Sringara: sensual, aesthetic or spiritual? Love, beauty and grace in Natya Shastra - Part I
- Smitha Menon, France
e-mail: smitha2009menon@gmail.com

July 5, 2009

This small article in two parts, will deal with the topics some of which are:
Sringara Rasa in Natya Shastra and the modern misconceptions of Sringara.
  • Rati bhava and desires (kama) of various kinds

  • Sringara and characteristic bodily movements

  • Rukmini Devi's and Balasaraswati's treatment of Sringara

  • How beauty and grace are related to Sringara

  • Electricity and sexual attraction

  • Sringara and age: can we stay young and regain our innocence?

  • From the most sublime to the most vulgar: treatment of Sringara by different human types

  • Portrayal of love scenes and effects of the Arab and British invasions

  • Homosexuals, burkas, the nudist beaches, and why men rape goats

  • Spiritual dimensions of human evolution


  • Hindu deities, spiritual realities and Veronica Castro
    "Sringara is of 3 kinds: words, dress and action." In the facial make-up for Kathakali the cheeks up to the jaw bone are covered with a light green paste. Why is Sringara's colour light green? You will understand it if you know why, for example, Krishna's colour is dark blue. There are 3 kinds of explanations: one is given to children, another to religious adults, and the third is given to spiritual seekers for purely practical - even though mystic - purposes. The colours of the same deity manifested in different worlds will have very different tints.

    "Sringara originates in the relationship between men and women, and relates to the fullness of youth." Fullness of youth is an attribute of the immortal devas and the rishis, and no temple sculptor so far dared to create Nataraja in the form of an ugly crippled old man with a pair of crutches instead of the divine drum. The temple sculptors created the naked or scantily clad statues of beautiful devas and fascinating apsaras so it would attract people. Dancers nowadays are much more daring than the temple sculptors in other ways. When an out-of-shape dancer with a face of an elderly truck loader tries to portray Manmadan, it looks even more grotesque than the elderly Veronica Castro attempting the role of an 18-year-old girl in the Mexican soap (telenovela) 'The Rich Also Cry.'

    Kama cannot be narrowly interpreted as merely an erotic urge. "Almost all Rasas proceed from the desire (kama). Kama takes various forms, for example dharma-kama (passion for virtue), artha-kama (desire for wealth) and moksha-kama (desire for liberation)." Those who have desire for liberation will only be attracted to the marga dance, which is allegedly what Padma Subrahmanyam wanted to resurrect. Desire is the main engine of the universe, and its only alternative is the karma yogic approach to all actions, including dance, as an offering to the Divine.

    Kama, incidentally, is the son of Vishnu, the presiding deity of Sringara, according to Natya Shastra. The lesser gods represent the inferior manifestations of their "parents" stationed in the higher worlds. Kama is the master of Manas, the sensational mind that belongs to Svarga, the lower heaven. While animals have well-developed manas, they lack buddhi, the higher intelligence of Chandraloka. Just as the light from the Sun is reflected by the Moon (Chandra), so is Kama's wife Rati merely a weak, limited and distorted reflection of Lakshmi. Incidentally, Rati is the name of the sthayi bhava of Love.

    In more recent traditions, Kamakshi, a form of Tripura Sundari (also called Shodasi or Lalita), is "She whose eyes awaken desire," or "She who has beautiful eyes." The attraction of divine beauty creates the most sublime desire of union with the Divine. The goddess Tripura Sundari in her aspect as Shodasi is represented as a sixteen-year-old girl, and is believed to embody sixteen types of desire. The Shodasi Tantra, a treatise on the Tantra, describes Tripura Sundari as "the radiant light in the eyes of Shiva." She is described as being of dusky color, and is depicted in an intimate position with an aspect of Shiva.

    Devadasis and the Kalakshetra times
    Rukmini Devi, young wife of the bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, wanted to refine the interpretation of Sringara in Bharatanatyam to make it palatable for the pious Christian conquerors, who were used to the western ballet and cabaret dances. Unfortunately, such a "refinement" turned out to be mere trimming off of the most essential expressions, bhedas, gestures and body movements that form the soul of Sringara and are the life of Natya. Most hip and the chest movements became a taboo. The ostentatious ballet moves replaced karanas and angaharas. Chapter 26 says, "Actions of women should be characterized by delicate angaharas. Women's movements of hands, feet and other limbs should be graceful (lalita)." We all understand that "the Kaisiki dance with the Sringara is related to the interaction between a man and woman when they are in love," but hardly any classical dancer of today can - or would - portray Urvasi's attempt to seduce Arjuna.

    The new spirit of secular Bharatanatyam is meant for entertaining the materialistic elite who had no moksha-kama. "One who will perform well the dance created by Mahesvara, will go free from all sins to the abode of Siva," boldly states Bharata Muni. He did not bother to describe the place where the folk, ballet or modern dancers will end up in, but well-known dance writer Sunil Kothari wants us to believe that, "There is much scope for inter-changeability of the marga and the desi. This only indicates that in aesthetics we need not consider hierarchy - that one is superior to the other."

    "The Tandava dance is mostly to accompany the adoration of gods, but its gentler form (sukumara-prayoga) relates to Sringara." Why were the Karanas used in connection with Sringara banned by Rukmini Devi? First, we have to ask ourselves what kind of relationship can there be between a young beautiful girl and a much older gentleman who certainly did not look like Ram Gopal. Bharata Muni sheds light on it: "The attraction between a man and a woman is a kama. This attraction, which may end in joy or sorrow for all people, is mostly to be observed as leading to happiness even in unhappy situations. The sexual union of man and woman is Sringara. It benefits both the man and the woman, and brings them happiness."

    The distortions in the interpretations of Sringara among the devadasi community appeared as a result of the general degradation of the temple traditions that saw the Agama prescribed Nritta being conveniently replaced by the rice offerings. What the senior dancers of today conveniently ignore is how the early devadasis, who were required to remain celibate their entire lifetime, were treating Sringara. "Only a woman who gets up in a morning to find her lover gone knows what viraha is," stubbornly maintained Balasaraswati. What Balasaraswati did not realize is that it is not necessary to become an American astronaut and taste the moon sand in one's mouth in order to know what kind of life is there in Chandraloka.

    If we look at children in their early teens who fall in love, we may discover that their love is much purer than the adults' relationships. If the teenagers cannot "adequately" portray certain gross and vulgar details in the adults' relationships, whose loss is it? What is "adequate" after all? The "realistic" or grotesque abhinaya portrayed by the lowest human types in all the Indian movies? But why should classical dancers try to be as vulgar and primitive as Mollywood? A well-known actress Ramya Nambeesan puts it bluntly, "In the (film) industry, concepts are defined differently. What they call glamour is what is called obscene in the common parlance."

    Like many senior dancers, Gowri Ramnarayan was mistaken to believe that Sringara's only expression is somehow limited to a sensual longing - or even merely a sexual urge (if the heroine's nature is particularly horny): "Abhinaya posed problems peculiar to the times. Earlier, the devadasis had other performers in the family, street and village as role models to serve as the basis of a personal style. But the new upper class entrants had no such visual examples. How could they pick up the techniques of abhinaya from their male teachers to evoke the essentially feminine experiences detailed in the songs they danced to? Especially as the nattuvanars were hampered by the need to curtail the sringara quotient for the new class of trainees. "This art is just emerging out of decadence. Let us keep it dignified," was the refrain of Chockalingam Pillai. An old student recalls, "Edo oru vahaiyil varugudu" was taught to me as a bland and literal "Something is happening to me." It was much later that I realised it referred to a woman's sensual longing!"

    Bharata Muni says that longing (abhilasa) is but the first stage of love, the other stages being Anxiety, Recollection, Enumeration of Merits, Distress, Lamentation, Insanity, Sickness, Stupor. The ancient dancers had to achieve far greater conscious control over their mind and body than the "professional" dancers of today, who cannot even evoke goose bumps or sweat at will. "Representation of love in the fourth stage should be made by horripilation at the enumeration of merits of the beloved and wiping off tears and sweat."

    If the union has not been achieved, the last stage of such love is death, but for some reasons Bharata Muni advises that this stage should not be presented on stage. Unlike in Bollywood, in Natya, "There should be on the stage no ascending of the bed-stead, no bath, no use of unguents and collyrium, no decoration of the body and no doing of the hair... The prohibited mode of dress will suit only the women of inferior type because of their low nature. But they too are not to be represented as doing what is improper."

    Love and its relationship with other moods
    "Sringara Rasa arises in connection with favourable seasons, garlands, ornaments, enjoyment of the company of beloved ones, music and poetry, and going to the garden and roaming there. It should be represented on the stage by means of composure of the eyes and the face, sweet and smiling words, satisfaction and delight, and graceful movements of limbs."

    Different types of women behave differently: "A woman of high family is to awaken her beloved by the sound of her ornaments; the courtesan by the sweet scents; the handmaid by fanning the beloved with her clothes." S Kalidas (a former art critic with India Today) probably knew the reason that Natya Shastra puts it plainly that it is only the scenes of love that may attract the young audience, who happily abandoned dance performances for the movie world where the love scenes, even though normally rendered in the most vulgar and crude manner, are abundant. But even this is not the bottom: no cinema would be able to compete with strip-dance shows that would appeal to the lowest of the animal instincts.

    Why does Natya Shastra place Sringara as the fundamental mood? Any state of mind can proceed from it. Natya Shastra states that "Sringara has two varieties: in union and in separation... Sringara in separation should be represented by indifference, languor, fear, jealousy, fatigue, anxiety, yearning, drowsiness, sleep, dreaming, awakening, illness, insanity, epilepsy, inactivity, fainting, death and other conditions... . Sringara in separation relates to a state of maintaining optimism arising out of yearning and anxiety."

    "Sringara proceeds from the sthayi bhava of Rati, and it has as its soul a bright attire; for whatever in this world is white, pure and beautiful is appreciated in terms of sthayi bhava of Rati. For example, one who is elegantly dressed is called a lovely person, sringarin." The reference to the white colour is very interesting. Isn't white the colour of Hasya? Well, Hasya is there in the playful joyfulness of love.

    A lack of proper training can be seen in how the contemporary dancers fail to use most glances outlined in Natya Shastra. "The glance where the eyelids are not fully opened, the look is sweet, and eyeballs are still, and there are tears of joy, is called Snigdha (loving). It grows out of love." "The glance in which the eyes are playful, tearful, half-closed, upper lid is drooping and eyelashes are throbbing, is called Kamya." What the dancers of today don't realize is that all this is visible when their faces are shown close-up on TV, while the rasikas sitting 50 metres away at a live recital would need binoculars to see it.

    "A courtesan overpowered with love should be represented by making her express the feelings by casting side-long glances, touching the ornaments, itching the ears, scratching the ground with her toes, showing the breasts and the navel, cleansing the nails and gathering (adjusting) her hair," but the woman of the higher nature "looks continuously with blooming eyes, conceals her smile, speaks slowly and with a downcast face, gives reply with a smile, conceals her sweat and appearance, has throbbing lips and is trembling." When did you last see anything like that in a classical dance performance? On treating a lover at fault, Bharata Muni tells us the following: "When taken by her hair, hand or dress the woman should enjoy the touch of the beloved in such a way that he may not perceive it. The woman should slowly release her hair from the hands of her beloved one by standing first on her toes with limbs bent and then taking to the Asvakranta posture."

    Things human and divine. Innocence and little kittens
    Devas are described as having 3 stages of life, unlike humans, who have 4. The Divine Beings don't grow old, and always stay youthful. Krishna, for example, is imaged as a little boy or a teenage girl, Manjari. Natya Shastra prescribes that devas must be portrayed by young girls only, because "the nature of gods is delicate." This canon is conveniently ignored by the contemporary "senior" dancers who nevertheless complain about the steadily dwindling audience at their "classical" dance performances. Gods are not just delicate but playful and carefree too - a quality that neither the adult cats nor humans manage to preserve. Don't you love little kittens much more than adult cats? You don't know why, that's for sure.

    What some 50-year-old women manage to preserve well is their faces, while there are 10-year-old children whose faces look so much older. There are dancers like Alarmel Valli and Urmila Sathyanarayanan, whose feminine faces have hardly changed in the past 35 years. On the other hand, it is pretty common to see 50-year-old women whose faces look indistinguishable from men's of the same age. Our inner experiences, our feelings, thoughts, actions have a huge impact on how we come to look and how we come to sound. The timbre of our voice is indicative of how pure and strong our pranas are. Prana, vital energy, reflects the inherent duality of the manifest existence, and circulates very much like electricity: its intensity depends on the difference between the 2 extremes. This is why the most powerful pranic circuit and the strongest magnetism on the physical level can be found between an extremely feminine woman and an extremely masculine man. On a full moon day too.

    Perhaps one of the reasons Bharata Muni advises that only young girls should be given the roles of devas is it is only the young girls who can look flirtatious yet innocent at the same time. Innocent looking dancers will look extremely attractive without sexually arousing the spectators. From a mystic point of view, innocence is the ability to automatically repel the thoughts and desires of the sexual intercourse. You may remember that the Ayappan temple admits only girls before they attain puberty. The first items the dancer performs on the stage are meant to purify the atmosphere of all sexual instincts.


    Born in Irinjalakuda, Kerala, Smitha Menon is keenly interested in Natya and learnt some Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. After getting a BA in Psychology at the University of Kerala (Thiruvananthapuram), she is now completing her Masters degree in Psychology at Bordeaux University.