Tracing the close connection between Indian dance and Southeast Asia

Singapore-based Apsaras Arts is a key partner in this cultural alliance

May 26, 2022 05:45 pm | Updated 06:44 pm IST

From Apsaras Arts Dance Company’s production ‘Angkor’

From Apsaras Arts Dance Company’s production ‘Angkor’ | Photo Credit: LIJESH KARUNAKARAN

Somewhere off the coast of Cambodia, an ancient ship from Mamallapuram docks on a beautiful beach after many weeks of travel. Vassals of Mahendravarman I disembark, bringing with them the Tamil and Sanskrit script, the spices of south India and the fragrance of the arts that originate along the banks of the Cauvery. While many vassals and rulers had come and left before them, their arrival in Southeast Asia was a marked turning point in the history of art and culture.

The influence of Hinduism and Indian culture in Southeast Asia is commonly understood as a function of conquest and trade. Yet the story of Indian dance is a bit more complex. Could movements have been traded? Can repertoire be acquired? As is often the case with embodied forms, the evolution of their practice rests in the individual bodies of the practitioners. It was so for the Indian vassals that arrived in Java, Sumatra, Bali, Siam Annam Borneo, and Cambodia.

The earliest connections between Indian dance and Southeast Asia were identified by Padma Subrahmanyam and Kapila Vatsyayan. Both prolific scholars made the observation that the sculptural arts of Southeast Asia reflected a deep understanding of codes within the Natyashastra. This is particularly reflected in the 9th century temple complex of Prambanan in Indonesia, where we find 62 dancing sculptures, labelled according to the postures delineated in the fourth chapter of the Natyashastra, titled ‘Tandava Laksanam’. This dance catalogue of sorts is the earliest of its kind, pre-dating the visual catalogues of dance that we find in Thanjavur, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, and other sites across Tamil Nadu. It is interesting to note that the idea of visually documenting the sequence of dance postures in stone, as they appear in the text, may have originated in Southeast Asia.

Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia

Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia | Photo Credit: AFP

As a deeper exploration of this idea, Alessandra Lopez y Royo spent several decades engaging with the dance archaeology of this site, in the attempt to record the karana sculptures and embody them in practice. Edi Sedyawati, a Javanese scholar, explored the connections between India and Indonesia and how it has impacted the Balinese and Javanese dance repertoire. Numerous other scholars have investigated this relationship in other parts of Southeast Asia including Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The common link

This research, although variegated in manifestation, converges at a single, potent realisation — the Natyashastra was a text that found resonance across the art forms of South and Southeast Asia. It is this commonality, says Aravinth Kumarasamy, arts director of the Singapore-based Apsaras Arts Dance Company, that allows forms from both cultures to collaborate fruitfully. A pioneer in furthering the embodied conversation between Bharatanatyam and Southeast Asia, Aravinth has worked with Javanese, Balinese and Cambodian dancers across his impressive profile of productions. He says that Padma Subrahmanyam has been a mentor, and one of the driving forces behind exploring these commonalities.

“It is easy to organically put these artforms together. While the manifestations of the Natyashastra may be totally different, there is a shared body of knowledge that allows us to engage in the same context. Kumarasamy recounts an example from his production ‘Anjaneyam’, where the character of Sita had to perform a sanchari. “It is difficult to explain the concept of a sanchari to Javanese dancers, especially with a language barrier. But after watching it once in rehearsal, they just instinctively understood what we were doing and created a counterpoint in the Javanese style.”

Over the years, Aravinth’s works such as ‘Amara’ (dancing stories of Banteay Srei), ‘Angkor’ (inspired by the beautiful bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat), and ‘Anjasa’ (on Buddhist temple architecture) have celebrated the history and culture of both India and Southeast Asia. “With every production I became more excited to unravel this strong connect.”

Mohanapriyan Thavarajah’s latest book

Mohanapriyan Thavarajah’s latest book | Photo Credit: Apsaras Arts Dance Company

The temple complexes at Angkor Wat have beautiful, intricate panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. The latest book of Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, principal dancer of Apsaras Arts Dance Company, Temple Dance of Apsaras: A dancer’s view of Angkor Wat, is an extension of his research on the famed temple complex and explores the angika abhinaya of the Cambodian tradition. Mohanapriyan notes that the evolution of the form resonates with that of Bharatanatyam, with similar shifts in patronage, from temples to courts and comparable prominence of devadasi dancers. “There are only five mudras used popularly in Cambodian dance,” he explains, adding that “some characters wear masks”. This is one of many distinctions that he has discovered in his practice and interaction with Southeast Asian forms.

Aravinth furthers these observations by noting that Southeast Asian dance forms are far more collaborative than Indian ones. “In Bharatanatyam, we are all trained to be solo artistes while the Southeast Asian dance tradition and training prepares them for ensemble work. Every dancer has a specific role to play.”

When asked about the audience reception of these collaborative productions, Aravinth is notably passionate. “As Indian traditional artistes, we are obsessed with the diaspora. It is always about [performing at] Carnegie Hall. We have an already existing discerning audience of rasikas in Southeast Asia, who truly understand the nuances of our work. More dancers need to acknowledge that and perform widely in these regions.”

The Bengaluru-based writer is a dancer and research scholar.

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