Indian dance invites symbolic understanding of reality

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Some dance languages function in a symbolic relationship to reality—somewhat akin to the way a metaphor functions in written language. Indian dance or Natya is one such practice. In being thus, it is no different to other practice traditions in India that function as the action or karma or Agama aspects of the philosophy of moksha, which includes music, sculpture and visual arts.

The very preparation for Natya as described in the Natya Sastra, the seminal text on Indian dance theatre, invites practitioners to step outside of their usual mental and physical states of being. The preparatory rituals coalesce and juxtapose polarities (for example the shringara or sensuous sentiment and raudra or fury is performed one after the other with no narrative framework to give in logical structure). The effect when we do this is that we are shaken out of our usual demands for reason, logic and linearity which are the lenses through which we shape our usual experience of reality. The preparatory rituals invoke multiple deities, reminding us of the multiplicity of our reality and inviting us to hold that plurality without being subsumed by the need to simplify it into linear narratives of cause and effect.

The preparatory rituals set the scene for the Karanas, the 108 dance constellations that together form the heart of the approach to Natya in Indian practice. Each Karana is a complex planet of feeling, form, narrative and philosophy. These components are often so paradoxical that it is impossible to ‘explain’ a karana both in terms of breaking it down into units of form or of narrative meaning. Karanas celebrate mystery, ambivalence and ambiguity. They invite us to be comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable. They are the gems of the symbolic language of Natya and frame the embodied approach towards this practice.

The preparatory practices and the Karanas suggest that Natya is a dance language that requires the ability to deal with symbolic modalities. These modalities are not simply of the imagination, nor are they ephemeral visions. I think Indian philosophy can only be practiced through these modalities. Else we will have what we see in our times where the philosophy is interpreted in linear and polarised frameworks of our usual understanding. This leads to hierarchical notions of body and intellect, of maya (illusion) and moksha (liberation) and of this world and transcendence. Whereas the suggestion is far more complex than that—it is an invitation to step into the heart of mystery, into the uknown and to experience these spaces as rich, dynamic and insightful, but beyond the languages of our linear domains.

Padma Menon