Eternal rhythms express India’s national spirit
IN India god Shiva is honoured as Nataraja, Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Innumerable sculptures, going back over at least 11 centuries, depict him balanced on one bent leg. And the placing of each of his limbs signifies a different aspect of his mastery of the elements of existence.
Movement has long pervaded Indian thought.
Dance here is a vivid element in religion, mythology, philosophy and art. Although I have spent more than 35 years following dance in the West, a four-week visit to India recently made me feel that only now have I witnessed dance where it is truly central to culture.
Nowhere more so than in the disciplined utopia of Nrityagram, a village far from the madding crowd that is completely given over to the pursuit of dance.
The village’s company, the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, is a lustrous exemplar of Odissi, one of India’s classical dance forms. Ever since Nrityagram’s first New York season in 1996 at the Joyce Theatre, no Indian dancers have been better known in America. I stayed in this village for four days, observing roundthe- clock rehearsals and classes as the company prepared for its latest tour at the Joyce Theatre for six days.
The road to Nrityagram is an hour’s drive west from Bangalore in the state of Karnataka. The company’s foreign travels do much to keep the village financially afloat.
Nrityagram was founded in 1990 as a gurukul, or residential village of learning, by the actress Protima Bedi. Although she died in 1998, her name is constantly invoked here. India has no fewer than eight genres of dance that have been officially deemed classical.
The country’s complex political and social history, however, brought most of these forms close to extinction by the 1950s. Most of these idioms were connected to female temple dancers known as devadasis, a legendary caste surrounded in moral controversies and now virtually defunct. Although the classical dance forms today have become well established again, they’ve been extensively reconstructed – and inevitably altered – during the last century.
Odissi, which came the closest to oblivion, derives from the state of Odisha (Orissa) on India’s east coast; Karnataka, including Nrityagram, is southwest and largely inland. As a result a few Odishan purists assert that Nrityagram detaches the dance form from its home culture. The truth, however, is that the village’s inception coincided with the worldwide spread of Odissi as a boom dance industry.
What’s special about Odissi? Its most distinguishing features are its sensuous shifts of weight, its rhythmic phrasing and its connection to ancient sculptural depictions of dance. Like many of the traditional dance forms of Southeast Asia it derives from the Natya Shastra, the treatise on the performing arts written between 200 BC and AD 200.
Three weeks after leaving Nrityagram I saw, in the caves at Udaigiri in Odisha state, the oldest depiction of Odissi: a striking bas-relief, dating from about the first century, of a female dancer backed by musicians.
Many of these bas-reliefs bear a point-for-point resemblance to the way today’s Odissi dancers move. Yet this ancient form is also a new one.
Although once its greatest exponents were the devadasis, their art had dwindled largely to music making by the early 20th century. A separate Odissi lineage was that of the gotipuas, boys trained until puberty to dance women’s roles and to perform acrobatic feats and tableaus, and a third Odissi strain was a folk tradition. Core features have been codified only in living memory and are still subject to debate.
Certainly Odissi’s range and rich beauties deserve to be called classical. Like several other classical forms in India, it has large capacities both for pure form (nritta) and for poetically dramatic expression (abhinaya). At Nrityagram it’s spellbinding, in the abhinaya sections, to watch the dancers’ facial mobility and rapt gestural communicativeness.
The production coming to the United States is a joint project, yoking Nrityagram dancers and musicians with a guru, choreographer, drummer and two dancers from the Chitrasena Dance Company from Colombo, Sri Lanka. The production, called “Samhara,” is a remarkably subtle dialogue between the two styles. Both Surupa Sen, the dancer and choreographer who is Nrityagram’s artistic director, and her fellow dancer Bijayini Satpathy, director of Nrityagram’s Odissi Gurukul, told me that they had encountered no other dance company with which they feel in such harmony as that of Chitrasena. They refer to it as a masculine counterpart to the essentially feminine Odissi style.
The Chitrasena company, like the Nrityagram one, is internationally celebrated. It was founded in Colombo in 1944 by the guru Chitrasena, whose real name was A m a r a t u n g a Arachige Maurice Dias; he also founded its school.
Chitrasena, who died in 2005, and his wife, Vajira, were renowned dancers; their daughter Upeka, who retired from performance last year, is currently its guru (source of enlightenment) and has been commuting between Colombo and Nrityagram for several months.
At first you wonder why the Nrityagram dancers call the Chitrasena style masculine. The two Sri Lankan dancers involved in this project are remarkably lovely, slender and long-limbed young women.
Soon, however, the difference between their idiom and the Nrityagram one becomes obvious. The Chitrasena women cover much more space than the Odissi dancers, both in the easy vertical lift of their limbs and in their horizontal travel. They also move their arms, wrists and torsos in different ways; and they show few of the meltingly sensuous horizontal curves that are central to Odissi, while the Nrityagram dancers, like most Indian classical stylists, maintain facial composure in passages of pure dance form.
And where Odissi dancers wear a chain of bells twined three times around the ankle, the Chitrasena dancers wear bronze anklets with internal bells, attached both to ankle and second toe. After watching a rehearsal or two I could also see where they come close to each other, like a meeting of finely attuned minds. What I couldn’t see, however, was where the dancers took anything specific from each other’s style.
So I asked.
The answer was rhythm. One evening at Nrityagram I watched the two Sri Lankan dancers, Thaji Dias (a granddaughter of Chitrasena) and Mithirani Munasingha, working for hours with their choreographer, Heshma Wignaraja, and with three of the Nrityagram musicians to perfect their rhythmic command of these syllabic dances in Odissi meter.
The vocalist and violinist were as involved in the syllables as were the drummer and dancers.
Likewise, at other times the Odissi dancers absorb Sri Lankan rhythm. Watching them at another rehearsal I noted that even a seemingly slow-motion phrase is set to a passage of brisk drumming. It seemed that, within the gradual movement, there was a rapid sequence of minor pulsations, each to be fitted with intense precision into the dance. A Western observer begins by finding everything in Indian dance “other”; when I first watched it in London in 1980, I thought I had no vocabulary, no frame of reference, for what I saw.
What becomes absorbing, however, in Indian dance – not least the Odissi form of Nrityagram – is that it contains multiple othernesses. These Indian dances abound in dualisms: masculine and feminine elements, sculptural qualities and sinuous transitions, abstract form and mime gesture, motion and repose. The contrasts within the idiom make for endless expressiveness.