Recently New York City Festival of the road to the east showcased accomplished artists of classical Indian dance and music. For many observers, it was an unprecedented opportunity to see how classical Indian dance uses choreography as a form of storytelling.
An example of this narration can be found in a classical dance called Kathak. According to dancer Purnima Shah, Kathak introduces a story of “unity”, influenced by Hindu philosophical beliefs, which transcends gender. She writes, “‘Kathak ‘is derived from the root of the word katha, meaning closely but not exactly a story, not in the colloquial sense, but rather the telling of mythological stories with the primary purpose of educating the people.
Shah explains that until the turn of the twentieth century, Kathak was a solo dance performed by male dancers. In classical dance, originally from northern India, a single dancer portrays multiple characters to tell stories based on Hindu philosophies with tales of good versus evil. In each episode of the dance, a rapid, semicircular movement, clockwise and counterclockwise, signals that the dancer is changing characters. For a character like Duryodhana, who is an evil prince, strong movements like an arched spine, broad shoulders and wide strides translate the arrogance of the man. For the virtuous Yudhishthira, movements are assured and controlled, granting a refined quality to the hero of the story.
This transcendent form of dance requires a unique type of training, with the teacher (or guru) and student working closely together. Ananya Chatterjea, who has been trained in classical Indian dance for over two decades, writes: “My own gurus have always said that the perfect dancer should be so skilled in the abhinaya that his physical being should disappear from the public eye as the narrative unfolds and instead assume the identity of the character represented. The abhinaya here refers to the aesthetics and fluidity of the dancer, through which the audience can interpret the representation of characters such as Duryodhana and Yudhishthira.
When Chatterjea arrived in the United States, she realized that American dance training included strict male and female roles unlike what she was used to in her Indian training. Chatterjea writes that in Indian classical dance, “since the ideal dance student is supposed to free herself from aham (egoism) and become a selfless dance follower, she must practice playing male and female roles or dance styles with equal dexterity. Some dance forms are associated with different genres, such as kathakali, typically for male dancers, and the mohini attam, which is performed mainly by women. Chatterjea explains that the ideal accomplishment of classical training is the Ardhanarishwara, a “celebration of the divinity half man, half woman” which forces the dancers to evolve between the masculine and feminine styles.
In training, the nritta, or “pure dance”, without a narrative, aims to portray a male movement style classified as “warrior”, in tandem with a female movement style that is “soft and gentle”. Shah writes that in the Kathak both male and female performers aim to surpass themselves as performers and focus on their characters. As they dance the story, male and female styles are combined within the piece.
Through the learning process and classical training, dancers must surrender to performance and skill in order to fully achieve this aspect when the time comes to perform. Chatterjea writes that it is an essential characteristic of Indian classical dance to balance one’s personal emotions and fully embody the characters in a way of “oneness”.
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By: Ananya Chatterjea
Journal of Asian Theater, vol. 13, n ° 1 (spring 1996), pp. 68-91
University of Hawaii Press
By: Purnima Shah
Journal of Dance Research, Vol. 30, n ° 2 (autumn 1998), pp. 2-17
Dance Research Congress