In step with tradition
Sridhar K Chari

Indian Classical Dances
by Shovana Narayan
Shubhi Publications, Rs 3500. Pages 240.

Where the hands go, the eyes follow

Where the eyes go, the mind follows

For in the mind is bhava (mood)

And in bhava is rasa (feeling)

The Abhinaya Darpana (13th century)

Indian Classical DancesTHE various traditions of classical Indian dance are cherished by a select following, but there is a wider audience out there crying out to be introduced to their distinctive elements, their subtleties and nuances, and indeed, the very building blocks with which these rich art forms are constructed. Shovana Narayan’s book is tailor-made for that audience. Like anything classical, Indian dance, notwithstanding its sheer visual appeal, calls for some involvement and cultivation of taste to enable higher levels of appreciation and sustained enjoyment.

Like the variety in form and expression that the book explores, however, there is something in Narayan’s offering for everyone – the beginning dancer, the curious explorer and the connoisseur.

The tenderfoot will gingerly sample the concise expositions of dances from every region of the country. He or she will learn how to differentiate between the straight-legged, intricate footwork of the ankle-bell clad Kathak dancer; the bent knees, the precise triangles, the perfect symmetry and the beautiful hand mudras of Bharatanatyam; the lyrical, flowing grace of Odissi`85

He or she will also learn about how Justice E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Arundale rescued a crumbling devadasi or sadir attam in the 1930s and renamed it as Bharatanatyam – "in one stroke it immediately bestowed the dance form with antiquity and dignity, distancing it from the much maligned dasi tradition."

Ms Narayan does not hesitate, on the other hand, to bestow Vedic antiquity on Kathak. Quite forgivable, considering that Kathak is her chosen form.

But to give her credit, she does not really treat any of the dances as a lesser child, and the book is comprehensive, covering Manipuri, Sattriya (the latest North-Eastern dance to be anointed classical), Kuchipidi, Kathakali and Mohiniattam. Two excellent chapters on the evolution of classical dance and the constituents of dance, offering a breakdown of every little pose, hand-gesture and eye movement, will charm both the adept and the new comer to this world. The expositions of each dance form, though short, cover a lot of ground. There is a short background tracing the lineage and history, notes on the technique and basic movements, the standard repertoires of the form, musical accompaniment, and even the costume and jewellery. The writing is engaging and clear, though it could have benefited from better editing. Punctuations are not taken very seriously, and the many textual irritations, like "pouring into archival material", should never have made it to the final draft. The photographs also need to be integrated with the text – as of now, they stand alone in isolated clusters.

That said, the text is good enough to keep the reader interested. Odissi’s tri-bhangi or "triple deflection," is "where the body is broken into three deflections, emphasising the lasya (grace) tenor of the dance form`85the result is a beautiful sensuous swing of the body."

Bharatanatyam "conceives the body in triangles `85While doing adavus (a set of steps and hand movements), the hands are stretched to the fullest. In its rendering the dancer follows one basic principle namely that every action that is done, say to the right, has to be mirrored on the left side too`85"

Unfortunately, the high price will prevent this superb effort from being accessible. Ms Narayan should consider bringing out a lower priced version. Since it takes up so much on board, the book essentially whets the appetite, leaving the reader asking for more. Those who spend a little time with this book will come away educated and enchanted, and looking for an opportunity see a dance performance. The jall jall of an anklet will never quite sound the same again.