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Odissi through the lens of Karana
- Dr.Utpal K Banerjee

April 8, 2023


By Arpita Venkatesh
Shubhi Publications, Gurugram, 2022
Price: Rs.1795
ISBN 978-93-94797-21-3

Hastapada Samayogah Nritasya Karanam Bhavet (a combined movement of hand and feet in dance is known as Karana). To the aesthete, it is a unit of dance: a basic stance of decorative hand gestures with a stance of body, legs or feet. Such figures were found in abundance especially on the South Indian temples sculpted on walls, such as the inner precinct of the second floor above the sanctum sanctorum of the Brihadiswara temple of Thanjavur with most magnificent figures of the dancing Shiva in Raja Raja Chola's time in the 10th century. Similar sculptures are found on the inside of the surrounding wall of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram of dancing Apsaras. The Shiva temples at Kumbakonam hold another example of profuse Karana sculptures.

Bharata's Natya Shastra, the magnum opus of Indian performing arts, delineates the comprehensive list of 108 Karanas, in its 4th chapter beginning with the simple Talapuspaputa and ending with most complex Gangavatarana at the end, dwelling upon their clear manifestation in the later chapters. Abhinavabharati is the most well-known commentary by Abhinavagupta on the Natya Shastra in the 11th century interpreting the text of Bharata at many levels: conceptual, structural and technical. He comments, practically, on its every aspect; and his commentary is a companion volume to Bharata's text dealing with angika abhinaya required for aesthetic presentation. Sharangadeva's Sangitaratnakara in the 13th century described all the 108 Karanas, naming them as Nritta Karanas and further cited some 36 from local practices, said to be dear to Shiva from Karatarimukha to Skandhabhranta.

Tandava in Natya Shastra gives the rules governing the basic vocabulary of dance, such as Karanas, Angaharas, Rechakas, and Pindis. While Karana is a basic stance, with decorative hand gestures and a movement of leg or feet, Angaharas are formed by the linking of six or nine Karana. Rechakas are turning one part of the body around Pada, Hasta, Kati and Griva, while group dances are referred to as Pindis. Both Rechakas and Pindis are of less importance than Angaharas. The latter is of great importance to dance, formed by linking six or nine Karanas, as elaborated in Natya Shastra. This last elaboration in Natya Shastra led many scholars, in good faith, to assume that Karanas are fixed postures, as indeed depicted in temples of Thanjavur, Chidambaram and Kumbakonam, mentioned above. This misconception persisted until the iconic dance scholar Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam studied the much older temple complex of Indonesia and made her cardinal discovery that Karanas are dynamic in status and various temples have caught them in one single posture or another.

The Prambanan Temple in Indonesia is a magnificent masterpiece of human civilization and of the history of sculptures. Enlisted among the wonders of human civilization and given the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this temple is built on Hindu beliefs during the period of 9th century A.D. by kings of the Mataram Kingdom. This majestic temple complex is located on the outskirts of Central Java about 17km away from the Yogyakarta City to the northeast at a boundary land between two provinces. The three main temples that are tallest among the lot, dedicated to the Trimurti (three Lords of Hindu Mythology), are visible from long distance from all over the province.

The history behind the building of the Prambanan temple complex is the shifting of religious belief from Buddhism to Hinduism in the 9th century A.D. The Prambanan temple is architecturally familiar to Hindu temples of India with tapering domes and well-crafted sculptures, whose study led the scholar Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam to her historical conclusion in 2003 that Karanas are the combination of Sthiti (static posture) and Gati (motion in execution). This finding runs counter to the inference of the noted scholar Mohan Khokar in 1979 that Karanas depict fixed postures, while only in Angahara there is a continuous change of pose and position. Further on, the thespian Kapila Vatsyayan had reclassified and divided in 1977 the movement of Karanas -- on the basis of individual Charis and Sthanas - into Sama Karana, Hasta Karana, Sthana Karana, Rechita Karana, Vrischika Karana, Chari Karana, etc. As per Subrahmanyam's startling finding that Karanas are combined movements, they cannot stress on any one particular limb as Charis or Sthanakas.

Our conclusion is that keeping all evidence in view, Karanas can only be treated as space-time continuums -- with continuous fluidity in their occurrence. In her book 'KARANAS IN ODISSI DANCE- History and Explorations', Arpita Venkatesh carries out a comprehensive listing of Karanas, by not only combining what is contained in Natya Shastra, but also by covering information from the beautiful sculpture of the temples of Bhubaneswar, especially Mukteswara complex. She also painstakingly analyses the gradual evolution of the current form of Odissi dance from ancient age to its current form using her information on the universality of Karanas.

The versatile American dance scholar Sharon Lowen has also pointed out how many 20th century scholars and gurus understood Karanas as static poses seen on temple sculptures until Padma Subrahmanyam, as she puts it, "connected the dots between Karana poses on various temples and ancient texts". Indeed, the doyen of Odissi, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his compatriots in their famous 'Jayantika' group deliberations in the 1958-59 years also were not aware of the path-breaking nature of Padma's inference till it came out. "Any human movement can be connected to Karanas, as is evident in the Kathakali side-foot movement, Manipuri (Thang-ta) elements, and certainly Odissi which has number of the exact Karanas found in the Natya Shastra", she concludes.

Arpita's volume goes much beyond bare textual analysis on the awareness of Karanas in Odissi, but also provides considerable context about the gradual evolution of Odissi from ancient to its current form. Indeed, such efforts are called for, in other forms of classical dances as Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and Manipuri as well.

The book is well designed and attractively produced that deserves praise.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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