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A broad sweep at the art form

"INDIAN DANCE - THE ULTIMATE METAPHOR, edited by critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh is a welcome addition in an area which lacks such a well got up, all encompassing look at our heritage. The book has 11 chapters, each contributed by a critic, a scholar or a dance practitioner specialising in theory, that in a broad sweep looks at the art form, with its historical connectives in the martial arts, masks and in sculpture and manuscript.

The first chapter by Shanta Serbjeet Singh, on the philosophy of dance, looks at this "ultimate metaphor of the Indian view of reality", which reflects the three main concerns of the Indian world-view - namely the ultimate oneness of all phenomena in the universe, relativity and "polar relationships of all opposites", and space and time as "relative, limited and illusory" constructs of the mind. The scientific truth in high energy physics of atoms in constant motion has confirmed that it was more than just artistic imagination that visualised the icon of Nataraja looking at the cosmos as theatre where Shiva, through his eternal dance, sets in motion the entire process of emergence, sustenance and resurgence in the universe. The bindu of Indian metaphysics is but the atom that cannot split any more. The article cogently traces how through an organised unison of sound, time and body, through music, tala and mandalas, dance creates geometry and highly internalised movement in space in a "four dimensional space-time continuum." Quotes from contemporary physicists - like Fritjof Capra and dancer/choreographer Chandralekha who has concentrated on exploring body movement in its space/time relationships creating its own rasa without any aid, emotive or verbal - reinforce the writer's theory.

Chapters devoted to specific dance forms range from a compilation of evolutionary details with all known historical landmarks, to those setting forth a definite point of view. In the former category is Manjari Sinha's Kathak, which in listing "eminent performers of today" strangely leaves out the name of Prerna Shrimali, of whom there is only a large photograph. The problem of going beyond names which have significantly influenced the history of the dance is the need for constant updating without which available information becomes dated.

Dr. Sunil Kothari in his write-up on Kuchipudi begins with the legendary Siddhendra Yogi, historical details of whose life are not very clear. The Natya Shastra reference to a "Kaisiki Vritti" dance in this region, establishes the fact that the female dance tradition must have been established. The Bhakti movement, the "Brahman exponents and the Brahman mela" that shaped Yakshagana which gradually grew into a stylised theatrical form are mentioned. How Kuchipudi in its all-male, dance drama form and outside a temple presentation, not to speak of the total Vaishnava concerns, differed from the earlier solo female dance can be gleaned from the article.

Putting the royal court Nartaki as the precursor to the Mahari or temple dancer who came later, Jivan Pani discards the popular view that Odissi mainly evolved as a temple tradition. From the political upheaval in the 17th Century, which changed social mores and made dance a lowly profession, to the Jayantika effort in 1958 (provoked by Rukmini Devi's stray remark of Odissi being a poor imitation of Bharatanatyam) the evolution is traced with Pani's known stances on music which, according to him, has, over the years, lost its regional identity.

Darshana Jhaveri's chapter on Manipuri is a blend of history and mythology. While a copper plate inscription mentions King Khuyoi Tompok (A.D. 154) - during whose time Manipuri instruments evolved - the burning by Padmaiba of all earlier historical records in A.D. 1714 at the promptings of Shanidas Goswami, has made Manipuri history a painstaking build-up based on Sanskrit, Bengali and Meitei literature, according to the author. As a dancer, Darshana's writing has a feel for the aesthetics of dance.

The late K. S. Srinivasan's chapter on Bharatanatyam makes easy reading of the historical details. Without the commonplace division into subheadings discussing each aspect of dance, his is a most readable narrative in which, not just the different facets of the dance, but even its mystery come out. These are combining the secular with the divine, Sringar with Bhakti, the human in the divine and divine in the human, and the "Tanmaye Bhava" (capacity to become that which the mind is engaged upon) which can make a Krishna appear as one's own child. The chapter clearly establishes how rehabilitation of the art form meant separating dance from the persons who traditionally practised it. Fleeting references to how special items like Varnams and Padams became associated with individual dancers, dot the article.

The Mohiniattam segment authored by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar categorically states, on the basis of "Manipravala" texts that the Kerala Cherukara Kuttathi, Unniyadi, Unniachi, Unnichiru thevi or Unnuli (referring to female dancers) was never akin to the "Natyasumangali Devadasi". Discarding the connotation of Mohini as an enchantress, the writer believes that Vishnu in a woman's guise really symbolises that dynamics in transformation. Affirming its strong regional base, he criticises the Dasi attam influence that dogged Mohiniattam, given the strong presence of the Thanjavur quartet Vadivelu in the royal court. "Between Kathakali and Krishnattam" is where he places Mohiniattam with its highly controlled torso movement and the Sopana music without strong air thrusts.

Dr. Philip B. Zarrili's chapter on Kalaripayattu and Kathakali makes out a strong case for no art being able to exist out of context. He criticises the way the constant intoning about "authenticity" of tradition denies the inherent dynamism of art forms. Rooted in Tamil lexicon, the words Kalari and Payattu developed their Malayalam association much later. Only as late as 1920 did a set of martial art exercises (organised into a composite training system by C. V. Narayanan Nayar (1905-1944) and his teacher Kottakkal Karnaran Gurukkal (1850-1935)) enlist audience support. This was with recognition bestowed by "Amma Maharani" and Kalaripayattu becoming an encapsulation of mytho- historical heritage and the symbol of Malayali manhood. Writings soon recalled a hoary "tradition" of Kalari.

Similarly, Kathakali, which is a "set of conventional expectations and associations which can be manipulated in innovative ways", is described as a most dynamic form, encompassing a complex knowledge of martial art/medicine and meditative practices. In its ability to absorb influences from indigenous art forms, from Arab and Christian cultures, it has always had a strong contextual relevance based on sociological and representational dynamics rather than any ideology of authenticity.

M. L. Varadopande's article concentrates on masks, in their ritualistic, mythological and historical associations. From Seraikella Chhau to the Narasimha masks in Bhagavatamela Natakam are all discussed (the references in the Natya Shastra have been given). The writer refers to the "mask like make-up" of Kathakali - an odd comparison even though the Kathakali actor literally puts on a face for the mask which never changes, while in Kathakali the facial contours are constantly changing in expression.

"Kathak - in Stone and Manuscript" by R. Shrivastava is in a class of scholarship, which does not fit in with the tone and tenor of the other articles, which are more for the general reader. Not only does she reconstruct the evolution of dance on the basis of sculptural and archaeological evidences, but she also makes a distinction between the art form and the people who practised it and "describes why dance has developed its special characteristics". With the "samapada", "samadamsa hasta", "samabhanga" dancer in constant yogic contemplation with "Ta Thei Thei" as Bija mantras, the article (excellent in itself) goes to a level of specialisation that places it in a category of its own - away from the rest of the book. It also makes the earlier article on Kathak almost superfluous for it deals with all other details too. With a whole chapter devoted to the tabla alone (in a production which looks at the entire dance scenario), there seems to be undue emphasis on one dance form, though the article is contributed by Professor S. K. Saxena, one of the greatest scholars on Kathak.

A general article on rhythm and percussion with reference to percussion instruments like chenda, maddalam, pakhawaj and mridangam would have been more contextual.

This apart, the book has errors. One opens the book to the visually aesthetic Vakra-tunda-maha-kaya Ganesha sloka in large red lettered Devanagari script, very striking against the black background, with "sooryakoti sama-prabha" written as "Sooryakoti Samprabha" (with a half consonant "ma") which in Sanskrit would not make any sense. Some avoidable spelling anomalies are found in other words like Bharatanatyam (which is the normal spelling) being spelt as Bharat Natyam right through K. S. Srinivasan's article. The name of the Guru in Odissi is sometimes spelt Devaprasad Das and at times split into three words - Deva, Prasad, Das. Similarly Machupalli Kaifiat is printed as Machupalli Kafiat, and the word that all Kathak people refer to as Parmelu, has been spelt variously as Pirmalu, Permalu and Parmelu. The letter "S" in the word Sruti has become like the Greek letter epsilon (page 209). In a handsomely got up book, priced high, the proof reading could have been better.

Photographs have been wrongly identified. What has been captioned "Temples of Bhuvaneswar" is actually just one temple - the well known Rajarani. The famous Calcutta based Kathak dancer Dr. Malavika Mitra has been identified as Malavika Sarkar, who is a Lucknow based Kathak dancer. On page 69, a prominent photograph of a Raigarh teacher has the caption Guru Kartik Ram. The photograph is of a Raigarh personality.

The chapter on "Kathak Based on Stone and Manuscript", hangs. A page seems to be missing after what should be (the page number is not given) page 215.

What makes the compilation varied, are the different perceptions of the contributing authors.


Indian Dance, The Ultimate Metaphor, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Ravi Kumar Bookwise, New Delhi.

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