My Bharatanatyam teacher, Supratim Talukder of Kolkata, is teaching me the steps in Ananda Natamaduvar Thillai, choreographed by Srimat Vanda Alase Hazra.
To be clear, I am only discovering the beauty of Bharatanatyam belatedly in this lifetime, and realistically, I will likely never take my expression of this particular piece anywhere beyond the walls of my own practice space.
This is enough.
I have watched my teacher’s video recording of this piece so many times. It explores some of the rich mythology and iconography of Lord Śiva. To be able to get inside of these images takes my appreciation of the piece to another level. It is embodied prayer.
I am beginning to grasp the idea that a dancer does not pretend, in the dance, to be a devotee, god, or goddess… The dancer enters a state where he or she experiences this as a dimension of reality. And when one watches this, that experience is like a lightning bolt straight to the heart. The viewer too drinks in the experience. The viewer too becomes...
To have this possibility of experience – both as rasika (viewer or, literally, taster) and as dancer – is a gift beyond what I imagined possible when I embarked on the journey of Bharatanatyam study.
I’ve been practicing and teaching yogāsana for many years, but a few months ago took a Hanuman-sized leap into the world of Bharatanatyam: Indian Classical dance.
I’m 62. To be honest, I’ve had many doubts about my capacity to explore this exquisite dance idiom. At one point I even – and I say this with a degree of shame – wished I had another face, another body. I was forced to confront this – and eventually settle into the truth of who I am and where I’m at in this lifetime. This venture really churned up the oceanic depths of my self, revealing the hālāhala, the poisonous attitude, that I had hidden at my core.
My teacher, who at 26 is the inverse of my current age, has been a providential guide on this journey. Where I saw limitation – he sees creative potential. This has freed me to begin to look at myself in the same way. There is no limit to creative potential. It is the Divinity that inhabits each of us.
On International Dance Day I want to offer a profound thank you to Supratim Talukder, my Bharatanatyam guruji. May he and all dancing spirits continually find new ways to celebrate the ecstasy of embodiment .
Our life, like a river, strikes its banks not to find itself closed in by them, but to realize anew every moment that it has its unending opening towards the sea. It is as a poem that strikes its meter at every step not to be silenced by its rigid regulations, but to give expression every moment to the inner freedom of its harmony. – Rabindranath Tagore: The Problem of Self from Sadhana.
Or perhaps life is like the highly codified art form of Bharatanatyam.
One must first learn the rules of this intricate dance idiom in order that the Divine might find expression through it. The latter cannot happen through force or calculation, but only and ever through Grace.
When it does come together, Divinity dances among us and we are utterly transformed.
I experience this in Supratim Talukdar’s expression of Arekar’s choreography Ardhanarīshvara…
Today, as my online Bharatanatyam class was finishing up, the next student, a little girl from Dubai, Zoomed in. My teacher (Kolkata, India), myself (Ottawa, Canada), and little Adhanu (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) were all on the screen together. I doubt that Adhanu speaks much English, but she certainly understood me waving hello – and responded enthusiastically. My teacher then requested that I perform Namaskaram to end my class, and Adhanu leapt up to perform Namaskaram to start her class.
So she and I danced together, touching the earth with our fingertips and bringing Earth’s blessing up to our eyes, then saluting God, the Guru, and each other.
Today the sun shines. The banks of snow begin to warm and sink into the still hidden earth. Spring is not yet here, but its song is whispered. Our winter souls recognize the melody and start to thaw…
Today I had bharatanatyam class #19 with Supratim Talukder. In spite of his observation that my attempt at Natta Adavus #8 was woefully lacking, I feel flooded by an irrepressible optimism. Guided by his observations, I will improve. And he introduced me to some rhythmic footwork in the Pancha Nadai. I love playing with rhythm. My father was an amateur percussionist, and I carry on his love of rhythm. I’m SO excited to explore this new footwork! Beating out rhythms with my feet…
The rhythm of the changing season fills my soul. Time to get out for a walk – to taste the promise that fills the air.
Nandanar, a pure-hearted devotee, asks permission of the presiding Brahmin priest to enter the temple so he might gaze on the statue of Lord Śiva. Being of a lower caste, he is summarily dismissed by the haughty priest, who then suggests that Nandanar might gain admittance to the temple if he single-handedly completes a virtually impossible task. Nandanar collapses in despair, but when he raises his head again, he sees that the task has been miraculously completed by the Lord Śiva Himself! Nandanar joyously rushes to show the hard-hearted Brahmin, who not only denies him entrance again, but beats him cruelly. As Nandanar limps away, crushed, he ventures one last glance back at the temple – and sees that the statue of Nandi has miraculously moved aside to allow Nandanar a clear view of his beloved Lord Śiva! Joy ignites his being as he prostrates before his Lord.
In the following video, you will see this story exquisitely portrayed through dance by Supratim Talukder. Pay special attention to the central retelling of the story through mime…
…there is a point in the mimed section where the dancer turns from incarnating the brutal Brahmin to becoming the despairing Nandanar.
This pivotal point has the feeling of a gravitational well… as I have watched this video again and again, I feel drawn more and more deeply into this transitional point.
These two characters – opposites – can one exist without the other? Does the one not in fact define the other? Is this not a microcosm of the world of samsara? Are these polarities not continually orbiting one another on a gradual spiral toward ultimate meaning?
The wild tāndava of Lord Śiva – does it not take in all this? The good and the evil in the world are not static entities, but energies that dance together, continually transforming towards the bliss that has no opposite.
During my yoga teacher training we talked about holding space. A teacher in front of a class of yoga students needs to find an authentic way to hold space. This is not about having all your sequencing and cues memorized… it’s much deeper and more subtle.
It’s about letting go of planning. It’s about expanding into vulnerability. It’s about allowing the heart to open to those who have gathered for your class. It’s about becoming an empty channel for the divine to flow through you and embrace everyone there.
For me, it’s much easier to write about than to do.
In my online Bharatanatyam class this morning, my teacher touched on this concept from his point of view as a performer on stage. Each dance gesture needs to be expansive, to fill the space and create connection with the rasikas (literally, the tasters, or audience). He mentioned too that, for him, Bharatanatyam is a sadhana. It’s a sacred path to moksha, or liberation. This is not an overlay, but rather at the core of what it is to dance…
…and at the core of what it is to teach or practice yoga, or maybe just to serve tea to a friend.
Samputa, in the exquisite gestural language of Bharatanatyam, is one of the double hand gestures. The right and left hands are cupped together to create a container. A little treasure box.
I find the image apt for many of the traditional Sanskrit names given to the poses in Yogāsana. For example, Vīrabhadrāsanaencodes the whole story of the death of Lord Śiva’s beloved wife Satī. Overcome with grief and rage, Śiva rips out one of His dreadlocks, throws it to the ground, and the fearsome Vīrabhadra arises, ready to avenge Satī’s death.
Investigation into the stories behind the names of the poses can take our practice of yogāsana to another level. Taking Vīrabhadrāsana – literally “Blessed Hero” – again as an example, how might this familiar pose transform if we allow ourselves to embody the dharmic or righteous rage of this avenger? What does it mean to take dharmic action in the world?
The sadhana of yogāsana is a treasure box freely bequeathed to us from the rich culture of India, its birthplace. Do we have the courage to open it up and investigate what lies within?
On this day, the 72nd celebration of the Republic of India, I offer my heartfelt thanks to the land of Bharat for the priceless treasure of yogāsana!