The legacy of ancient Indian dance forms

No two individuals possess the same definition of art. Art is fluid, like clay: waiting to be molded by its creator and likewise its interpreter into whatever shape holds meaning. There is art in the way mothers chop fruit for their children, there is art in the voices of little kids chased by their friends in a game of catch, and there is art in history. Hindustan has a rich history of performance art, dating back to the earliest years of human civilization.

Indian classical dance forms are glorious and nothing short of magnificent. The beauty of Indian classical dance lies in its intricacies, for there is even mudras that symbolize the tiniest of insects and the largest of trees. In Bharat Muni’s Nātyashashtra- One of the oldest surviving ancient works on Indian performance arts, incorporates dance into Nritta, Nritya and Nātya. ‘Nritta’ refers to, in the most literal sense, pure dance. Nritta gives less importance to facial expressions and concentrates more on footwork and grace. In this form of Natyam, the dancer strives to radiate a pure form of beauty by creating numerous patterns and images with the assistance of their bodies, space and time. The Abhinaya Darpana defines Nritta as a dance that does not relate to any psychological state (Bhava). ‘Nritya’ refers to that sphere of classical dance where the dancer conveys a thought, story or incident using a variety of pāda bhedās (leg movements), mandala bhedās (hand gestures), abhinaya (expressions), bhāva (internal expressions) and rasās (acting techniques). In this realm of classical dance, hand gestures and the mien of the dancer convey the lyrics of the composition. According to the Abhinaya Darpana, Nritya is that dance correlated to Rasa (sentiment) and Bhava (psychological states). Natya is the amalgam of both aspects (Nritta and Nritya) of dance. It is the combined manifestation of Bhava, Rasa and Abhinaya (the art of expression). It can also imply a coalescence of literature, music and drama. Ancient Indian dance forms are an exclusive language, whose linguistic nuances can only be discerned by their masters, created through years of practice.

A common assumption amongst the general public is that only dancers with a specific body type can excel in the craft. However, the Bharatanatyam prodigy, Harinie Jeevitha (disciple of Smt. Sheela Unnikrishnan), expressed her views on this topic via YouTube, “some say that dance is all about the body and therefore as dancers, we are always obsessed with it. Ironically, dance is all about letting go of the body. We train hard only to forget the body at the end of the day. As dancers, we do not strive to be fat or thin, but rather aim to be strong and healthy, that will allow us to move the way we want to’’. The elegance of Indian classical dance forms lies in Jeevitha’s reply. The magnificent beauty of Indian classical dance forms lies in the paradox that these dance forms require the detachment of the body while being consciously aware of one’s inner self and soul. When discussing Indian dance forms, the human body is considered to be the prime instrument. The instrument is composed of atoms that are ever dancing(vibrating). Indian classical dance forms enhance the vibrations of these atoms because of the many overwhelming emotions dancers experience within themselves. These amplified vibrations exuded by the dancers have the power to sway the emotions of their audience.

Ancient Indian dance forms are a testament to the fact that art transcends time. It is confirmation that history is a living, breathing organism that lives through our actions, and will live through others long after we are gone.

(Harinie Jeevitha Narasimhan in Nataraja Pose, Bharatanatyam, December 2008)

(Gopi Krishna, Kathak, 1935-1994)

(Chittani Ramachandra Hegde, Yakshagana, 1993-2017, Digwas Bellemane)

(Vempati Chinna Satyam, Kuchipudi, 1929-2012)

Authored By: Devina Verma

Edited by: Aditi Kiran