The representation (abhinaya) is an integrated achievement managed through appropriate costume and ornament; all the resources of the body (angika abhinaya) for expressive stance, movement and gesture; the uttered word, speech or song (vachika abhinaya); and above all through the capacity of the face for expressing a great range of emotions (satvika abhinaya). All these means converge to the expression of feeling (bhava) and this representation of the inward sensitivity in a sensuously palpable way enables those who witness the dance to experience pure aesthetic relish (rasa).
It is useful to remember two more details. In terms of tempo, and thereby of its associated mood, the dance can be fast, dynamic, even turbulent (tandava) or delicate, graceful, exquisite (lasya). Broadly, these correspond to the allegro and adagio of the European tradition. Secondly, over the centuries, the gesture has been developed into a complex language, in some cases deviating far from the natural gesture to become a symbolic code.
Bharata Natya is essentially solo for a danseuse. Her costume and make-up consist of a brief blouse and a sari of shimmering satin or brocade, sheathing the legs from the hips to the ankles and having an array of pleats in front which unfold like a fan when the knees are lowered in the basic stance.
The recital opens with an invocatory sequence of pure dance (alarippu) and is followed by a more intricate and faster sequence atiswaram) which is also pure dance. Here the dancer’s limbs create numerous patterns through movement and rhythm. It is only in the next section that the transition is made to representational, interpretative and expressive dance.
The poems used as text can be homages to a god touching on his attributes and legendary exploits (Sabdam, Kirtanam, Slokam) or a love lyric (Padam, Javali). Gesture and facial expression, above all the expressive glance and movement of the eye, are fully used here. Then comes the most complex and difficult sequence, the Varnam, which combines both pure and interpretative dance. Usually the last item is the Tillana, a pure dance in different rhythms and fast tempo.
In the seventeenth century, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, Sidhyendra Yogi wrote a play, dealing with the story of Krishna bringing the Parijata flower plant from Indra’s heaven at the behest of one of his consorts, Satyabhama. Yogi presented it in the small village of Kuchelapuram or Kuchipudi in the Krishna delta and the tradition thus initiated has been called Kuchipudi. Originally only men took part in Kuchipudi which thus involved female impersonation by males. But these days solo sequences are detached from the play for stage presentation by danseuses, like Bharata Natya.
Yaksha Gana is the traditional dance-drama of Karnataka. It is also called Bayalatta, literally dance in the field, because it is a night-long performance in the open air, and Dasavatara Atta because the themes are drawn from the rich legends about the ten incarnations of Vishnu. The themes have been recast in poems and there are over a hundred libretti in existence. The musician sings the poem in Ragas, basically of the Carnatic system, but in a freer style than the classical, and to the accompaniment of drums.
The narration is interpreted in dance and acting by the characters who are allowed improvised prose dialogues relevant to the context. Headgear, costume and make-up are elaborate, have taken detailed cues from Hoysala sculpture and are very clearly differentiated for the various roles. Very interesting in its affinity with Wagner’s use of the musical leitmotiv for characteristation is the clear distinction of the rhythm-pattern on the drums when each character makes his first entry. The themes being mostly heroic exploits, the temper of the plays is turbulent and the dance is mostly of the Tandava type, although there are also exquisitely relaxed scenes like those of young girls sporting in water.
Kathakali, as it was stabilised in the seventeenth century after a long evolution through transitional forms like Krishna Attam and Ramanattam, is high classical art in the sense that thought has been given to every detail. The libretto in verse is in the tradition of narrative poetry that goes back to Sanskrit literary canons. The actors confine themselves to balletic and mimetic interpretation and dramatic action, their dialogue or monologue songs being sung by attendant singers supported by drummers and cymbalists. Many of these songs are fine lyrics with exquisite imagery.
Costume and make-up are elaborate in Kathakali. Many dramatic traditions in the world have used masks which can be clear and immediate differential signals of various character types. The Kathakali make-up retains this advantage because the whole face is painted over with typological differentiation. But the mask does not permit the face its expressive mobility. In the case of the Kathakali character, however, with the contour of the face clearly demarcated by a white or coloured fringe which frames it effectively, the face becomes a stage for the inner spirit. The tumult or the tranquillity within finds immediate expression in the mobile features with no mask to conceal them, but with very striking mask-like painting to accent the expression. The masterly painting of the face brings it nearer to sensory assimilation, psychologically, by focussing attention, with the same effectiveness as the close-up in a film can bring it visually, through optical means.
Years of training make the eyes unbelievably expressive here and some librettists have thought up piquant contexts challenging the actor to express one feeling with the left eye and a wholly different feeling with the right.
Leaving the south and turning to the east, we have, in the Odissi of Orissa a dance tradition that has evolved out of the practice of attaching girls (Maharis) to the temple for ritual dance. An early thirteenth century inscription in the temple of Ananta Basudeva in Bhuvaneshvar states that one hundred girls were engaged in this service. The tradition is thus similar to the Bharata Natya in Tamil Nadu, but Odissi today has almost completely opted for the gentler style (lasya). The thrice-bent (tribhanga) posture, very familiar in Indian sculpture, is characteristic of Odissi. The legs are flexed at the knees, the hip deflected and the head inclined.
An Odissi recital begins with an invocatory section where salutations are made to mother earth, Ganesha and to the audience, passes on to sequences of pure dance and then of interpretative dances and concludes with a pure dance in fast tempo.
We see the influence of sculpture in the interpretative sequences. Musicians are represented in sculpture in the great terrace of the Konarak temple and the Odissi dancer too adopts sculpturesque poses of damsels playing the lute, flute, cymbals or drums. The extended interpretative sequences mostly pertain to the Radha-Krishna theme. In the Indian tradition, Odissi complements the dynamic style of Bharata Natya with an exceptionally lyrical and graceful one.
In the region where the borders of Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal meet, the Chau dance emerged as a generic tradition with slightly variant evolutions in Mayurbhanj in Orissa, Saraikella in Bihar and Purulia in West Bengal, masks being used in the two latter places. Only men participate.
The Chau seems to have some genetic links with hunting and fighting, for the steps, movements and gymnastics have assimilated cues from the traditional training exercise of soldiers, known as the Parikhanda system.
Purulia Chau draws its themes almost extensively from mythology, concentrating on episodes of combats like Kathakali, without the latter’s evocation of the sense of numinous dread but with more complex and spectacularly effective choreography for duels and battles.
In Saraikella and Mayurbhanj, the themes have a greater range. One Saraikella dance presents a man and woman setting out on a boat, running into a storm and coming through safely. There is a faint allegorical reference to the journey of life here. Another dance represents a deer shot by a hunter and a third is a very highly stylised peacock dance.
Contiguous to Burma, Manipur is far away from the metropolis of India, today as well as in the days of the Mahabharata. But there have been links with the national tradition throughout.
Arjuna, in his wanderings far from Indraprastha, won an exceptionally beautiful bride, Chitrangada, from this land. Much later came the Vaishnavite devotional movement which exerted a profound influence on the gentle and sensitive people of this land.
Krishna worship through singing and dancing, initiated by Chaitanya of Bengal, spread here and gave rise to the Sankirtan in which drummers and cymbalists give displays of spectacular dancing including leaps and spins in the air without missing a single beat.
But the finest dance of Manipur is the Rasa Lila which, according to legend, was taught to the eighteenth century ruler, Bhagya Chandra, by Krishna himself in a vision. This ruler started the practice of building special annexes in every temple for the Ras Lila dances which all relate to episodes from Krishna’s life culminating in his dance with all the maidens of Vraja. They are danced by girls though Krishna may sometimes be impersonated by a boy. The costumes are colourful; the singing is moving and heart-felt. The face is kept rather expressionless, in a rapt musing. But perhaps far more than in any other tradition, dance has become truly a body language here and it is a very lyrical adagio.
As the name itself suggests, the Kathak of north India originated in the simple, devotional mimetic recitation of stories (kathas) by rhapsodists attached to the temples- of Vraja, the Mathura region associated with Krishna. But the vicissitudes of evolution made it a chamber form for patrician audience and the two main schools of Kathak grew up under the patronage of the princely house of Jaipur and the Nawabs of Oudh who had their court in Lucknow.
Sarangi, the bowed string instrument and the tabla and pakhawaj, percussions, are the traditional accompnaiments. Even more striking are the anklets of the dancer with their two hundred odd tiny bells which translate the brilliant visual rhythm of the footwork into an exciting aural rhythm too.
Though Kathak has expressive narrative sequences, the accent is mainly on pure dance. Under the secular, and to some degree sensual, patronage of the princes, the opening sequence (amad) has been transformed from a devout invocation to an elaborately courtly salutation.
The dance unfolds further in a series of intricate and complex steps (torhas). The sequence includes provocatively expressive movements of the head, beautiful arabesques of body patterns, lightning footwork, tantalizing arrested pauses. Using a technique somewhat like the European rubato (robbing one note fractionally of time and paying it back later), the dancer makes brilliant variations in the rhythm schemes but manages to conclude precisely on the accented opening beat (Sam) of the cycle, along with the percussionists in bouts of sportive rivalry. The Gat Bhavas are the narrative and representational sequences interspersed between the sequences of pure dance and they relate the amorous episodes of the Krishna story or illustrate lyrical songs (Thumris) which are equally sensuous.
The simplicity of the folk dances of India can sometimes be deceptive. While it remains true that tribal dance is dramatically effective because the dancer wholly identifies himself with his role, this identification is not always unconscious. The dancer has to stand apart from himself and evaluate his interpretation of the role. This comes out very clearly in some Naga dances where the same dancer has to change roles swiftly and many times, as the hunter and also as the hunted quarry.
Other remarkable features of the folk dance tradition can be brought out by referring to the Bhangra dance of the Punjab. It is truly an expression of the psyche of the community as a whole and therefore it can obliterate the separation of audience and performers which has become an extreme polarisation in the case of classical forms.
In the Bhangra, young men come together in a clearing in the field after the harvest and begin to move in a circle which continues to swell by drawing more and more people. When the circle has stabilised its form, pairs move from it into the centre, dance in the central area and sink back into the circle, and this is repeated many times by many pairs. Everybody thus becomes a participant.
Apart from the fact that the Bhangra dance idiom is vigorous, with jerky movements of the shoulders and hop- steps, there is no rigidly prescribed measure or sequence. This allows considerable improvisation by individual participants, another characteristic of the folk dance tradition.
All the regions of India have dances exclusively for women too. The Garba dance of Gujarat is one of the finest of this category. It is a graceful and lyrical dance by women around a lamp in an earthen pot with perforations in it to let the light shine through. The women clad in yellow and red garments move in rhythmical circular motion, singing melodious songs, clapping hands, bending forwards and sideways and weaving numerous patterns.