Classical Dance and Yakṣagāna – Comparative Aesthetics (Part 1)

All of us will have witnessed different forms of classical theatre art in India. It is not difficult to estimate their mutual concordance and inter-connectedness. To understand the philosophy behind these arts and to grasp the manner in which they have crystallised over the years, we will need to take refuge in the unbroken tradition of the Nāṭyaśāstra. It evokes great pride even to take a cursory glance of these arts and realise that they belong to this eternal tradition; such an unbroken tradition of theory and practice is unique only to India. No other country or culture can make a similar claim. The amount of thought, contemplation, and analysis of śāstras that the scholars in India have taken up is mind-boggling. Bharata belongs to this unbroken lineage of scholars and is foremost among them. Along with an astoundingly rich tradition of śāstric knowledge, we have several raṅga-pāṭhyas (theatre-literature) and oral literature composed in Sanskrit and other regional languages of India that have come down to us through the millennia. The culturing and enrichment that these provide to the heart of a mature connoisseur is something that is intangible; their influence is dormant in the collective consciousness of the masses. Owing to the presence of this large bounty of resources, there have been several discussions on different aspects and many of them have not found satisfactory conclusions till date. These, however, can easily be addressed from the perspective of Rasa-tattva, i.e., the philosophy of Rasa and aesthetic experience. It is with this confidence that the present essay has been attempted.


Lāsyāṅga and Vīthyaṅga

Sage Bharata discusses the characteristics of nṛtta and nāṭya in great detail in the Nāṭyaśāstra. He does not, however, explicitly use the term nṛtya anywhere in his treatise. Many scholars opine that Bharata has not even described the element of nṛtya, but this is only partially true. In the segments where different aspects of the daśa-rūpakas (ten genres of theatrical performances) are discussed, the Nāṭyaśāstra talks about different Lāsyāṅgas. The number of Lāsyāṅgas range from ten to thirteen; the number varies from one aesthetician to the other. What is more important for us to understand is the concept behind the Lāsyāṅgas instead of fretting over their exact number. Many scholars have developed the misconception that Lāsyāṅgas are merely the limbs of Bhāṇa[1], which is one among the daśa-rūpakas. The concept is far more universal in its applicability – this has been established by Dr. V Raghavan decades ago. The Lāsyāṅgas[2] are applicable not merely to the daśa-rūpakas but also to upa-rūpakas (sub-genres of theatrical performances). We may even say that the Lāsyāṅgas are fundamental to Indian dance – nṛtya. Dr. V Raghavan’s research in this area is invaluable[3].

Bharata describes thirteen Vīthyaṅgas in his Nāṭyaśāstra. These have been formulated around vīthī (literally translates into ‘street’), which is one of the varieties of daśa-rūpakas. Here too, scholars were under the illusion that the concept of the Vīthyaṅgas is applicable merely to the genre of theatre called the vīthī. This, however, can be extended to all the different genres of rūpakas (an audio-visual presentation, drama), just as the concept of the Lāsyāṅgas is applicable to them all. While the Lāsyāṅgas form the basis for Indian dance (nṛtya), the Vīthyaṅgas are fundamental to Indian theatre (nāṭya). Lāsyāṅgas are based on gāna (music with lyrics), while the Vīthyaṅgas are predominantly filled with spoken words – vācika.[4]

Nṛtta, Nṛtya, and Nāṭya

It is evident that nṛtya has āṅgika (gesture language and movement vocabulary) as its primary mode of communication and nāṭya has vācika (spoken word) as the predominant aspect. Both aim at achieving sāttvika as the ultimate outcome. Nṛtya has melody — i.e., songs tuned to certain rāgas — for its accompaniment – it is rich in nāṭya-dharmī. On the other hand, nāṭya is largely filled with spoken language and, thus, is closer to loka-dharmī. While the āhārya (costumes) are suggestive and stylized in nṛtya, they are more realistic in nāṭya. There is certainly a lot of give-and-take that happens between the two genres of presentation. The discussion undertaken so far and what comes in the rest of the article focuses on aspects that are more pronounced in each of these genres.

Nṛtta does not take refuge in itivṛtta, i.e., an elaborate story or plot. Hence, it represents the purest and unblemished form of āṅgika. The melody that accompanies nṛtta need not be filled with lyrics. Instead, mere elaboration of rāga and patterns of tāla will suffice for the presentation of nṛtta. In other words, nṛtta can exist merely with śruti and laya.  The purpose of nṛtta is to gladden the hearts of the connoisseurs. It is for this reason that Bharata defines the purpose of nṛtta as śobhā-mātra.

Nṛtya does not possess these characteristics. Movements in nṛtya can aid in the elaboration of an itivṛtta. The storyline, at times, brings nṛtya closer to loka-dharmī. The music that accompanies nṛtya is rich with lyrics – is nibaddha. The story that is narrated through nṛtya is limited in scope and expanse, in the sense that only a brief episode can be chosen for depiction. A blend of commentary, analysis, interpolation, and elaboration of a small episode constitutes nṛtya. In other words, more than the presentation of different episodes from a certain story, nṛtya focuses on the citta-vṛttis of its characters – i.e., the detailed delineation of the emotional landscape of the characters that constitute the story. A story that does not have too many events does not have many characters either. Such a story, when chosen to be presented through nṛtya, can lend itself to detailed elaboration. It is then possible for the artiste to zoom into the citta-vṛttis of one character or just a few of them. Even in the cases where more than one character is being represented through the medium of nṛtya, the artiste does not wear different costumes for the various characters she depicts. Instead, she wears a costume that is neutral in its appearance and is not specific to a character. Thus, the artiste does not have bahvāhārya (many costumes) and instead presents it all through ekāhārya (single costume). It is important to note at this juncture that the costume that an artiste performing nṛtya wears should appeal to the audience, capture their its for long hours, and must have some elements of exuberance that will make it appear rich. The costume should also suggest über-worldly nature of the art-form, i.e., it must elevate the audience above the material world.[5]

To be continued...

This series of articles is authored by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh and have been rendered into English with additional material and footnotes by Arjun Bharadwaj. The article first appeared in the anthology Prekṣaṇīyaṃ, published by the Prekshaa Pratishtana in Feburary 2020.

[1] Śāradātanaya, the author of Bhāva-prakāśa was the first to introduce such misconception

[2] Bhāṇa and Lāsyāṅgas. Raghavan, V. Sanskrit Drama: Its Aesthetics and Production. Madras: Samskrita Ranga, 1993. pp. 163–75

[3] Bharatanāṭya. Raghavan, V. Splendours of Indian Dance. Chennai: Dr V. Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, 2004. pp. 8–47

Though several insights provided by Raghavan in this article are invaluable, his bias for the the deśī form of dance Sadir (today popularly known as Bharatanatyam) is something to be cautious about. Additionally, his comments on the creation and rejuvenation of the karaṇas lack objectivity and his opposition to such attempts is absolutely unwarranted.

[4] Looking at nṛtya and nāṭya from a historical perspective it is likely that the daśa-rūpakas took shape as the structures of Lāsyāṅga and Vīthyaṅga became crystallized with time. What is fundamental to both these genres of presentation is the innate human tendency to dance with enthusiasm. This kind of natural dance performed by people is non-referential and is not bound by a particular story-line – as it underwent more and more refinement and became a set of beautiful movements, it came to called nṛtta. When nṛtta acquired the aid of literature and music, nṛtya, i.e., referential dance evolved. When stylized dance (nṛtta) took a step back and realistic movements became dominant, accompanied by the rendition of dialogues resembling everyday speech, nāṭya was born. With this background, we can call nṛtta as the bodily expression of the forest-dwelling people, nṛtya as the art of the village folk and nāṭya as the composite art of the city. We can be quite confident when we say this; the dance of the ādivāsis is largely śuddha-nṛtta (absolutely non-referential in nature) while the folk dances of the villages are accompanied by the tunes of jānapada-gīta (folk songs; also called loka-gīta) and is an inseparable aspect of their daily life. The latter makes the dance of the villagers to be classified under nṛtya. Dramas and movies that are prevalent in cities can easily be identified as modern versions of nāṭya. In fact, the lifestyle of the forest-dwellers and villagers is closer to nature, which bolsters the development of song and dance. Sophistication bordering on artificiality and rigid etiquettes that are common to city-life hardly aid in the development of gīta and nṛtya. What’s more – exuberance in speech and body movements filled with emotional richness that is natural to the forest and village dwellers is not welcome in the metropolis – cities do not seem to tolerate such variations in sounds and movements. Only prose-like whispers find currency in city-life. Thus, lyrics set to poetic meter—innate to Indian languages—have lost themselves to the inhuman pressure of city-life and have metamorphosed into prose devoid of aesthetics. While poetry is nāṭya-dharmī, prose is loka-dharmī. If this line of thought is applied to theatre art, the process by which nṛtta, nṛtya, and nāṭya have evolved to their current forms becomes more evident.

[5] The Nāṭyaśāstra provides two technical terms, namely, ekahārya and bahuhārya; they pertain to theatrical presentations involving a single character and many characters, respectively. On similar lines, the terms ekāhārya and bahvāhārya have been coined by the present author, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. A performance in which several characters are represented by an artiste who wears the same (neutral) costume for the entire presentation is termed ekāhārya. A performance in which an actor puts on different costumes to depict different characters is termed bahvāhārya. At times, performances could be ekahārya and ekāhārya. They can also be bahuhārya and bahvāhārya at the same time. These genres are, in fact, found in abundance.





Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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