The Layers of Dance: Unraveling A Personal Journey

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The Layers of Dance: Unraveling A Personal Journey

– Ameya G. King
MA Kuchipudi UofSA


Abstract

The interrelationship between dance treatises and the practice of dance is explored through the lens of personal experience with Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s choreography Brahmānjali, based on the stages of development in my understanding and executing of this choreography over years of my dance training. Texts considered include Bharata’s Nātyaśāstra, Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpana, and Pārśvadeva’s Sangīta Samayasāra. Nṛtta, Nāṭya and Nṛtya in Kuchipudi, as well as the delineation of Mārgi and Deśi forms are analyzed from the lens of my pedagogical experience. From this analysis, I draw conclusions about the nexus between praxis and academia as it pertains to Kuchipudi.

Introduction

The multifaceted aspects of the Indian performing arts (such as the recognized major dance forms of India) span music, movement, poetry, mythology, and philosophy, as well as geographical, historical, and socio-political factors. Consequently, a dance practitioner can understand, interpret, experience, and present the exact same choreography in a myriad of ways at different points of their dance journey. I would like to explore my own experience with the medium of a well-known Kuchipudi[1] choreography and connect it with the theoretical framework established by several key treatises to demonstrate this phenomenon, extrapolating from it the interrelationship between practice and academia of dance.[2]

As a student of the Vempati bāṇi (school) of Kuchipudi[3], I learned the fundamental aḍugulu (steps) and jatis (rhythmic sequences of steps) as they progress within his pedagogical system before being introduced to songs, or as we call them, items. Additionally, we would recite ślokas (verses) from Bharata’s Nātyaśāstra as well as Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpana. Often, this was done while performing gestures that conveyed their meaning. Two of the ślokas that I was taught early in my fundamental training in Kuchipudi were the following ślokas found in the Abhinaya Darpaṇa:

kamṭhēnālambayet gītam

hastēnārdham pradarśayēt

cakṣurbhyām darśayēt bhāvam

pādābhyām tālamācarēt ||

yato hastastato dṛṣti

yatodṛṣtistato mana 

yato manastato bhāvo 

yato bhāvastato rasa ||[4]

            The meaning as it was taught to me orally was prescriptive: “Sing from your throat, show the meaning with your hands, the feelings will come from your eyes, and your feet will maintain the beat. Wherever your hands go, your eyes must follow. Where your eyes go is where your heart will be focused. When your heart is focused, the feeling will come, and when the feeling comes, rasa will be produced.”

Heavy emphasis was placed on the first two lines of the second ślokam, especially during my fundamentals training. This made sense to me; I noticed that when I followed my hands with my eyes as I executed steps, my body movements themselves would change, incorporating bends and grace. As I gained body awareness, I further realized that this hand-eye coordination was resulting in the usage of my torso in the execution of steps even though I was only being specifically taught arm/hand movements and leg/feet movements. Of course, there were a few exceptions to this rule: some aḍugulu involved hands being in fixed positions, but prescribed eye movements that corresponded to the footwork. A smaller subset involved actively looking away from the hands as they moved into position.

Rasa (aesthetic experience) and bhāva (emotion) did not, at this point, play much of a role in my own dance practice, which was focused on the steps and jatis. This, of course, aligns with the Nātyaśāstra, which prescribed the role of nṛtta (pure dance) only to create beauty.[5] I did, however, notice that some senior students had a much more engaging presence during their execution of steps and jatis, but the reason for that liveliness in their dance was not yet clear to me.

Reading the Texts

In addition to my dance training, I also learned about various influential treatises on dance, though initially, the focus was on the existence and importance of these texts, not necessarily their content. Given the emphasis on Bharata’s Nātyaśāstra (c. 200 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) in class, I understood that dance forms like Kuchipudi were not only physical and spiritual sādhanas (disciplines), but also academic pursuits. The importance of the Nātyaśāstra was both because it is considered an amalgamation of the Vedas[6] and the seminal work documenting Indian performing arts.

The initial major text from the first period of Sanskritic literature on Indian dance forms, the Nātyaśāstra established the framework that subsequent authors either elaborated upon or countered.[7] Upon its rediscovery, it became deeply influential as each of the regional major dance forms began to coalesce in tandem with the post-colonial nationalistic movements.[8]

Ślokams from Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpaṇa (c. 13th c. C.E.) were also a part of our training. This text came from the second period of Sanskritic literature on Indian dance forms, which treated dance as an independent form and provided immense documentation on Mārga (classical) and Deśi (regional) forms[9]. Building upon the framework by the Nātyaśāstra, it serves as a practical manual for dancers and is also heavily referred to in Kuchipudi training[10].

My understanding of the basic framework expanded as I learned about additional texts that have been influential in documenting dance[11], such as Pārśvadeva’s Sangīta Samayasāra (c. 12th-13th c. C.E.) which also belonged to the second period of Sanskritic literature on Indian dance forms. Pārśvadeva explored Deśi music and dance, introducing a framework through which to understand those forms.

As “classical” dance forms, the major dance forms have been studied through the lens of the Mārga frameworks established in these Sanskritic texts. For Kuchipudi itself, Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam “classified [nṛtta movements in Kuchipudi], correlated them with the Nāṭyaśastra text, emphasising the śastric nature of the Kuchipudi dance form.”[12] However, given that Deśi dance forms refer to provincial dances, and the major dance forms of India have strong regional identities based on local culture, language, and history, an argument can be made that these forms exhibit characteristics of Deśi dances as well.

Brahmānjali – An Invocation

As students move from their fundamentals into items, they are introduced to lyrics and music, as well as methods of elaboration. In accordance with the curriculum of the Vempati bāṇi, upon completion of the jatis, I learned Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam’s choreography Brahmānjali[13], largely by following behind more senior students, and then receiving corrections during the break.

As the piece is structured, it begins with the dancer entering with pūja (prayer) items, and praying to Lord Śiva. The opening of Brahmānjali begins with eight steps forward, followed by the caukam[14] steps around the periphery of the stage. After a final rapid flourish of stamps, the dancer lowers into a seated position. Female dancers perform this sequence while gesturally representing a plate in their left hand and a basket of flowers in their right hand. Male dancers have their hands together to indicate the flowers. The dancer performs the rituals of a prayer offering to Lord Śiva.

Then, the choreography alternates between ślokas from the Abhinaya Darpaṇa and jatis, before finally transitioning to the song (which is again interspersed with small nṛtta segments that highlight the lyrics). The first ślokam describes Lord Śiva’s body as the entire universe, his word as all of literature, his attire as the moon and stars, and pureness as his embodiment.[15] The second ślokam describes the Guru (teacher) as the trinity (Brahma, Viṣṇu, and Śiva) and Parabrahma (ultimate consciousness).[16] The final ślokam describes the sabha (audience) as the kalpa vṛkṣam (wish-fulling tree) with the Vedas as its branches, the Śāstras (sciences) as its flowers, and scholars as its bees.[17]

The song describes salutations to Lord Śiva, Goddess Pārvati, Siddhendra Yogi[18], and those who make dance possible – dance scholars, litterateurs, musicians, patrons, and all of mankind. The last sequence is accentuated by brief interludes of jatis.

Transitioning from Nṛtta

When initially learning this piece, I was focused entirely on two things: remembering the sequence of movements in the choreography and ensuring that my eyes were steadily moving in the direction that they needed to, which was largely following my hands. The difficulty of these two pursuits varied during the different segments being executed.

During the entrance, the challenge was maintaining steady eye movement while my torso and feet moved in diametrically rotating arcs along with a driving rhythm. I also needed to keep my arms and hands fixed in their position. I observed that some senior dancers kept their eyes trained straight ahead, while others stylistically moved between to diagonally directed glances.

The next challenge was the sequence where the prayer itself is performed. I needed to ensure that my hand gestures remained stiff, so as not to drop the ārati[19] plate or basket of flowers as I entered, and to carefully place them down for the prayer. Ensuring that my handling of the ārati lamp was appropriate took immense focus – my hand had to move in circles while maintaining an upright position, depicting a lit dīpam (lamp) being moved as part of the ārati for the vigraham (idol). To do that successfully, I needed to keep my eyes focused upon my hand as it formed circles.

The slow unfurling of movements for each of the ślokas, seemingly unstructured by rhythm, also posed challenges in maintaining steadiness and balance, both for my eyes and my limbs. The coordinated movement of my eyes and hands, again, dictated the bends and grace of the rest of my body. The song and jati sequences, on the other hand, were much easier to execute, given that performing a combination of footwork and hand gestures in coordination with a moving rhythm was exactly what the vast majority of my training up until that point had been.

The two fundamental ślokas I was trying to apply to this item (albeit at a rudimentary level) were the ones we recited from the Abhinaya Darpaṇa. As I then understood it, I needed to sing the song as I danced and clearly execute the hand gestures and follow my hands with my eyes, to be able to produce the feeling and expressions. My footwork needed to be clearly and firmly executed to establish the rhythm, as well.

Understanding Nṛtya

In Kuchipudi (and other forms), the same verse of a song is repeated multiple times, and performed with variations in gesture, footwork, and body movements. This interpretation of lyrics through dance was termed as nṛtya by treatises such as Abhinaya Darpaṇa. These variations can feature simple changes in footwork and hand gestures or establish elaborate metaphors and allegories through vignettes and episodes. Brahmānjali exclusively features the first sort of elaboration, depicting the meaning and core concepts of the lyrics in simple variations.

My transition into the next stage of development was the exploration of the lyrics at a very literal level. This applied specifically to the ślokas and song of the choreography. Once I no longer had to think “what’s next?”, I turned attention toward the meaning of the words and how they translated into my movements. This was, again, building upon my understanding of the same ślokas I referred to previously, but with focus on the meaning of the sāhityam (lyrics).

I modulated my footwork and body language to match the meaning and tone of each line. For instance, my movements were broader and more vigorous for the line Brahmānjali tānḍava nṛtya sruṣtaku[20] and more delicate and graceful for the next line, divyānjali lāsya kelanā lolaku[21]. Siddhendra Yogi was portrayed with serenity and steadiness, while litterateurs and musicians were portrayed as deeply involved in their craft. For sarvajanāniki (all mankind), I would use wide eyes and expansive, fast-moving hands to express the immensity of all of humanity.

These developments in understanding and modulating movements based on the lyrics were building upon my first stage of dance, which was focused on technical execution of hand and feet movements, along with appropriate eye movements.

Elaborating upon Nāṭya and Bhāva

At a later stage, through observation of other artists, I began using a much more precise and vivid approach to the nāṭya (dramatic) portions of Brahmānjali. This development correlated with greater spatial awareness. When offering flowers, for instance, I would pick them up from immediately in front of me, where I had previously placed the basket, and then stretch forward to place them at the Lord’s feet. In contrast, at the end of the prayer, I would bend forward to pick up a flower from the Lord’s feet and then, after lowering my head to bring the flower to each of my eyes, place it in my hair, mimicking the action I have seen elders do during prayers.

My execution of the ārati significantly shifted over the years. As I gained awareness of the relative position and size of the vigraham and gained control over my own movements, instead of rigidly following my hand with my eyes, I focused forward at where I imagined the vigraham’s face, keeping my moving hand in my peripheral vision. Again, I had noticed that in prayers, our gaze is upon the God, not the lamp, so I adjusted my dance accordingly. During my initial practice, I needed my eyes to be watching my hand to let my body sway circularly along with my hand, but by this point, my body swayed along with the music and my hand movement without requiring that attention.

Returning back to the ślokas, these changes reflect a much more nuanced understanding of driṣṭi, to mean focus or attention, as opposed to sight. As my spatial and body awareness became more intuitive with practice, my focus could turn to the intent of the movements, the emotion accompanying the intent, and the underlying threads that connected the ideas of the choreography, as opposed to the literal sequence of gestural and bodily movements.

As a result, my emotional approach when performing this piece also varied, depending on my focus. Sometimes, the execution would be based more upon devotion, while at other times, it was a vigorous celebration of the dance form. At times, the variations in rhythm were scintillating highlights, while at other times, my body would be moved by the rāga or the lyrics. These changes in my psyche on a day-to-day basis produced vastly different experiences to performing the exact same choreography.

In his description of nineteen characteristics of Deśi dance traditions, which he termed Deśyāngas[22], Pārśvadeva has codified some of these phenomena. For instance, Ḍhillāyi (“When the heart of the artist melts while she is dancing”) can describe when I am fully immersed in the devotion expressed in the choreography, while focus on the technical execution of dance is Anumāna. My visceral response to the music is Lali, while when rhythm drove my performance, it is ullāsa.

Connecting with the Texts

This analysis of my evolving understanding and approach for Brahmānjali reflects the multifaceted relationship between the practice of dance and the texts documenting Indian dances across the centuries. It must first be stated that Indian dance forms must have predated the texts documenting them. For a practical discipline like dance to be documented, it must first exist upon the bodies of its practitioners. The context and framework provided by the Nātyaśāstra and the treatises that followed have allowed scholars to understand not only the dance forms practiced across the centuries, but also their role in the larger society.

These texts have also been utilized as guidelines in either recreating or evolving more modern avatars of Indian dances. Taking Kuchipudi as an example, as noted previously, the efforts of Kuchipudi stalwarts to understand the Nātyaśāstra and correlate Kuchipudi with its strictures are well-documented. This venture has been both a part of the practical evolution of the art form, as well as the academic efforts to document the art form. As a result, there is a dialogue happening between the treatise and the modern practice of the dance form. This very interaction is visible in the structure of the item Brahmānjali.

This interaction between the text and the art means that the dance being performed cannot be assumed to be the exact same form as what was danced at the time when the text was written. This is further supported by the fact that texts that have taken contradictory stances on the framework of dance can both be applied accurately to today’s dance forms. This is certainly the case for the role of nṛtta. The commonly accepted definition of nṛtta, which aligns with the Nātyaśāstra, states that it is devoid of emotions.[23] This definition is what students of Kuchipudi are taught.

However, as analysis of the Kuchipudi solo repertoire revealed, the role of nṛtta within the Kuchipudi repertoire is more nuanced. When it arises in jatis or musical interludes, it can foreshadow the upcoming lyrical content. It is often overlaid upon lyrics, not only as an aesthetic flourish, but also as mechanism to underscore the essence of the lyrics.[24] Both of these usages are seen in Brahmānjali, and described by Pārśvadeva’s dissenting definition of nṛtta: “the movements of the body that are a product of imitation, reflecting the context and situation… performed with an awareness and understanding of the content of the portrayal, the pulse of the audience (or possibly the sensibilities of the times), Tāla (structured rhythm), Bhāva (emotion), and Laya (inherent sense of rhythm).”[25] This is an example of how both the Mārga frameworks and Deśi frameworks describe aspects the dancer’s experience for the same dance form.

While the elements of my journey for this specific item may be an individual experience, the fact that several texts document aspects of this progression in their different frameworks for dance speaks to the salience of this phenomenon at a larger scale. An interrogation of pedagogy and personal development with the support of these texts as supplements allows for practitioners to better harness and direct the development of their dance at a physical and psychological level.

References

Bharatamuni, Kumar, P., & Abhinavagupta. (2014). Nāṭyaśāstram: Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharatamuni (Vol. 1). Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corp.

Bose, M. (2007). Movement and Mimesis: the Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic tradition. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Chatterjea, A. (1996). Dance Research in India: A Brief Report. Dance Research Journal, 28(1), 118–123. doi: 10.2307/1478122

King, A. G. (2020). ​Investigative Analysis of the usage of rhythm to highlight emotion in the Kuchipudi solo repertoire. [Unpublished Master’s Thesis]. University of SiliconAndhra.

Kothari, S., & Pasricha, A. (2001). Kuchipudi: Indian classical dance art. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

M.P.A. KUCHIPUDI DANCE [PDF]. (2018). Hyderabad: Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University.

Nandikeśvara, & Appa Rao, P. S. R. (1997). Abhinaya Darpaṇam of Nandikeśwara. Hyderabad: P. S. R. Appa Rao.

Thakore, Y. (2020). Pārśva Deva-The Dancer’s Friend [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Kuchipudi, University of SiliconAndhra.

[1] Diacritically notated as Kūcipūḍi. I will be using the commonly used spelling ‘Kuchipudi’ instead.

[2] I am grateful to Yashoda Thakore for her guidance in the development of this analysis, as well as for generously providing access to her unpublished research.

[3] My initial training was at the Kuchipudi Kalakshetra (Visakhapatnam, India) followed by training under Smt. Sarada Jammi, an alumna of Kuchipudi Art Academy (Chennai, India) and Kuchipudi Kalakshetra (Visakhapatnam, India). Both institutions were established by Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam, whose pedagogical and aesthetic approach are described as the Vempati bāṇi.

[4]Nandikeśvara, & Appa Rao, P. S. R. (1997). p.44

[5] Bharatamuni, Kumar, P., & Abhinavagupta. (2014)., vol. 1, p. 193, verse 268 – kintu śobhāṁ nṛtta pravartitam|| prāyeṇa sarvalokasya nṛttamiṣṭam svabhātaḥ||

[6] Bharatamuni, Kumar, P., & Abhinavagupta. (2014)., vol. 1, p. 12, verse 17 – jagrāha pāṭhyamṛgvedāt sāmabhyo gītameva ca| yajurvedādabhinayān rasānātharvaṇādapi||

[7] Bose, M. (2007). p. 108

[8] Chatterjea, A. (1996). p. 118-119

[9] Bose, M. (2007). p. 10-11

[10] M.P.A. KUCHIPUDI DANCE [PDF]. (2018). Hyderabad: Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University. This importance is indicated by the prominence of Abhinaya Darpaṇa in syllabuses related to Kuchipudi, such as the one established by Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University

[11] As part of the curriculum for the Kuchipudi M.A. program at the University of Silicon Andhra, Milpitas, CA

[12] Kothari, S., & Pasricha, A. (2001). p. 162

[13]Brahmānjali” (Rāgamālika, Ādi tālam) – Choreography by Padmabhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam, lyrics by Sri C. Narayana Reddy, featuring ślokas from Nandikeswara’s Abhinaya Darpana.

[14] Footwork executed by sliding forward a foot, stamping it, and hitting the back foot on the pads of the toes, and stamping the front foot again. This is done on alternating sides so that the dancer seemingly glides across the stage.

[15] Nandikeśvara, & Appa Rao, P. S. R. (1997), p. 1 – Āngikam bhuvanam yasya Vācikam sarwa vāṅmayam | Āhāryam candra-tārādi Tam vandē sāttwikam Śivam ||

[16] Attributed to Veda Vyasa’s Guru Gīta, which is a part of the Skanda Purāṇa

[17] Nandikeśvara, & Appa Rao, P. S. R. (1997), p. 21 – Sabhākalpataruḥ bhāti vēda śākhōpaśōbhitaḥ | Śastra pushpa samākīrṇō vidwadbhramarasōbhitaḥ ||

[18] Considered the father of Kuchipudi

[19] Part of the prayer ritual, where a lit lamp is waved in a circular motion as an offering to the deity

[20] Translation: Great salutations to the one who performs tānḍava (Lord Śiva)

[21] Translation: Divine salutations to the one who dances lāsya (Goddess Pārvati)

[22] Thakore, Y. (2020). – These Deśyāngas are documented in the 6th chapter of Pārśvadeva’s Sangīta Samayasāra.

[23] Nandikeśvara, & Appa Rao, P. S. R. (1997), p. 18 – Bhāvābhinayahīnaṁtu nṛtta mityabhidhīyatē ||

[24] King, A. G. (2020), p.82-83. This research was conducted under the guidance of Anupama Kylash, with support from Yashoda Thakore. In addition to analyzing solo items of both the Vempati and traditional bāṇis, I conducted interviews of choreographers, practitioners, and educators of both styles and codified their responses.

[25] Thakore, Y. (2020).