Sringara: sensual, aesthetic or spiritual? Love, beauty and grace in Natya Shastra
- Smitha Menon, Bordeaux
August 10, 2009
Grace, beauty and expressions of love
Despite the fact that most of the contemporary classical Indian dance performances take place in the evening, few dancers know what Natya Shastra's 27th Chapter says about it: "In the evening, the items portraying Sringara in the Kaisiki style, full of vocal and instrumental music, should be performed." The Kaisiki style is the Lasya dominated, graceful mode. Grace and beauty, plainly speaking, are the manifestation of Lakshmi. "Everyone's ordinary feeling, when based on Sringara and when it reveals itself through graceful movements (lalitabhinaya), is called the graceful expression of feeling (hela)."
The opposite of graceful is seen, for example, in the break dance or heavy metal rock, where limbs move completely independently and artificially. If you can only contract large groups of muscles at the same time, you can no longer consider yourself as a dancer. "Graceful movement of hands, feet, brows, eyes, lips, etc made by women is known as lalita." Graceful movements faithfully reflect the natural movements of various pranas in our subtle bodies. Without regular practice, there is a very serious degradation and loss of the nerve cells: the dancers lose control of more and more muscles. The moment you can no longer move any of your muscles at will, you are as good as dead.
Just as the quality of sweetness in a vocal recital arises out of the effortlessness of the singing, so does grace depends on a relaxed and joyful state of the limbs. "The change of limbs (angaja) is of 3 kinds, next the natural (sahaja) change of 10 kinds, and involuntary (a-yatnaja) change is of 7 kinds." Aren't too many of these missing in a modern Bharatanatyam or Odissi recital? "The involuntary (natural) graces of women are Beauty (sobha), Charm (kanti), Delicacy (madhurya), Radiance (dipti), Self-Control (dhairya), Courage (pragalbhya) and Dignity (audarya)." Isn't it obvious that the reason that hardly any classical dance recital can compete with an average Indian movie is because the contemporary film actresses satisfy far more requirements listed by Bharata Muni?
"Decoration of limbs on account of good physical form, youth and loveliness being rendered manifest after enjoyment is called Beauty (shobha)." No wonder identifying Sringara with "Beauty" has been the latest trend in the dance community, especially in the USA where the physical perfection has become a national religion, and where gyms with cosmetic surgeons replaced churches with priests. The translators also refer to shobha as Brilliance. In terms of Tantra, such brilliance is the intensive radiation of the prana, and can even be measured by sensitive electronic equipment. A happy person irradiates joy.
"The 10 natural graces (alamkara) of women are: sportive mimicry (lila), amorous gesture (vilasa), dishabille (vicchitti), confusion (vibhrama), hysterical mood (kilakincita), affection (mottayita), pretended anger (kuttimita), affected coldness (bibboka), lolling (lalita) and indifference (vihrita)." As you can see, the expressions of most of these are missing in the contemporary classical dance performance, especially this one: "Dishabille (viccitti) is the great beauty that results from the slightly careless placing of garlands, clothes, ornaments and unguents."
One criteria that clearly sets off the true classical dance from the modern dance is in the range, direction and mode of movements. "Moderation in the movement of limbs in all conditions, especially in Radiance (dipti) and in Lolling (lalita), is called Delicacy (madhurya)." As the dancers pass out of their early teenage years, their recitals tend to lose many of the involuntary changes, depriving such recitals of the delicacy, brilliance, charm and grace. Often it happens thanks to the guru's over-corrections. Moreover, the sahaja kind of changes is often replaced by some artificial ones as a result of "rigorous tutoring." "Erotic movements and changes of features which are not deliberate and which grow out of a tender nature, constitute Playfulness (lalita)." By the time the dancers reach the age of 16, most of such spontaneous and uninhibited movements are gone for ever, and any attempts to restore these lost abilities are as good as trying to attach a prosthesis.
"Sattva with bhava arises in the relation to the people of the opposite sex," explains Chapter 24. "And the ordinary expression, hava, should be marked as relating to its various conditions. There emotion (hava) should be known as arising from the mind (citta) and manifesting itself in changes of eyebrows and the Recaka of the neck, indicative of Sringara." Remarkably, many dance teachers, such as Urmila Sathyanarayanan, condemn any recakas of the neck as…. "childish"! Indeed, the children move their necks in a far more interesting way than the stiff-necked senior dancers.
Sringara, Bhakti, moral restrictions and cultural values
The names of the ratis differ: santa-bhaktas have santi-rati (neutral mood), dasya-bhaktas have priti-rati (affectionately serving mood), sakhya-bhaktas have sakhya-rati (fraternal love), fathers and mothers have vatsalya-rati (parental love) and preyasi-bhava-bhaktas have priyata-rati (amorous love). The amorous love may be the highest form of Bhakti, but it is also the most difficult to portray in dance, especially for those unfamiliar with the Natya Shastra's techniques. S Kalidas (former art critic with India Today) said, "When Devadasis were edged out of their traditional arenas by girls from urban middle class families, the art of abhinaya suffered. Middle class mores demanded that exciting sringara be replaced by boring bhakti." Bhakti is not supposed to be boring, is it?
In Caitanya-caritamrta it is stated that Mahaprabhu came to distribute the four spiritual sentiments of Vraja loka: dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, and sringara. Why did the dancers leave out Sringara and became content with more socially acceptable expressions of piousness and devotion? The answer is very simple: the new "moral values" of the Arab and the British conquerors were gradually replacing our traditional Indian values. When the Arabs invaded Egypt, they cut off the phalluses (the lingams that symbolised the creative power) of all the giant statues of various Egyptian gods.
The Vatican still believes that the Hindu gods and especially apsaras, such as Menaka and Urvasi, are highly immoral nymphs and evil spirits, as evil as all the non-Catholic sects who have to be burnt alive on a cross. The pious Christians may shrug at hearing how Brahma was chasing his own daughter and what cruel measures Vishnu had to take. Kama Sutra was considered by the Christian clergy as the most dangerous work of the Devil. Willy-nilly, the Indians were forced to abandon their ancient beliefs - and clothes. The new generations wanted to live like their enslavers did. Draupadi turned out to be merely an immoral woman. Drinking imported brandy and dancing salsa in bars became a high social status symbol. Cricket became India's national sport, and most murtis in the Hindu temples were put behind bars.
Modes of expressions of Sringara, genders, sex appeal, imagination and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
The entire confusion about Sringara appeared since people did not distinguish between the attraction on the spiritual, intellectual, emotional and more crude pranic levels of the animal world. We even see the plant's aspiration towards the sun. A flower may have some irresistible attraction to someone with a spiritual inclination, an idea may be attractive to a philosopher, a voice or a sound may be attractive to our aesthetic and vital mind. Expressions of love between a man and a woman will automatically appeal to our emotional mind. But there are also the things that will turn on the animal instincts. A dog will be exited to sniff the fragrance of meat, and a male spider will be excited to discover the presence of the female spider ready to mate. What neither dogs nor spider understand is how on earth (or rather, in the Middle East) the excessive sexual activity came to be viewed as highly immoral while the gluttony and alcoholism are still considered as "minor" weaknesses!
A visit to Saudi Arabia will reveal that the reason the Arab women wear burkas is very simple: many Sheikhs confessed that they get sexually aroused whenever they see a woman's hand or feet, and become totally mad when they see a beautiful woman's face or, god forbid, her loose hair. On the other hand, a visit to a nudist beach in Holland will demonstrate that the men there don't at all get sexually aroused when many naked beautiful women were around. The Indian women did not cover their breasts before the Arab invaders changed the customs on the subcontinent. Gradually, the customs of the invaders came to be accepted as new "Indian" moral standards, and just as violin became a "traditional Carnatic instrument." Even the nude statues of deities started being covered in all kinds of garments.
A visit to San Francisco, the world's capital of the homosexuals, reveals that some men or even women can get turned on at the sight of even a piece of underwear. Even a car or a motorbike is presented to us as "sexy" in TV commercials. Is it only a matter of time before some try to rape their innocent vehicles or refrigerators? When some rasikas enjoy certain performances, I get an impression sometimes, that most of them don't actually watch the dancing but close their eyes and imagine some other dancers.
This kind of imagination has its roots in idleness, which is the opposite of the state of those busybodies who are seeking spiritual enlightenment and are not interested in any entertainment to kill the time. If we remember Shakespeare's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,' Oberon decided to punish Titania's disobedience and asked the mischievous Puck (who did Kama's role) to help him apply the magical juice from a flower called "love-in-idleness." Titania magically falls in love with a rude lower class laborman Nick Bottom the Weaver, who has been given the head of an ass by Puck. This is a fairytale, but the reality can be even more startling: the BBC reports.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4748292.stm) headlines run: "A Sudanese man has been forced to take a goat as his "wife," after he was caught having sex with the animal."
Sringara and different cultures, human sub-races and types
Natya Shastra refers to the 3 types of human beings, noble, the average and the low. From the most sublime to the most gross there are but 6 steps, as in the expression of Hasya rasa: a slight smile (smita), smile (hasita), gentle laughter (vihasita), laughter of ridicule (upahasita), vulgar laughter (apahasita) and excessive laughter (atihasita). The latter happens to be Kali's attribute. True, Kali with her garland of skulls would never be insulted by being called "unattractive." But even the ugliest of women harbour a hidden desire to be considered as attractive. A senior dancer put it this way, "I often have quarrels with people who call me "fat." I really feel bad about it. At times, I feel that I should do something about it and start working out." It may be politically a dangerous move for Doordarshan Kendra to classify the well-known dancers of today into Bharata Muni's categories: Devi, Asura, Gandharva, Raksasa, Naga, Bird, Pisaca, Yaksha, Tiger, Human, Monkey, Elephant, Deer, Fish, Camel, Makara, Ass, Pig, Horse, Buffalo, Goat, Dog and Cow. If you would like to find out which type you are, Natya Shastra's 24th Chapter explains the details.
This classification of human beings is further clarified by the following: "Prajapati manifests as Vishnu Upendra incarnate in the animal or Pashu in whom the four Manus have already manifested themselves, and the first human creature who appears is, in this Kalpa, the Vanara, not the animal Ape, but man with the Ape nature. His satya yuga is the first Paradise, for man begins with the Satya Yuga, begins with a perfected type, not a rudimentary type. The animal forms a perfect type for the human Pashu and then only a Manuputra or Manu, a human, a true mental soul, enters into existence upon earth, with the full blaze of a perfect animal-human mentality in the animal form. These are man's beginnings. He rises by the descent of ever higher types of Manu from the Bhuvaloka - first he is Pashu then Pishacha, then Pramatha, then Rakshasa, then Asura, then Deva, then Siddha."
Naturally, the more refined human beings will portray any relationship with God in a very different way from how the lower human actors would render it. Moreover, the rendering of a person who has actually had the direct spiritual experience will be very different from those who have not had any such. "Women of the superior and the middling types should not use any lipstick" may sound like a heresy to the contemporary dancer's ear, but only if the owner of these ears believes herself to be wiser than Bharata Muni.
The abolition of the caste system would be a politically progressive step, and it is very fashionably democratic to proclaim all people in Kali Yuga as equally shudras, but in reality we are all quite different. That different ethnic groups and cultures reflect different levels of development of different human sub-races, with their own histories of upliftments and decays, is not a very big secret. The advancement of a particular race can be judged in how far they have mastered their animal impulses and human emotions. Time will show how the next, superhuman, race will treat Sringara in the future.
Born in Irinjalakuda, Kerala, Smitha Menon was 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.