Padmaja Venkatesh delved into the connection between Tantra and Natya at her presentation in New Delhi the other day

The Natyasastra in its repeated references to Vedic texts, rituals and performance rites, refers to its theory of dramaturgy as the Natyaveda or the fifth Veda, assimilating knowledge from all the four Vedas. Included in this is the science of cosmology, with the physical space of the theatre also conceived as a micro model of the cosmos. Throughout the amazing understanding of the anatomical structure of the human body that this text reveals, a constant relationship is established between the psychical and the physical and the five elements. Based on the world view which considers the manifest and unmanifest as part of one unified reality, there is acceptance here of multiple forms (rupa), of formlessness (arupa) even going beyond form (pararupa). Bharata speaks of Natya as a discipline synthesising all other art forms, encompassing in its totality the physical, the psychical and even the metaphysical.

Padmaja Venkatesh (Suresh) a dancer/scholar attached to the Department of Philosophy, University of Mysore, now settled in Bengaluru, in a lecture/demonstration at the India Habitat Centre's Gulmohar auditorium, focussed on her area of research, correlating the “Science of Tantra and the Art of Natya”. Tantra — which unfortunately has come to be associated in the popular mind more with specific formulae of worship for attaining superhuman, magical powers — has, like Natya, a Vedic origin covering mantras and yantras and “meditational aspects of the Tan-matras, and the Cakras which are traced to, and to which initiation is from a line of guru/shishya parampara, much like Natya also is. Symbolism plays a large role in both Tantra Sastra and Natya Sastra. Natya has the human body as instrument or yantra, while Tantra shakti uses many yantras — even kritis or lyrics like Muttuswami Dikshitar's Dhyana Kritis, and both need to be practiced by the initiated ‘upasaka'. Both in their ultimate state, progressively, aspire to go beyond the yantra or instrument. If Natya aspires to a state of bodylessness with dancer becoming the dance, Mind, which contemplates through an instrument on a deity, is transformed into that which it is meditating on. In both disciplines, dormant and subtle energies are sought to be awakened, though an ardhamandali posture held over years will do it less overtly than Hatha Yoga in Tantra, and mudras in Tantra have their counterpart in hastabhinaya in Natya. The speaker referred to the Beejaakshara recitation in Tantra Cakra worship working on sound energy (which includes the important aspect of silence) and traced how the nattuvangam sollus in Natya are a manifestation of this practice. The Mantra, the kavutvams, which now on the proscenium stage have taken on a more decorative dimension, in their authentic practice in temple ritual were derived from beejaakshara mantras. Speaking of the Kundalini Shakti being energised through Tantra, the dancer referred to distinct Natya forms like Koodiyattam which also are based on the same principle.

Padmaja's demonstration, managed efficiently in the very miniscule space available on the very narrow stage, included in the textual format, verses from Natya Sastra, passages from Lalita Sahasranamam, Shankara's Saundarya Lahiri and passages from Ardhanareeswaram with Beeja mantras and a finale in taanam — the complete abstraction representing form to formlessness — all uttered by the taped musical voice with clarity of diction with singing set to different relevant ragas. All states of being of Satva, Rajas and Tamas were brought out and the neat nritta interludes saw a variety of Bharatanatyam adavus, not excluding sarukkai, mandi adavu and veeshara adavu movements.

But at the end, the question remained of how many would be able to understand such a presentation, which would be considered too esoteric for any but the informed audience. The less than 20 persons seated in the auditorium told their own tale. But it is heartening that academic inquiry into aspects of dance is still undertaken by a few artists.