Can an Indian classical dancer have a Master’s degree in physics? To many, it would seem that the question is rhetoric. This is easy to comprehend as we all tend to “compartmentalise” people and vocations in a box for this lends inner and mental security. Similarly, a policeman is required to talk on security and not on wholesome education while it goes beyond our comprehension if a businessman speaks on art.
As a classical dancer with a Master’s degree in physics, the understanding of application of laws of physics as also yoga to dance movements had fascinated me. We, as general audience, appreciate dance movements in a vicarious manner while scientists may enjoy analysing the application of laws of physics to dance movements.
As a student, the book of algorithm tables was always by our side. This was assisting us to help solve various equations and mathematical calculations. But while practicing dance and going into jatis of tala structure, it amazed me that these rhythmic patterns involved most difficult mathematical calculations where no assistance of the algorithm book of tables was taken. In few lecture demonstrations, it is fascinating to see the audience struggle to “fit” various fractions of beat into a single unit. But for most classical dancers, unaware of the mathematical detailing, creating and performing extremely difficult mathematical rhythmical patterns come effortlessly.
The pirouette or the chakra bhramari or chakkar as it is called in everyday parlance, is a familiar feature in Kathak. Chakkars involving sustained 27 pirouettes or even more, performed on one foot, evoke admiration. In its execution, the principle of torque along with storing of momentum is visible. To turn the body, one applies torque or a twisting force by an initial kick given by one foot. Thereafter after each turn, in order to store momentum, we repeat the kick as we once again face the audience. The stretching of the arms lends further in storing of momentum.
When the dancer is required to take more than one chakkar on one foot without the assisting kick from the other foot, the dancers close in their arms to store momentum. In this manner, an unseeing fluidity is seen in the series of endless pirouettes executed on one foot. Similarly the conservation of energy in aerial spins (akash bhramari), familiar features of Chhau and Manipuri Pung Cholam, where the dancers seem to spin effortlessly in air, is fascinating when we understand the positioning of the legs while in air. Thus all movements in dance seamlessly utilise all laws of physics, be it the centre of gravity, torque, conservation of angular momentum, besides intricate mathematics, to name a few.
Mudras or hand gestures utilised in dance have associated logic. Appropriate mudras help to normalise these elements in the body and strike a balance between the five elements that the human body is composed of. According to Indian scientific temper, the thumb’s corresponding element is fire. The forefinger’s corresponding element is air, the middle finger is ether, the ring finger is earth and the little finger is water.
The adaptation of the Dhyana Mudra and the Chin Mudra is the basic mudra of Kathak. Signifying balanced distribution of total energy, herein the tips of the thumb and the forefinger touch each other with the two hands placed near the heart. The original kathaks being themselves “yogis” or practitioners of yoga owing to their profession of temple priest sermonisers, automatically translated aspects of yoga to the dance form. Believing that the body has to be in a positive and receptive state as a prelude to “sadhana” and that the flesh has then to be “awakened” from dormancy, this can be achieved through a proper basic position of the dancer. Kathak maintains his basic contact with the earth in the shortest linear route.
According to the Lakshmi Tantra, with the place of the fire being at the heart and the breath being a vital point of contact between the self and the body so as to enable the vital airs of the body in purifying the nerve circuits and imparting vitality to the subtle centres of the body, the Kathak achieves it by maintaining contact at the heart with the two hands in an “arala mudra”. Thus, the basic position of Kathak with the two hands in an inverted yogic position near the breast with the main axis of the body maintaining a vertical position forms two triangles in the upper and lower parts of the body.
The triangles as fertility symbols and the vertical axis denoting the gravitational pull together symbolise the continuity of life and the resultant upward arrow is symbolic of the yearning of the jivatma (soul) for total surrender of the “self”. The union of the two triangles at the base leading to a circle also symbolises the union of Shiva and Shakti manifesting in the creation of the universe. The three ends or corners of the triangle represent the three “gunas” or principles of “sattva” (equilibrium, truth and purity), ‘rajas’ (passion and great activity) and ‘tamas’ (emotional and mental darkness).
These are just few examples. The issue now is what has influenced our mindset of “compartmentalisation”. Has this mindset helped in developing a wholesome personality and a balanced individual? What kind of educational values have we imbibed in our growing years? These are questions that propel introspection?
Traditional Indian ethos had recognised the need to balance out the opposing strains present within all persons for development of a “wholesome” individual in harmony within himself and also with the outer world – which then enables man to be in control of his thoughts, words and actions. Reasoning and sensitivity become inherent in his personality. A verse from the Katha Upanishad says —
Yastu vijnanavan bhavati yuktena manasa sada
Tasyendriyani vasyani sadasva iva saratheh (1*)
“He, who is possessed of supreme knowledge by concentration of mind, must have his senses under control, like spirited steeds controlled by a charioteer” (Katha Upanishad, iii, 6).
In other words, emphasis has been given to the building up of a balanced harmonious personality so that he emerges as “thinking individual”. It is then that a person is able to contribute effectively to society.
In our traditional education system of yore, the importance of performing arts as part of the main curriculum had been recognised so much so that the treatise on performing arts was termed the ‘fifth veda’! Not only that – but our philosophers went a step further. All our deities – be they Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna, Goddess Saraswati, Ganesha etc were all imbued with artistic qualities on a similar scale as that of the other qualities. Lord Shiva – procreator, creator, destroyer or liberator yet the Lord of Dance, Nataraj! Lord Krishna – the ruler, strategist, philosopher who gave us the Bhagwada Gita and yet the artist and dancer par excellence, Natwara Krishna’!
Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge for knowledge is power and even in that she has always been portrayed with the veena therefore an artiste! Performing Arts therefore has been taken as the highest form of “yoga” as its practice entails all the eight states of “yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi” through which a mental, physical and spiritual balance was sought. In fact these examples exhort the need for the perfect balance of the hard and soft!
When India had the “spirit of inquiry”, it contributed to the world of science, medicine, philosophy, and state craft among others. But when it lost that spirit of inquiry, we became “mere followers”.
Through the study of Indian performing arts, one gets to know about our rich literary, philosophical and scientific traditions. We, as artistes, become aware of astronomer Aryabhatta who proved that the earth is round and revolves around the sun, a thousand years before Galileo was censured for arguing the same; about Bhaskaracharya’s understanding of gravitation a millennium before Isaac Newton; about the invention, credited largely to Gritasamada, of the zero and the entire system of decimal numbers, which was learned by the Arabs and thence reached the West, giving the world “Arabic numerals.”
The works of 8th-9th century Persian scholar, Abu Abdallah Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, on algebra and algorithm was based entirely on Indian numerals and decimal positioning was introduced to the Western world. The Arabs themselves referred to mathematics as Hindsat, “the Indian science” and about the array of imaginative literature, from the animal fables of the Panchatantra to the sophisticated dramas of Kalidasa that inspired, according to the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang, the writings of Aesop, Boccaccio, Emerson, Goethe, Herder, Hesse, Schopenhauer, and the Arabian Nights.
As far as architecture is concerned how many of us are aware that the Natyashastra has discussed the architecture and sound and lighting requirements for an auditorium in great detail. Further, tourism is a great revenue earner where culture and performing arts and its reflections are major players. Isn’t “variety” beautiful? Don’t we want to see something traditionally Japanese when visiting Japan or something traditionally Egyptian when visiting that country rather or would we want “homogenisation” of art and architecture and performing arts everywhere? And here I would like to emphasise the amazing diversity of India. Which country has more than one or two classical dance forms leave alone the eight that we have in India – each so bewilderingly different and beautiful? The list can go on.
There is thus the need to understand the relevance and importance of “culture and performing arts” in the growth and development of every individual and therefore, of society. Inter-linkages between science, performing arts, ancient Indian texts on range of subjects and philosophy that impacted and influenced development of science and math, should form part of education and there should be a policy to cultivate the minds from a very young age and appreciation of these genres with associated appreciation of classical and traditional folk performing arts, ancient and vernacular language, literature and their transliteration, Indian folklores and their relevance today. These should, to my mind, be part of mainstream subjects in all elementary and middle school curricula with a cautionary note that it eschews any hint of regional cultural imperialism and biases.
There is also a complete absence of written critiques and discussions on classical performing arts in the audio, visual, print and electronic media. Our corporate houses and media establishments should realise their responsibility by promoting and encouraging discussions on inter-relationship and inter-dependency of science and classical performing arts too and thus contribute in the development of a balanced individual since they are all information bearers that mould minds. Our methodology of imparting scientific knowledge and temperament too needs revisiting so as to make the entire process more holistic.
This need is ever so evident today when the threats or influences being faced are quite different from the influences that were faced in the last thousand years of Indian history. With increasing globalisation, every country is under increasing pressure today from outside influences. A kind of “homogenisation” process seems to have been set in motion. Some call it “Macdonaldisation” or a “Disneylandisation”. Whatever be the term, it connotes eroding of boundaries between different cultures, each with its own distinct flavour. With increasing speed of technical advancement especially in IT, pressures are mounting and in this scenario, the development of a balanced individual becomes all the more necessary. It is this pressure that led to the escapism phenomenon in different eras — the “flower children” of the 60s and the spate of suicides and criminal acts of later decades! As an answer some have taken to spiritualism.
So let us keep an open mind and develop firm roots in our traditions so that the tree of our individual person is a strong and balanced one, able to withstand pressures of all kinds of storms and tempests and is thus also capable to appreciate various cultures of the world. Inculcation of scientific temper and reviving the lost Indian “spirit of inquiry” are the need of the hour.
The author is a Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee