Classical Indian Dance Philosophy

Dance seems to be a form of expression that exists consistently in the vast majority of cultures. It is used for a myriad of different reasons including fun, exercise, ritual, or as a social catalyst. It builds connections with others and with one’s own body and expresses the most prominent aspects of the culture that developed it. Sometimes it is used to mirror every day occurrences, or to embellish emotion, or to release illness and psychological distress. Many forms of dance are rich with subtle symbols, and become multi layered complicated stories. Indian Classical Dance seems to have embodied all of these traits in its journey from its beginning purpose of “art [used] to express reality” (Waits) to its primarily entertainment focused appearance in campy Hollywood influenced movies and fun Bhangra style with a hint of hip-hop. Through all of its changes and influences this dance form has embraced as its own, Indian Dance still remains an important part of Indian philosophy and culture and even in its most westernized interpretations infuses an undeniably spiritual essence.

Indian dance started as a strictly religious art form. The god Shiva is often credited with being the inventor of this art form. Not only symbolizing dance, this elephant god represents myth, symbolism, and mysticism which are all essential aspects of classical Indian dance. In its beginnings between the first and second century, dancers were called “Devadasis”, literally translating into “Servants of God”. These devadasis would dance in temples in honour of the Gods and to express their respect and dedication to their spiritual path (Waits). Groups of devadasis were primarily comprised of upper class individuals, as it was of the highest honour to get to dance in front of the chambers of the higher deities. Only the most talented and beautiful would be afforded this privilege. Devadasis were vastly respected and honoured for many years until British colonialism began to become prevalent. Suddenly devadasis began to be seen as low class, offensive, and essentially were accused of prostitution. They were barred from dancing in temples and this form of dance was hidden from the early 1900s right up until 1947. Because of such a large span of time being stagnant, many aspects of this dance were reinvented. “Instead of dancing in temples, devadasis [began to] dance on stage” (Waits), and have preserved, albeit an altered form, of this dance which can still be seen today. While there are many forms of Classical Indian Dance, each with their own set of gestures and symbols, there are basic principles that are consistent through all variations and make it a distinct and significant art form.

All Classical Indian styles of dance utilize “an abstract movement repertoire” (Chakavorty) in conjunction with an adherence to a concept called “Riaz”. This is a dance-related as well as cultural concept. Translated from Arabic it means “abstinence, devotion, discipline and hard labour” (Neuman). Riaz deals with memories and notions infused in the individual through repeated practice, osmosis, and intense observation and practice which are then manifested as an “ideal enactment” (Chakavorty). There is an air of instinct to riaz, the individual studies closely their mentor, teacher, parents, or guru, and on both conscious and sub conscious levels takes on the mannerisms of their authority figures to later be utilized when they are ready to express themselves as an independent individual whether it be in performance or off-stage in mundane interactions. Chakavorty assures the reader in her article that Riaz “is not a blind imitation for social reproduction”. Even though this may seem like an unyielding and strict concept bent on producing a community of clones, a closer look reveals that there is always at some point room for improvisation. Indian dance is used to tell a story, and each section of each piece performed allows the dancer varying degrees of personal expression. The most interpretive segment of the dance, though length varies between forms, is a “miming expressive section associated with literature and poetry” (Chakavorty). Here the dancer is free to express their individual personality a little more and add their own unique insight to the story. Improvisation and play are in fact quite integral to the dance and in riaz, and when one has mastered the subtleties and has a proper understanding of the technique, it produces a beautiful effect that makes each dance individualistic yet recognizable as a classical Indian dance to those who are familiar with its appearance. The principles of riaz encourage intense devotion and worship. Only through passionate dedication can one master this, and only through mastery of this concept is the dedication proven. Riaz cannot merely be thought of as practice or repetition with the desire of learning a routine. Neuman assures the sceptical individual that “it is not only preparation for the performance, but also a preparation for an unattainable perfection. It is a learning experience for which there is never an end, only successive stages” (1980: 34). The combination of mental and physical perseverance is consistent in all aspects of Indian culture, and riaz is simultaneously the basis of the common cultural attitude as well as the method for ensuring this basis.

The importance of riaz remains central in the learning process as well as the teaching process of Indian dance. This dance strongly involves the mind and emotions, using the body to communicate complex stories and to transfer emotions to the audience so they experience a sensation more akin to what the performer is feeling rather than just observing what the performer is doing and enjoying it for merely aesthetic purposes. In Waits’ article which serves as a general explanation of the common traits of Indian dance, we learn there is a universal set of emotions that are utilized by the dancer. They all have their own specific culturally applicable names but can be translated to indicate erotic, humorous, fierce, peaceful, heroic, fearful, disgusted, and wondrous. In most dances erotic is the most important emotion expressed. (2001). The dancer can take on any combination of these emotions and communicates them by using hand mudras, face make-up and expression, as well as costumes that have certain colours and styles to indicate the nature of each character. Mudras are hand gestures used to denote a specific concept or activity. Essentially a type of sign language, “there are twenty-eight single hand gestures and twenty-three double hand gestures” (Waits). They come from an ancient text called the Natya Shastra and are still used today. Mudras are consistent through different styles of dance and even through all the changes made to this ancient art form over the years they remain understandable to Indian audiences.

There are a myriad of characteristics that comprise the many different styles of classical Indian dance. Dance Spirit magazine provides a brief list of six different styles with common concepts and characteristics explained to give a general picture of what they might look like. Each form originates from a different geographical location in India, uses different symbols and props to portray the story, has unique movement patterns and postures, and deals with common themes or concepts. One particularly interesting dance the article “India: On The Move” details is called Bharatanatyam. Roughly translated its name means melody, rhythm, and dance. Originating in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, dancers performing Bharatanatyam use elaborate hand movements to display emotion and maintain a posture that emulates ancient statues. In this style, the body is visualized as two triangles, one above and one below the torso. The two triangles are maintained by the firm positions of the lower limbs and an even distribution of weight. This dance form is broken down into three more distinct forms, each with its own purpose and qualities. Nritta is the abstract, rhythmic dance itself, and Nritya is the narrative part of the dance more focused on body movements and facial expressions. In the third form of the dance, Natya, the two previous forms are combined to create “dance drama” (India: On the Move). Poised on stage with bent knees, the dancers look like ancient temple sculptures. Their movement patterns are geometrically precise and fluid, giving the effect of inanimate stone carvings becoming infused with life force. It is an incredibly earthy dance with vibrant movements and precise hand gestures. The hands are painted with henna to accentuate these precise movements and reflect the femininity of the dancers. Others forms of Indian dance, such as Manipuri from northeastern India, are much more sensuous and tender. Instead of the stomping foot movements used in Bharatanatyam, feet are gently pressed on the stage. These gently pressing movements are used to tell the story of the beginning of the earth, which is a legend Manipuri is based on. The dancers represent the first female deities who pressed the lumpy new-born earth to make it smooth. Also unlike Bharatanatyam, there are few still poses. The dancers appear to constantly be striving for balance, swaying back and forth to create a hypnotic feel and dancing in circular patterns. The costuming is also unique to the dance, using veils and mirrored skirts to create an ethereal appearance.

It can be assumed that dance is a large part of education and social learning in Indian culture. Dancers typically begin their training between five and seven years of age, and continue well on into their adulthood. Chatavorky’s article supports the idea that dance is an integral part of the learning process when she differentiates between the Indian and North American views of cognition and perception. In Western theatre, film and media, the audience is a passive or voyeuristic spectator that maintains belief in the parallel between “knowing” and “seeing”. In Indian performance the audience experiences the emotions with the dancer and is an infinitely important part of the performance. The communication between the performer and the audience is integral as the story being portrayed isn’t complete until it is fully perceived by an audience. Charavorky also claims that through riaz, or bodily pratice cultural memory is evoked. Indian dance is important in this aspect as it represents many emotions and serves in part to communicate cultural identity to dancers and audiences alike. Particularly for a dancer learning the importance of riaz and reaping its benefits of discipline and devotion, classical Indian dance is a very significant part of the socialization process.

Olivia Whitmer (2004) brings to light the concept of “restored behaviour” which can be applied to classical Indian dance’s importance in society. She claims that “Restored behaviour is the main quality of performance” (498), and presents Richard Schechner’s theory on restored behaviour as both the way classical Indian dance has evolved from ancient times to today and how its values and emotions have remained relevant over all the time it has been a practiced art form. In this theory, Schechner compares the process of restored behaviour to the editing process of a film. Different pieces of behaviour are cut apart and recombined to create a new or equivalent representation of that old behaviour. It is a process used in all kinds of performances, including daily interactions. Old behaviours are given new meaning in new contexts. He claims that “because behaviour is separate from those who are behaving, the behaviour can be stored, transmitted, manipulated, transformed Performance is twice behaved behaviour” (205). This concept is prevalent in Indian Classical dance. Its transformations over the years and its recent Westernization have made it an even more multilayered dance, recombined to maintain ancient concepts while speaking to a modern audience. Even the highly structured dance Bharatanatyam is comprised of restored behaviour. The version we see today is a restoration of the ancient temple dances as interpreted through artifacts and the ancient writings in the Natyasastra.

Because Classical Indian dance is so ingrained in the culture of India, it is difficult to study a single aspect of the dance without learning endless things about the general characteristics of Indian culture. It is intertwined with cultural values, myth, spirituality and history. The multitude of changes it has endured over the years have made it stronger, it has grown with the country and served as a showcase of identity and an adhesive between ancient beliefs and modern situations. Dancing is healthy for the body and mind, a great form of communication, and can become a lifelong practice. Classical Indian dance teaches patience, devotion, respect and endurance. It is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual practice.

Works Cited:

Neuman, Daniel M.
1980 The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of Artistic Tradition
Detroit: Wayne State University Press

India: On The Move. Dance Spirit, Oct 2003, Vol. 7 Issue 8, p50-158

Schechner, Richard. Performative Circumstances From the Avant Garde to Ramlila. Calcutta, Seagull Books, 1983

Dancing the Past into the Present: Ruth St. Denis and Bharatanatyam. By: Whitmer, Olivia. Journal of Popular Culture, Spring2004, Vol. 37 Issue 3, p497-504