An art form that uses the body as its instrument but is ruled by the mind—and the heart. Leela Samson on the challenges faced by the Indian classical dancer
Photograph: R Prasanna
Before I became a dancer, I had to come to terms with what it is to be born in a female body in the society and country that I was born in. Differing attitudes about the body at different periods of time has always impacted the manner in which women use and treat their bodies. The difference in values that each household brings to bear upon its male or female child varies and directly affects attitudes too. Some of it is about the body, but so much of it has to do with the mind, with people’s ideas, their emancipation, or lack of it, religious and political beliefs, idea of beauty, sensitivity, prejudices and value systems—the list is endless.
The same is true of the dance style that I happened upon, adopted and was drawn to. Every dance form adheres to certain belief systems peculiar to it, to certain norms of beauty—both physical and beyond the physical. In what is generally considered a conservative country, Indian dance forms have traditionally adhered to extremely liberal mandalas or postures. Not just the postures, it is also manifest in the poetry we perform to, the costumes we wear, the complexity of our philosophy and explicit sensuality in our performance. The contradictions are evident.
Each of us dancers therefore arrives upon the norms we favour according to our propensity and circumstance, but these too change due to our “outer” training and our “inner” conviction and growing awareness along the journey. However, irrespective of a dancer’s mental growth, there is no doubt that “the body” itself remains a constant challenge—to every one of us. This is especially so because of the many years it takes for a “dance art” to be adopted by the body. After years of dance practice, my chosen style felt like a well-worn garment, second only to my own nature. It became a reflection of who I really am. Yet, how much of what I do on stage is about who I am? And should it be at all?
These are interesting questions, because a dancer, not unlike an actor in theatre, portrays different characters and various situations. In fact, a dancer has to go a step beyond her counterpart in theatre since, sans props, she first depicts the context of her narrative—the trees, flowers, clouds, animals, seas or rivers, a storm or spring. She locates herself in that situation, and then describes another character that she is speaking about—to a third person, usually a sakhi, who could be a girl, a parrot or even the clouds! One of these characters in the plot could be a demon, or a god. And none of these persons exist! Are all of these “me”?
As an actor, I try to get “under the skin” of these fictitious characters, so that my own nature recedes. Being able to do this is considered high virtue. However, it is naïve to think that no one knows who you are! As a dancer, I believe the ultimate goal is not whether the audience forgets who you are, but whether I can “forget” myself, my instrument, my body. I know that as a performer, I cannot forget my script, the storyline or my movements on stage. A story has to progress. Although I am in costume, rather overtly, yet only as a dancer, not as this or that nayika or heroine and certainly not as a character, although I may play Shiva, Manmatha, Yama or a host of other mythical characters. To play another person while looking myself, carrying the “weight” of my own personality, with all the known parameters of my appearance, age and reputation, or lack of it, is a challenge. This is why a particularly gorgeous body or pretty face are not assets. These usually envied features can be serious liabilities—what it does to my ego and sense of self, on the one hand; and how easily it comes in the way of an audience getting beyond how pretty I am and into the characters that I am trying so hard to portray, on the other. But critically, going beyond the vehicle of expression that is the dancer and appreciating the beauty of the dance art itself!
Training typically begins with what seem like simple postures—standing, half-sitting, full-sitting and so on. I realised that there were a whole lot of muscles in my body I did not know existed. Opening up the body to sit in pliés, or open-knee positions, should come easily to a child born in India, as it reflects the way we sit on the floor—with our knees almost touching the ground. Once I learnt to adopt the postures without falling forward or backward, striking or slapping the feet in those postures in varying permutations and different time cycles became one’s goal. Now my brain was involved directly in solving rhythmic solutions in abstraction. This directly affected my balance. Keeping posture and working the feet in that posture or moving away from a point while keeping differing rhythmic counts, all but consumed my mind and killed my confidence. Such simple actions, but so difficult!
Every new movement brought with it new pain. Every additional part of the body or limb I used seemed out of alignment or incompatible with the other. It seemed to me that each limb wished to work independently without reference to another. But every single part of the body is connected to the other in the most intimate and subtle way possible. If only we knew how many different muscles are required to pick up a spoon, we might appreciate the complexity of these simple actions. It is only when injury occurs to a minuscule part that one realises the enormity of the interdependency.
Classical Indian dance forms use micro positions of the fingers, called hasta mudras, and movements of the head, neck and eye, that serve to enhance the beauty of the macro movements of the whole body. These are considered “graces”, without which the whole has little attraction. It is much like placing an object in a room: Where you choose to place it, what angle you will place it at, what lies next to it and what the background to the object is, all this affects the art. When these constantly changing, micro facial, neck, shoulder, wrist and finger gestures are aligned with adavus, or movements of the body, as a whole, in varying rhythmic patterns, the body feels alternatively torn to shreds or on song!
Photograph: Parveen Jaggi
But all this is at the physical level. If you begin to look at the complex nature of a dancer’s mind and desire to do or not do something, it becomes an even more difficult tale. Whether the volition to “act” comes from the heart or whether instruction to the body to move in particular ways comes from the brain is an important difference. Both are necessary. To do the same movement every day over years requires some strict orders from the brain. However, to want to do it from the heart makes all the difference to how it is viewed.
We see artists in India in their eighties, still performing. Some even dance while carrying the heavy paraphernalia of costume and make-up. The Kathakali and Koodiyaattam artists of Kerala are an example of the power of will over a frail, worn-out body. The strength of the body, when supported by the heart and mind, cannot be underestimated! I have survived five decades in dance and know that it is all about mind over matter. The practice is relentless; the pain never goes away; the complexity never diminishes. The performance gives joy beyond comprehension. But the dagger of failure hangs over one’s body from the beginning of the journey. Performing is not a choice for the faint-hearted. Repetition, rigorous and meditative practice has to be the bedrock of artistic endeavour—the very air an artist breathes. In fact, it is very much about breath! So much of what happens between two breaths is the magic of dance.
When the macro movement and the minor graces fall in sync with each other to become one expression, and are mastered in varying gaits of rhythmic cycles, a student of dance can feel superhuman! To be able to jump and land on one foot, to be able to twirl and not lose one’s balance, to be able to work on the floor while the energy moves upwards, to strike the feet in miraculous ways like a drummer—this is heady and exciting. But that is only one aspect of dance. When sahitya or text appears, it brings the ego crashing down to earth, because here is a whole new experience: the working of the face, expressing the meaning of the poetry that at first seems impossible but which can ultimately lead to the same liberation experienced by the body in abstract dance. Only, abhinaya is the longer journey; it is not only harder, but often eludes a dancer completely.
I soon realised how difficult it was to simply smile if called upon to do so; or pout or frown or think or cry. In the art of abhinaya, the eyes and face become a pool that reflects what is within your heart. You realise while dancing, but so much more when watching a student or colleague dance, that the face hides nothing. And if nothing is what you wish to reveal of yourself, you can be sure that is exactly what is happening! It is for the dancer to be convinced about the story she wishes to tell, to tell that story and back it with the passion, the silence, the containment, the breath required, to tell it well. Most of all, to know the virtue of brevity in telling it—how much to leave to the imagination, that supreme place where artist and viewer roam at peace to derive their own story, take it where they will and give it a life peculiar to each of us. This journey makes one vulnerable all over again and many a dancer becomes totally, but totally, incompetent in this realm.
Yato hasta thatto drishti
Where the hand goes, there the eye must
Yato drishti thatto manah
Where the eye goes, there the mind must be,
Yato manah thatto bhavo
Where the mind is, there feeling arises,
Yato bhavah thatto rasah
Where there is feeling, sentiment is born.
This simple dictum is taught to young children when they start learning dance. The idea is obvious. If we wish to place a hand somewhere, or direct a movement to one side, the physical eye must follow the direction of the movement and not elsewhere. If the eye follows the movement, the dancer’s attention is likely to be with it as well. If the eye and mind are attentive to the action, feeling is born. And it is only if there is a true investment of feeling in what you do, that sentiment is born. Much like life, it is a manner of learning to invest one’s complete and undivided attention in every moment, in the “now”—to experience the joy it gives to oneself and to others. It is a difficult but truthful path.
Dance, to me, is a critical preparedness and concentration of body, mind and feeling on a story one wishes to tell, through a continuously developing vocabulary of movement that belongs to my cultural memory. This is handed down from generation to generation, through inspired teachers and performers. What is not passed on, though, is how to prepare and maintain the body and mind for a life dedicated to dance. The sanctity of the human body and how I feel is directly impacted by what I will allow the body to indulge in or, alternatively, what I will deny it. What I realise is how sensitive it is and how it begs for attention. But also how tough and resilient it is and how it begs for discerned use.
I learnt to listen to my body for injuries and for specific signs of wear and tear. What was missing in the guru-shishya parampara was an awareness of what makes up the body and exercise plans that can help to strengthen and sustain it for a long innings on stage. The Western world paid decades of attention to an analysis of the body, which knowledge continues to pay dividends for dancers.
What is not analysed or talked about in teaching patterns is that dance by its very nature is meant to be shared. It is a creative urge to respond to music, rhythm and verse that tells a story or simply presents an opportunity for reflection on a human situation or event. But a vital component in the telling of a story is: who is listening and watching? What is the preparedness of the audience and what are their responsibilities? In Indian thought, the rasika is not a passive participant, but an abettor, an accomplice in the creation of art. In fact, the dancer is not the one who “enjoys” the sentiment. It is the rasika who is the “appreciator” of the experience. It is she who reacts to the art experience, she who witnesses the carving of space in time, she who senses the mood depicted and she who tastes of its flavours. A good dancer is acutely aware of the audience. The artist’s total concentration and introspection is necessary for the creative moment to happen. And it is possible that the spectator experiences feelings lying dormant in her. The artist and the spectator work towards a joyful, uplifting experience for both.
In the villages of India there is no special announcement about the arrival of a great performer. They simply enter the stage, are seen talking casually to the musicians and settling down, in full view of the audience. But suddenly, without much ado, they grab the attention of the audience with just one posture. This transformation from a person like any other to a dancer is an amazing one and comes with years of training and supreme command over one’s body and one’s art.
The ultimate search for the truth of the dance is not unlike the journey of the soul as it attempts to move from the gross to the subtle, from the sensual to the spiritual. In older, more evolved dancers you can see the transformation from the body of movement to the spirit of it. What is particularly difficult to understand, yet critical to evolve to, is the theory of aesthetics that is peculiar to India. It is a philosophical, yet practised and experienced truth.
According to Kapila Vatsyayan, the “aesthetics (of Indian dance) evolves from a world view which regards the cosmic process as a dance of microcosm and macrocosm, a rhythmic interplay of eternity and flux in an unending movement of involution, evolution and devolution. Man on earth is one amongst all living matter, is integral to nature. He is in ceaseless dialogue with it. Man’s distinctiveness lies in his capacity of self-reflection and introspection and the potentiality of conscious awareness that the microcosm of his being (body, mind and consciousness) is a symbol of the processes of the macrocosm. The concept of cyclical time and notions of a still centre—a hub with spokes of a wheel, each denoting the capacity of the expansion of the consciousness in a series of concentric circles, all held together within the periphery of a large circumference are fundamental to the world view.”
Can a dancer in India afford not to know this? Can you discuss the body without this worldview or without the philosophy intrinsic to the art? Much like the seed of an idea that grows in one’s mind or the idea of a choreography that lies dormant in one’s mind, the theory of aesthetics points to all life beginning from the formless (arupa), becoming manifest in multiple forms (rupa) and returning to beyond form (pararupa). This reflects the early introspection, leading to the manifestation of an idea or expression that then creates a dhvani or resonance.
The dancer then is the vehicle of expression. All gestures, movements, patterns made on stage are intended to be part of a higher truth, a universal expression. It is particular—not just to the dancer and her capability, not even to the definitive style she performs and its parameters of beauty, but ultimately to an idea that is inclusive and universal in its appeal. The particular story is merely a peg to hang one’s coat on.
I cannot help but be astonished at the instrument I use and have attempted to hone over the past 55 years. A body that is the ultimate instrument—beautiful, vulnerable, sensitive, resilient; yet so ruled by the mind, so devastated by excesses. What painful recognition of abuse and decay. Yet what joy in overcoming these!
This article was published in Oct-Dec 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly.