Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part XV
Spirituality: Eternal aspect in Bharatanatyam
- Chandra Anand
January 15, 2017
Art works are concrete symbols of human abstractions from life. Therefore, “the process of creating art is a process of making the universe knowable by bringing it within the range of man's consciousness, by establishing its relationship to man. In regard to human art, man has to be the measure, since he has to bring all things into the realm of the humanly knowable. By a selective recreation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man's fundamental view of himself and existence. For this, the methods which he has to employ require the most rigorous aesthetic precision, the most rigorous compliance with objective rules and facts -- if the end product is to be art.” . Then, it becomes a criterion that all concepts in art are related to humans and their experiences, within reason that, although, all humans have different experiences in varying degrees of intensity with regard to their relationships with other people, the basic emotions of love and affection remain the same in all civilizations, whether ancient or modern.
Art and its spiritual link
The role of art is to rouse spiritual expression and spiritual exercise. Through art, a probability to reveal the spirit of man or the state of mind of the spiritual self is made possible. The subtle being, which is the object indicating life, embodied is called the spirit. It is the action of “response” that proves there is life in the body. Mind and the five senses are the instruments through which the subtle being - ‘spirit’ (atman) perceives the world and gives out emotional responses in accordance with it. This emotional response or the arising sentiment as a reaction to the stimuli depicts the state of mind of a being. And therefore, the response is spiritual in nature. Emotion is the subject matter of art. In art work, feelings and thoughts indicating a dominant emotion are communicated by the artist and the spectator empathizes with it and further reacts to it by producing a natural emotional response. In other words, art works thrive on the emotional response of the audience. Thus, it becomes a “spiritual expression”  for the artist and “spiritual exercise”  for the viewer who gains an elevating experience, accompanied by supreme delight.
Then, the word spirituality suggests a connection with the spiritual life of man. It includes both; the knowledge of spirit and experience of being aware of it. It is the quality of being spiritual, and it has its root in the realms of religion and philosophy. Therefore, it covers every minute of life lived by the spirit and all reactions, thoughts, feelings and emotions are considered spiritual. Therefore, spirituality also covers that part of life and consciousness associated with a mental or moral attitude of human being. And thus, encompasses the intellectual, moral, and emotional aspects of man.
Accordingly “all Indian classical dances are a combination of body movements and facial expressions perfectly synchronized to represent a given context, through the perfect vehicle i.e. the human body or human being. Though it is the body that moves, it is man's inner consciousness or soul that directs his movements. This results in a harmonistic dance form that combines music, rhythm and movement, all of which cater to the command of man's inner feelings. In a spiritual country like India, where the realization of consciousness or spirit has been the supreme goal of life, it is not a wonder that dance became a form of sadhana” .
Spirituality in margam:
The theme of margam presentation by Tanjore Quartet is about spirit of man, and permeates the essence of spirituality. Here, the word spirituality deals with the sense of connection to something bigger than us - the connection of the individual manifest spirit or soul to the Ultimate spirit or Absolute soul; and this is represented by metaphor of jivatma yearning for union with paramatma. The theme is “Evolution of the spirit set on the spiritual path towards salvation”. As a result, “at the outset, the truth of the human life (allaripu) is put forward, then the zenith that a human being 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 life (shloka).”  Like the acts of the play are connected to narrate a story, in the same manner all items connect to the theme and narrate the stages of spiritual growth of man, in a sequence. The whole of margam is one presentation. Naturally to appreciate a mature theme such as this, one needs to have knowledge of the concept of inner being - spirit, and belief in the oneness of humanity and conviction in human values.
Philosophy and religion in margam
Since, Bharatanatyam margam speaks of spiritual path, this theme has taken support of religion and Indian philosophy in its presentation.
Thus, margam engages itself to the ideas of Navavida bhakti, edifice of Bhakti movement which was propagated in an effort to move away from the orthodox norms and codes of other methods of worship as in breaking free from rigid rituals and ceremonies. Naturally devotion to god is part and parcel of Bharatanatyam. It also encompasses theistic connotations and allegorical allusions.
And, in Indian philosophy, all ideologies believe in the same origin and goal of spirit. Reasonably, each item pertains to an ideology of Indian philosophy. By and large, all are connected through the substratum of bhakti philosophy.
Human experience and its metaphysical position in the concept
As it goes, the emotions of love in marital relationship of human beings, which is common place, ordinary and relative, are taken up to project the yearning of union between jivatma and paramatma. The metaphysical position of this relationship can be found stated in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. "In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without,” "In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without."  With this metaphysical position, the simplistic relationship of husband and wife is given legal status to be used as a concept for portraying the union of jivatma with paramatma. This allows the concept to work at both levels -empirical and metaphysical.
In varnams and padams, the brothers symbolically take up human experiences of relationship of man and woman, as a couple in its various hues and shades. Consequently, here is where instances of life or abstractions of life experiences in the empirical world is portrayed wherein emotions and feelings of human beings are expressed out in the open along with poetry and rhythm, with élan. These expressions are adorned with references of metaphors and similes from nature, thus bringing the whole cosmos into its fold and elevating the concept.
Sensuous approach in margam
As stated earlier, margam presents the spiritual path to be followed by the manifest being/spirit to reach its goal. Here, a simplistic relationship of husband and wife is shown in an appealing manner to suggest the union of paramatma and jivatma. In fact, India's native traditions of chastity and fidelity held the moral controls of the art forms too. The sensual and sexual part of marital union is here replaced by the concept of navavidha bhakti wherein the upacharas  play a significant role.
Significantly, the ritual worship (upacharas) in the temples forms an important part of the actual presentation of Bharatanatyam. These upacharas help the devotee get connected to god in an easier manner. They are woven as a part of the experiences of love, depicting the striving of the bhakta for union with God, union of jivatma (self) with the paramatma (Absolute Self), but in the form of an artistic story. The upacharas are subtle and suggestive and when they are done in an artistic manner they appeal to the aesthetic sense of spectators.
Likewise, pining for union with Lord is enacted as per the actions and reactions and feelings and thoughts of a ‘wife’ awaiting her ‘husband’. References of metaphors and similes used for delineating them also help in raising the sensuous appeal of the presentation. This aesthetical treatment given elevates the human experience to sublimity.
One should remember though, that the Supreme Being is formless and the manifest being is of two forms - male and female. Both these forms aspire for union with the Absolute Self. To illustrate this, all poets express themselves in feminine gender to profess their yearning for union with the creator. The reverse of “husband waiting for wife” fails the metaphysical position as the lady or goddess is a married woman.
Spirituality lies in the eye of the beholder
Just like perception of beauty is subjective, even spirituality is subjective and related to spiritual growth. It is known that the best education is through ‘response’ to one’s experiences in one’s environment and society. An emotional response to an experience modifies behavior of a human being and brings about spiritual and mental growth. “It is new experience that causes learning. Every time an individual gains some new experience, he learns something.”  Now, all human beings receive education and undergo many experiences during their lifetimes. They all have different backgrounds and as such their experiences also vary in degrees of intensity.
It is a prerequisite, that the ideas in art carry basic emotions of love, sorrow, hate, fear etc as its substratum; which make possible to infuse a universal flavor in their production which then will have the capacity to touch the heart chords of the spectator. But, since it depends upon the education and experiences of the beholder, the understanding of the idea and its underlying emotion in the presentation is relative to each individual. Not only does each spectator interpret or taste the flavor of art presentation in terms of his/her experience, but also takes away something different from it. So it is in the eye of beholder.
Education through Bharatanatyam
Through the art form one learns to understand the states of being by experiencing them. These states of being are explained in Natyasastra (the book that gives us the science of dramatic presentation in all arts), as the navarasas - the dominant emotions which are already inherent in all at a subconscious level. One becomes emotionally strong by practicing to bring these emotions to conscious level, as an artist and a learned spectator. In this world of conflicts and confusion one needs to be emotionally balanced to face life situations.
Contemporary characteristics in margam
And to serve this purpose, stories taken from mythology and history, known to all will help a great deal. As stories they are entertaining to all, young or old. These stories can be used as allusions to show the horror and injustice and other myriad problems of the contemporary world too. And thus, this art form can be made contemporary and designed to serve humans, and make them benign beings.
I believe that the dance form of Bharatanatyam existed even before Tanjore Quartet decided to codify the form and set the margam format. Perhaps the nirupana presentation was deconstructed into margam presentation, turning ekartha style to prthgartha sytle of presentation. Considering the issues prevailing during their life, we can say, that margam presentation was contemporary to their times. In those times, the British were trying to spread their power all over India trying to establish their supremacy. For this purpose, they even tried to annihilate the Indian religion, culture and values and tried to spread Christianity. Perhaps, this is why the idea to present Indian philosophy, explain its universal quality and make aware of the strong roots of Hinduism struck upon the Tanjore brothers. As a result, the journey of the spirit and its spiritual evolution is put forward in the presentation. It has a very positive approach; for example it finishes with a thillana which is symbol of joy indicating “hope” for better future marking a definite culmination of desires and reaching heights, here portrayed as union with the Ultimate. Since, the knowledge of this journey is essential for all mortals living in this world, this subject is very much relevant for the present and future also.
Well, content is spirit of man, in the same way as our inner beings are manifestation of spirits - which are the limited of the Unlimited Being. We might be doing the same margam but may interpret it with our own experiences influenced by our education and other lifetime experiences resulting in contemporaneous expressions. Our thoughts and behavioral patterns might differ from ancient times, feelings and attitudes differ, but basic emotions of love, fear, hate, disgust, happiness and sorrow remain same and are universal. Margam is dynamic and capable of presenting a wide range of human experiences aesthetically. Technically too, it is very sound and strong and it will require handling by artistes well adept in all areas of the art form. Also it has given a sound methodology by which to train students in the art form and nourish the physical, moral, intellectual and spiritual growth of a child.
To conclude with a dynamic note, one is allowed to deconstruct it and reconstruct a presentation keeping in mind the needs and sensibilities of the present times. The object of re-edition is to bring out the beauty of nritta, nritya and abhinaya at their best, by combining the two aspects of dance, nritta and nritya in a judicious proportion while also sustaining and maintaining a rich combination of diverse aesthetic and psychological elements, which produces complete enjoyment.
Notes to reference:
1) Peter Saint-Andre, Art as Sensuous Embodiment, 1994.
2) Chandra Anand, Spiritual expression and spiritual exercise, 2014.
5) Chandra Anand, Put in a nutshell, 2015.
6) William Dalrymple, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art, 2014.
7) Chandra Anand, Upacharas in Bharatanatyam, 2014.
8) Chandra Anand, Education psychology and rasa theory, 2014.
1) Anand Chandra, narthaki.com/info/articles/esv.html, 2014-2016.
2) Berleant Arnold, Aesthetics and the Contemporary Arts, 1970.
3) Berleant Arnold, The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics, 1964.
4) Dalrymple William, A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art, 2014.
5) Saint-Andre Peter, Art as Sensuous Embodiment, 1994.
6) Saint-Andre Peter, The Conceptual Nature of Art, 2005.
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).
"One should remember though, that the Supreme Being is formless and the manifest being is of two forms - male and female. Both these forms aspire for union with the Absolute Self. To illustrate this, all poets express themselves in feminine gender to profess their yearning for union with the creator..." From this we understand that - In the yore, the rishis who were explaining the nature of the inner being and existence of man, addressed Purusha aspect in masculine gender and Prakriti aspect in feminine gender.
But, the ramification of this is that today, when man has no true knowledge of the inner being and its existence; this use of gender has led man to assume that the male is superior than female and she is being asked to maintain a condescending position.
- Archana Kaul (Jan 24, 2017)
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