Article originally published in the Sruti Magazine.
An exploration into the purported goal of Indian dance forms and its relevance to 21st century presentations.
I recently received my MA in Theatre Arts with a focus on Bharatanatyam. The thesis topic that I have been researching and writing is ‘Sringara and Bhakti – Relationship and Reciprocity in Twenty First Century Bharata Natyam’. My research explored the mutuality between these two terms integral to our dance forms and their role in the attainment of the Indian classical dancer’s purported goal – union between jeevatma and paramatma. Taking off from the historical debate between Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati in the 1930s, a debate that extended beyond their times, my study scrutinizes sringara and bhakti through their commonalities and dissimilarities. As I began the cathartic process of writing, it gradually became apparent that the goal itself needed to be re-defined. In this article I address the topic at a surface level.
Jeevatma-Paramatma union = spiritual release, we all know this. This sense of release is an ephemeral experience perceived in rarely expected and mostly unexpected fleeting moments that spring up unannounced within the hours of preparing for a performance or performing itself. I eagerly wait for those flashes of time that provide the evanescent out-of-body experience and catch me by ecstatic surprise. The rarity of such moments makes them all the more attractive, and striving for them a continuous process. The jeevatma, the dancer is the real and present human being who seeks these instances of release. The reality of the release is a concrete physical, emotional and mental encounter. However, the paramatma itself is a philosophical idea that is not tangible to the basic senses. The abstractness of this concept lies in the ambiguity of its location. Is the paramatma present in Godhead, in nature surrounding us, in the heart of the dancer or all of the above? According to Hindu philosophy, the supreme is present everywhere including within every living creature. The search for this supreme is the quest of Hinduism. The result of the search, the completion of a certain incompleteness within is also termed as moksha in Hindu philosophy and is said to be concealed within each person by ignorance. Swami Dayananda, in his book titled Introduction to Vedanta, says the following:
The fourth human goal, freedom from inadequacy, limitlessness, moksa, is not, cannot be, produced by limited effort. Freedom from inadequacy, moksa, cannot be a not-yet-achieved goal to be gained through effort. Perhaps, then, moksa may be an already-achieved goal hidden from the seeker by the ignorance of the seeker (41)
Within the context of Bharata Natyam, named as one of the paths to salvation, alias moksha, the paramatma takes the shape of a yearning that the dancer feels as well as the fulfillment of that yearning. It is a continuous compulsion to transcend oneself to a state of perfection. The unrelenting nature of this quest is what makes the dancer set on an ongoing journey. All this was noticeably pertinent when dance was performed exclusively in temples. But let us come to the twenty-first century. Current audiences are looking for relaxation, entertainment, peace, elevation and paramatma knows what else depending on their prior conditioning and the space and time they have come from. The performances today also have to cater to global audiences of all backgrounds and knowledge levels unlike audiences before who had specific knowledge and cultural commonality. For the modern dancer, between physical conditioning, marketing, academic pursuits, and juggling a myriad other endeavors called life, where is the time to think of paramatma? That time is when all else ceases to exist at the junction between movement and mood in a suspended state of perfection as sweat pours from the body. Apart from such transient moments of rapturous delight, the sadhana itself is the passage and the goal. Notwithstanding audiences, the spiritual ideal is still very relevant though not always immediately conspicuous to the dancer’s psyche. In fact, I would venture to say that it is even more strongly rooted amidst the saturated and competitive world of Indian classical dance today. To sustain, one needs very high levels of will power and this will itself is a purgatory spiritual release before the dancer even steps on to the stage.
Can we look at it another way?
Libration from earthly life is the last of the four stages of life as put forth in Hinduism. Bhakti or devotion is synonymous with liberation in this case. As previously stated, one of the ways to attain this liberation is through the practice of the classical dances of India. Loosely translated as devotion, bhakti thus becomes the ultimate goal of the Bharata Natyam dancer. The paths used by the dancer to attain this release are bhakti and sringara.
- Bhakti as devotional pieces rendered
- Bhakti as the perseverance in the pursuit of the art
- Bhakti as the devotion that the dancer feels during the act of dancing
- Bhakti as the spiritual release itself – the jeevatma-paramatma union
- Sringara as erotic pieces rendered
- Sringara as beauty in the presentation and richness of emotion
- Sringara as love for the godhead/divine being beseeched
Bhakti then becomes the means to the goal as well as the end goal itself. Sringara is an accessible means to the transcendent end of bhakti. The allure lies in the common ground between the two and the potentially intertwined nature of their existence. Their interchangeability marks the flexibility of these two concepts in the attainment of the final goal. In a performance, for this jeevatma-paramatma union to be achieved, the dancer and the spectator must cross paths at a metaphysical level. The goal is common to both performer and audience. The dancer gives, the spectator receives. The spectator in turn gives, and the dancer receives. This exercise that requires a symbiotic relationship between both dancer and spectator has the potential to conclude at a point of release that can be described as peace, ecstasy, bliss, rasa.
Do we already have a name for it in our dictionary?
Among the navarasa or nine emotions, the last one is santa. Bharata does not include santa in the Natya Sastra, the reason for which could be due to the existence of the eight colorful sentiments which offer myriad possibilities to emote, communicate and entertain. The Natya Sastra is after all a treatise on arts, not philosophy. Santa rasa does not elicit a reaction in the spectator. When performed it would have to be presented as the dancer seated in a meditative pose, something that does not evoke feeling in the spectator. However, Bharata has said that the eight rasas will lead to a peaceful mind, a state that was coined santa rasa by later commentaries and added to the list to make them the navarasa. Santa rasa is dormant in every other rasa. Santa is a sense of serenity and symmetry that lies waiting within every rasa to be awakened and realized. This state of peace can be equated to the goal of the dancer - the attainment of the parmatma. Santa then becomes synonymous with the goal itself. Philosophers may attain it for longer periods of time through lifestyle changes while a dancer attains santa during temporary moments of performance. The everlasting nature of this goal ensures the enduring place of bhakti and sringara in the quest for santa.
Bharata Natyam has reached the global stage and its unique and differentiating factor for world audiences is the sringara or bhakti in the dancer’s presentation rendered through intent of dancer and/or outcome of performance that translates itself into rasa in the audience. The goal is now expanded beyond the fulfillment of the dancer’s need to simply dance, to accommodate the catering of performances that suit the needs of varied global audiences. The goal goes beyond the audiences’ needs as well, in the ambassadorship of the art. In the recent Maximum India Festival of Indian culture conducted at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington D.C., the various reviews of Bharata Natyam performances speak of the global outreach of traditional Bharata Natyam as presented at its classical and spiritual best.
The intertwined relationship between sringara and bhakti, both of which serve as paths toward the jeevatma-paramatma goal, thus negating a competition between the two, is as relevant in twenty-first century Bharata Natyam as the debate between them was in the early twentieth century. The element of Santa or peace was a later addition to the list of rasas. Perhaps the goal of the Bharata Natyam dancer can be termed santa. Is it possible to substitute the phrase union of jeevatma and paramatma with the single word santa and build a three-way relationship between sringara, bhakti and santa. A unified vision of the three – the goal of the dancer? Or just simply dance!
By Vidhya Subramanian