MUSINGS Movement vocabularies of ancient traditions of dance were full of mudras depicting animals

Having researched and learnt more than one movement vocabulary, I have had the opportunity to participate in modern and contemporary movement classes as well as those that originated in ancient traditions. While introducing young school children to a few of these movement disciplines, I discovered that my approach to teaching forms that evolved from ancient traditions was different to the tools I used when teaching modern forms of movement in at least one specific sense. I found myself asking the little ones to relate to the former through their knowledge of animals, whereas with the latter, I could not ask children to relate in that manner.

In India, any classical dance class is incomplete without a teaching of mudras , and with the youngest ones, its often interesting for them to start with ‘ matsya, kurmo… ’ (Fish, tortoise…). Our martial arts (Kalaripayattu) classes also involve the eight animal postures, called Vadivukal . These include Asvavadivu (horse), Gajavadivu (elephant), Simhavadivu (lion), Varahavadivu (wild boar) and so on. Finally, many of the yoga asanas are named after animals too. For example, Bhujangasana (cobra pose), Ushtrasana (camel pose), Vrischikasana (scorpion pose), Mayurasana (peacock pose) and so on. Even outside of India, dance in ancient cultures makes this connect with animals. A lot of ancient Egyptian dance movements are said to emulate those of animals and ancient Chinese dance is famous for its ‘lion dance’. Relatively modern forms of movement are not so closely linked to animals. That is not to say that animals are not depicted in modern movement, or that modern movement cannot be animal-like, but animal movement emulation or representation is not an integral part of modern movement vocabularies. In modern dance classes, one hears technical and anatomical terms more often than the forms of animals; and a ‘Pilates’ class will have exercises or positions called the ‘saw’, ‘jack knife’ and the ‘can-can’ (It does also have an exercise called ‘the seal’, but this is an exception).

There is an incredibly obvious reason for this in my understanding. A lot of ancient societies were pagan. They worshipped animals and nature rather than idols or a particular being called ‘god’. In ancient Greco-Roman theology as well, Neptune was the Roman god of the sea, Zeus was the god of the sky, and Apollo – the god of light and the sun. In India’s polytheistic religious tradition, Indra is the god of rain, and many of Vishnu’s avatars are animals. Ancient civilizations worshipped the sun, moon, stars, and seas because their survival and sustenance depended on these on a very fundamental level.

Similarly, it’s possible to conclude that when these traditional movement vocabularies were developing, they were informed by this pagan, rural and agrarian lifestyle. When these movement disciplines were originating and evolving, animals were a crucial part of the life and survival of the people. Agrarian societies depended on animals for food, farming, transport and trade. Essentially, their ‘bread and butter’ depended in many ways on animals. This deep and intrinsic connection with animals definitely seeped into their understanding of society, economy and religion at the time. Perhaps this importance given to animals percolated into the sphere of culture, sport and spiritual well-being as well. It is not surprising then, that in mechanized, urbanized and industrialized societies, the centrality of animals withered away from many spheres of life. And perhaps that’s why they do not have such an integral place in the world of modern movement either.