In January 1933, on the cricket field, British Bodyline impacted the Australian team. Unbelievably at the same time, here in India, a different bodyline hit the public with similar shock and awe: the Madras Music Academy for the first time presented two devadasis.The duo gave a maiden on-stage presentation of their quaint classical temple dance. (This was the nautch that the British had wrinkled their dainty noses at.) It was a daring move by a conservative cultural organisation that would influence the entire trajectory of Indian classical dance which is today hailed around the world as a unique and pluralistic heritage.
Post Independence, under the Nehruvian vision of a resurgent India, the classical heritage and culture were recast to become valuable tools for nationalist resurgence and identity building.
Deeply narrative and spiritual in its intent, the objective of Indian classical dances is not to entertain but to satiate the senses and feed the soul. Unlike Western ballet technique which attempts to create beauty through the negation of gravity, the dances of India work by aligning the body with the magnetic pull-force of the earth. See how the Bharatanatyam arai-mandi posture or Odissi’s chauk manipulate the base of the spine as a fulcrum that is pinned to gravity. It is around the motor of this spinal base that the geometry of space is carved through the instrument of the body.
Similarly, the chakkars of Kathak and the chak-koi/jagoi of Manipuri, when one analyses, spin the body on the spinal axis. The only difference is that while Kathak spins the body in a linear way, Manipuri uses the spinal axis to weave vertical swaying and curvilinear patterns. Mohiniattam on the other end of the spectrum creates horizontal curvilinear lines. Through all these different weavings of the body in space, a uniquely Indian dance identity was crafted and celebrated.
Another hallmark of this tradition was the use of abhinaya , a unique innovation in global dance. Through face and body, the classical dance artists of India could narrate the most complex stories in which innumerable characters would be delineated fleetingly. The Western concept of a single artiste playing a single role in a ballet is never the norm in the Indian dance experience. Here multiplicity rules. A dancer becomes several characters in the course of even a brief sequence. It also provides for a variety of narrative interventions. Poets and writers have twisted and tossed mythologies and their references to create a dazzling performance repertoire that is so vast that no one can ever claim to have seen it all — much less done it all!
Unlike in cricket, Indian dance created the Bodyline to generate rasa — the deepest spiritual satisfaction and satiation of the five human senses through a sacred compact between the art and the artist on the one hand and the artist and the audience on the other. We would be so much a poorer nation without our classical dances!
We must increase awareness of the importance of dance among people, and persuade our government to engage more with dance to provide a place for it in all systems of education and to enshrine it in communities.
These then are our two future challenges: to use the dance to free our tedious education system and to imbibe school years with the creativity and freedom that our dance teaching embraces. And also, we need to engage our various communities to the beauty and efficacy of dance which can yield so many benefits. For where would the dance and we dancers be without our audiences? (The writer is founder-president of Natya Vriksha, Delhi. She is both a performer and teacher.)