays a mortal, for example, a maiden in love with Lord Krishna. This suggests that the lover, being God, is not merely in a physical form, but in a spiritual form. Thus, with understanding, the dancer interprets the sensualities in a spiritual setting. Essentially the dance portrays the awakening of the human soul and its longing to attain enlightenment, emphasizing bhakti, devotion, and surrender in a spirit of worship.

In the Natya Shastra it is written that there are three main requirements for any classical Indian dance to be successful. First, the audience must be able to follow the story of the dance; second, there must be a close relationship established between the dancer and the audience; and third, the dancer must be brilliant in the art form. So, through the dance performance, the dancer aims to lead him/herself as well as the audience to spiritual enlightenment.

Bharata Natyam is an art form which is appreciated by the dancer and the audience. Essentially, it has travelled a long way since the days in the temples. Today Bharata Natyam is a complete art form learnt throughout India and abroad, thus maintaining a strict cultural identity through the modern generation.