The Spiritual Background of Indian Dance | RUKMINI DEVI | DANCES OF INDIA
One of the greatest and most ancient arts of India is the dance and as far as I know, India alone has given it so high a place in both national and spiritual life. No one was too low born for this sacred art, nor anyone too great or spiritual for it. From the Sublime Being comes the inspiration and example. Therefore, everyone who is but part of Him, every living creature, is animated by that spirit of creation which is the dance. It is because the whole conception of art is cosmic and all embrace that in reality, it is undying and eternal. Its expression is many, for it is like the light of the sun which sparkles on the ocean. From the oneness of that life comes the creative genius in man. Man intuits the spirit and absorbs his environment. From the harmony of the environment, the life, the thought, the philosophy, and nature all around, with the creative spirit within, inspiration is born, and art is the expression. The environment is of tremendous importance to the actual form of art. The environment is what we call national life. If in India, the dance, like any other art, is essentially spiritual and philosophical, it is merely because the sages have given a spiritual meaning to it. It is also because the very same sages have, at the same time, helped to build the nation so that there is no fundamental difference between the spiritual and the physical, nor is there a difference between the manifest and the unmanifest. This has been the uniqueness of the civilization of India.
If we understand the highest, we understand the least alsofor both are one. Importance of Music From this point of view comes the dance tradition of our country. The dance is not art by itself. It is a unique expression, through the body, synthesizing all arts. In reality, though it is the nature of the body to respond to rhythm, it is thematic in nature and its inertia expression, which we call dance. Therefore, the perfect harmony of the physical and emotional produces the dance. How is emotion stirred? It is flexible and quickly affected and that which stirs it most is sound. Sound as movement expresses itself in music. Music is the speech of the Highest. The first manifestation is in terms of sound, which is speech or music. All this is so magnificently conceived and presented to humanity through the form of Nataraja, the great Yogis of Yogi. In Him is synthesized all planes of consciousness and all the arts. We find that the instinct of dance is in the savage as in the cultured. When the dance becomes an art that transcends the physical, it becomes art, giving pleasure to all, to the devas as well as human beings.
It is equally an art that pleases all tastes. In dance there is music for the musician, for dance is but the music of the body. It is said that when music, in terms of poetry, song, and rhythm, blends with the instruments, it becomes complete music. There is music in the dance as there is a dance in music. Without the spirit of music within, it is impossible to dance; for music is the expression of the highest emotion, through gesture, movement or mime. When it is perfectly expressed through the gesture of hastaabhinaya, movement or Angika-abhinaya and Latvia-abhinaya or facial expression, the dancer becomes something beyond and unfolds another great art into herself-the art of Natya or drama. Then she becomes the storyteller or the actress. To do perfect justice to the storytelling or in delineating a particular character in the drama, acharya-abhinaya (expression through costume) becomes part of the four-fold aspects of the dance. In Bharata Natya as danced in solo performances, the dancer is the storyteller and acharya abhinaya or the expression of a character through beautiful costumes and jewels is elaborate but simple in one sense. The dancer has merely to prepare herself to be beautiful and pleasant and to create a personality that can make her story attractive. Her art is music in the form of dance and every emotion of every song and every character is in her. In the dance drama, where the dancer is a particular character, the art of costume is itself expressive of a rasa or an aspect of the fundamental state, and no movement is expressive by itself. The truest expression is in the experience within, which is dependent on so many things-especially on the spiritual development and perception of the artist. Dance and Our Heritage Thus dance becomes an art that unifies art. The painter sees the beauty of line and color, the sculptor sees the grace and the form, the actor sees the portrayal of life, and the musician and poet alike see the very embodiment of poetry in motion.
With all these blended in one who is dedicated body and soul, the dancer becomes the very expression of [ataraja Himself, of whom it is described that His Angika or the movement of His limbs is the world around, the Vachika, the poetry of His dance, is the language within all speech, the Acharya, His costume, and jewelry, are the moon and the stars, while the Satvika, the true expression, is the essence of Being, Siva Himself. In Him is all united and in Him is all transcended by the divine spirit. This is the dance and this is our heritage. In this spirit, we can still see true dance in India. Bharata Natya is the root and origin of all dance in India. Essentially, all real Indian dancing is Bharata Natya, though now only one particular school of art is known by the name. The most ancient authority on dance is the Natya Sastra of Bharata. In the South, there is what is known as the Tanjore School of Bharata Natya, but Kancheepuram and other cities are equally famous for the practice of the art. In every temple and on all auspicious occasions, there were dance performances. The art very nearly died as it had become a means for remembering the body rather than of forgetting it. Yet, those whom the world denounced as having become corrupt, gave themselves up with devotion and sincerity to the art they loved. The art was their very life and they worked and sacrificed their bodies for perfecting the art. Divinity in Indian Dance According to the Indian conception, character, and dance go together. In reality, they are one and the same, for what is without is but what is within. Through the portrayal of Gods and Goddesses, one becomes divine. Indian dance being spiritual, it is suited only for spiritual expression.
Through bhava, one portrays, in story-form the lives of Gods and Goddesses The Indian genius has shown that humanity is divine and divinity is human; hence the stories of Gods and Goddesses who live and speak like humans. This was so in every part of India. There were the dance dramas of the Bhagavatars (men-dancers) in the Tanjore district, in Kuchipudi in the Telugu districts, and Chakiar Koothu in Malabar where it still survives. Through these and through the still-living dance drama of Kathakali in Malabar, religion lived, philosophy lived and art lived. As you travel all over India we find no part of the country where, dance did not flourish, although, except in Assam, Orissa, and one or two places in the later years, dance was considered an art of the vulgar. Yet one hears of the great Kathak dancers of the United Provinces as flourishing under the patronage of rulers and noblemen. One never hears of Kathak being performed in temples but only in courts as temples had been destroyed, and the temple lost its place as a center of art and culture. In Assam, it is a respected art and it lives as a sacred expression enjoyed by all. Though the style is different from orthodox Bharata Natya, in essence it is the same, giving the same age-old atmosphere, and telling the stories of Krishna, Rama, and the dance as art-form life everywhere, in the temples, in the courts, in the fields, among the peasants and even ordinary people all over India. Because we forgot our heritage, art almost disappeared. Today there is a sudden awakening to the glory of the art, and people everywhere are thinking and speaking of the dance.
Entertainments are given everywhere and new names of famous exemplars of the art are heard. Revival of the Art But if art is to live, we have first to remember that it is an essential part of our lives. India’s real achievement depends upon her understanding of the place of art in life. To know this, one must understand India, the very heart of India herself. We cannot revive the art by forgetting India. Indians today are forgetting India. They try to express in dance, a spiritual medium, ideas totally foreign to our genius. People try to portray Rama but disbelieve in Rama! That is why in modern India, art fails for want of sincerity. We tried apparently to rescue the art from the corrupt, but because we lack devotion, dedication, and sincerity, we are gradually corrupting art itself. There is a general lowering of standards and the decline has been so fast that one dreads what is in store for the future. Will the dance have to go through another death before it regains its own glory? As dance is part of life itself, the nation and its consciousness will have to go through a revolutionary change in character. Indian arts have been slowly deteriorating because crudities have crept in. The sense of color has almost vanished, equally the sense of form and line. The ordinary dramas portraying religious stories like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were crude and childish in presentation, though sincere in spirit. Today sophisticated vulgarity has taken the place of simple crudeness.
Which is preferable, the crudeness of the ignorant or the vulgarity of the sophisticated? The latter has no compensations and is subtle and dangerous while the former had at least its merits. Hard work was its feature, inspiration source, and devotion to its aim. Today, thereis dance without hard work. People want either diplomas or headlines. It is easy to have both because we do not have today, trained audiences, including art critics and the public, will take one at one’s own valuation. If that valuation is high as it is bound to be in the mind of the ignorant, the “fame” achieved is indeed great. It was said by Kathakali teachers of the old type that it took 12 years of hard training before a dancer could even take a minor part on the stage. In Bharata Natya, it took no less than seven or eight years of hard work. Today, even twelve months is too long. Owing to the lack of devotion, there is a lack of discipline and, as a consequence, there is a deficiency in technique. The result is that there is no inspiration. To make up for this, false stimulation from outside is resorted to, instead of true stimulation from within. This naturally kills the creative spirit and, therefore, there has to be copying from others, and perhaps also borrowing from foreign countries. True art never copies. It is like a well of deep cool waters from which flows fresh ideas and life. India understood the dance as joy which is why Nataraja’s dance is called Ananda- Tandava. This joy is that of a Yogi. What sort of a Yogi? One who has forgotten his body. The forgetfulness is not due to negligence but due to control.
After training the body, one forgets it. This is the technique of “art which conceals art”. This is why the dance is called Yoga. People think that technique is the antithesis of creative expression. This is a wrong notion, since the creative spirit is but the achievement of a technique by which the technique itself vanishes, and uniqueness is the result. This final out- come is the supreme joy of creation. Even in folk art, there is the expression of joy. Every part of India has its folk art, solo or group dramas, and dance dramas. Each type expressed the uniqueness of the life and thought around, all different from each other like the Garba and the Rasa Lila of Gujarat, the Kaikottikali and Kolkali of Malabar, Kummi and Kolattam of the Tamil country, the village dances of Assam, Orissa and other places. For groups of every level of thought, there is the dance from the lowest to the highest, from the child to the adult, filling the country with music and movement. When Indians realize what is Indian in essence, art will regain its original height and the dance will return to the people in all its pristine purity. Dance is being revived but if this revival is to continue, we must know the spiritual message of art and make art a part of our lives. Then our very lives will become works of art and India will become a Land of Beauty; a fit vehicle for the message of the Sages and Saviour of humanity.
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