Classical Dance and Yakṣagāna – Comparative Aesthetics (Part 3)

The Nāṭyaśāstra classifies raṅga-prayoga (theatrical performances) into two kinds, based on the place where it is staged – bāhya (outdoors) and ābhyantara (indoors). Performances that fall under the category of bāhya are presented on make-shift stages, outdoors. (This is also called bayalāṭa in Kannada).  Ābhyantara productions are presented indoors on a permanent stage. All the varieties of the ten rūpakas take slightly different forms based on the manner in which they are presented; i.e., each kind of rūpaka adapts itself differently to outdoor and indoor presentations. Bāhya-prayogas are, by their very nature, more rustic than their indoor counterparts. Exaggeration and over-doing also characterize outdoor presentations, as such performances will need to capture large audience at once. Yakṣagāna is a form of bāhya-prayoga. It is however, presented indoors at several places. When such is the case, artistes don’t seem to be making suitable modifications to the art to suit the mode in which it is presented – indoors or outdoors. Only a few artistes seem to have borne the mode of presentation in mind and have tailored it to the place.

Many traditional forms of classical dance have the Lāsyāṅgas as their foundations; they also have elements borrowed from the upa-rūpakas. In the past, dance performances were staged both as bāhya- and ābhyantara-prayogas. By the beginning of the last century, however, they have got established solely as ābhyantara-prayogas. Science, technology and metropolitan lifestyle – all three the by-products of industrial revolution – have played a significant role in this transformation. There are several merits and demerits of the transformation that classical dance and the upa-rūpaka tradition have undergone with time. It is, however, out of scope of the current article to discuss them. Today, however, it is inevitable for Yakṣagāna to adapt itself to the medium of indoor presentation, as the lifestyle of people has been gradually changing; from being village dwellers and being closely connected with nature, lifestyle has changed to that of a metropolis; it is needless to say that the metropolitan lifestyle is largely dictated by technology. This, to some extent, affects the form and content of Yakṣagāna. Just as the āhārya (costumes, colours and props), āṅgika (dance and acting) and vācika (lyrics and music) have an impact on the audience, the place of presentation – indoors or outdoors – has its influence on the connoisseurs. One must not view these modes of presentation as orthogonal or contradictory to each other. The modes are merely related to the temperament of art. It is like rendering the same rāga in two different octaves.[1]

The Gradual Transformation of Classical Dance Forms (Nṛtya) into Theatrical Presentations (Nāṭya)

Classical dance forms such as Sadir (Bharatanāṭyam), Kathak, and Oḍissi were originally ekahārya and ekāhārya in presentation. They seem to be edging towards nāṭya today. This is because a theatrical presentation, i.e., nāṭya naturally attracts a larger audience. Drama appeals to the masses; movies and tele-serials have got the maximum viewership. It is probably for this reason that Kūcipūḍi-bhāgavata-meḻa, Maṇipuri, Sattriya and other forms of art, which were originally nāṭya are now heading back towards their earlier mode of presentation. They have lost or forgotten several of those older aspects that added to the beauty of the nāṭya tradition – they have gone missing to the extent that they cannot be retrieved. Because of this loss, their nṛtya counterparts are being modified to create theatrical performances. At times, this kind of re-transformation of the nṛtya into its original nāṭya form is unaesthetic and unimpressive.

It is for this reason that such theatrical productions are better called nṛtya-nāṭakas (dance-dramas), rather than nāṭya. These are, in fact, shaped in accordance with the western ballet and can be identified as a new form of presentation. What is strikingly missing in these modern forms is the vācika in the form of prose-dialogues. These forms, in fact, resemble Kathakalī that did away with its prose-dialogues after the reformation made by Vallattol Narayana Menon[2].

It is noteworthy that, of late, dialogues have found their way into dance-dramas. These dialogues, however, are not delivered impromptu. Thus, these resemble modern dramas. In sum, it is interesting to note the manner in which nṛtya is heading towards nāṭya. It is natural for an art form to change as per the needs of its time and place and to be affected by the ideas and ideologies present in the environment where it is performed. The current set of transitions happening in the art can be thought of as its struggle for continued existence and relevance. The struggle, however, would have been meaningful if the ultimate purpose and essence of art were kept in mind, instead of merely mocking other media.

 

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] To give an example, the fast-paced footwork that is typical to Kathak has been influenced by the manner in which tabala is played. This percussion accompaniment for Kathak has also played its role in shaping the āṅgika of the dance and in establishing sama-sthāna as the fundamental stance. Similarly, the soft and gentle elaboration of rāga in the northern style of music has shaped the graceful movements of the arms and the upper body in Kathak. The open beats of the pakkavaj and the melody of the flute have influenced the structure of Oḍissi. The concealed beats of the mridangam and the complex pattern of beats it employs have played a major role in (adversely) affecting the aesthetics of Sadir (today popularly called Bharatanāṭyam). It has influenced the rather tight and rigid footwork of the dance form. Kūcipūḍi, which is a kind of a via-media between Sadir and Oḍissi, can be imagined to have been structured as a function of the music that accompanies it. The kind of costume that is used in Maṇipuri evidently suggests the limited movement of the torso below the waist, i.e., the limited use of cārīs. As if to compensate for this shortcoming, a form of dance that involves jumping off the ground while playing an avanaddha-vādya (percussion instrument)  called Kol is in practice. Similarly, the pārṣṇi-pāda employed to a large extent in Kathakalī, is because of the āhārya used for the dance; and it is because of the pārṣṇi-pāda that cārīs are hardly present. Additionally, in the absence of rich vācika (verbal expression), communication will need to unfold only through gesture language. To make hand gestures more pronounced, artistes affix long nails to the tips of their fingers. Similar exaggerated presentations can be found in Seraikela Chhau and Purulia Chhau. In these forms of art, artistes cover their faces with masks – the masks are designed to reveal only the sthāyi-bhāva (predominant or primary emotion) of the artiste. Other emotions such as vyabhicāri-bhāvas will need to be evoked through exaggerated movements of the limbs. Examining this from the perspective of aesthetics and rasa-niṣpatti, such movements do not stand out as beautiful. It is unfortunately inevitable for connoisseurs of these forms of art to accept these non-aesthetic elements as signature styles; such elements taken shape based on the region and the time period in which the art forms originated.

[2] The dance-drama productions of Kalakshetra, Chennai are typical examples of such a change.


 

 

Author(s)

About:

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.

Translator(s)

About:

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

Prekshaa Publications

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