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Time signatures: Rhythm in Indian music, dance and film
- Prachi Hota

October 22, 2023

James Monaco, American film critic and author, argues that 1/24 of a unit, which is the lowest common denominator of film, exceeds the quickest rhythms at which Western music can be performed. In his book, How to Read a Film: Movies, Media and Multimedia, he says, "The most sophisticated rhythms in music, the Indian tals, approach the basic unit of film rhythm as an upper limit."

Like music (and dance), time is a central element of film. Unlike literature, where the reader controls time to a large extent by consuming it at their pace and theatre, where only crude time signatures can be used through the characters' speech, Indian music and by extension dance, revolve around time signatures in the form of rhythm cycles.

Here, of course, we are talking of the most literal presence of these time signatures in dance, music and film. Taal (or Tal, as Monaco spells it) in the case of Indian music and dance, and frame rate (which Monaco calls the lowest common denominator) in the case of film. Rhythm exists in layered forms in both these art forms, but even an examination of the most tangible form of rhythm in these arts shows us why the presence of dance and music in Indian cinema is not simply a cultural or stylistic choice by the filmmaking community. There is a syntactical relationship at the most granular level of form.

Like Taal, frame rate is a creative choice. Both these choices allow the creator to control how time is perceived within the world of the film and a choreography or music composition. This can be taken even further by using rhythm to contract and expand specific moments within a narrative. This method is often used by choreographers and filmmakers to communicate the importance of a specific story beat. One of the tools used to do this is to create a literal shift in time signatures. We often see this in the form of slow motion in films. While many cameras come with a slow-motion option nowadays, professional filmmakers use the traditional method of shooting something at a faster frame rate than the rest of the footage and then playing it back at the standard frame rate of the film during post-production to achieve a slow-motion effect. This method quite literally involves changing the time signature of a film for a brief period to create the perception of the expansion of time within the world of the film.

There are ways of creating a shift in time signatures within Indian classical dance as well. For instance, there is a special feature in Odissi music and dance called Padi which refers to a change in the rhythm cycle within the prosody of a piece of music, causing a temporary shift in the time signature of the choreography. Unlike slow motion in films, my experience is that Padi, which tends to be faster than the rest of the composition, is much more effective in creating the perception of the contraction of time rather than its expansion. But Padi and slow-motion footage are just some of the many tools that filmmakers and choreographers have at their disposal, to manipulate how their audiences perceive time. Moreover, this is just one of the many ways in which rhythm exists within these art forms.

The pace of a film is often decided by where the editor decides to cut between two shots. There is room for similar creative decisions to be made by dancers and musicians. In fact, on the relationship between music and films, James Monaco says, "Film thus utilizes a set of musical concepts expressed in visual terms: melody, harmony and rhythm are long-established values in film art." How a musician executes their transitions is the congruent creative choice of the cut in film editing. However, in my opinion, this is perhaps where dance comes closer to films than music.

The American film editor Walter Murch, in his book In the Blink of an Eye talks about The Rule of Six where he identifies the six criteria a film editor should consider when they make a cut. These criteria are: emotion, story, rhythm, eye-trace, two-dimensional space of screen and three-dimensional space of action. While these are useful academic distinctions, in practice, these criteria cannot always be distinguished from each other. Emotion is often expressed through action. This is where dance and film intersect. Editors often use the body language of characters to inform where they make a cut. This is similar to a dancer executing transitions from one movement to another, especially in the way they shift their weight during Abhinayas or narrative pieces. Both film and dance use the human body and the way it moves to create time signatures that interact with the rhythms of frame rate and Taal respectively.

Another form in which rhythm exists, which is perhaps its most abstract form, is the internal rhythm of each character on screen or stage. The rhythm at which a character lives their lives informs a film or choreography from its earliest stages. This is the toughest form of rhythm to articulate but Raja Rao mentions an allied concept in the foreword to his novel Kanthapura, which might help us understand this a bit better. In the foreword, he argues that the language a people speak represents the rhythm at which they think and live. Similarly, the rhythm at which the characters of the world of a film or choreography lead their lives affect the rhythm of a film or choreography itself. This, in turn is affected to some extent, by the language a film is made in. This becomes even more important in the case of Indian classical dance because each of these dance traditions is deeply embedded in literary systems that are born on the same land as the dance tradition itself, all of which are intertwined with the lives of the people who live on that land.

Therefore, time signatures in the form of rhythm exist in many ways in film, music and dance. Two factors that result in the intersectionality of Indian dance and film are the centrality of the human body as a vehicle for storytelling and the primacy of rhythm in all these art forms.

Prachi Hota
Prachi Hota is an Odissi dancer, filmmaker and writer, with a special interest in socio-cultural issues. She has received training in filmmaking from the London Film Academy and Prague Film School. She holds a Master's degree in Filmmaking from the London Film School.

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