Must Indian dance choose between ‘secular’ and religious?
My previous article argued that Indian dance is secular and religious at once, especially when one examines and understands the Indian conception of secularism. The concepts of ‘Principled distance’ as conceptualized by Prof. Rajeev Bhargava and ‘critical respect’, both of which are essential to the Indian conception of secularism allow dance pieces within Indian classical dance to have a religious narrative, but be secular as well. In that sense, Indian classical dance can be of equal value to a religious and secular person.
However, I find that even a person who subscribes to the ‘western’ conception of secularism i.e. non religious can find watching an Indian classical dance performance to be an enriching experience. When a classical Indian dance form is performed in a secular manner in the ‘western’ sense, it does not mean the removal of the religious, spiritual or devotional aspect of it. It merely means that the focus shifts to other facets of Indian classical dance. Apart from being embellished with religious narratives and culturally deep-rooted mythology, Indian classical dance concerns itself with geometry and linearity of form in the body, experiments with gravity, uses mathematical calculations to create intricate patterns of movement, and deals with and explores a plethora of human emotions.
Any dance form, to begin with, must concern itself with the body. Every breath between movement, every hand gesture, position of the legs and feet, and every expression for the narrative is made through different parts of the body. The dance forms in India therefore cannot be exempt from being concerned with the body’s geometry, linearity and anatomy. Further, like every other dance form, Indian classical dance involves the use of gravity and weight. Every movement is either succumbing to or defying gravity. Every stretch or bend away from the center of the body while illustrating the narrative is a re-organisation and re-balancing of weight within the body.
Moreover, Indian classical dance forms utilize mathematics in a fascinating and complex manner. In nritta or pure dance, every string of movement put together involves complex rhythmic patterns set to intricate mathematical calculations. Dance needs mathematics to make these strings of movement dynamic and interesting. The five jatis in dance – chatusram (4), tisram (3), misram (7), khandam (5), and sankirnam (9) facilitate these mathematical calculations, as do the different talams that several ragas are set to.
Finally, Indian classical dance forms provide various possibilities to explore emotions. Pieces from the Kamban Ramayana or from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda – they are, of course, stories about Rama and Krishna, gods revered by many. They are tributes to these gods by their devotees. They are in praise of these gods. But equally they are stories of love and union, of pain and separation. They are human stories about separation from loved ones (Rama and Sita getting separated when Sita is captured, or Rama’s separation from his family during exile), and the excitement and intoxication of being in love (pieces about Krishna, and the gopis and sakhis). Similarly, there are Tillanas in Bharatanatyam dedicated to Gods, but equally beautifully choreographed Tillanas exist that make no reference to the divine and instead speak of institutions and human beings such as Kalakshetra (Bilahari tillana) and Rukmini Devi (Natabhairavi tillana).
To conclude, in addition to the religious and mythological narratives, there are many ‘secular’ aspects to Indian classical dance that may arouse the interest of non-religious people. These secular aspects do not and indeed, should not impinge on the cultural memory of dance pieces which have significant religious, spiritual and mythological undertones. Rather, for the religious audience they enhance the enjoyment of the narrative aspects of the dance forms. As for the ‘secular’ (in the ‘western’ sense) audience, they provide other avenues to appreciate Indian classical dance.