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Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam - Part XII

- Chandra Anand

October 14, 2015

The content in arts pertains to the aspects of life. They are portrayed in artistic work through the medium of the expression of thoughts and feelings of the spirit of man. A work of art expresses the feeling and thought of a single moment, by which, the viewer is made deeply aware of the intense emotions of that moment. Development of the idea for expressing the moment is based on the empirical experiences of human beings.

The content in varnam:
Similarly, in the varnam, one aspect of life is showcased. Varnam is the main item of a traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire. It is about the relationship between man and woman. The content highlights a romantic moment. It showcases the state of being, at the moment, when feelings of yearning for union with the beloved take over the mind of man.

The story line:
Naturally, the dancer portrays a lovelorn heroine (nayika), pining for union with the hero (nayaka). With fervor, she conveys her love and devotion to him by speaking about his goodness and greatness that attracts her to him. Visibly, she considers him as the epitome of perfection. Furthermore, she pleads with her friend (sakhi) to help her.

The Protagonists:
Noticeably, the story involves three characters. They are the nayika, the nayaka and the sakhi. The nayika is the character whose feelings and altering thoughts at the particular moment are portrayed. The sakhi is the next main person. She is the confidant of the nayika and supposedly the arbitrator who would bring the couple together. The nayaka is the silent and invisible character in the whole presentation. But, he is the pivot of the entire idea of the presentation. A lot of information about the nayaka is imparted as the presentation progresses.

Feast of moods:
And, in this depiction, the focus is the 'sentiment' of 'grief.' The presentation is the experiences a soul (nayika) undergoes, when separated from one's beloved and longing to be united with him. Although depressed due to her beloved's absence, she speaks of the hero's greatness expressing pride for the qualities he possesses, and awe and wonder at his achievements. Amusingly, she is discreet while speaking about her love for him and outgoing while recollecting his embraces. Gracefully, she confides in her friend (sakhi) and pleads with her to act as a messenger. Thus, we can see a feast of moods portrayed over the substratum of the anguish of separation and yearning for union.

More on Sakhi:
Because the nayaka is the silent and invisible protagonist, the sakhi, who is the nayika's confidant, has an important part in the plot. Sympathizing with the nayika, the sakhi tries to help her overcome her grief and acts as a mediator between the lovers. In some exceptional varnam, she becomes the chief protagonist, where she speaks to the nayaka. Coupling as a messenger and arbitrator, she tells the nayaka of the couple's suitability to each other. In a stirring manner, she mentions the great qualities of his, those the nayika has fallen for, makes clear the intensity of love the nayika feels for the nayaka and implores him to accept her friend and do away with the nayika's sufferings. Ex: Dhanike tagu janara in ragam Thodi and talam adi.

In the narrative, highly stylized movements, subtle expressions and evocative gestures are employed to suggest the emotional content of the song. In order to reveal the inner meaning in the lines of the song, the device of sancharis is implemented. Instances of earthly experiences are illustrated as sancharis. These put more light on the emotional condition and mood in context of the line and liven up the performance.

Few examples of sanchari are:

(1) The heroine's suffering when she is separated from her lover is shown by describing how nature is affecting her in a dismal manner; how her form and beauty is losing its vitality due to separation; or how she loses interest in herself and other things around her.

(2) The nayaka is depicted as the epitome of perfection by describing why and to whom the heroine has lost her heart to, his beautiful features, instances of activities that indicate great values inherent in him, the many skills and arts he is talented in, his heroic deeds and also his beautiful place of abode.

(3) Also the ambience indicating the right time for union, the preparations for the imminent meeting and foreplays are suggested.

And many other enlivening sancharis are presented. All vary from varnam to varnam.

The essence of Indian art:
In view of the fact that, in ancient India, the ideal way of life was the recognition of "the kinship of God and man in every sphere of activity," [1] it followed that "for the traditional Indian artist, regardless of the field in which he worked, artistic creation was the supreme means of realizing the Universal Being." [2] As a result, "the aim of art is the perfection of spiritual identification." [3]

Likewise, the Tanjore Quartet margam puts forward at the outset the truth of the self (alarippu), then the zenith that the self, leading a human life, has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padams and javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of perfection (shloka) [4]. Thus it's a representation of the journey of a soul from comprehension of spiritual knowledge to spiritual maturation. Naturally this epical narrative is usually a solo presentation.
Then, the significance of "nayika pining for the nayaka" is "jivatma seeking spiritual union with parmatma".

Philosophical allusions of varnam:
Consequently, the varnam is based on the concept of the nayika awaiting union with the nayaka who is philosophically considered as Supreme Being, whose representative on earth is the king (court presentation). As Balasaraswathi points out, "The composer of a Sabdam or a Varnam might have dedicated it to a prince or a noble man. But as far as the dancer is concerned, the hero can only be the King of Kings, the Lord of the wide world. These feelings should be universalized into aspects in divinity and not remain the limited experience of an insignificant human being." [5] It follows that the nayika expresses her desire for union with the nayaka, who is perfect having great capabilities, values, beauty - the epitome of perfection and an inspiration to onlookers.

Then, here the sakhi is the personification of the guru, whose guidance is required for spiritual growth.

The impersonal Nayakas of the varnam:
Subsequently, here, the heroes are not modern scientists, doctors, engineers or professors. They are Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Muruga, etc., from the mythological and religious parables. They are the perfect icons that major in the science of yoga (Lord Shiva), moral values (Lord Rama) and spiritual growth (Lord Krishna is attributed as having sermonized the Bhagavad Gita). They are the highly qualified people from ancient India who deal with the sciences that help the growth of the inner being, i.e., one learns to realize the self, by understanding the morals in their stories. In their stories, they live life of mortals, setting examples to be followed by humanity. "Gods and goddesses are human, their actions are human, their thoughts are human and their emotions are human but….… they are divine because through human experience they can show the divinity of man and the way to transcend man's limitations." [6]

The stamp of tradition:
Now, any art is categorized as classical and traditional in the cultural circuit due to its dynamic character and the continuity of its relevance in the ever changing world. Plainly, this means that the idea should be acceptable and can be applied in the life style of the present generation too.

At the realistic and physical level, the content is about romance between couples. In yesteryears, to woo his wife, man brought halwa and malli poo (sweet and jasmine flowers). Today, man presents his wife chocolates and roses. And the lady also prepares dishes for instance as expressed in a Tamil film song 'nitham nitham nellu choru'... .from the movie Mullum Malarum and perhaps today some exotic international dish. Of course one must not forget to mention candle night dinners.

At the philosophical and spiritual level, the relationship is between a devotee and Supreme Being. This Supreme Being is identified today through images of God. It is in this kali yuga that men have need of images [7] in order to realize the spiritual self. The places where these images or symbols of God are kept are called temples. [8] Then of course, the identification of the Supreme Being gets religious implications, and thus the content is of a devotional nature. Now, in those days, to connect with the god, many rituals called shodashaupa upacharangal were done. The idol of the Supreme Being was bathed with oil, turmeric, curds, milk, and ash and dressed with chandan paste, kumkum and flowers etc and offered kozhakattai, appam, vadai as naivedyam / offerings to name a few. To date, the same upacharas are being followed in the temples. Not one ritual has changed.

In accordance with this, these upacharas were included to form an important part of the actual varnam's presentation. Through the use of 'upacharas in Bharatanatyam,' [9] they exhibited the intensity of love and devotion of the nayika for the nayaka. Obviously, they depicted the striving of the bhakta for union with God, union of jivatma, but only in the form of an artistic story. Unquestionably, this part provides the concept with enduring trait.

Beyond doubt, this item has taken roots and found itself a place in the traditions of Indian art.

Although, art presentation is about human relationships, this varnam presentation assumes an awe-inspiring nature for the hero is the Supreme Being and He is the universal hero. Thus, "the varnam outwardly is a song that is composed praising the deity, where the dancer is the seeker or devotee and the deity is the highest truth." [10]

Notes to reference:
1) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1981, chapter 1, pg 1.
2) Kapila Vatsyayan, Classical Indian Dance in literature and the Arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, second edition, 1977, chapter 1, pg 5.
3) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1981, chapter 1, pg 15.
4) Chandra Anand, Put in a nutshell,
5) T. Balasaraswathi, Dancer's Paradise,
6) Rukmini Devi Arundale, The Spiritual Background, Bharatanatyam, edited by Sunil Kothari, Marg Publications, Mumbai, revised edition 1997, chapter 2, pg 26.
7) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1981, chapter 2, pg 17.
8) Chandra Anand, The format of margam,
9) Chandra Anand, Upacharas in Bharatanatyam,
10) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1981, chapter 1, pg 5.

1) Kothari Sunil, Bharatanatyam, Marg Publications, revised edition 1997, Mumbai, 1979.
2) Sarabhai Mrinalini , Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, fourth edition,1981.
3) Vatsyayan Kapila, Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, second edition, 1977.
4) Balasaraswathi T, Dancer's Paradise,

Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014). This article is adapted from the dissertation titled "Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam" under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Malati Agneswaran.

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