The Indian classical dancer’s quintessential smile makes for an interesting experience of questioning and reflection
The question of the nature of a dancer’s smile in Indian classical dance has been one of much debate and discussion. Some spectators are irked by the incessant smile on the face of a classical dancer, questioning the need to constantly smile, particularly when doing nritta or pure dance. Others observe that the smile on the classical Indian dancer’s face is charming and guarantees a consistently pleasant demeanour. The most commonly used smile, the one prescribed by Natyashastra experts and emulated by several Indian classical dancers, has been smitam or the charming gentle smile which typically is a close-mouthed half-smile.
To speculate over whether caste, class and social status may have played a peculiar role in establishing smitam as the Indian classical dancer’s quintessential smile, proved to be an interesting experience of questioning and reflection.
A smile, in terms of the Natyashastra, comes under the category of Hasya Rasa. This rasa was often portrayed by women and other characters of lower status. The six ways of portraying the hasya rasa were listed as – smitam – the charming smile; hasita – gentle laughter attributed to persons of uttama or high rank; Vihasita – gentle (open) laughter or smile; Upahasita – satirical laughter of persons coming under the category of madhyama or middle status; Apahasita – silly and meaningless laughter and Atihasita – loud and roaring laughter displayed by persons of adhama or lower status.
Within the Natyashastra itself, certain ways of portraying hasya determined the social class of the character in dance and drama. The Natyashastra established that the first three portrayals were more befitting of a higher social stature than the last three. But as we know, dance did not belong to the higher rungs of society. The devadasis certainly did not belong to the upper caste/class strata of society. The pieces they performed, as well, did not always deal with ‘upper-caste’ issues or sentiments. My first question, then, is this – Could they have been utilising many of the portrayals of hasya rasa? Surely the sarcastic pieces in nindastuti addressed to Shiva, or the lascivious dance pieces about making love to Krishna required more than just a charming smile?
The status of Indian classical dance itself changed over time. As a result of post-colonial nationalism, Bharatanatyam in particular, came to be hailed as the national dance of India. It percolated into upper-middle class families and gained a ‘respectable’ status, far removed from the stigma attached to its previous practitioners. Could the brahminised and sanskritised avatar of Indian classical dance, now performed by people who fashioned themselves to be uttama nayikas, have perhaps made the performance of Upahasita, Apahasita and Atihasita undignified and unacceptable?
Today, one typically sees smitam (gentle smile), occasionally hasita (gentle laughter), and rarely, vihasita (open mouthed smile) portrayals of hasya rasa. Could the acceptability of these smiles be the result of the classification of hasya by social status, and the connection of this classification with the changing class structures of dance and dancers in India?
I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. And I certainly would welcome possible explanations or answers from scholars and readers who have more experience in the field and have read more than I have. In my own reading, understanding and practice of dance, however, I do wonder whether my smitam would tell dark tales of changing class structures within the world of Indian dance.