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The journey of dance
- Padmavani Mosalikanti

September 21, 2013

Indian dance or natya as we all know was born with a purpose and has been growing as a beautiful tree with its roots in the divine earth. This tree has spread across the horizons with its innumerable branches (shakhas), each branch representing a style of dance. One can think of the tree being in its prime when its flowers are in full bloom and spreading its fragrance worldwide. But as we enjoy the fragrance, we should not forget the purpose with which its seeds were sown on earth. Dance was born not only as a mere entertainment, but also for 'loka kalyanam' or social welfare. Is our dance fulfilling its objective today? Or would it ever fulfill? What is its state today in our society? Are we as dancers doing justice to the art we have learnt putting in so many years of hard work? With all these questions revolving in my mind for a long time, a very fruitful talk with a singer triggered me to pen down my thoughts into words.

What is natyam? All of us know 'natyakhyam pancham vedam.' Natyam is the fifth Veda with all the other four Vedas - 'Rig Veda' - literature, 'Sama Veda' - music, 'Yajur Veda' -abhinaya and 'Atharvana Veda' - rasa or emotions being its components.

Does physical dance have an identity just by itself? No, physical dance or just the movement of the limbs, in the absence of music, literature or emotions would just be acrobatics or exercise but not 'natyam' as it is coined in the Indian culture. A body movement with some music can be enjoyed only for few minutes, but not for a longer duration. What gives meaning to dance is the literature, a total understanding of the literature, an apt music for the literature, an apt rendering of the music. A total capture of these signals produced by the group of musicians and then transmitting these signals to the audience is what can give a complete meaning to the dance thereby making a show successful. In the present hi-tech world, we can say a dancer stands on the stage as a signal transmitting tower that generates the energy of 'rasa' or emotions in the minds and hearts of the spectators. Dance being an audio visual art, stronger the signals, stronger is the transmission, and stronger the impact on the spectators. This impact surpasses all other forms of communication.

According to the singer, "The experience of the 'vaggeyakaras' or the singers who write and tune their own songs, is that of supreme bliss. They are of the first grade. Saint poets like Tyagaraja or Muthuswami Dikshitar can be grouped into this category. The singers who sing with a complete understanding of other's works, experience an ultimate joy. They come into the second category. The dancers, who are dependent on these two categories for their work, and strive to do justice to someone else's work through somebody, has a third hand experience of that joy. So they can be grouped into the third category." Very true and very well said. But, music or literature are not separate from dance, they are the components of dance itself. All the allied arts can survive by themselves, but dance cannot survive without these allied arts. When the dancer on stage, who is a complete dancer, with the knowledge of all the components of dance, works as a signal booster and a powerful transmitter, not only himself enjoys the ultimate bliss but also makes the audience take a dip in it. So a dancer is not just working for himself but also for the audience. Therefore, does he not have an added responsibility? It's the responsibility of the dancer to have a complete knowledge, learn it actually as a 'panchama veda,' learn it with full bhakti, dedication and devotion and then educate the audience of what he knows. At the end of the day, we are all taking our individual journeys towards the Ultimate. It's the responsibility of the dancer to pull the audience along the right path and show them the light, which would in turn help to form a better society. It lies entirely in the hands of the dancer whether to put his or her clan in the first grade or third grade.

Talking about social welfare, what should be the nature of dance to help reach its 'social' goal? As mentioned earlier, dance came to earth not just as an entertainment during the absence of any other media, but also for 'loka kalyanam' or social welfare. For ages, these two causes have been walking hand in hand. On one hand where the devadasis - the 'sani varu,' the 'kalavantulu'- have been doing their share of social entertainment, on the other hand the 'Bhagavatulu' and the Bhagavata melas have been doing their share by educating the audience on social welfare.

Kuchipudi style of Indian classical dance is an example for this. The region of Krishna and Godavari river delta which comes under modern Andhra Pradesh State and Telugu being the predominant language saw a rich growth of art. The temples of Muvva Gopalaswami, the Andhra Maha Vishnu at Srikakulam and the adjoining Agraharam of Kuchipudi, show us a proof of how the dance was used by the two classes of dancers for two different causes. The devadasis of the Srikakulam temple danced the sringara padams written by Kshetrayya with the hero as Muvva Gopalaswami to entertain the public juxtaposed to the Kuchipudi Bhagavatulu who danced 'Bhamakalapam' by Siddhendra Yogi preaching the jeevatma and paramatma tatva during the same era. Kuchipudi didn't just stop here, but it went ahead with its mission and started incorporating and presenting 'Kelikas' where social issues became the prime subject of presentation.

Alas, with the passage of time and the growth of technology and increasing influence of the various modes of entertainment, spectators are kind of hooked to television and computers rather than witness a live performance. On the other hand, the competitive nature of the dance field as a career has grown. Glamour has taken a prime role in dance. Darwin's theory of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest has come into play. Dancers take to unfair and unethical means to prove they are successful. Dance has become a business for many. There's a mad rush to achieve and receive awards, no matter how. With the number of dancers with half baked knowledge, mediocrity in the quality of dance is growing. The goal today has become to attract the primary position of the spotlight and in the process demean the musicians who are equal contributors for the success of a performance. The musicians deserve more than half the credit these dancers sweep away. Singing for dance concerts is not considered good enough anymore. Quality singers refuse to sing for dance. All these malpractices are not just degrading the dignity of dance but also misguiding the dance from its path.

In today's secular society, the class of 'devadasis' or 'sani varu' exists no more. A 'Brahmin' is apprehensive to speak out his identity and thereby hides his sacred thread behind his shirt. So there are no Bhagavatulus either. Dance today, has become an art accessible to any caste and any gender of people. So the responsibility of the dancers has increased. Dance has reached the modern theatres where electronic equipments and beautiful light effects have their own role to play to beautify the concert. Thanks to some connoisseurs who wish to create meaningful productions and thanks to the crew members who make staging of such productions possible, making the social cause of dance survive. But this is not enough. More has to be done. The dancers first need to wake up from their deep slumber, be totally aware of where they stand, their actions and what they really want to do with the weapon called dance in their hands. A knife can kill someone; the same knife can carve a sculpture. Choice is of the artiste. Rat race leads to nowhere. Working hand-in-hand, we dancers can bring a change in the society. It's very painful and sad to know the fear in a father's mind to encourage his daughter in the dance field. This fear and insecurity cannot be denied but it can be removed or changed. Let us be good human beings, contributing to the society in a positive way and build a generation of youngsters who would in turn be productive to the society and not teach disrespectful traits in the name of sringaram. Let every female in our society be safe, secure and respected by all. Let us do our share to ensure this. "Yatra naari poojayante, ramante tatra devataa."

To conclude, do not mishandle dance. It is representative of a tree with full bloomed flowers spreading its fragrance everywhere, or one can also symbolize it as a beautiful young lady in the peak of her youth, full of desires and dreams for her future. If handled with care, dance can be the kalpavruksham, the kamadhenu or the mother with worthy children for the society, but if mishandled, it can lead to destruction of the society. Let dance travel safe and sound to the generations to come where it has collected the wisdom of a grandmother who teaches as she entertains her grandchildren with her bedtime and mealtime stories.

Padmavani Mosalikanti is a Kuchipudi dancer based in Chennai. She and her husband Jaikishore Mosalikanti present Kuchipudi duets across the globe.

Dear Vani,
It is a great write up. However I would have loved it if you had said "some dancers take to unfair and unethical means to prove they are successful" instead of generalizing the whole lot. Also most dancers of merit do not demean the importance of musicians nor take undue credit. And regarding your contention that quality singers do not sing for dance, I would like to add that most of the singers who sing for dance can give the other-quality-singers a run for their money. They are a fantastic lot ranging from veterans Hariprasad, Sreekanth, Girija Ramaswamy, Veeraraghavan, Radha Badri, Vanati Raghuram, Chitrambari ... to Kaushik, Randhini, Roshini and an entire brigade of younger lot.

That DANCE has become accessible to anybody irrespective of caste or gender distinction does not by itself mean that there is no discrimination whatsoever. I do not subscribe to the view that "a Brahmin is apprehensive to speak out his identity." There may not be an apprehension really, it is only possible that they have grown past the four fold caste system. Otherwise there is a new breed which flaunts their Iyer, Iyengar surnames and there are a considerable lot of women among them. And this has no relevance to DANCERS being more responsible. Responsibility is not directly proportional or remotely connected to the universality of the art form.

Thank you again for the wonderful article. Proud to be a dancer!
- Kavitha Ramu (Sept 22, 2013)

Very nicely written, Kavitha Ramu
- Murugashankari Leo (Sept 24, 2013)

Dear Vani,
Good article, behind good spirits. Although I do think the best thing that has happened in today's world is, the classical arts have turned to be accessible and approachable to all beyond all bars. And this is what has proved its universality. Whether a Brahmin to be apprehensive or a non Brahmin to be self possessed is not the question. It is not ones nativity or any innate customary identity that gives him the privilege to do whatever he wants to do; but the clarity of mind and thought to serve the art, selfless and genuine. As you pointed out, the message is to all of us, who have taken up this path as our living and being. Congrats!
- Dr. Neena Prasad (Oct 5, 2013)

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