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MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999

The ultimate Indian metaphor?

Shanta Serbjeet Singh

This article seeks to answer a set of questions I put to myself in writing an under-print book on classical dance. It is called Indian Dance, the Ultimate Metaphor. The first question, of course, is: Why ultimate? Then, metaphor for what? And why? But before I try to answer any of those questions, I must find an answer to the mother of all questions: Why is Indian classical dance so different from any other genre of dance, both in the West and East? What has shaped its distinctive "Indian" look? How is that, regardless of the particular, regional features and particular characteristics of each of the seven forms discussed in this book, namely Bharat Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Mohiniattam, it is possible to say that they are all parts of a single whole?

My answer to these questions begins by suggesting that more than any other of India's several art forms, it is dance which provides us with a mirror view of the ancient Hindu conception of the universe and the nature of reality. Indian dance, I believe, parallels three of the major constructs of this world view, the very foundation on which rests the majestic edifice of Indian thought. These are: first, the awareness that everything in this world, from events to the experience of all phenomena, is the manifestation of a basic oneness. Secondly, the awareness of the relativity and polar relationship of all opposites. Much before the great Western explorers of the mind of the twentieth century acknowledged the grey areas between black and white, between good and bad, pleasure and pain, life and death and above all the male-female polarity in each of us, Indian thought maintained that these are not absolute experiences, capable of being slotted in neat, watertight compartments. It said that they are merely two sides of the same reality, opposite but reconcilable parts of a single whole. Thirdly and finally, that space and time are by no means absolute but constructs of the mind and like all other intellectual concepts, to be treated as relative, limited and illusory.


Indian classical dance, I submit, rests on all these postulates. Interestingly, Western scientific enquiry has travelled a long different road from that followed by Indian thought and yet, today, as we stand before a new millennial dawn, they both find themselves at a common crossroad. Modern physics has come full circle to agree, with Indian cosmological theory, that, in every respect, the universe is interconnected and interdependent, dynamically, "organically", ecologically and materially. That matter, whether here on earth or in outer space is involved in a continual cosmic dance.

Like the pre-Vedic era Indian, who insisted that matter's essential properties are rhythm and movement, the modern Western physicist, too, has come to the same conclusion via the route of highly advanced instrumentation to explore the world of the subatom. Both converge on the pinhead of molecular physics and say that matter is essentially dynamic, that space is not three-dimensional and time is not a separate entity.

It is in this context that we find ourselves the proud possessors of the unique metaphor of the dance of the cosmos in the form, philosophy and iconography of Lord Siva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. He has other incarnations, namely Rudra and Maheshwara, but it is Siva, as Nataraja, the God of creation and destruction, who sustains through his dance the endless rhythm of the universe. It is here that the world today finds its most beautiful, most profound and most advanced expression for the fact that matter is engaged in a unique ceaseless dance of destruction and resurrection.

From Albert Einstein's relativity and quantum theories to the incredible breakthroughs provided by the work of several great physicists like Kenneth Ford, Michael Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and that mystic-physicist par excellence, Fritjof Capra, a single strain has run its course, picking up strength and fresh evidence along the way. This is the atom, its subatomic particles, what Indian thought calls Bindu, and its inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy and its manifestation as the exchange of particles. It is a dynamic interplay in which particles are created and destroyed without end in a continual variation of energy patterns. Explaining how even the so called stable structures such as a closed wooden door or any of the myriad, solid objects that surround us are also the offshoot of this dynamic dance of particles, Capra says that "the whole universe is thus engaged in endless motion and activity, in a continual cosmic dance of energy."

It is to Fritjof Capra that we in the world of Indian dance are truly indebted for showing the convergence of ancient Indian thought with modern physics. Describing an experience he had, on a late summer afternoon, on the shores of an ocean, he writes: "As I sat on that beach, my former experiences came to life; I 'saw' that atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I 'heard' its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Siva, the Lord of Dancers worshipped by the Hindus."

Coming to the other two central concepts of both Indian dance and our view of reality, namely space and time, here too, after many centuries of holding an opposite view, modern physics has confirmed the Indian view that space and time are simply the constructs of the mind and by no means fixed absolutes. Capra says as much in his The Tao of Physics when he writes that the spacetime continuum "are not features of reality, as we tend to believe but creations of the mind; parts of the map, not of the territory."

Ashvaghosha, in a pre-Christian era wrote: "Be it clearly understood that space is nothing but a mode of particularisation and that it has no real existence of its own . . . Space exists only in relation to our particularising consciousness." It would be close on another 2,000 years before the classical Western notion that space is an absolute three-dimensional entity and that geometry is inherent in nature is thrown out of the window and Einstein's theory of relativity changes the Western perspective.

If then space is not three-dimensional and time is not a separate entity, both are intimately and inseparably connected to form a four-dimensional continuum called space-time, there is no art form which shows it simply as it is - an intellectual construct as does Indian classical dance. This it does through the concept of Mandala, where the body itself is the cosmos, the entire Mandala, and the dancer has no problem with physical space, as little as a few feet in front of the deity in the temple's sanctum sanctorum, to evoke the essence of movement. She walks, skips, slides, leaps, prances, jumps, glides and spins in high voltage bhramaris and chakkars on the axis of the body itself.

Kamal Sahai

Time, too, in Indian dance and music, is quintessentially an intellectual construct. In range, complexity and the "fun and games" aspect of its application to these art forms, it is dependent on mental agility and mathematical memory much like an expert acrobat keeps twenty objects afloat in the air at the same time. Elements like "Solluketus" and "Bols," simply onomatopoeic means for expressing musical ideas give the Indian dancer's imagination endless scope for treating the concept of time as a cerebral game. Modern physics' discovery that "space and time co-ordinates are only the elements of a language that is used by an observer to describe his environment" (Mendel Sachs) is nowhere better seen in action than a performance of a Kathak Tukra. In temporal time this piece may last a mere sixty seconds. But in a relativistic sense, its sweep, its dynamics and its spatial thrust would make the four-dimensional space-time continuum of modern physics a felt experience.

I have dealt with these concepts in much greater detail in my book. Suffice it here today that the artistic experience of oneness, of the Hindu view of non-duality and what Capra calls "Beyond the world of opposites" is illustrated beautifully by the concept of Ekaharya Nritya wherein the dancer is called upon to assume a vast variety of persons within the temporal and spatial span of a single item of no more than ten minutes. This is, like all else, common to all the seven styles mentioned at the outset. Or take the reconciliation of gender polarity as summed up quintessentially in the concept of Ardhanarishwara, Siva as half male, half female.

All this and much more goes into forming a whole which, I believe, makes Indian dance verily the ultimate metaphor for the Indian view of reality.

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