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Philosophy of Dance

April 14, 1954 — Broadcast on All India Radio


Dance in India is not merely what a historian can describe for it is more than the history of man or of nation. It is the history of the soul of India and therefore an expression both of the manifest and the unmanifest. It is the spirit of man and woman (Purusha and Prakriti), an expression of evolution of movement, a truly creative force that has been handed down the ages. This embodiment of sound and rhythm creating spiritual poetry is called dance or natya. We cannot divorce it from religion and philosophy, for, religion and philosophy are not mere intellectual conceptions nor mere set of rules and regulations. Religion, philosophy and art are all vehicles to reach the inner spirit obtainable to the sage and the saint as to the meanest human being. In each dwells the spirit of the Divine, in each rules the creator, in each, there is never ending longing to attain true happiness or Moksha. It is to satisfy and make it possible for all to attain happiness, that the Teaching of the Vedas, the Upanishads as well as Dance and Music exist. Therefore it is possible for each mortal as well as for the Gods to dance, each according to the measure of hi understanding but each sharing in the Divine Bliss or Ananda. But in India the Dance does not evolve through man and his experimentation. It evolves from above. The first glimpse of the dance comes to us from Siva Himself, a Yogi of Yogis. He shows us the Cosmic Dance and portrays to us the unity of Being. He demonstrates that the highest Yoga is in the complete oneness of body and soul, that this oneness can be attained through dance. This is why dance is called a Yoga, not mere physical acrobatics but Yoga as a means of achieving unity in consciousness. The Supreme Life dances. From Him vibrates the essence of all sound holding within itself the potency of all possible articulation. To the accompaniment of the thunder of this music He dances. The Cosmic Rhythm of His dance draws around Him ensouled matter which manifest itself into the variety of this infinite and beautiful universe. Sri Krishna the Paramatma dances in Bridavan and the Gopis dance around Him in the Rasa Leela. In the rhythm of the dance the Paramatma draws to himself the Jivas that have separated from Him. In the rhythm of the dance each Gopi discovers Sri Krishna for herself. The Jiva knows again the Supreme fount of life from which it originated. This is the origin of dance and our codifier is naturally Bharata a great sage. N one but a Rishi could possibly have brought the Dance of Siva or Nataraja into this world for human beings to comprehend and perform.

It is with this philosophy that the dance traditions of India developed. We should remember that the unity of all true art has been stressed in India from the earliest beginning Thus we find that the Natya Sastra of Bharata, the earliest among the Indian boos on aesthetics that has come down to us, concerns itself not only with Natya as such, but with Music, Poetry, Drama, Theatre, Architecture, and with a general, consistent theory of aesthetics. What weas creative in man was offered in worship to the one Creator of all. Thus, in all Hindu worship, the arts find an important place. The temple is the home of architecture and sculpture. Great poets presented their works to the public for the first time there. Great philosophical discussions which represented some of the greatest flights of the human spirit took place in the temple. To the temple were attached musicians and dancers so that at the appointed hours of worship, music and the dance could form not only appurtenances of worship but integral parts of the ritual as well. Nurtured as it was in the temple, it became a vehicle for [a] certain type of ideas and developed a refined and subtle idiom for that purpose. This is an important factor to be taken into account when we consider the future of the dance in India.

There are many references to dancing in the Rig Veda from which we may infer an origin earlier than the Puranic age. There are more elaborate references in the Itihasas. A study of all these would reveal that, while there were professional dancers, the art was one that was learnt and practiced by the people in general. Whether it is poetry drama, dance or music, in the course of practice, all Indian Art has evolved certain concepts and laws which are common to all of them. Of all these, the concept of Rasa holds the central place. The object of all art is the working of Rasa.

“Artistic beauty cannot have existence, unless the heart of the man of good taste is moved to delight by fascination of its expression” says Alamkara Raghava, a work on Indian Rhetoric. This enkindling of emotion which results in an impersonal delight whatever the nature of the emotion may be, is Rasa. It is totally different from an emotion that is the outcome of mere experience of the sense. In the latter case, the feeling is limited to the individual concerned. In a Dance, the emotion portrayed is impersonal and is shared. It has undergone a transmutation so that what a member of the audience feels even when viewing a sorrowful scene is not something unpleasant but is really a delight, an Ananda that is aesthetically conveyed through a superb portrayal by the dancer. Thus, through the dancer’s art, we feel in turn all the emotion, but in each case, the final result that is left on us is not the effect of the passion itself but is an impersonal absorption in the aesthetic mood and Ananda which is the innate nature of the Atman, whines resplendent breaking all the fetters of every day circumstances.

This, to put it in very short compass, is the theory of Rasa. The Rasas are now generally accepted to be nine, namely Sringaraor love, Hasya or ridicule, Karuna or pathos, Vira or heroism, Raudra or fury, Bhayanaka or terror, Bhibatsa or disgust, Adbhuta or wonder, Shanta or peace. In the days of Bharata and Kalidasa, Shanta, was not accepted as a Rasa for the very valid reason that it was a condition in which all passion is stilled. The sentiment that gives great scope to the dancer with all its variations, and gradations, its refinement and subtleties is Sringara or Love. According to Bhoja, one of the great authorities on Indian Rhetoric, Sringara is the only Rasa and all the others arise as modifications from this. Bhakti or devotion which forms the basic subject matter of most Indian Dance is transcendent love. The greatest gift of the dancer is Bhava or the portrayal of emotion, for without Bhava, it is not possible to evoke Rasa in a cultured audience.

There are several ways of attaining his goal. One of the most important among them is through Auchitya or the propriety of subject matter and representation. It is accepted by the ancient authorities that Art has a supreme responsibility to Society. Just as Art is the flowering, through a particular way of life, of the genius of a people it is also the instrument which works towards the constant refinement and progress of a community. It is the life of the community that forms the subject-matter for the dance. But all situations in life are not appropriate for representation on the stage. The function of Art is to elevate the spirit, not to degrade it. Bharata also draws a difference between Lok Dharmi and Natya Dharmi — between that which is accepted as normal to life as it is lived and so portrayed realistically, and that which the arts of dance and drama select, fix and refine out of these situations for an idealised or even stylised presentation on the stage. Indian Art has always favoured idealism as against realism on the stage. This conception of Loka Dharmi and Natya Dharmi is essential to an understanding of the Indian Dance and Auchitya or correct choosing of the subject matter is of the utmost importance. From the social point of view, we see before our very eyes how important the question of Auchitya is when we consider the patent effects of bad films, bad music, bad dancing or any other bad art on the collective consciousness of the people, especially the young. It was through the neglect of this concept of what is proper for representation, that Bharantanatyam in South India, very nearly went out of existence. There was a revolt against the art and many people began to refuse to go to Bharantanatya recitals. The state of things is now happily changed.

The conception of Dhvani also plays a great part in a true presentation of the Dance. Dhvani means “Echo” or “Tone” and implies the suggested sense that underlies a portrayal. A gesture, a turn of expression, should be able to call up implied suggestions just as a sound might evoke a series of echoes. In a good dance performance, this sense of suggestion is all important. When Sri Rama lifts up Siva’s bow in order to bend it, the size, the weight, the unyielding nature of the bow, the strength needed to bend it, Sri Rama’s extreme youth; all these have to be suggested by the dancer when he does not even have in his hand anything in the nature of a bow. A dancer in the part of Ravana lifts up the mighty Kailasa and through a multitude of suggestions makes us see the magnitude of the mountain, how it towers into the skies. In the tender Padmas of Kshetragna, with all their delicate echoes, the dancer must convey the entire subtle range of emotion that agitates the mind of the maiden as she awaits Sri Krishna. This vast field of suggestion enriches the art and no dancer is great unless she or he has the capacity to create a world of Dhvani.

From all this background has come the history of the dance which has not only spread all over India, but even to other countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Java (now known as Indonesia). I t has kept its spiritual quality in whatever form, whether in the temple drama like Bhagavata Mela of Tanjore District or in the Kuchipudi dance which comes from a village entirely composed of Bhagavatas, (Brahmins who made this art famous) or in what is known today as Bharata Natya or Sadir as performed by the Deva Dasis (or servants of the Gods) or in any other form. Except Kathak almost all of these have been temple dancing. The technique in each is different and is yet according to the Sastras. The question is asked whether it cannot be used to express modern life.  Of course its form can be used for modern ideas, but as its form was a natural unfoldment of the spirit and the spiritual conception, if it is used for another purposes it loses its meaning and can no more be called Bharata’s dance. What was proclaimed by the Rishis as a sacrifice charming and pleasing to the eyes of the Gods must continue to be a sacrifice or offering to the Gods. It does not therefore mean that no further development is possible. How can any one who has studied the growth of the dance through centuries think so, for until a hundred years ago, the Art developed and grew under the fostering care of great geniuses. But, they did not bypass the spirit nor did they overlook the fact that dance is a way of salvation through Art; that its purifying influence or human nature will ultimately lead to the realisation of the oneness of life.



Source: Some Selected Speeches and Writings of Rukmini Devi Arundale (Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation) 2003, pp. 54-58.