Classical Indian Dance

Presented and described
by Lakshmi Amman
of Sri Ranganatha

Sloka taught by Aparna Sindhoor
Nritta taught by Triveni School of Dance

written for the Society of Creative Anachronism
Northern Lights, AS 35

Introduction

It is quite impossible to reach a definite conclusion about exactly how a temple dance performance would have appeared in pre-1600 India. However, through literature and the dynamically lifelike temple sculpture we can reconstruct an impression of what the dance might have looked like and how it was performed. Combining this with hereditary dance forms still in existence today, we can form a further concept of how one might prepare and train to actually perform this dance. This very aim is the goal of many of the modern dance forms in India. Students of the art approached hereditary performers, learned their art, and then sought to find how it related to surviving works from ancient times. Although I’m glad to answer questions about the possible historical and social contexts of Indian dance during the SCA time period, the focus of this paper is an investigation into the meaning and movements of a specific dance piece called the "Aangikum Slokum".

Dance can first be approached by dividing the performance into two parts: the sloka and nritta . The dance presented here is of the sloka variety. The sloka , meaning prayer or hymn, is a combination of dance and chant without a set rhythm. It is generally of brief duration and contains a religious concept, usually one that also pertains to dance. A performance of a sloka generally consists of a single singer, with no accompaniment, singing the chant, and timing the music to the movements of the dancer. Simultaneously the dancer is using hand gestures, body movements and facial expressions to convey the ideas represented in the sloka. The sloka is generally slow and pensive in mood, as it seeks to put the audience into the right mind frame for a religious experience. It is also usual for a sloka to reference Hindu mythology, or mythological concepts, which would be part of the shared cultural heritage of a Hindu audience.

General Meanings

Most Hindu sages will agree that the goal of every human is to end the cycle of rebirth. Hindus believe that it is their fate, or rather dharma , to be endlessly reborn into material forms until they have achieve the spiritual enlightenment of the gods. At that point, they exit the material world, and gain access to the spiritual realm. What exactly happens when the spiritual realm is attained is debatable. The spiritually awakened may die and ascend to heaven to be with the gods, who exist in perfect spiritual enlightenment, where the best of parts of the material world are awaiting. Others sources contend that the enlightened one will live forever, and become one with the highest of gods. Yet again, who this "highest of gods" is depends on one's viewpoint. There are two major sects of Hinduism - the Shaivates and the Vishnavites, the followers of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. Each believes that its god is the superior, while the other is a secondary deity, perhaps even a lesser aspect of the greater god. There also exist numerous other sects each focused on it's own primary deity or deities.

One of the ways to attain enlightenment is by appreciating the beauty of the world, and therefore the divine, which created it. This concept includes the appreciation of both natural beauty and art created by man. They are both one and the same. Furthermore, both the creator of beauty and the audience are involved in this spiritual communion. Whether the beauty is a sculpture, a piece of music, a dance performance, or all three at once, all that creates it and all that beholds it seeks to become imbued with spiritual ecstasy, which transforms one from something simply human into something divine in that moment of execution. This beauty is experienced ecstatically the forms of classical dance, music, sculpture and architecture, and also in the experience of love between human beings.

This dance is concerned with that very concept. It is saying, simply put, that the dancer, the audience, the performance space and the music all combine into something bigger than each is individually. In so doing, the soulful, meditative dancer eventually will become one with Shiva, the god most closely associated with dance.

Translation of Movements

The words and movements of the sloka are detailed below, the Sanskrit word is bold, the literal translation of the word is provided in quotation marks, "", and the full meaning of this word within the dance is elaborated. Lastly, notes follow regarding the symbolism of the physical movements. Names for the various mudras, or hand gestures, along with other Indian terminology have been italicized.

Aangikam = "the whole body", of the dancer. The dancer’s entire body is the vehicle of the expression of the dance. Hands are in the mudra alaputma, gesturing to the entire body.


Bhuvanam = "the performance space". The area for the dance performance — the stage, the audience seating, the walls, any decoractions. All of this area is sacred. Hands are in the position pataka, spreading outward to encompass the surrounding area.


Yesya = "whose", in this phrase it likely means the dancer and possibly also the audience. The right hand is in the position shikara.


Vaachikam = "song or poetry". Song and poetry are much alike in Indian culture as poetry is chanted in a songlike manner, and songs are not necessarily rhythmical. The right hand expands into alaputma, signifying breath coming from the mouth.


Sarva = "the universe". These things are much bigger than just the here and now. Performance embodies the divinity of creation. Dancer walks in a circle while the hands in pataka spread outward encompassing a wide area.


Vaangmayam ="of the voice". The translation here is a little fuzzy, but most likely it means the voice of the universe. Hands expand outward into alaputma, coming from the mouth.


Aacharyam = "jewelry". The ornaments that the dancer is wearing, her bracelets and necklace. This necklace becomes the serpent worn by the dancing god, Shiva. The dancer mimes her bracelets, her necklace, and transforms the necklace into a serpent.


Chandra = "the moon". The moon above is also an ornament on Shiva’s headdress. The right hand, in the mudra atkajendrastia, symbolizes the moon.


Taaradi = "the stars". The stars, which also decorate Shiva’s headdress. Each hand, expanding into alaputma, symbolizes a star.


Tam = "him", referring to the dancer. Hands are spread in pataka in front of the dancer.


Vande = "worship". Through the worship of dance, which is equivalent to prayer… Hands come together into angelishta, a prayerful shape.


Satvikam = "the soulful performer". The performer intent on her presentation, focused on delighting the audience, and bringing the divine into her dance. This performer will become… The right hand is in the shape humshapucsha, while the left is dorahastia.


Shivam = "Shiva, the godhead". The dancer will become Shiva Nataraja, the lord of dance. The dancer is attaining enlightenment in her union with the god. This position is the figure of Shiva Nataraja, the divine dancer. The position is meant to be a combination of static relaxation and dynamic tension, as the dancer seems to be leaping into motion, while holding the still pose.


 

Bibliography

Begde, Prabhakar V. Living Sculpure: Classical Indian Culture as Depicted in Sculpture & Literature. New Delhi: Sagar Publications, 1996.

Dimmitt, Cornielia & J.A.B van Buitenen, ed. & trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

Gaston, Anne-Marie. Bharata Natyam: From Temple to Theatre . New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1996.

Hiriyanna, M. The Essentials of Indian Philosophy . London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Olivelle, Patrick, trans. Dharmasutras . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Renou, Louis, ed. Hinduism . New York: George Braziller, 1962.

Sanskrit Documents Site, Online Sanskrit Dictionary, http://www.alkhemy.com/sanskrit/dict/

Sindhoor, Aparna. Dance teachings in Cambridge, MA. August 2000- July 2001.

Triveni School of Dance. Dance classes in Brookline, MA. September 2000-February 2001.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946.

Pictures taken from http://alaike.lcc.hawaii.edu/sg/hinduism/index.html

Many thanks should also be given to Alexander Ruslanovich for his patient ear, wise advice and technical assistance