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The spiritual dimension of Indian classical dance
- Padma Jayaraj

March 15, 2015
The Yoga of Indian Dance authored by Mandakini Trivedi is a booklet primarily on the spiritual aspect of Indian classical dance forms. The cover, done in linear drawing, carries the picture of Shiva, the archetypal dancer.  Quite human in proportions, Shiva carries his damaru and fire in two hands while the other two display dance mudras. The book is dedicated to her spiritual mentor, “Silent Master, the very form of Shiva Dakshinamoorthy.” We move on to the next page to see the profile of her guru superimposed on the figure of the artist in dance costume, with a footnote, ‘The Inspiration.’ The pictures speak in volumes. The words that flow in the following chapters are an enunciation of the illustration.

The Yoga of Indian Dance explores the aesthetic, the symbolic and the spiritual dimensions of classical dance forms of India. While the aesthetic and the symbolic are fairly known both to the artists and to the rasikas, the spiritual aspect that lends loftiness to art is highlighted in the book. Under four headings the essence of classical arts is distilled for the students and the lovers of art.

Art in its magical and mystic forms are seen all over the world. Indian classical arts are rooted in the multi-textured Indian culture. The writer uses one word to define the Indian phenomenon: YOGA. Yoga as the single intangible value that is basic to Indian classical arts.  “Yoga is the undivided, conflict-free state of Being.” The term yoga as union is explored at many levels - at the individual level of mind, body and spirit; in relationships, at the level of society; of a human being with nature and with higher dimensions of reality.

THE MANY FACETS OF THE YOGA OF INDIAN DANCE is a unique chapter. Mythology epitomises Siva as the King of dancers. Here we come across two types of meditation; meditation that leads to silence and stillness, and the other through ordered movements of the physique in space and time creating a dynamic meditation, comparable to a spinning top. In form, theme and experience classical Indian dance reiterates the value of yoga by creating an artistic structure that is a unified whole. Hidden within the oft-repeated deceptive devotional themes, lies the subtle scientific application of the principle of yoga.

THE INDIAN WORLD VIEW elaborates the quintessence of Indian viewpoint in words and in pictures. The bindu is the centre, the absolute reality. The integrated self, poised and blissful, is the soul of Indian mysticism. Because of the superficial tendency of the mind, the journey of life becomes splintered, moving, going away from the centre. The spiritual evolution on the other hand, is an inward and backward journey to return to the Source. This fundamental search is mirrored in almost all Indian aesthetic forms and themes. The classical arts were conceived as pathways to return to the Source. In devotional literature, the pining heroines find peace in the arms of the beloved, symbolic of individual spiritual entities reaching the home.

This perspective is translated into a graphic design that represents the cosmic mandala, which   takes the shape of the yantra, worshiped in rituals, the underlying geometric design in visual arts; the energy diagram of the human mandala, which is the basic stance of the Indian classical dance. The human mandala in performing arts becomes a microcosm of the cosmic mandala. At another level, the human mandala which is a yogic posture is the expression of the human body geometry and body grid. Many rules of the grammar of Indian classical dance emerge from this understanding derived from yoga.

According to yoga, the human grid is wired by subtle energy channels that form triangular bodily compositions. Many such interlocking triangles within the cubic space of the human grid are created during dance. Thus, dance is the play of triangles within the cube. The cube gives stability; the triangles, dynamism. The wiring of the triangular energies of the inner dance body propels the outer body to dance in movements. Thus the dance blooms from within to blossom out. The centre of the human energy grid is the naval, the point where the dance is born. From here the limbs and muscles are controlled. All arts talk of this centering. The sculptor sculpts from this point; the singer sings from this navel.

The basic stance of the Indian classical dance displays multiple meanings. (1) At the aesthetic level it is a perfect geometric form that creates movements of stunning beauty; (2) At the   symbolic level, the human mandala of structured posture and movement; (3) At the yogic level, the stance that contains all the possibilities of dance. Thus, the stance provides a scientific basis to all dance movements, a yogic formal alphabet. Training in Indian classical dance begins in the mastery of this grid, the perfect posture and the perfect line. The dance lies latent in the dancer’s posture. Perfect body geometry alone can articulate perfect choreographic geometry. As sage Bharata said, “All beauty is always attained through a perfect posture.” Only in a rigorous training in abstract dance, the grid is mastered.

The abhinaya aspect of the dance is based on eight moods. These ashta rasas are based on subtle principles of yogic science of breath. Mood is ignited by the breath. The science of inner expression born of an attentive mind is the yogic process of withdrawing the senses and focussing energies to attain a meditative sense of oneness in which the personal is emptied. The influence of yoga is felt at the content of the dance too. The dancer, by the end of the performance, reaches the state of an intense aesthetic mood that combusts into aesthetic rapture of pure joy, akin to bliss in yogic parlance.

Any sadhana or spiritual discipline is primarily for one’s self-growth: for enhanced sensitivity, search for excellence, an enquiry into the meaning and purpose of life and art. Classical dance is one such intense spiritual discipline. Conscious, attentive practice needs to be inculcated in the dancer. For a performer it is a passage from self-consciousness to self-awareness and thence to self-confidence.

Yoga has no place in entertainment. The body is no more sacred, an instrument of self evolution and the abode of the divine, as it is central to art. Consequently, classical dance has become more plastic, glamorous, and physical preoccupied with the mundane and the material. Many socio-cultural factors have brought about this decadent state. Forms of entertainment are glossy “feel good” forms that help the viewer to escape from realities of life. Escapist forms are designed to make you unconscious while classical forms heighten your consciousness.

Classical forms like yoga are means to transcend the mundane, to expand consciousness and to reach higher dimensions of reality. Genuine artists all over the world have moved to the meditative and the spiritual in art, strived and arrived at the principles of yoga in art.  Classicism is a value system, not just a technique. Changes in technique can be absorbed if value system is intact. This vision of yoga should be part of dance training techniques.

It is time to ask which way classical dance should choose.  Should it be an entertainment or yoga; a profession or a way of life? The onus is that of the dancer, whether to be an apsara or a yogini!!

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts and travel. She is a regular contributor to

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