Text in Indian Dance – My reflections
Dance has always been a fundamental human expression. When nature and human beings lived in complete harmony, the music in the songs of bird, the melody in the movement of wind, the rhythm in the flow of water, the dynamism in the gaits of different animals and the vibrancy in the ever-changing canvas of the wide expanses inspired the dancer in every human being to explore the possibilities and potential to move one’s body in myriad ways. With significant changes in style of living and evolution of a culture, specific to a place and time, there emerged occasions which provided the context for dance. It was not merely moving one’s body. Dance became a vehicle to celebrate or mark an occasion. The occasion acquired a context in which dance was performed. And with emergence of a language - spoken and later written, dance evolved to become a way of animating a poetic idea apart from a body expression of translating a melody. With religion turning into an institution, dance became a meeting point between the scripture, the ritual and the divine. In public arena the epics and folklore provided the text to the dancer to combine education and entertainment. Dance was a seva in temple, an aesthetic experience for the intelligentsia and entertainment for the public. In all three contexts what played a very vital role was the Text which carried the dancer and the audience into a journey of self – exploration.
In this essay I have put down my observations and reflections on how I understand the place of text in Indian Classical dance. It is not an academic paper. As a classical dancer of present generation I am trying to understand how artistes choose a text in conceptualising a dance piece. This essay briefly discusses three aspects of text in dance – text and context, how is a text interpreted, how much freedom does an artiste have in interpreting a text.
Text and Context
The social beliefs, cultural fabric, religious practices, geographical landscapes, tapestry of human relations and kind of patronage given to a classical dance form significantly contributed in the formulation of a text. Not every text which was composed was meant to be danced but it was chosen because of the lyrics which were appropriate for a context. In temple the dancer performed different texts from scriptures, works of saint-poets or other writers. The emphasis was more on the ritual and not on the art as such. There the human body became a via media for the recited word to acquire a new dimension. Body movements and facial expression transformed the recitation into an enigmatic dance-theatrical exposition which subsumed the performer and the onlooker.
Classical dance was performed in courts or in chamber for the learned and the elite. Because the audience were informed it gave an opportunity to the dancer to delve deep into the intricacies of the text. The poetry was elevated to the level of a heightened aesthetic experience. The dancer was in complete command of the language and the music which was evident in the ways she explored the possibilities of the text and the melody. There have been instances when the creativity of the dancer inspired a poet to compose lyrics (impromptu or otherwise) .
Classical dance also communicated to people at large when stories from the epics like Mahabharata, Ramayana or classics like – Nala Damayanti, Vikramorvashiyam were danced keeping in mind the pulse of the audience. As the audience was familiar with the text the experience of watching it come alive through a dance presentation was a very unique one.
e mythological stories cut across the language barrier and connect to people of
Classical Text in modern era.
Since the time when classical dance was performed in temple, court and public arena to this day when it has been de-contextualised and is only seen as a concert-art, the kinds of text used vary a lot. Performers use both classical, and modern texts but there are continuous speculations about the relevance of classical text in today’s age.
A classical text is a repository of the culture of the time when it was composed. The imagery, the language, the characters, the way emotions are expressed speak volumes about that era. As the poetry was addressed to divine-characters the text acquired a universal feel which did not restrict it to a specific period. This is the reason why classical texts still have an important place in Indian classical dance. They do have a degree of contemporaneity. The language of compositions might be archaic, the imagery used might be somewhat odd with respect to the present day sensibilities, but as the text is interpreted through dance it gets communicated.
At the same time it is important to address the fact that in past few decades because of rapid change in the society due to globalisation, a large section of people are being slowly removed from their cultural roots. The education system and media is not taking an active role in making people culturally aware. Hence it becomes difficult for a dancer to present a piece to an urban audience. Many times the audience is not familiar with the language of songs. The imagery used, for example, nakha shikha varnana (head to toe description of the heroine) looks very strange to a modern eye. As the context has faded out from the presentation of the art which is now only seen on a proscenium, or in a studio, questions are raised about the relevance of certain pieces. Some sections of the audience hardly have a feel for language or literature. Although the text is briefly paraphrased in English but it is not the same like earlier when the audience was much – informed. This puts the dancer in a dilemma about how far should s(he) should explain the song during the announcement? Ideally dance should speak for itself but from the time classical dances have travelled far and wide outside their areas of origin and practice; from the time the context in which a particular piece was performed has been removed, the need to explain the text of the song is inevitable.
In second half of 20th century there emerged a section of artistes who questioned the use of classical literature in dance. They expressed discordance with the subject matter in those texts and the style of presentation, keeping in mind the contemporaneity of the social set-up. The trend has continued till date when many artistes are working with themes like ‘Time’, ‘Space’, ‘Reflection’, ‘Body’, ‘ A journey of a drop of water’, ‘Five Elements’, ‘Rain’, ‘Echo’ etc. It is paradoxical that some of them have used specific texts from ancient, medieval and modern literatures. And there are others who have worked with appropriate musical compositions to project the theme.
How is a text interpreted?
Interpreting a text through dance involves coming together of many sensibilities. The greatest challenge for an artiste is to understand the meaning of a word and translate it through her body in a particular melody and tempo. Since most of the time the dancer is dressed in a neutral costume and make –up her enactment of different characters, landscapes, time zones is convincing and communicative only when she interprets the text properly and not just perform it as an action song.
In her interpretation she not only uses hand gestures and different gaits but also subtle movements of eyes, neck, eyebrows, lips etc . Sometimes a glance or a sway of hand says a lot. From dancing word to word meaning the dancer slowly meanders between different sub-texts. When danced, a text acquires a life of its own. What enamours me the most is this translation of a word into a movement. The meeting point of the word, the music, the rhythm, the interpretation of the dancer and the involvement of the audience creates a heightened aesthetic experience called the sadharanikaran – the universalisation of the particular.
Apart from using a lyrical text dancers also use musical compositions set in a particular rhythmic cycle. Through such pieces a dancer gets an opportunity to explore the technique of a style. Depending on the rhythmic sense and proficiency in choreography the dancer moves on from dancing the pattern of the song to performing different mathematical calculations within the tala cycle of the melody. The movements thus performed paint dynamic strokes in the air which seem like a moving kaleidoscope. The geometry of lines, the melody of bells, the spectacle of leaps and jumps, the flexibility of body limbs and the fluidity of glances, dialogue with the rhythmical text performed by the musicians.
It is important to point out here the use of mnemonic syllables and beats of percussion as forming a textual base in dance forms like Chhau where in there is very less usage of a poetic phrase. This feature is seen in other dance foms also. But at the same time it is not similar to compositions like pallavi, jatiswara, Tillana etc. Since the dancer is dressed in a specific costume according to the character and sometimes also wears a mask to portray the same, it helps to contextualise the presentation. Since the movements are carefully chosen keeping in mind the character and the situation, the text, in this case is the dance itself. In absence of a song, the presentation rests heavily on the body language of the dancer which expands a core idea throughout the performance.
In all styles of classical dance the important factors which enhance the meaning of the text and its translation into movement is the selection of the raga and the tempo in which the song has to be sung. Apart from the beginning and end of a piece when the music alone seems like an extension to the text, the interludes enhance the silences between the words. They give a relief in the flow of a presentation and also highlight the musicality of the dance and the ‘danceablity’ of the music.
Text and artistic freedom
Which text is suitable for dance interpretation? How far can the dancer go to interpret the words in a particular manner? Should the interpretation be suggestive or literal? Should a text be chosen according to audience’s sensibilities or does the dancer have complete freedom? What role does age and gender appropriateness play in an interpretation? Does the personality or satva of a dancer interfere with the interpretation of the text? These are some of the questions which run through my mind when I introspect about the relationship between the text and the dance. I also wonder about the responsibility an artiste has towards sensitizing people, which comes into play when s(he) chooses a text and interprets it.
Language has a very important role in a person’s life. It gives an identity to a person. It connects people. It gives a ‘form’ to the abstract world of human ideas. When this language is interpreted through a classical dance then each word acquires a life of its own. A word is no longer ‘caged’ within any cultural boundary but ‘flies’ like a free bird in the sky of human imagination. The text unfolds through the body of a dancer into an experience which everyone can relate to.
In today’s age when a person’s creative abilities are bartered for a secure job and financial security, when education system is geared towards producing ‘kiddults’ , when emotions are commodified and presented in the most insensitive manner, when the indigenous cultures are being eroded by global motifs and definitions, our society needs art forms which expose people to their heritage; art forms which channelize people’s creativity in a beautiful manner; art forms which not only inform, educate and entertain people but also heal them.
Indian Classical dance is one such art. The relation between text, context, performer and viewer, which gets complete expression in classical dance, is the one which enriches sensibilities. It gives a glimpse into the ethereal world of imagination and exposes one to the rich cultural heritage of this country.