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Kathak Kendra performers at the Dance Festival of India 2008, Carnegie Hall, NY

An Indian Jewel

November 2008\

CLASSICAL DANCE IN India dates to at least 3,000 BC and the terms antiquity, sanctity and variety succinctly describe it. The recent Dance Festival of India 2008, which took place in Carnegie Hall, was the instigation for this article,

The ancient Dravidian civilization of India was a very advanced one. The figurine of a dancing girl found in the northern ruins of Mohenodara attests to the presence of solo dance in this culture. The rock paintings of the Bhimbetaka caves in central India show sequences of group dances. Other wall paintings, the sculptured figures of the asparas, or mythical celestial dancers, and the magnificent carvings of dancers in Hindu temples throughout the country are evidence of the importance of dance in Indian culture and the strong relationship of dance to the other arts, particularly sculpture.

Little is known of the Dravidian culture, which was centered around the Indus River, but it was subjected to invasion by the Aryans, who came from the northern steppes. The synthesis of the male centered Aryan beliefs and the female centered, nature-oriented society of India resulted in Hinduism, to which the invaders brought Sanskrit and the Vedas, four holy books of knowledge. They also imposed the caste system, giving them a means of control. Hinduism spread from north to south and remained in spite of many invasions and civil wars.

Two of the basic tenets of Hinduism are the image of life as a wheel in which all the spokes are connected and of equal value (e.g. religion, sex, the arts) and the belief in one god who has three different manifestations. The wheel, an inseparable unity of spiritual and material, keeps turning. Death is not an end, but a condition of renewal. Dance, drama and music are essential to all tasks and are intertwined.

The three aspects of the one god – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver (often called Rama or Krishna) and Shiva the destroyer – present a philosophy that accepts the contradictions of human existence, denying that something must be either black or white.

An example of this is that Shiva, also the god of dance, is credited with creating the universe through his cosmic dance. His image, with its four arms, projects creation and destruction, evolution and change – the fundamentals of Hindu theology. His one right hand holds a drum, depicting creation via rhythm. His other right hand is lifted in a sign for hope, victory and peace. One left hand holds fire, the symbol of destruction. The other points to his left foot, which is raised as a sign of releasing souls from illusion. His right foot crushes a dwarf demon that personifies evil. A flaming arch representing the cosmos surrounds him.

Although human dance began as ritual, most often religious, Indian dance began and remained in the temples, where the female dancers or devidasis, who started their training at a very young age, originally danced only for the gods and goddesses or the priests. It was a holy calling and to this day a performance is preceded by an offering to the gods, who are very human characters in Hindu mythology

The two epics of India, the Ramayana, which deals with the Aryan invasions southward, and the Mahabharata, which is about the countryís civil wars, are filled with tales of gods, goddesses, demon kings, the monkey king, many wars and much love. They form the narrative of most dance in India and in much of Asia as well.

Sastras are the books in which all learning in ancient India was compiled. Among the greatest of these, unparalleled in the world, are the Bharata Natya Sastra (Book of Drama, c. 2 BC-3 AD), in which the rules governing classical dance technique are found, and the later Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror of Gestures), which deals just with dance and expands on the former. The term natya is the dramatic element in a performance and translates as both dance and drama. Nritta is pure rhythmic dance and nritya is the expressive, narrative interpretation. The Natya Sastra has rules and examples covering poetry and song, costume and makeup, the evocation of emotional states and gestures of the body.

In the latter, each part is analyzed and there are, for instance, 13 gestures for the head, 9 for the eyelids, 6 each for the nose, cheeks and lower lip, 3 for the belly and 5 each for the chest, waist, sides, thighs, calves and feet. The hand movements (hastra mudras) are the only part of the body assigned both nritta and nritya and they can tell a complete story.

There are 32 units of movements called chari, for one leg only, and 108 karanas, which are for both feet and can include hand gestures. Stylistically most Indian classical dance is characterized by hard foot contact with the floor, relatively few jumps and tremendous coordination of body parts. The full body of the dancer is treated sculpturally, as a mass around a plumb line the can deviate in different ways.

The relationship of dance to music is a close one. The first thing young students learn is how to stamp out the basic musical rhythms. In performance there is often a spontaneous improvisatory section where the dancer and musicians play off each other. There can be several rhythms taking place simultaneously.

Dance, regarded as a synthesis of sculpture, music and literature is closely tied to the latter and hundreds of beautiful poems are presented as songs that the dancers express through their own sensibility, using the facial expressions and hand movements of their training. It is the ability of the performer to evoke the taste of an emotion or a particular state of mind in the audience – e.g. to be erotic in order to elicit a feeling of love – that is the ultimate criteria in judging Indian classical dance. This is also the aesthetic and true function of all Hindu art.

Dance in India can be divided into two eras: 2 BC to 9 AD, when all dance was governed by the classic codes, and the 10th to the 18th centuries, when regional styles and languages developed. The different classical styles as they are now known came into existence when the regional differences, influenced by folk dance, began to appear. The attempt by the British during their rule to eliminate the art was, fortunately, not successful.

The festival in Carnegie Hall presented five genres, each danced by a different group representing various geographical areas. Although most classical dance was traditionally performed as solos by women, the Natya Sastra does contain group choreography and in recent years men, who originally danced only certain male styles, have performed everything, as have women. Hence the performance presented current developments, including new choreography, while still honoring tradition.

First on the program was Bharatanatyam, danced by Nrithya Shree and Company. This style, from the south, is perhaps the best known of the classical dance forms. It is characterized by a sharp attack and a subtle awareness that reflects its beginnings in the temples and is probably the oldest of the forms that have survived. With its basic stance of bent legs, resembling a ballet demi-plie, its arms and body positions and movement that is thought of either in straight lines or triangles, it creates a sort of architecture in space. The five women and three men performed a three-part piece that included a Benediction to Shiva and an Ecstasy that displayed the syncopation in the form.

This was followed by the highlight of the evening, an Odissi dance performed by the Sutra Dance Theater of Malaysia. The style, from the east, is very old, but has been rediscovered more recently. Its characteristic features are a curving hip deflection, complicated rhythms based on the heel only and many elevations and jumps. Using beautiful slides as a backdrop, the first part was a tribute to the mother goddess, a graceful womanly figure, and the second an homage to the sun god Suria, who makes both light and darkness. This group piece was choreographed by Ramli Ibrahim, a Malaysian Muslim currently working in Kuala Lumpur. He was trained in India by Guru Deva Prasad Das, whose style maintained the original folk elements. Modern choreography in this vein often does not work, but Ibrahimís does. He and his company are elegant performers. It would be wonderful to see him on a program of his own.

Mohini Attam is a lyrical approach often compared to the palm fronds of Kerala in the south. One dance in this form was about Vishnu transforming himself into a beautiful woman and another about the love between Krishna and his wife Radna. The Kuchipudi Arts Academy Ensemble, based in the southeast, teaches a style originally meant only for men, who dressed as women and performed fast, gliding steps. The young dancers of the Ensemble were all women.

Last on the program was an example of Kathak demonstrated by Kathak Kendra from New Delhi. A product of the north, it was originally seen in sacred venues and then moved into the courts of the Moghul conquerors, who did not believe in dance as a form of worship. Here the stress was on abstract design through rhythm, jumps and turns around a central vertical line and highly complex footwork. The two men, five women and two percussionists created an interactive pulse that brought the evening to a lively close.

The festival host, Anita Ratnam, tried to make up for poor or missing program notes by talking. The result was too long and confusing, even for those with knowledge of the different styles. More importantly, Carnegie Hall, with its unmatched acoustics, is divine for sound, but not very good for dance. The stage, with no backdrop or wings, and its vast distance from the audience, is definitely not the place to show Indian dance. Hopefully the organizers will choose a more accessible venue next time because this art form should be shared.