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Shiva Nataraja: The Spiritual Matrix of Bharata Natyam

Gina Lalli

The study of Bharata Natyam, the temple dance of South India, is never complete without much thought about, and devotion to, Shiva Nataraja—the god Shiva as "king of dancers." At every performance, there is usually a shrine on stage close to the audience with the figure of Shiva dancing. Before performing, the dancer bows to the god, offering flowers, incense, and prayers and asking for blessing.

     Early in my study of this classical dance, it became clear to me that Bharata Natyam and Shiva Nataraja are inseparable. In popular Indian thought about the dance, it is believed that Shiva is, in fact, dancing Bharata Natyam to keep the universe in existence. At first, this seemed like a fanciful, though inspiring, thought. But, after many years of studying and performing Bharata Natyam, becoming aware of the deep inner movement of energy in the body, the figure of Nataraja seems to be exemplifying not only the symmetrical lines of the physical forms of the dance but also the invisible inner flow of energy moving from the center to the periphery of the physical form. It is as if Shiva is not only demonstrating this highly stylized danced but is teaching both its exoteric and esoteric principles at the same time. When an accomplished dancer practices the forms with a highly focused mind, seeking ever to balance (centering and symmetry in the body), these principles reveal themselves to the dancer.

Figure 1
Photo 1. A sculpture of the figure Shiva Nataraja. Photo by author.

     For a moment, let us look at the sculpted figure of Shiva Nataraja. He stands on his right leg, which is turned out with the knee bent. The left leg, with bent knee and relaxed foot, is raised and crossed in front of the right leg. His body is erect and aligned on the axis of gravity. He looks straight ahead. He has four arms. The uppermost right hand is holding fire, the fire that will purify earnest souls. The uppermost left hand holds a small drum.1 When he rattles the drum, all sound in the universe is produced. The lower right hand is held, palm outward, in a sign of blessing. The lower left hand points to his upraised foot. By worshipping his holy feet, one may have salvation. He stands on a dwarf representing ignorance. Shiva is stamping out ignorance so that there may be enlightenment.

     In Shiva's hair are the moon and the Ganges River (a goddess). He has the Ganges flow through his long, streaming locks so that it comes down to earth gently, where it might have been too fierce. He wears necklaces and bangles of serpents. In India, serpents are believed to be older and wiser than human beings, so Shiva's serpents are denoting that he possesses the wisdom of the ancient serpent race. There is a corona of fire surrounding his entire figure that represents the activity of creation.

     In many temples dedicated to Shiva across South India, there is always an open hall where anyone can see the image of Shiva and worship there, each in his or her own way. There is also an inner sanctum where the priests worship Shiva in his formless state, because Shiva as the potential for creation exists on a purely spiritual, nonphysical plane. It is a room where the only object is a mound of hardened earth—a nondescript, featureless object—which represents Shiva as an empty space from which the physical plane will be created. This void is believed to be filled with spiritual light and potential power.

     In order to create the dynamic moving energy called shakti, which brings things into physical reality, Shakti is often personified as Shiva's consort, but she is actually his own feminine nature—his own will to create. All of creation continues to change, to rise and fall, because of the activity of Shakti, but Shiva is ever-present at the center of each atom of the physical universe. From a dancer's point of view, we may say Shiva/Shakti is dancing in the center of each atom.

     Shiva is eternal and unchanging and not of the physical universe. When he translates himself into Shakti, he takes on the rules of the physical plane, yet, at the heart of each creation, he is present as the unmanifest, ineffable cause. We find these teachings of Shiva in his immanent and transcendent forms in the South India esoteric studies called Shaiva Siddhanta.

     The South Indian initiate Tirumular wrote a poem that illustrates the link between Shiva's activity and the way in which a human being may realize these powers within him or herself. The five powers of Shiva mentioned in the poem are to: 1. create; 2. sustain the creation; 3. destroy the creation; 4. be entranced by his creation and forget he has created it; and 5. to wake up and remember—that is, to have the veil of forgetfulness lifted and remember that he is the creator. In other words, self-realization can be the supreme wish and goal of the Bharata Natyam dancer who is aware of these possibilities. Like the yogi who meditates on Shiva, some dancers meditate on the meaning of Shiva, thus informing the dance in such a way that it becomes a path to realizing oneself as containing and demonstrating the creative principles of Shiva/Shakti.

Excerpt from Tirumantiram

His form is everywhere; all pervading is his Shiva-Shakti:
Chidambaram (space) is everywhere, everywhere His dance;
As Shiva He is all and omnipresent,
Everywhere is Shiva's gracious dance made manifest.
His five-fold dance is both temporal and timeless.
He dances the actions of His Five Powers. ...
The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells,
The songs that are sung and the varying steps,
The form assumed by our dancing Gurupara—
Find all these within yourself,
Then shalt your fetters fall away2

What Is Shiva Nataraja Teaching the Dancer?

Figure 2
Photo 2. Shiva Nataraja. Photo by the author.

     By measuring to find the center of the figure of Shiva Nataraja, including the circle of fire surrounding him, we find that the exact center is his waistline. This corresponds to the physical center from which the body creates and sends energy to the extremities—that is, the arms/hands, legs/feet, and the glance of the eyes—to perform the dance. This physical center is at a point on the front of the spine between the twelfth thoracic and the first lumbar vertebra, at the center of the waistline in front of the spine.

     In terms of Shiva and Shakti, we can say that the center itself is the potential of Shiva to emanate energy, but, in itself, it is motionless—a point of stillness in the body. Although still—that is, not ever changing its physical location—it generates tremendous energy (shakti) that flows through the nervous system and every limb. It fills every extremity to the tips of the fingers and toes and gives radiant energy to the eyes.

     The dancer visualizes this 'Still Center' and visualizes energy being created there, like a cyclotron generating quanta of light and energy. Furthermore, the energy is visualized going to every extremity of the body and returning to the center. The energy does not spill out over the boundaries of the body. It does not get "used up." It continually renews itself, and the dancer may feel restored and not exhausted by the performance. When the foot contacts the floor in vigorous stamps, the foot does not lose its form but keeps the energy contained within the dance form of the foot.

     One may visualize the weight of each limb being drawn toward the center, so the legs do not feel heavy. The Still Center at the waist becomes the center of gravity for the body. The foot makes vigorous contact with the floor but is holding the weight and power within. The dancer imagines that the weight of each limb is being drawn toward the Still Center rather than being drawn down toward the center of gravity of the earth.

Figure 3
Photo 3. The author in a pose of Shiva Dancing. Photograph by Henry Levy.

The Still Center in Bharata Natyam

     A few years ago a famous and highly respected Indian dancer (who shall remain nameless) gave a lecture on television where she talked about the profound idea of the Still Center, which she said was the hallmark of dances of the East. She then performed a traditional choreography from the Bharata Natyam suite, but nowhere in her body could one perceive a Still Center. Everything was in motion all the time. Not only the arms and legs moved, but the torso was drawn into movement by the limbs. For her, the Still Center remained a "great idea," but it was not connected to reality. The problem is that, in dancing, the sole means of communication is the body. The Still Center will not be experienced as a reality by the viewer of the dance if it is not demonstrated in the dancer's body.

     The majority of serious movement artists know that an integral part of developing an adequate technique that is the basis of a particular dance form is the use of the mind that has to be focused on the ideal form he or she means to project to the audience. In Indian art, this is called bhavana (creative imagination).

     In the most profound expression of Bharata Natyam, the dancer should imagine not only the ideal outer form but the inner movement of energies. This combination can have a transformative, consciousness-raising effect on both dancer and audience, as the dancer emulates Shiva's creative activity. The simplest way of putting it is to say that the dancer is becoming Shiva.

     There have been many wonderful reports from audience members about having flashes of insight during performances about the presence of the gods and inspiration that helped to solve problems in their daily lives. It is my experience that, if a dancer moves from a center of energy in the body, then spectators can feel more centered and powerful. It is thus that the dance can have a therapeutic effect on the minds and bodies of the spectators.

     The Still Center is not an idea exclusive to dances of the East. In modern dance classes, one often hears, "Think in the center; move on the periphery." In the dance forms of eurythmy created by Rudolf Steiner, which owes some of its theory of movement to projective geometry, there is constant thought of gestures of the limbs moving toward the periphery and then back to a center. Martha Graham, after seeing Balinese dancing, realized that the dancers moved from a Still Center. She introduced this idea into her own technique. The poet T. S. Eliot speaks eloquently about a "still point" at the center:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, . . .

                                          (The Four Quartets (Burnt Norton), 1943)

     The still point is a 'place' that exists at once inside and outside physical space/time. In the teachings of Shiva/Shakti, it is the place of the origin of creation, the place where the nonphysical becomes physical. It is a stream of energy that manifests as nature. Since it is at the heart of each thing in nature, we can focus anywhere, we can choose to see it at the center of the body and sense the outpouring of energy from that place to animate the body.

A Dancer Strives to Establish the Still Center in the Body

     Once the dancer has the idea clearly in mind, the Still Center may be developed though a particular approach in dance practice. The method that I developed was to take a particular adavu (dance combination) and repeat it, very slowly at first, focusing only on the point in the waist and drawing the waist (abdominal) muscles inward, creating a slight tension and contraction there, enough to keep the mind there but not interfering with breathing. Repeating the same step over and over makes it possible to stay focused on the center point in the waist.

     Once it felt 'established,' I practiced many other adavus and, finally, an entire dance, always with the same goal in mind, to establish firmly the physical reality of the Still Center. At a certain point (in my case about two years later), I could focus on the total form of the dance, from head to toe, seeing in the imagination the symmetry of each form, the facial expression and hand and eye movements, with the Still Center always the focal point from which physical energy was generated, becoming a reality that did not need constant attention. I could extend my thinking to the entire form, to every finger and toe, every facial expression, movement of eyes, and also the emotional content, the mood, whether it was the general devotional joy of the temple dancer doing the so-called pure dance pieces or the more complex padams (dance-songs), holding the generated flow of energy within the entire form.

The Problem of Trying to Reduce Three-dimensional Forms into Perfect Two-dimensional Forms

     The traditional way of carrying forward the dance in India is that, within the caste of temple dancers, the men teach the movements and the women perform them.3

     The shape of the outer form, the shape of the torso, arms, hands, legs, and feet are made to look like the classical forms from a frontal view only. It is as if a two-dimensional approximation of the dance form is considered to be satisfactory. Standing on one side of the classroom, I observed that many of the students had excessively curved spines, the condition called lordosis, in which the lower back is distorted and too curved. Furthermore, the extreme 180-degree turnout of the feet is not always accompanied by a similar turnout of the knees, so that the knees and feet may not be aligned; this practice can result in severe injuries to the knees. But from a two-dimensional frontal view, one could say the figure resembles the required classical form. It seems that the outer form, the "hieroglyphic," is most important, whether or not it is being done in a way to preserve the health of the body. In any case, the typical Bharata Natyam teacher has only a frontal view of the student. He never leaves his seat on the floor at the head of the class. He never gets up and walks around the student to see what is his or her posture from a side or back view. Nor does he discuss the body, the spine, the muscles, etc. He simply asks for certain symmetrical forms of the body from a purely frontal point of view.

     When we look at the bas-relief dance sculptures on the walls of temples from the eighth to twelfth centuries, such as Chidambaram, Belur, and Halebid, we see dancers with bent knees and a turnout of the legs. These are the images that inspire present-day Bharata Natyam forms. These stone dancers do not have perfect 180-degree turnouts. Their little toes are sculpted away from the flat surface of the bas-relief into space, turned out but not "perfectly" turned out. The extended arms are slightly curved inward and seem consistent with the turned-out feet, showing that the dance space of Bharata Natyam is gently "curved space," not flat and two-dimensional.

Two Different Postures of the Body While Dancing the Adavus

Figure 4
Photo 4. The author performing an adavu (pure dance figure). Photograph by Henry Levy.

     The dynamic rhythmic steps of the dance have two distinctly different placements of the spine. One set of movements requires the turnout and bending of knees that we have just described. In all these steps, the torso is upright and aligning with the axis of gravity of the earth. There are also many rhythmic steps where the dancer is walking straight forward and back with no turnout of the legs and feet. In this case, the entire body is pitched forward from the ankles, and the dancer walks forward and back, or side to side, with the feet always pointing forward. Some dancers misunderstand the forward-leaning posture and may bend forward from the waist only, leading to more problems with the lower back. The "pure dance" requires instant changes from one posture to the other, depending on whether the legs are straight or the knees are bent and turned out.

My Experience with the Dance Masters

     There were three great dance masters who taught me the forms of Bharata Natyam. In New York, Nala Najan (1932–2002), an American who had studied with a great master in Chennai, Muthukumara Pillai (1874–1960), conveyed to me the basic "pure dance" adavus from which all the traditional choreographies are composed. Nala also taught me several of the dances of the classical repertoire. Most valuable of this teaching was the correct movement of the eyes in following the movements of the hands. Very few teachers pass on this discipline, which is absolutely necessary to complete each dance figure.

Figure 5
Photo 5. The author showing Kama, the god of love, with his bow and flower-tipped arrows. Photograph by Henry Levy.

     At no time in India does any teacher speak about the body. No observations are made about correct position of arms, legs, posture, etc. The student must follow an indication of a movement made by the teacher, who rarely leaves his sitting position on the floor. The teacher asks the student to reproduce the entire dance-form at once; it is never broken down into parts, such as eyes-hands, hands-feet, etc. The teacher would nod if the student came close to what he was looking for and otherwise would give a disapproving frown. The student has to observe what other students are doing and copy them, which is not easy since everyone is doing variations of each step.4

     When I studied Bharata Natyam with Chokalingam Pillai and Lucknow Kathak with Vikram Singh, I was confronted with the Indian way of teaching, where the teacher speaks only when reciting dance syllables or the words of a gesture poem. It is customary in India for the student to follow unquestioningly whatever the teacher demonstrates. One is shown an entire completed dance form. Either the student grasps the entire form at once or is considered not very bright. It is considered bad form to ask a question, which is interpreted as doubting the teacher.5

Masculine and Feminine Dance Forms in Bharata Natyam

     Bharata Natyam movements are divided into two forms: the vigorous, geometrical so-called pure dance forms that are called nritta (dance without a story). These forms are also called tandava (masculine, dynamic). The softer stepping done while interpreting a song or prayer is called nritya (dance with a story), using stylized hand gestures and facial expressions to show the emotional mood and the meaning of the song. These softer forms are called lasya (feminine, graceful).

     There are also compositions where the dance alternates between nritta and nritya. Even though nritta is described as dance without a story, the face reflects the joy and power of Shiva dancing. The eyes are always wide open, and the lips have a gentle Buddha-like smile.

     In nritya, when a story is being sung, the dancer's face must show the major mood of the entire piece, one of the nine principal rasas (moods). But there are infinite subtleties of stronger or milder versions of a major mood, so there is a play of expressions on the face. For example, if there is a mood of sorrow or longing, it may be shown as a light sadness or a tragic loss, all depending on the intention of the composer.

     The facial expressions are not mere outward signs of an emotional state. The dancer must feel the mood deeply in his or her heart and let the expression well up into the face, at once feeling the emotion and showing the stylized facial expression. Otherwise, simply to contort the face according to the instructions in the Natya Shastra, without the emotional center within being its origin, is only to show a caricature of the emotion. This happens, for example, though no one's fault, but due to the overpopularity that Bharata Natyam enjoys today, when a child of six or eight performs these dances.

     In nritta, the tandava forms have a brilliant look in their execution. The dancer moves rapidly from one form to another, so that, on the principal beat of a measure, the pose seems to stop for an instant. It is as if the spectator is seeing a photograph taken at the completion of a form that vanishes and is replaced by the next total form.

     In performing nritya, the lasya forms of the dance-songs show the slow arc of a hand as it moves gracefully from one gesture to the next. When the great dancer Balasarswati (1918–84) performed a padam, one could almost see curves of golden light in the air as she moved her hands.

     In place of the word nritya, the term abhinaya is more in use now. Abhinaya means to "carry forward." It refers to the study and practice of the acting and dancing of the padams. The gestures, expressions, etc., "carry forward" the meaning of the song.

     The figure of Shiva Nataraja expresses the tandava aspect of Bharata Natyam. However, when the dancer is performing padams, the gestures may be more lasya, but the body is still observing the centering and flow of energy that is more overtly apparent in the pure dance. One might say Shiva has transformed himself into his feminine nature, Shakti, for expounding the padams.

     Nritta consists of a chain of specific dance units called adavus. An adavu may be likened to a combination in ballet—that is, it may consist of two or three steps, such as beating the whole foot and adding a heel and toe beat with certain positions of the arms and hands, etc. An adavu is practiced separately to attain mastery of a small unit of dance. The student repeats the adavu in slow, medium, and fast speeds, then learns another adavu. Some teachers know forty adavus to teach, some sixty or more, depending on what has been handed down in their families. After the student can execute individual adavus to the teacher's satisfaction, then he or she may be taught the traditional suite of dances. A dance consists of a string of adavus if it is nritta, or it may be a story-dance, a padam, using the traditional vocabulary of hand gestures. A typical performance of the dance suite is usually three hours in length. Many choreographies are handed down from one generation to the next. The dance suite we see today was created by the Tanjore Brothers, four brilliant musicians who were invited into the court of Raja Sarfoji II (1798–1832). They not only created the Bharata Natyam suite of dances but also brought the dance out of the temples into the court. As a result of this, some of the dances took on more secular themes, though, for the most part, maintaining a connection to the gods.6

The Bharata Natyam Dance Suite

     The following items comprise the content of a typical Bharata Natyam suite:

  1. Invocation (nritya). A prayer or ritual addressed to Shiva or Ganesha (the elephant-headed son of Shiva, patron of artists).

  2. Alarippu (nritta). The dancer dedicates her body to Shiva and the dance gradually involving the head and eyes, the arms and hands, then the torso and legs.

  3. Jatiswaram (nritta). Elaborate adavus showing the full flowering of the body in the dance.

  4. Shabdam (nritya). A gesture-song addressed to Shiva or Krishna, with short sections of adavus connecting the verses.

  5. Varnam (nritta and nritya). The major dance piece consisting of sections of adavus interspersed with a story, usually of the longing of the love-lorn devotee remembering her god. It may be addressed to Shiva or         Krishna. Which god is addressed depends on the court where it was first performed and whether the king's name had a reference to Shiva or Krishna, so that the king could feel flattered when the maiden expressed her longing for the god. The varnum is usually the longest dance in the suite and may last from twenty minutes to an hour or more.

  6. Padams (nritya). After an intermission, the dancer usually presents several quieter gesture-songs, with many familiar stories of the gods. Many of the padams were created by great poets and musicians and are considered treasures to learn and perform. After three to five padams, the final dance is performed.

  7. Tillana (nritta). A lovely and exuberant ending dance of adavus with a short prayer (nritya) to one of the gods at the end.

  8. Mangalam. A prayer to Ganesha, sometimes danced or, often, just sung.

The Natya Shastra (Rules of Dance and Theater)

     The Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, the most ancient Indian writing extant on dance and theater, is a complete compendium of every aspect of performance, containing all the rules of theater and dancing—all the hand gestures used in India today, the theory of acting, and how to express the principal emotions. This book is studied continuously by dancers in every part of India.7 Sanskrit scholars agree that it was written between 400 and 200 BCE. The fact that it is so well articulated in every detail implies that the theater existed long before this treatise was written.

     There is a second text, Abhinaya Darpanam (Mirror of Gesture) by Nandikeshvara, which is considered to have been written in about the third century. It is a principal reference for studying the vocabulary of hand gestures; the author of this work based his study on the Natya Shastra.

     A third book, Abhinavabharati (The Aesthetic Experience), describes the aesthetic experience, called rasa, to be experienced by dancer and audience. Abhinavagupta was a philosopher and yogic master of Kashmir Shaivism, the esoteric practice of worshipping Shiva to become Shiva.

     We are concerned here with the description of the hand gestures and use of the face to express emotions and create a harmonious aesthetic experience. All these elements are described in the Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpanam in minute detail.

     There are twenty-eight single-hand gestures (hastas-mudras: hand-signs), together with fifteen gestures to depict the gods; also gestures for the ten avatars (incarnations) of the god Vishnu. There are sixteen ways of indicating family members (father, mother, son, etc.); the seven planets and the sun and the moon. The initial twenty-eight single-hand gestures can elaborate into hundreds of words, depending on how they are moved. For example, the first mudra, pataka (flag) where the hand is flat, all fingers stretched and close together like a flag, can signify (depending on how it is moved through the air) I, you, over there, here, come here, no, the earth, the sky, water, trembling, etc.; the hand is moved in a specific way to illustrate what the singer is singing.

The Twenty-eight Single-hand Gestures, Plus Two Added Later8

Pataka flag
Ardha-Pataka half-flag
Tripataka three-fourths of a flag
Kartari-Mukha scissors face
Mayura peacock
Ardha-chandra half-moon
Arala bent
Shuka-Tunda parrot's beak
Mushti fist
Shikhara tower
Kapittha fruit
Tama-Chuda cock's crest
Suchi needle
Chandra-kala crescent moon
Mukula bud
Samdamsa grasping
Padma-kosha half-opened lotus
Alapadma full-blown lotus
Langula tail
Sarpa-sirsha cobra head
Chatura four
Hamsa-paksha swan feather
Mriga-Sirsha deer head
Simha-mukha lion face
Hamsasya swan-like
Kataka Mukha link in a chain
Bhramara turning
Urna-nabha spider
Trisula trident
Suchika needle-like
Bana arrow

     As well as the training of the hands to form the mudras, the eyes must be coordinated with the gestures. There are rigorous eye exercises, so the dancer has control of the eyes. They must be wide open in all the pure dance movements and, in fact, seem never to blink. Every movement of the hands has a proper gaze of the eyes. Nothing is left to the dancer's choice in this classical form. "Where the hand goes, the eye follows; where the eye goes, the mind follows; where the mind goes, there is the meaning" (Abhinaya Dharpanum, Nandikeshvara 2010).

Shiva Nataraja Exemplifies All the Elements of Theater

     A prayer to Shiva Nataraja elucidates the four elements of theater: the actor; the text and music; the costumes and scenery; and the projection of the emotions. This prayer (given below in English and Sanskrit) may be included in the Bharata Natyam performance:

His limbs are the universe, that is so. [Angikam bhuvanam yasya]
His voice is all sound, that is so. [Vachikam sarva-vang mayam]
His ornaments are the moon, stars and all things; [Aharyam Chandra ta-radi]
To that perfect Shiva, I bow. [Tam numah sattvikam Shivam]

                                          (Abhinaya Dharpanum, Nandikeshvara 2010)

The Theory of Emotions and Moods

     Regarding the study of the emotions and moods, the Natya Shastra describes eight principal emotional states, called sthayi-bhavas. Each is considered so powerful that only one should predominate in a particular work of art. Each work of art is meant in every way to express just one principal emotion.9 The eight sthayi-bhavas are love, mirth, sorrow, anger, energy, terror, disgust, and astonishment.

     A ninth sthayi-bhava was added to this list by aestheticians who argued from the ninth to eleventh centuries about whether to add one or more emotional states. Finally, by consensus, one more was allowed—shanti—peacefulness. Because it is depicted in many dances, it was finally allowed into the fold.

     As the Natya Shastra states, the sthayi-bhava enacted by the artist creates a rasa (aesthetic mood) in the audience. Thus, the sthayi-bhava of Kama (love) leads to the rasa of Shringara (the erotic), or, put more simply,

the principal emotion of love leads to the erotic mood
the principal emotion of mirth leads to the comic mood
the principal emotion of sorrow leads to the pathetic mood
the principal emotion of anger leads to the furious mood
the principal emotion of energy leads to the heroic mood
the principal emotion of fear leads to the fearful mood
the principal emotion of disgust leads to the odious mood
the principal emotion of wonder leads to the marvelous mood
the principal emotion of peace leads to the peaceful mood

The term sthayi-bhava has by now dropped out of parlance, so all emotional states and moods are now included in the term rasa. It would be more accurate to say that the artist is feeling and projecting the emotion and that the audience has an aesthetic enjoyment of that emotion. Originally, the word rasa did not refer to the emotion but to the aesthetic enjoyment, the 'tasting' of that emotion. An example with which we are all familiar is to see the actors playing the tragedy of the characters Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, but we (the audience) taste and enjoy the rasa. That is, we experience their tragedy.

     Common usage in India now is to list the "nine Rasas" as if they were the original emotions. They are abbreviated in the dancer's notebook as follows:

Shringara Love
Hasya Comic
Karuna  Pathetic
Raudra Furious
Vira Heroic
Bhayanaka Fear
Adbhuta Wonder

The Meaning of Rasa

     The meaning of the term rasa is a subject of deep contemplation in Indian philosophical thought. The word rasa literally means "taste." The Natya Shastra describes how you might taste a soup, and the soup is made of certain vegetables, spices, and so on. Similarly, you taste the soup, then you experience "enjoyment of the taste." This enjoyment is what is meant by rasa.

     In a major text on poetics, Sahitya Darpana, Visvanatha says, "The arts are not for our instruction, but for our delight, and this delight is more than pleasure, it is the godlike ecstasy of liberation from the restless activity of the mind and the senses, which are the veils of all reality, transparent only when we are at peace with ourselves" (cited in Coomaraswamy 1957).

     The dancer, by harmonious use of the limbs, the text, the costume, and the ability to feel the emotion inwardly, succeeds in projecting to the audience the powerful emotional state of the dance. The audience "tastes" this emotional state and is elevated to a high state of aesthetic enjoyment.

     In my personal approach to the dance, I began to picture the most symmetrical and consistent way to dance the adavus. I developed a system of visualizing the most perfect symmetrical version of each adavu. Then, through the faculty of creative imagination, I saw myself standing inside the archetypal form as I danced. I found that, although the individual body may be asymmetrical, by mentally projecting a symmetrical form onto one's physical body, the audience received the imagination of the perfect form. My work was to get my "personality" (the hopes and fears that create asymmetrical tensions in the body) out of the way so that I could become a vehicle for the dance.

     Continuous visualizing of the ideal symmetry of each dance form and projecting it onto one's body while practicing and dancing not only contributed to a more therapeutic alignment of the spine but also seemed to bring all the invisible elements of the body into harmony—the moving life energies, the breathing, the heartbeat, and the psyche that takes in information from the senses and governs emotional reactions.

     The audience, partaking of the mental projection the dancer is striving for, combined with the visible forms of the body, receives into its psyche the inner state of the dancer and may experience a balancing of its own physical, mental, and emotional being. We may compare this balanced state of things to the state that is the goal of most meditation practices—a state of inner peacefulness and joy. In this now shared state, the dancer, as well as the spectator, may have an experience of expanded consciousness.

Once a rasa has been realized, its enjoyment is possible, an enjoyment that is different from the apprehensions derived from memory or direct experience and which takes the form of melting, expansion and radiance. This enjoyment is like the bliss that comes from realizing (one's identity) with the highest Brahman (God), for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one's own self. (Visvanatha cited in Coomaraswamy 1957)

     Ultimately, rasa has to do with the myriad aesthetic experiences of each person in the audience. It refers to each one's capacity to experience a rarified state of enjoyment of art. The critic often likens the experience of rasa to experiencing the bliss of a spiritual experience, the bliss that is hidden in one's innermost Self: "Rasa is pure, indivisible, self-manifested, compounded equally of joy and consciousness, and free of admixture with any other perception. It is the very twin brother of mystical experience, and the very life of super sensuous wonder" (Locana of Abhinavagupta, cited in Schwartz 2004). In other words, rasa (aesthetic experience) is the twin brother of ananda (the innate joy of the Spirit).

Another Attribute

     Ananda is one of the three attributes of Shiva Nataraja: Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, pure Being, pure Consciousness, and pure Bliss. The very intention to perform the dance as sacred ritual and the spectators' devotion, each to his or her own god, may induce a kind of breakthrough experience of the presence of the sacred. The senses may pierce through physical reality and apprehend the pure light of the Spirit.

     If an artist is endeavoring to approach the archetypal form of the dance, which is more symmetrical, more mathematically harmonious, more devoid of idiosyncrasies than is humanly possible, and the artist is willing to submerge his or her personality so that the archetype may shine, the viewer may be transported to the archetypal plane and experience the presence of the Divine. It is as if a crack appears in the solidity of the physical plane and, for a moment, we are outside the shell that locks us into seeing only physical reality. We are freed from the empyrean into the light-filled world of the Spirit. Erich Neumann calls this "the epiphany of the numinosum:" "Whether the epiphany of the numinosum occurs in a drawing scratched on bone, a medieval cathedral or in a mask ... in any case the epiphany of the numinosum, the rapture of those who give it form and the rapture of the group celebrating the epiphany constitute an indivisible unit" (Neumann 1959: 87).

     Although Bharata Natyam is now performed mostly in the theater, the stage is always consecrated as a sacred space by worship at a shrine to Shiva Nataraja on stage before the performance. Also, Shiva's dance is considered to be outside ordinary, sequential time. Since Shiva is always dancing, it is as if the dancer is making visible the god's presence for the period of the performance. For Shiva's dance, at the foundation of all creation, is always taking place.10

     In terms of Shaiva Siddhanta philosophy, since Shiva/Shakti describes the descent of matter from the static spiritual ground of Shiva into the physical plane, the experience of the "numinosum" is a retracing of matter back to its source, which is the goal of meditation. In this philosophy, all that exists is Shiva/Shakti's creation, whose masterpiece is 'Man.' Humankind can become the observer of the world creation of Shiva/Shakti and experience the Primal Source, Shiva, who is pure Being, pure Consciousness, and pure Bliss.

     The ritual of the dance has the potential of uniting dancer and spectator on a path to experiencing the powers of Shiva. The bliss in each person's soul is the bliss of Shiva. The dance is one way of awakening it.


1 There are some Nataraja sculptures that show his upper left hand holding a deer, signifying that he is the father and protector of all creatures.

2 Tirumular's Tirumantiram, cited in Coomaraswamy 1957.

3 At the present time, there are many women dancers who have established schools and teach the dance, so the traditional lineage is now blurred.

4 Before and after my three trips to India, my study of Western movement systems helped me to analyze and reconstruct all the steps I had learned to realize the innate symmetry of Indian dance forms and to find the therapeutic way of reproducing them in the body. These studies included modern dance, ballet, and ideokinesis with Drid Williams, and the Corporeal Mime of Etienne Decroux.

5 The exception to the traditional way of teaching is the innovation brought to Lucknow Kathak (the court dance of North India) by the dance genius Pandit Birju Maharaj. He visited Russia and saw the ballet classes. He then introduced classes focusing only on arm movements, footwork, etc.

6 There is presently a movement in India to bring Bharata Natyam back to the temples. In September 2010, to celebrate the one-thousandth year of the Thanjavur temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, one thousand dancers performed Bharata Natyam on the spacious grounds of the temple. See (accessed March 9, 2012).

7 In addition to instructions to actors, there are chapters on how to build the theater and how to seat the audience (the most learned to be seated in the center). Mishaps during the performance are enumerated. For example, if the actor forgets his lines or his crown falls off, it is a human mishap; if a cow wanders down the aisle, it is a mishap caused by nature; if there is a thunderstorm, it is caused by the gods, etc.

8 In the course of time, two more gestures were added, making thirty in all.

9 This theory of principal emotions applies to every art in India—dance, music, painting, poetry, etc.

10 There is another dance celebrated in India as being eternal and outside ordinary time. It is a circle dance described in the ancient myths of Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Krishna grew up disguised as a cowherd in the village of Vraj. All the milkmaids adored him, and he invited them to meet him in the bamboo forest on the August full moon. He then multiplied himself so each maiden had her own Krishna. They danced in a circle all night, their hearts full of devotion. This dance, the Ras Leela, is mostly performed in the state of Manipur (near China). The dance style is Manipuri, which has flowing, undulating movements like ocean waves. The dancers wear tubular skirts of bright red silk covered with tiny mirrors that flash and sparkle in a stately manner. It is entrancing for both dancers and spectators.

References Cited

Coomaraswamy, Ananda
1957. The Dance of Shiva. New York: Noonday Press.

Eliot, T. S.
1943. The Four Quartets (Burnt Norton). New York: Harcourt.

Muni, Bharata
1967. Natya Shastra (trans. M. Ghosh). Calcutta: Oriental Press. Written circa 400–200 BCE.

2010. Abhinaya Darpanum (The Mirror of Gesture) (trans. A. Coomeraswamy and G. Krishnaya). New Delhi: Munshuram Manoharlal Publications. Written circa 300 CE.

Neumann, Erich
1959. Art and Time. New York: Bollingen Foundation.

Schwartz, Susan L.
2004. Rasa—Performing the Divine in India. New York: Columbia University Press.



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