Dances of India, rich in dualisms

Sacred and profane, motion and stasis, renewal and destruction: Indian culture combines them all

Dances of India,  rich in dualisms

The dance forms of India – although I began to watch them more than 30 years ago in London – became a regular and deepening source of fascination to me only once I began work as chief dance critic of The New York Times in 2007. It’s been a boon, after decades of dance-going, to investigate them: They’ve extended my idea of dance itself, what it can be and signify.

New York sees excellent examples of Indian dance each year. Three examples of its classical styles were on recently. Two, at the Skirball Centre for the Performing Arts at New York University, are World Music Institute “Dancing the Gods” performances, each exemplifying a different classical idiom. Bharatanatyam has a centuries-old matrilineal tradition. Rama and Dakshina Vaidyanathan, mother and daughter, performed “Dwita – Duality of Life.”

If “Duality of Life” were the title of a ballet or modern dance work, my heart would probably sink. Yet in Indian dance, philosophical themes are unpretentiously, modestly and affectingly addressed – as if to illustrate, by focusing on the sublime, how much larger existence is than any mere dancer. (This music, this space, this myth, this god, this art: Although I bring them together, I am just a part.)
Parul Shah and Prashant Shah (no relation) performed in the Kathak style. This programme was called “Kadamb and Beyond: A Tribute to Kumudini Lakhia,” acknowledging the work of the Kathak pioneer Lakhia and the Kadamb School she founded in 1967.

William Dalrymple, author of “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India”, lectured on the history and culture of Hyderabad at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was followed by an original dance by Preeti Vasudevan and her dance company Thresh. Vasudevan was trained in Bharatanatyam; today she’s one of a number of artists who combine classical Indian dance with contemporary Western forms.

Each of these can only hint at the dance variety of India. Twice in recent years, I’ve made four-week visits there. The biggest lesson of my first trip (February-March 2012) was that dance is more central to Indian culture than to any other I’ve encountered. Just one small example: On arrival at the airport in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, the poster welcoming arrivals was a vast image of Odissi, the state’s beautiful classical dance form. More crucially, all around the nation, the Hindu gods are seen as dancing; and Shiva’s dance is cosmological.

The chief discovery of my second visit (December 2014-January 2015) was that dance in India covers a far wider spectrum than in any other culture in the world. To explain this, I single out just eight days, December 18-25. Christmas Day I spent in Mumbai watching a big Bollywood musical, “PK,” an appealingly nutty crazy-quilt in which a chap from outer space ends up breaking into song and dance as he falls in love with the Indian heroine. In “PK,” dance keeps bubbling up at the oddest moments – I especially liked the policemen who burst into dance as they chased after the hero.

I had been in the southwest state of Kerala from December 18 to 22, watching the local forms of Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Theyyem. Mohiniattam (all-female) and Kathakali (all-male) are recognised among India’s classical forms; and although Kathakali and Theyyem are among its strangest, they now feature prominently in tourist imagery, for reasons of their exotically picturesque makeup.

It was not till this trip that Kathakali – Homeric in its epic metre, character-packed drama and variety of intense dramatic colour – became a revelatory experience to me; and I would travel back for more. On the evening of December 19, as I rushed in a cab from one side of Thrissur (a long and exuberant open-air Kathakali performance) to the other (to catch Kalamandalam students dancing Mohiniattam) and back again, Thrissur’s dance world felt as busy as New York’s.

Theyyem is an example of both trance dance and of divine embodiment. The dancer doesn’t impersonate but becomes the god. In Dalrymple’s “Nine Lives,” Theyyem artist Hari Das explains what divine possession is like: “When the drums are playing and your makeup is finished, they hand you a mirror and you look at your face, transformed into that of a god. Then it comes. It’s as if there is a sudden explosion of light. A vista of complete brilliance opens up - it blinds the senses.”

Although I had heard of trance dance and divine possession, I had expected them to be different – more physically ample, for one thing. Das also relates how the genre’s performers come from the lowest castes of Kerala society. During the three months of the Theyyem season, they are revered and well paid but then return to menial employment the rest of the year.

Theyyem is just one astonishing example of India’s dance sociology. A more archetypal image of India, but now receding into history, is the female temple dancer.

The devadasis
For ballet people, the bayadère – temple dancer – is their central idea of Indian dance: in particular Nikiya, the heroine of Marius Petipa’s 1877 romantic-classical ballet “La Bayadère,” and the corps de ballet of Shades. The historic truth of bayadères, however, arises from the centuries-old Indian tradition of devadasis: women dedicated to the temple from childhood, some as dancers and/or musicians, some as prostitutes, some as all of the above. They were outlawed in 1984, after decades of reform.

Last month, many were fascinated to read The New York Times’ obituary of Sashimani Devi, 92, the last temple dancer at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha. Devi was initiated into temple service at 7 or 8. At a 1994 conference, in her early 70s, she danced a dance that she had been taught at the temple and that had its roots 5,000 years ago.

Those of us brought up in the West may be amazed by the profound and pervasive connection between religion and dance here. At the temple in Konark, the thrilling proliferation of sculpted images adorning the multipillared Hall of Dance are, like those in many other Indian temples, important sources for today’s dancers.

Although there are no longer temple dancers, dancing certainly occurs in temples. On February 20, 2012, in Tamil Nadu, I watched a dance festival at the temple at Chidambaram on the day of the year when the great god Shiva was honoured as Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance.

Chidambaram is the temple most associated with Nataraja, whose dance implies change, destruction, renewal. Statues depict him balanced on one leg, within an arc or circle of flame. Among the implications of his pose are movement within stillness and stillness within movement. Sacred and profane, motion and stasis, renewal and destruction: Indian culture delights in dualisms, and dance is at their heart.

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