Today’s Bharatnatyam class with Supratimji tapped into the mystery of embodiment.
It started innocently enough, with me showing him a step we had worked on previously. He wasn’t satisfied. He gave me cue after cue in an attempt to get me to truly inhabit the movement.
He had me sit down and find an internal focus. Once I felt established in that, I was to initiate the arm and eye movements. I slowly began to move. I experienced the feeling that it was the surrounding space that lifted my arm. Not me, moving, but just movement. The sweep of the arm, the drishti or gaze: no longer just graceful movements that I was doing. The dancer, and the dance coalescing…
After this he had me move on to explore the asamyukta hasta mudras – the single hand gestures – from this same consciousness.
Supratim: When you take the hand position of, for example, triśula – you must feel the energy coursing through the three raised fingers. If you do not, then it’s not right. When the energy finds its path, the gesture will be right. You must feel this.
The application of this is all-encompassing. Yogāsana, Bharatanatyam, holding my grandson – it touches everything in this ecstatically beautiful, embodied existence. W.B.Yeats’ final question sums it up:
relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold
When I am bringing my students out of śavāsana, I usually ask them to curl onto their side in a foetal position, head resting on the lower arm. This brings the spine into its primary curve, just as we were when coiled into the womb space, quite literally surrounded by our mother.
I invite my students to rest in this shape for a few breaths, taking the time to just be in this in-between, liminal space, before we close our practice together and everyone moves off into their individual lives.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the nature of this space.
There is a word in Sanskrit – sandhya – that designates the space where two things meet. The place of transition, of potential… It is the suspension felt at the top of the inhalation, the void at the bottom of the exhalation. It is where dawn meets day, where dusk meets night.
It is the womb of the world from which all things are born.
In my previous blog reflection I spoke of my Bharatanatyam teacher in a video clip he shared with me. A small figure in an immensity of sky, river, and earth – he is seen walking away from the camera witness, becoming smaller. Then he stops.
For a moment frozen in time he raises his arms into the starting position for dance. He enters the liminal space. The space opening out from everything preceding this moment. The birthplace of everything that proceeds from this moment.
A recent post on my dance guruji’s Instagram page shows a long shot of him, seemingly caught between earth and sky. The sky is full of billowing grey monsoon clouds, the earth is grey, with no vegetation visible – a slice of river stitches the two together. Earth, water, space. Elemental. And this small human getting smaller as he walks away from the camera witness.
At a certain point he stops.
Then, for a moment frozen in time, he raises his arms in the starting position of Bharatanatyam.
And then, he starts to dance.
The vulnerable transparency of this touched me deeply. No makeup, no costume, no lighting effects, no camera crew… just a human who, caught between heaven and earth, makes a decision…
my Sanskrit and Vedic chanting guru: Marcia Solomon of Boulder, Colorado
my Bharatanatyam guru: Supratim Talukder of Kolkata, West Bengal.
I am so very blessed to have these souls in my life. Thank you both for all you give to me with your wonderful teaching. I can truly say that my life has been transformed, and continues to be transformed, by your compassionate and generous guidance which extends beyond technical training to helping me along the path of life.
A flowing sequence that typically begins a practice of yogāsana.
A movement prayer that punctuates a class or performance of Bharatanatyam.
I have been focussing a lot lately on the movement prayer version of Namaskaram. A few dance classes ago my teacher, observing my Namaskaram, suggested, can you do it with more feeling? Since, I have begun to open each of my yoga practice sessions by repeating the dance Namaskaram three times, with greater attention/intention before I follow it with my Surya and Chandra Namaskaram variations.
I asked my dance guruji what each element of the dance Namaskaram signified. His response taught me that different schools of dance practiced different variations of the Namaskaram.
Some of the common elements: a sweeping motion to acknowledge the eight directions; touching the earth that we would dance upon, bringing this blessing up to our eyes, and releasing the blessing back to the earth with outstretched hands; reaching prayer hands up to acknowledge the Divine love that holds us in being, drawing prayer hands to the third eye to acknowledge our gurus, and finally bringing prayer hands to the heart to acknowledge our companions on the path.
And then Supratim Talukder, my teacher, did something that quite took me by surprise: he made the sign of the cross, observing/asking this is your Namaskaram?
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic in a very devout and loving family. Attendance at weekly Mass and a celebration of the main feast days in the Christian calendar were part of the air I breathed. Making the sign of the cross as I intoned in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit was a gesture that commonly punctuated other prayers. It was something so much done as to have become somewhat invisible – again, like the air I breathed.
Seeing my teacher (brought up as a Shaivite Hindu with a special devotion to the Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna) make this gesture, made me see it in a new way. It held up a mirror…
A new question emerged: How does the tradition in which I was brought up inform my spiritual sādhanas of yogāsana and Bharatanatyam – and vice-versa?
All crawling and flying beings; all the green ones deeply rooted in the soil’s nourishing embrace; all feeding, breeding, birthing, dying – with one hand in pure blessing, you throw beneficence off extravagantly in all directions.
You hold the paśa, the instrument that destroys what is no longer needed; you are served with endless devotion by Nandi; being and perceiving the thread that runs through everything, transforming endlessly, you are the dancer and the dance.
When I perceive the faintest tracing of your action and boundless love – I dissolve in awe.
But you are too vast, too endless, too overwhelming for me to hold. I create a frame, a threshold, a form for the formless. I surrender to this. Again and again. When fear overwhelms me, your love is there, an infinite web of support that banishes all doubt and confusion in the pure light of love.
Your love animates the world, shimmering, unfolding every where and every when, and dancing, dancing – always dancing – a wonder to my mind!
Your hair, intertwined with the cascading turbulence of the sacred feminine in and through all, surrounds, connects, transforms, flows, dances –
urging me to move from here to there,
to leave shrinking into the coiled comfort of the known,
When performing, my Bharatanatyam teacher said, if you lose your focus for one second, you’ve lost your audience.
The connection is broken.
He went on to say that his impression of people practicing yogāsana was that they did a posture, then came out of it, did another posture, and so on – and that the thread of sustained awareness was absent.
Yogāsana is a sādhana I’ve practiced for a long time, but what depth is there in my practice? How often is my practice just one posture, another posture, another posture… with my mind flying in a dozen different directions? To be honest, it’s most of the time. So once again, my new sādhana of Bharatanatyam has nudged me into taking a fresh look at my more established sādhana of yogāsana.
My sankalpa: to find the thread of sustained awareness that transforms āsana practice (and me) into a conduit for the flow of the Divine.
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 .