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  India   All India  09 May 2019  A dance historian’s notes on how the Natyashastra was mastered

A dance historian’s notes on how the Natyashastra was mastered

Published : May 9, 2019, 12:31 am IST
Updated : May 9, 2019, 12:31 am IST

Translations of the Natyashastra have also appeared in Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi.

Rukmini Devi
 Rukmini Devi

Browsing through old article, I came across in my dance collection important notes I had made during the All India Dance Seminar held in 1958 by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi at Vigyan Bhavan. The seminar had a galaxy of scholars including Sanskrit vidvan Dr V. Raghavan from Chennai, Atombapu Sharma from Imphal, Manipur, Dr Maheswar Neog from Guwahati, Assam and several others. Among the performers were dancers from Rukmini Devi's Kalakshetra, who gave an illuminating demonstration of various parts of bodies — anga, upanga, pratyanga, movements, chalis, hand-gestures and their usages as per Nandikeshwara’s Abhinaya Darpana.

In the early fifties, when I was learning Bharatnatyam at Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir at Matunga in Mumbai, under Guru Kuppaiah Pillai and his son Kalyansundaram, we were not taught the shlokas from Abhinaya Darpana nor hand gestures and its usages, known as viniyogas. We memorised the hand-gestures as taught to us by the gurus, but did not know that some of them are from the Natyashastra and some from the Abhinaya Darpana. The systematic training of the hand gestures and other related matters for learning dance as per the Natyashastra and the Abhinaya Darpana was found at Kalakshetra where with the help of scholars, Rukmini Devi had introduced the shlokas for training various parts of the body for dance. It was quite an eye-opener for many present there.

However, the study of the Natyashastra I undertook was only in the year 1975, when I registered for a PhD in the dance department of M.S. University of Baroda, under Anjali Mehr, a disciple of Rukmini Devi. My subject was Dance Drama Traditions of Kuchipudi, Bhagavata Mela Nataka and Kuravanji with special reference to rasa theory as expounded in Bharata’s Natyashastra. I recalled the notes I had made during the All India Dance Seminar to find out more about the Natyashastra. I had once only seen Part I of the Natyashastra published by Gaekwad Oriental Institute of Baroda. In order to get that copy I visited the Oriental Institute in Baroda and to my utter surprise I was told that there were four parts of the Natyashastra. I bought them in order to study the rasa theory and other aspects for my studies of Dance Drama Traditions. I stayed at the Vikram Sarabhai Hostel of the University in Baroda for the next two years and started meeting the scholars who could explain to me the relevant portions of the Natyashastra. I also got curious about how the Natyashastra was found and was introduced as a study in the dance departments.

It was in 1865 that a foreigner, one Mr Hall, drew attention to the manuscript of the Natyashastra by Bharata. He also drew attention to the theoretical canons of the Hindu stage. William Jones had translated Abhijnan Shakuntala in English for the first time in 1789, and Wilson had written his Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus in 1826. These were important landmarks in the study of Sanskrit texts.

Further, with the discovery of a manuscript of the Natyashastra by Heymann in Germany in 1874 and the subsequent publication of chapters I-XIV by J. Grosset, a new field of Indological studies began. This was broadly termed as Indological studies relating to the theatre arts of India. Chapters I-XIV of Grosset’s edition included the chapters on rasa, the four important chapters on Angikabhinaya, the Karanas and a valuable chapter on construction of the theatre. This aroused the curiosity of scholars in a field regarding which there had not been a very keen interest.

Dance sculptures referred to in the NatyashastraDance sculptures referred to in the Natyashastra

None had suspected that Indological studies would lead to the study of dance. Despite the foundation of Indological studies, dance did not receive any independent attention for many years. Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy had, through his independent lectures on the different Indian arts generally, and through the publication of The Mirror of Gestures, a translation of the Abhinaya Darpana of Nadikeshwara in 1917, succeeded in drawing the attention of scholars to the important field where there was vast and valuable material awaiting discovery.

Many scholars in India and in the West became interested in the study of the texts relating to dance. Many performing artistes, especially from the West, began to apply themselves to an exploration of the rich tradition of classical Indian dance. From various reviews which appeared around the 1920s, it was obvious that scholars had recognised the need for and the importance of a systematic study of the texts of Indian dance and drama.

Artistes in India felt that the art of dance, so far degraded, was at last coming into its own. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, through his institution, Vishva Bharati, Shantiniketan, revived the Manipuri dance and inspired many scholars and gurus, as well as artistes, to revive the forgotten schools of Indian dancing. Another great poet from Kerala, Vallathol Narayan Menon, who established the Kerala Kala Mandalam institution, contributed immensely to the revival of Kathakali.

Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra in 1936 in Chennai, and, as noted earlier, laid the foundation of the study of the Natyashastra and allied texts.

Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, the leading dance historian and scholar, has observed that a survey of Indological studies in the field of dance may either restrict itself to a review of the search for manuscripts and the publication and translation of critical texts on dance, and it can be extended to include attempts to apply these texts to contemporary dance practice, or to reconstruct classical dance practice through textual and sculptural evidence. Texts on dance and chapters on dance in texts relating to sculpture, painting, music, and dramaturgy in Sanskrit are innumerable. It is interesting to note that texts are also found in regional Indian languages. One may even be surprised to learn that they are found in Persian and Arabic languages and they extend over long periods of history and deal with general and specialised aspects of the dance technique.

From among this vast literature and texts, only a few important texts like the Natyashastra, the Abhinaya Darpana, and the Sangita Ratnakara were published in the 1950s. It was bound to happen that many more were being studied critically and were awaiting publication. Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, with her magnum opus, Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts, published by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, has set high standards for the study of dance in India. When she was asked to establish the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), she saw to it that the hundreds of valuable manuscripts were not only collected but also preserved and a systematic reading of them and later on critical editions of the same be published. Today, the IGNCA has published several Sanskrit texts related to not only dance, but also to various other fields including Vedas, Upanishads and rituals with the help of Sanskrit scholars. A separate manuscript section has been set up and young scholars are working on a few manuscripts.

The Natyashastra has interested scholars not on account of the chapters specifically relating to dance, but also the text is a comprehensive text on dramaturgy and poetics. Many editions of the work have been published. Fortunately, the chapters on Angikabhinaya have featured in all of them. Apart from the Chowkhamba and Kavyamala editions the two editions of the Natyashastra in the Gaekwad Oriental series, mentioned above, drew the attention of the scholars to the sculptural reliefs on the east Gopuram in the Chidambaram temple. The edition carried the illustrations of drawings of the sculptures.

The 1926 edition of the Natyashastra of Gaekwad Oriental series had many inaccuracies and lacunae, but it was the first attempt at correlation. It was also important for the publication of the commentary of Abhinavagupta. For the students of dance, the 1956 edition re-edited by Ramakrishna Kavi was a welcome one, especially with regard to Chapter IV. It rectified some of the mistakes of the first edition and also pointed out the errors of C.V. Naidu in his translation of the fourth chapter in the book titled Tandava Lakshanam. When I am writing this, the major important work on the fourth chapter of the Natyashastra on Karanas is done by Dr Padma Subrahamanyam. Not only that, she has evolved her own dance technique which she calls “Bharatanritya” to separate it from contemporary Bharatnatyam.

For someone like me, even with enough knowledge of Sanskrit, having studied it as an optional subject in my masters and having studied the uttar bhaga (part) of Banabhatta’s Kadambari, Bharavi’s Naishadha Charitam, Bhasa’s Bhasanataka Chakra and the six plays of Bhasa, the study of the Natyashastra was a tough job.

The English translation of the Natyashastra by Manmohan Ghosh was the only text that enabled me to study a text which was so far inaccessible. However clumsy the translation is, it has remained to this date an important text. Fortunately, by 1970, the second part of the translation was published and I could access both parts of Ghosh’s translation for the study of the Natyashastra of all four parts published by Gaekwad Oriental Series. These volumes are a must for any student of dance and for dancers.

A bronze sculpture of the Dancing ShivaA bronze sculpture of the Dancing Shiva

Translations of the Natyashastra have also appeared in Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi. Also, inspite of the commentary of Abhinavgupta, the different editions and the translations, the Natyashastra remains a text full of ambiguities and question marks for a serious scholar. Because the earlier chapters cannot be fully understood without reference to, and with a critical understanding of, not only the later chapters, but also of the other aspects of the dramaturgy, poetics and music with which Bharata deals. Even today a detailed and accurate formulation of the theory of dance enunciated by Bharata, as distinct from the theory of drama, music, and poetry is yet to appear.

What helped me was the paper presented in the seminar by Dr V. Raghavan on Uparupkas and Nritya Prabandhas. He had discussed the tradition of dance dramas in terms of classification as Uparupakas and Nritya Prabandhas. Therefore, the dance drama traditions of Kuchipudi, Bhagavata Mela Nataka and Kuravanji were Uparupkas, as separate from the Dashrupakas described by Bharata in the Natyashastra. Once this was clear, the study of the Natyashastra was helpful for understanding the rasa theory which applies to paintings, sculptures, music, and poetics. The chapters on Samanyabhinaya and Chitrabhinaya became clear. The tradition of the entrance of characters as seen in Kathakali, Bhagavata Mela Nataka, Kuchipudi and Kuravanji were understood with the chapters on Dhruvadhyaya, in which the entrance of characters as Darus is explained. Of course, one had to study the chapters on the nayikas and the nayakas. These had to be correlated to actual performances, which I had seen over for the past 20 years and had collected information with photographs. The material I had collected with field work and interviewing great dancers and watching performances in Kuchipudi village, at Melattur, Sulamangalam, Saliyamangalam, Oothkad, Taperamanalur and Nallur, the six villages where the tradition of Bhagavata Mela Nataka was still alive and performances of Kuravanji which I saw at Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra helped me to correlate the practice and theory. It was a tough task and the guidance was not easily accessible. However, what helped me immensely was the study of the Natyashastra which I could see had influenced all dance and dance drama forms.

The Abhinaya Darpana has the advantage of being a text only on dance and this has been responsible for its being the most popular text for performing artists. Telugu, Kannada and Gujarati translations have appeared and the translations in English by both Coomaraswamy and Ghosh are clear and comprehensible.

The growth of movement in dance: One is able to study the growth of movement in dance because of publications of other texts like the Natyashastra Sangraha, the Balaramabharatam, the Bhartarnava and the seventh chapter of the Sangitaratnakara.

With my interest in dance during the PhD period, I also studied with help of scholars and few available translations Vishnudharmottara Purana, Nrityaratnavali, Bhavaprakasha, Sringarapraksha, Mansollasa and Natakalakshankosh. Later on, with the passage of time, one studied Shubhankar Kavi’s Hastamuktavali, and for my post-doctoral studies on Dance Sculptures of the Medieval Temples of North Gujarat, the text of Sangitopanishatsaroddhara. As mentioned by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, these texts help one to study the history of movements as they developed over the centuries.

It is important to note that many scholars are not performing artistes and performing artistes are not scholars. The chasm which had existed between scholars and performing artistes over a considerable period of time was bridged by dancers like Ragini Devi, mother of Indrani Rahaman, Guru Gopinath, La Meri, and Rukmini Devi. Of course, Uday Shankar will always be remembered for his pioneering work of putting Indian dance on the world map, and for the subsequent establishment of classical dance forms.

The All India Dance Seminar also acted as a catalytic agent for the development and awareness for regional danceforms. The shastric tradition of Meitei Jagoi of Manipur has been brought to the notice of scholars by Pt Atombapu Sharma; Yakshagana by Sivarama Karanth, the Sattriya dances of Assam by Dr Maheshwar Neog.The text of Abhinaya Chadrika by Maheswar Mohapatra has drawn attention of the classical character of Odissi dance. Tamil and Malayalam texts have drawn attention to the repertoire. The seminar also drew attention to the importance of the study of the dance forms of Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Japan. The collaboration of a large number of scholars and performing artists working together would help reconstruct the history of Indian dance and its ramifications in the countries of South-East Asia.

Looking back, attempting to locate how the text of the Natyashastra has helped scholars, one is able to comprehend a larger vision of Indian classical dance vis-a-vis danceforms of other countries.

The writer is an eminent dance historian  

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