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The Persistence of Classical Dances in India

Gina Lalli


This paper presents a panoptic view of two of the great classical dance forms of India, Bharata Natyam and Kathak, revealing their survival through centuries of assaults on their existence, not only from the ravages of colonialism and invasions but also from elements of the Indian caste system itself. The account is given in somewhat personal terms, as it emerged from journeys to India during the years 1955 to 1968 when I studied these dance forms with Indian masters, following study with teachers in New York City (see Lalli 2001 for a detailed discussion of Lucknow Kathak and Puri 2001 for a detailed account of a Bharata Natyam performance). Apart from discussing the persistence of classical dances in India, the essay attempts to assist aspiring students by telling them what they need to concentrate on regarding the classical dance forms during their study.

     Learning a classical dance form in its country of origin requires many kinds of study apart from countless hours spent in dance classes and solitary practice sessions. Music, language, spiritual discipline (if required), and texts about the dance form (if they exist) are equally important if the goal is to understand the danced movements and their spiritual and cultural significance.

     While in India, I witnessed great performances by master dancers of several classical forms—Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Orissi, and Kathak (see Williams 2001: 80). After India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947, the Indian government established an arts commission, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, to foster and protect indigenous dances and other arts and maintain schools where great masters are invited to teach and students are given scholarships.

     The Madras (now Chennai) Music Academy held (and still holds) a yearly symposium and festival of outstanding soloists and dance critics. Its purpose is to maintain high standards of classical dancing. There, in 1956, I saw one of the last of the temple dancers (deva-dasis, that is, servants of God), Mylapore Gowri Amma (popularly called Gowri-Ma), who was in her eighties. Her dramatic power is not adequately described in words. Wearing a simple nondescript cotton sari, she performed a padam (dance-poem) in which Radha, the human beloved of the god Krishna, asks her friend to bring a light so that she can light a path for Krishna, to be sure he finds his way to her. As Gowri-Ma looks into the twilight gloom searching for Krishna, the stage before us seemed to darken, and her face expressed such longing and searching for Krishna that a venerable dance critic sitting at a nearby table on the stage was so moved he burst into tears and wept audibly throughout the dance.

     As if by magic this small, unprepossessing figure on stage, without elaborate costume or makeup, with only the essential accompaniment of a singer, a drummer, and a drone player, projected the drama of the story with such compelling force that the audience was caught up as if by a tidal wave. The entire theater was filled with the mood of longing that she portrayed. We felt what she was feeling; we saw what she was seeing. It was art so powerfully crafted that there was no other reality except that which she created.

     Such is the ancient art of abhinaya, the art of interpreting a song with stylized hand gestures and facial expressions, while at the same time transforming into the character who embodies, of all human emotions, a single mood (rasa), in this case, the longing for the absent lover. Every gesture, every step adds to the intensity of the longing of this character. A mood of longing is meant to fill the air, gripping the minds and hearts of the spectators. The dancer has become longing personified; the audience becomes one with her devo­tion and longing. This is the ultimate goal of Indian dance theater—the sharing, between audiences and performers of a profound aesthetic state called rasa. The physical technique of steps, poses, rhythms, and such is actually secondary. An Indian dancer may have perfect physical technique, but if there is an absence of aesthetic content, the performance is, at best, considered mediocre.

     There are schools now where Bharata Natyam is taught to groups of students, but the old way of teaching was private tutelage with a master who might devote his life to one or two pupils who become his chef d’ouvres. This is the way Gowri Ma was taught. After learning the vocabulary of hand gestures (mudras) and stylized expressions of the emotions (bhavas)—which have remained unchanged for two thousand years—the student is encouraged to improvise many ways of interpreting a theme. For example, how many ways can the dancer show the idea “it is getting dark. Bring a light so he can see the path”?

     The structure of the padam (story segment) is such that each line of any given verse is repeated over and over, so the mood can be fully experienced by both dancer and audience. The line will be repeated as many times as the dancer wishes, perhaps ten or twenty times, with as many different gestures and shadings of the mood of longing and devotion as she is capable of dramatizing. When the audience is thoroughly immersed in the meaning of the line and gripped by the mood, the dancer gives a signal to the musicians that she is ready to explore the second line of the verse.

     For example, in the padam performed by Gowri-Ma, we are meant to feel that the dancer’s love for Krishna reaches from the earth to heaven. Her love for Krishna is both human and divine, love so vast and all-consuming that she will not survive the night if he does not find the path to her door. It is a poignant, almost tragic love, and our hearts are breaking. It is as if the dancer is saying, “Come quickly, my friend, bring a light! Hurry, oh hurry, my friend, bring a lamp, bring a candle. Oh, I implore you, bring a light, my friend. It is getting dark. Oh, see how the sky is darkening. See how the sun is going down. How will he find his way? Bring a light so he can see the path. Oh, please, bring a light. It is getting dark, and he may not find his way. My Krishna, my Lord, my love, may not find his way. Oh, see, is that him walking like a king? Oh, see, is he coming toward me wearing saffron silk, wearing a peacock crown? Light the way so he may come to meet me, walking like a king, wearing saffron silk, wearing a peacock crown, holding his flute.” This goes on until we almost see Krishna emerge from the darkness, but yet are not quite sure.

     There is no ending to the story. The padam is designed to convey a powerful mood and we are left with the taste—the rasa—of that mood. Often there is a verse at the end of the padam in which the composer tells his name and asks the god to take pity on him and also come to his door.

     In India, an additional element that contributes to audience empathy with the dancer is the fact that they, too, worship Krishna or Rama or Shiva—all the deities addressed in the dance—and they, too, long for a moment of grace, actually to see or feel the presence of the divinity.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Gina Lalli portrait, 1975. Photo by Daniel Entin.

The Near-extinction of the Temple Dance

There is an element in Indian culture that is at least as puritanical as the British invaders were. This dogmatic, inflexible influence may be partly attributed to a change in Indian culture in the eleventh or twelfth centuries, when a manifesto was circulated called “Manu’s Code.” This code announced the supremacy of the male over previously matriarchal indigenous cultures. The aphorism “The husband is god” became the watchword. Gradually women were subjugated to men and had no rights except those allowed by the husband. Previously, there had been a tradition of women not only as rulers but as courtesans, who were honored in the courts because of their learning and artis­tic skills. In the ornately sculptured temples of Belur and Halebid (twelfth century) in Mysore State, there are larger-than-life depictions of the queen at that time dancing the temple dance.

     The deva-dasi caste of dancers has always been considered low on the social scale in India. The brahmin caste (once purely religious leaders, but in modern times also educators and businessmen) never approved of dancing, no matter how sacred it may have been in the temples. The temple dancers themselves gradually became pawns of brahmin priests who pressed them into servitude for wealthy patrons of the temple. Added to this was the disapproval of the British toward non-Christian religions. Nor did a Victorian attitude toward women approve of displays of the female body in dances, however religious their intent.

     The coalition of these two powerful social forces—British rulers and brahmins—led to the near-extinction of temple dancing by 1910. The male members of the deva-dasi caste (the dance teachers and choreographers) gradually dispersed into their obscure villages, but the extinction of the dance form did not happen. Perhaps there is some unexplainable destiny that, through coincidence, led to a powerful revival of this great dance form and to world recognition of Bharata Natyam as a great theatrical art form.

Rukmini Devi, Anna Pavlova, and Kalakshetra (Field of Arts)

Rukmini Devi (1904–86) was a brahmin lady, married to Dr. George Arundale, an Englishman who became the leader of the Indian division of the Theosophical Society. They toured the world to promote theosophy when, in the early 1920s, Rukmini Devi saw Anna Pavlova perform The Dying Swan in London and the two women met briefly. Again, as if destiny were at work, they met a few months later on a ship bound for Australia. They became friends, and Rukmini told Pavlova she wanted to become a ballet dancer. Pavlova urged her instead to return to India and learn classical Indian dancing and present it to the world. Rukmini took the Russian dancer’s advice seriously and returned to South India.

     Meanwhile, in Madras, the dance critic E. Krishna Iyer was struggling to have the temple dance recognized as a great and spiritual form. He had made strenuous efforts to persuade a brahmin lady to study and present it but without any success. His solution? He put on the temple dancer’s costume and demonstrated the dance himself. Then he met Rukmini Devi and was encouraged by her interest in the dance. As she became proficient, he helped to introduce her to the audiences in Madras and to the Madras Music Academy, a conservative institution. She met with great success in the eyes of dance and music critics. She had taken pains to eliminate from her movement repertoire any hint of eroticism, and she began writing and lecturing about the purity and high ideals of the dance.

     Rukmini then studied with Mylapore Gowri-Ma of the deva-dasi caste, and she also studied with one of the dance masters on the verge of oblivion, Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram (1869–1954). Sundaram asked her to study with his son-in-law, Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai (1893–1968), so that he could stay in his village while Chokkalingam went with her to Madras.

     Rukmini Devi toured Europe and the United States, achieving great acclaim. Her primary interest in life was education, including the arts. She established an academy of Indian dance in Adhyar, near Madras, called Kalakshetra (The Field of Arts), which still thrives and where Bharata Natyam is taught with great attention to preserving the prototypical forms of the dance. She also reintroduced the fan costume from the temple sculptures (see Williams 2001: 85 for photograph).


Following Rukmini Devi, the reigning virtuoso of Bharata Natyam was Balasraswati (1918–1984), a member of the deva-dasi caste. As such, she was greatly appreciated by dance critics and aficionados but was never invited to a social gathering because of her lower caste status. In return for this social attitude, she never had a kind word for the critics who praised her dance. Fortunately, she was invited to dance in New York in the late 1950s and then to teach at Wesleyan College in Connecticut where she received royal treatment.

     Balasaraswati’s main teachers were Kandappa Pillai, a strict Bharata Natyam master, and Chinnaya Naidu, a master who taught her to improvise new interpretations of a dance while performing. She also studied the rich gesture-language of Kuchipudi, another South Indian dance form, with Vedantam Krishnaragana Shastra.

     Balasaraswati was always accompanied by her brothers, T. Viswanathan, a flutist, and T. Ranganathan, a drummer. Having met them and studied with Balasaraswati at Wesleyan University, I was given the joyous task of guiding them around New York City and took them to a performance at the Village Vanguard of two renowned artists, Paul Draper and Larry Adler. Paul Draper, a master of tap, danced to the harmonica of Larry Adler. They performed a Bach toccata and fugue, and then Draper created a toccata and fugue with the sound of his taps only. Balasaraswati and her brothers were deeply impressed to find such intelligence and mastery in Western artists, modifying to some extent the South Indian belief that Western arts, not being “ancient,” were at a rudimentary level.

     I was fortunate to see several of Balasaraswati’s performances in New York and at Wesleyan. When she gestured, there seemed to be a stream of golden light coming from her hands so that one could see golden arcs in the air for an instant after each sweep of her hands. There is a padam “Krishna Nee Begane Baro” (“O Krishna, come to me quickly”).1 Because of her ability to improvise, I saw Balasaraswati dance five different versions of this piece. In one version, she showed the mother sleeping and dreaming the whole scene with the baby Krishna.

     Balasaraswati’s approach to the dance projected the mood of devotion (bhakti) as the principle mood of Bharata Natyam. In a speech to the Tamil Isai Sangam, a body of scholars who awarded her a high honor, she said that dancing this padam is like entering the inner sanctum of the temple. It is “the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of God.”2 Balasaraswati’s style of Bharata Natyam was taught for many years in New York City by her daughter, Lakshmi Knight (1958–2001) and the pu­rity of this form is continued in the work of Kay Poursine in Connecticut.

     It is not surprising that dancers who are considered the greatest exponents of both Bharata Natyam and Kathak are the living embodiments of their art since they have been taught from childhood. Almost before they can walk, they learn dance steps and the music that accompanies the dance, the compositions of great composers, and the complex rhythms and time measures of the drums. Furthermore, the family is steeped in the religious concepts that are the subjects of the dance.

Can Non-Indians Become Indian Dancers?

An aspiring dancer from a non-Indian culture must be willing not only to learn the forms of the dance but to become totally immersed in the religious concepts that are the texture and fabric of classical Indian art.

     My first contact with India was through finding a book of the Upanishads, the inspired writings of spiritual masters of a time so ancient no date can be affixed to it. It was a slim volume called Devotional Passages from the Hindu Bible, translated by Dhan Gopal Mukerji. There was a joyful message that each person has the spark of the divine in his or her heart and that spark is the source of one’s own higher consciousness. This discovery led me on a quest to learn all I could of Indian philosophy, history, and mythology.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Gina Lalli in a Bharata Natyam pose of the god Vishnu sleeping on his serpent bed. Photo by Daniel Entin.

The ultimate breakthrough experience of India came when I saw Indian dancing and heard Indian music for the first time. The occasion was the appearance in New York of Uday Shankar (1900–1977) and his company of dancers and musicians in 1948. Shankar had studied Bharata Natyam and Kathakali (the principal dance form in the state of Kerala) and then created a form of movement that included poses of the gods in the temple sculptures. The musical modes, the ragas, use the intervals of nature, not the altered intonations of Western scales. It was so satisfying that it was as if I had waited all my life to hear this music that calms the soul. Then, for a few moments, the dancers—in the garb of the gods or festive villagers—seemed to turn to gold. With great clarity of mind, I knew that these dance forms would be the focus of whatever creative powers I possessed for the rest of my life.

     After exhausting the resources that New York had to offer in the way of teachers who knew some of the moves and steps of Indian dancing (there were two people who gave me excellent preliminary teaching, Gina Blau [1906–1998] and Nala Najan [1932–2002]), it became clear that one must go to India and try to live the ancient culture of the dance, the music, and religious belief that permeates these arts. It also became clear that a non-Indian may learn some steps of Indian dance and may be, in fact, a strong physical dancer; but if the audience does not see the soul of the dance, which is permeated with devotion to the gods (which the dancer should project at all times), then they are seeing mere calisthenics. For example, the face, when not depicting the emotions of a story, has a heightened expression of ‘joyful anticipation’ an expression that is relatively impersonal and is not a vehicle for the expression of mere personality.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Gina Lalli in Bharata Natyam adavu (rythmic pure dance). Photo by Daniel Entin.

     Along with the dance study, it was proper to study the ragas (musical modes) through singing or playing an instrument and also the time measures that accompany the dance. In Madras, I studied the classical stringed instrument, the vina (VEEna). In Lucknow, I learned the rhythms of Kathak through the different drums, the tabla (two drums that sit on the floor) and the pacawaj (an ancient single drum, played on both ends).

     Equally important is the study of the Sanskrit language. This is imperative for the dancer since all dance terminology and aesthetic theory are in the ancient books, which are all in Sanskrit. Also, some of the gesture-songs are in Sanskrit and are, in fact, verses from ancient writings about Krishna, Rama, and other divinities. Many Sanskrit terms are too subtle to be translated in one or two words—in fact, entire books have been written by Indian aestheticians over the centuries about the meaning of one word, rasa, that rare aesthetic experience that is the goal of all Indian art. A study of the Sanskrit language is thus necessary to develop an intelligent, intuitive faculty of what these words mean.3

The Ancient Past of Two Classical Indian Dances

The two main reference books for dancers in India are treatises on acting techniques (how to project a particular emotion or mood) and the vocabulary of hand gestures. The more ancient of these is the Natya Shastra [Rules of Dance-Drama] of Bharata Muni, believed to have been written between 400 and 200 BCE. It is a complete compendium of rules relating to theater, both spoken and danced. The second book is Nandikeshvara’s Abhinaya Darpanam [Mirror of Gesture] (date unknown). These books continue to be vital references for dancers, for both knowledge and inspiration.

     The Natya Shastra’s rules are painstakingly detailed, which suggests that theater had been practiced long before it was written. The first chapter tells how the dance and theater were given to humans by the gods. Bharata Muni appeals to the god Vishnu to give him some way to teach people reverence and morality, since they will no longer listen to the teachings of the Vedas. Vishnu then expounds on how, by watching dramatic stories of virtuous men and the triumph of the gods over demonic forces, people would listen to great spiritual teachings presented in the guise of entertainment.

     The Natya Shastra contains chapters on the exact measurements of the stage, even how an audience should be seated according to each person’s sensitivity to be able to experience the full import of the dance. The most sensitive audience-member (the rasika) was to sit in the exact center of the audience. There are chapters telling the correct poetic meter for each type of character portrayed in a performance and the posture and deportment of each character, as well as a listing of their proper costumes and props.

     Questions are asked: “What errors or blemishes may take away from the mood of the play?” The answer: There are blemishes caused by nature—a thunderstorm, a cow wandering into the theater, and such, and there are blemishes caused by the actors, such as their forgetting lines or accidents, such as the king’s crown falling off. To me, and to many dancers, the most remarkable chapter is the one describing the exact hand gestures (the hastas-mudras) for storytelling. These positions of the hands and fingers have remained intact and are still in use today in all the temple dance forms in India. Three or four more gestures have been added to the original list of twenty-eight hastas, so that today the student learns thirty-one or thirty-two gestures.

     Some bodily poses have changed, though it is believed that the Orissi4 dance today follows most closely the sculptured dance poses shown in twelfth-century temples, especially poses with the hip shifted to one side. But turned-out feet and seated (ara mundi) position of the legs are very much preserved in Bharata Natyam forms today, as well as in another South Indian classical dance, Kuchipudi.5

     In the period of the eleventh-to-seventeenth centuries, the figure of the god Krishna became prominent in North India, in songs and dancing that described his romantic exploits, especially his love for Radha, a milkmaid living in Vrindavan. Since Krishna is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the stories are full of miracles, and the love relationship with Radha was (and still is) believed to be a sublime mystical union that is a metaphor for the individual human soul longing for union with God.

Aesthetic Theory in Indian Art

Although there are many texts written from the ninth to the twelfth century outlining the purpose of a work of Indian art and how to achieve it, the goal is the same for all Indian art, whether dance, drama, poetry, painting, or music. The purpose of a work of art is to sustain a principal mood throughout and instill a feeling of aesthetic delight. Both the Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpanam expound on these principles, which are still practiced in all traditional Indian arts.

     The aesthetic principles of rasa and bhava are described in these works, as well as how the actor/dancer may embody them. Bhava is considered to be the emotion generated by the actor/dancer, and rasa is the aesthetic delight of the audience (and artist) tasting the emotion. Rasa (literally, “taste”) has two meanings: one is the overall emotion or mood of a play or a scene. It is considered that any work of Indian art must feature only one dominant emotion, such as erotic love, anger, sadness, heroism, humor, disgust, fear, or wonder. Rasa also refers to the rapport between performer and audience, a mood of aesthetic enjoyment, as if one were tasting a wonderful soup.

     In the ensuing centuries—and especially from the ninth to the twelfth century—the aesthetics of art became a burning inquiry among poets, playwrights, musicians, painters, and spiritual teachers. We can only hint here at the depth of discussion, exploration, and argument of the great subjects of rasa and bhava. Much debate ensued about whether to add more than the original eight major emotions. Today, a ninth emotion has been added to the original eight—serenity (shanti), since many of the dance pieces arrive at a meditative mood. Many scholars wanted to add more variations of love, since the original emotion of love referred only to romantic love. They argued about the love of friendship, the love of a parent for a child, and devotional love. The aestheticians could never agree to expand the list further, though the dance forms themselves are full of these variations of love. Of these later reference works on rasa, the most profound is The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta (940–1020 CE), a com­mentary on the Natya Shastra solely devoted to the aesthetics of rasa and bhava.

Invasions and the Indigenous Dance Forms

The British Raj in India began in the period 1601 to 1613 with the introduction of the East India Company. Gradually, over more than two hundred years, the British government sent troops and appointed viceroys to manage the influx of other British companies. The subjugation of India by the British reached a crisis point in 1856 when a revolution was quelled, after which the British Raj officially ruled all of India. Wealthy and influential upper-class Indians catered to the British, and together they became a force of suppression of the classical dance forms. The suppression was clearly manifest in the early 1900s when temple dancing was effectively banned from temples. However, although the British considered the dance soirees of the Moghul rulers in the north a frivolous and decadent pastime, they did not suppress Kathak dance, probably because it was no longer overtly connected to religion or the temple and it was mostly danced by men.

     Before the arrival of the British, there were many invasions of lesser scope, mostly from the Near East, but they did not greatly affect the practices of Indian artists. In fact, many artists were assimilated into the new Moghul (Muslim) courts. This is especially notable in the changes that took place in Kathak dance, where the emphasis shifted from religious subjects to more purely virtuosic abstract dancing with an emphasis on fast footwork and syncopated rhythms. There was also an element of subtle eroticism in refined sinuous walks and ‘sultry’ glances. The original Kathakas were storytellers in the temples, but they disappeared. There seems to be little left of the older tradition, but a great classical dance form emerged under the patronage of the Moghul rulers.

     It is possible to see Kathak dancers in the courts in Moghul miniature paintings of the fifteenth-to-seventeenth centuries. Dancers in the courts of Benaras, Jaipur, and Lucknow developed slightly different styles or gharanas of Kathak and, to this day, an aficionado of the dance can identify the unique style of each gharana.

Bharata Natyam Moves from Temple to Court

During the reign of Raja Sarfogi II of Tanjore (1798–1832), in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there was an explosion of artistic creativity in South Indian dance and music. The raja became the patron of four brothers, known as the Tanjore Quartet, all great musicians. Gradually, the brothers developed the Bharata Natyam dance suite—a succession of dances suitable for performance in both temples and courts, performed in theaters up to the present day.

     When the temple dance was brought into the court, it took on secular overtones. The temple dancer (the deva-dasi—servant of God) became the raja-dasi (servant of the king). Even though most of the dances in the suite are based on the dialogue and stories of the gods and some dancers may have a serious devotional temperament and deserve to be called deva-dasis, there are other dancers who are more extroverted, using the dance to display their individual personality. One might consider them more as raja-dasis, as they exaggerate the erotic and playful tone of the dances.

After the Siege of Lucknow

Before his departure from Lucknow in 1858, Wajid Ali Shah (1822–87) invited into his court two brothers who were renowned Kathak dancers, Kalka Din ( 1910) and Binda Din (1830–1918), who became the dancers and teachers of Wajid Ali Shah. Binda Din was also the choreographer of elaborate group dances featuring the ruler as Krishna. Kalka Din married and had three sons who represented the finest of Lucknow Kathak into the mid-twentieth century: Aachchan Maharaj (1883–1947), Lachhu Maharaj (1901–78), and Shambhu Maharaj (1910–70). Aachchan’s son Birju (now in his seventies) is the undisputed virtuoso and master of the Lucknow style of Kathak. His three sons, Mamta, Deepale, and Jai Kishan, started learning the dance literally while still in their cradles, and they will undoubtedly carry on the tradition.

     Birju Maharaj taught at the government-sponsored dance academy, the Kathak Ken­dra, in New Delhi for many years and now has opened his own school, Kalashram. He has many excellent disciples carrying on the graceful Lucknow style of Kathak, notably Janaki Patrik in New York City. I studied with Birju Maharaj in New Delhi and was able to study with Pandit Vikram Singh, a disciple of Achchan Maharaj, in Lucknow. This made it possible for me to observe both the older court style of the dance form and Birju’s unique contribution to Lucknow Kathak. Birju created some large group works, most notably “The Life of Krishna” and “The Court of Wajid Ali Shah.” In the first piece, he featured Hindu costuming: the large flaring skirt for women and the men bare-chested with many jeweled necklaces. The latter work, portraying purely Moghul court life, featured the short coat and trousers seen in medieval Moghul paintings.

Figure 3
Figure 4. Gina Lalli in Kathak chakra (spinning turn). Photo by Paula Horne.

Additional Schools of Kathak

Early historical records tell of a North Indian ruler in Raigarh who filled his court with dancing and music. It is believed that he had an institute for artists where several hundred artists were supported. The implication is that the Kathakas (both wandering artists and temple story tellers, as well as musicians and artists) were encouraged to practice their arts in his court.

     There seems to be a tradition of itinerant artists, dancers who migrated among the princely Moghul states in North India. Three cities in particular developed different styles of Kathak—Jaipur, Benaras (now Varanasi), and Lucknow. Each style emphasized sequences of movement different from the others, though they all came from the same source. The Benaras school features physical stamina and broad flamboyant movements. The Jaipur and Lucknow styles share a more detailed focus on subtleties of gesture, more ‘formality,’ so to speak. Regarding the Lucknow and Jaipur schools and the Benaras school, one could think of the difference between movements that exhibit ele­gance and control and, in contrast, moves that express gypsy abandon. The Lucknow style is recognized by all as the epitome of grace, of lyrical movements of the arms and torso while also sustaining fast footwork and complex rhythms.

Will the Classical Forms of Indian Dances Survive?

In Kathak, the artist is expected to dance very fast footwork at the climax of a performance. The Lucknow school tends to keep a balance of slower pieces at the beginning of the performance, though some individual dancers compete to do ten, twenty, thirty, or more spins on one foot (like the thirty-six fouettes in some classical ballets). One dancer announced he would do 108 spins, a magical number in India, but he lost his center and had to stop after fifty or fall into the audience. At risk, too, is the clarity of arm movements in favor of thundering footwork. The arm movements of the unthinking dancer become indistinct and wispy, all focus being on achieving fast footwork until the final pose.

     Fortunately, Birju emphasizes grace and fluidity of the dancer’s torso, making sure the arms, torso, and turn of the head complete each figure—in other words, he teaches and demands emphasis on the entire form of each movement, not just the footwork. Aesthetic visions like his are the greatest assurance of a clear line of Kathak’s continuity. As for Bharata Natyam, it is safe to say that it has progressed from total obscurity to wild popularity, such that its greatest obstacle to retaining its classical forms is its popularity. Some dancers allow distortions of the forms to take place due to the ever-increasing popularity attracting mass audiences who know nothing of the original intent of the dances and nothing about rasa and bhava but are impressed by the increased speed of the music. The basic tempo of Bharata Natyam is a moderate tempo, which gives the dancer time to sink deeply into the forms of the dance. The abstract rhythmic pieces that form more than half of the temple suite require a deep bend of the knees (ara mundi—see Williams 2001: 83–84) with turned-out feet, the “sitting” position, as it is called, but this cannot be achieved if the feet have to move so rapidly through the dance combinations that finally the artist is dancing in a standing, upright position with little or no turn out of the feet. Add to this the fact that the tempo is increased even more toward the end, which startles the audience into wild applause.

     The future of Bharata Natyam really depends on the teachers and disciples of the traditional interpretations of the dance. There are such disciples, but there are also young dancers who are restless to be freed from the past, in fact, freed from the traditional restrictions of Indian culture, and they go in search of the new and unknown in the global-dance wilderness. It is a well-known tension between dancing as a traditional art form and dancing as entertainment, sensationalism, and acrobatic ‘tricks.’ It is to be hoped that there will remain a balance between the two.

     There is yet another level of study of these great dances: that is, through clearly thinking through the symmetrical lines of the dance forms and training the body to follow these lines. The Indian dance master is not accustomed to analyzing the dance forms in this way—for them, it is a matter of copying the movement exactly. If the student fails to do so, she is considered too dense to learn. It is considered impolite even to ask questions. I decided to think through and analyze the correct lines of the dance on my own, with the help of other movement studies I had undertaken. I also studied the language, the music, and the aesthetics and philosophy of the traditional dances.

     The venerable dance critic K. S. Ramaswami Sastri, in his book Indian Dance as a Spiritual Art, quoted from a letter I wrote to him:

For the dancer, the art is a way of truthful living, a yoga of selfless action. The body must be bought to as close an ideal of symmetry as possible, the parts of it made alive and aware of their separate responsibility and their particular beauty that blends into a form which is totally aware and beautiful. The mind must be in disinterested control of the parts and make itself clear as a mirror for the ideal image of the dance to realize itself there. This image, a gift from above, then can find a channel and instrument to manifest itself, to overflow into the world of the senses. Each part of the body has its own dance and all are parts of the one dance. There can be no beauty without unity nor can there be beauty without variety. Indian dance and the soul are inseparable.6


     1 In this padam, Krishna’s mother, Yashoda, asks the child Krishna to play with her. One day she catches him eating mud. She scolds him and asks him to open his mouth. When he does so, Yashoda sees a vision of the whole universe in his mouth and realizes his divinity.

     2 Balasaraswati, Presidential Address, Tamil Isai Sangam, Madras, 1975,

     3 In between trips to India, I was able to study Sanskrit at the University of Pennsylvania.

     4 Orissi dancing is practiced in Orissa, a state in North India.

     5 Kuchipudi is practiced in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

     6 K. S. Ramaswami Sastri, Indian Dance as a Spiritual Art (Madras: Rajan & Co., 1961), 38.

References Cited:

Coomaraswamy, A. and D. Gopalakrishnayya, trans.
      1936. Nandikeshvara’s Abhinaya Darpana [Mirror of Gesture]. New York: E. Wehye.

Ghosh, Manomohan, trans.
      1967. Natyasastra of Bharata-muni Calcutta: Granthalaya Private Ltd.

Gnoli, Raniero, trans.
      1956. The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta. Roma: Instituto Italiano per Il Medeo Ed Estrema Oriente.

Lalli, Gina
      2001. A North Indian Classical Dance Form: Lucknow Kathak. Visual Anthropology 17(1): 19–44.

Mukherjee, Dhan Gopal
      1929. Devotional Passages from the Hindu Bible. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Puri, Rajika
      2001. Bharatanatyam Performed: A Typical Recital. Visual Anthropology 17(1): 45–68.

Ramaswami-Sastri, K. S.
      1961. Indian Dance as a Spiritual Art. Madras: Rajan & Co.

Williams, Drid
      2001. In the Shadow of Hollywood Orientalism: Authentic East Indian Dancing. Visual Anthropology 17(1): 69–98.



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