Classical dance in today's context

Art and its purpose

In the words of Prof M. Hiriyanna, the purpose of art is to transcend all other purposes. ‘Ananda’ or ‘Enjoyment’, is both the process and purpose of art and is non – exclusive. To state that only the ‘purpose’ of Art is to achieve enjoyment (and that the process is not enjoyable) will demean the beauty of ‘Ananda’ or ‘rasaananda’ in art. Although the ultimate aim or purpose of any art would be enjoyment, it must be noted that the process of art is also enjoyable considering that ‘Ananda’ or enjoyment is reveling in one’s true nature and cannot be said to be an exclusive aim or purpose which one would want to achieve through art.

Art is a product of imagination. With human emotions as its raw material, the end product of art is to observe and enjoy one’s own emotions without being personally involved in it. Our emotions are coloured by selfishness and are centred around us.  Whether it is the love of Raama and Seetaa, the cruelty of Raavana or the cunningness/ shrewdness of Shakuni, all of these are present, at an emotional level, in each one of us. How we deal with these emotions is a different aspect. If one were to view and enjoy the instances mentioned above, depicting varied human emotions in a dispassionate manner and without getting personally involved or indulged in it, then what we beget is “Rasa”. This is the bedrock of the Indian aesthetics. Akin to what is stated above regarding art, we can state that the raw material of ‘Rasa’ is ‘Bhaava’.  We must be able to visualize these ‘bhaavas’ at the level of ‘rasa’, i.e. with dispassionate indulgence, and what retains in us therein is art enjoyment. It is therefore this enjoyment or ‘Rasaananda’ that is the end product or art. In other words, it is the conscious enjoyment of our own selves without personal indulgence.

When we say this, then naturally a question would arise if we can truly extend that state of dispassionate enjoyment into our lives and if so, how? Yes, ‘Art’ is a prototype model which can be extended completely to our lives. To illustrate, when we watch a movie for three and a half hours, we are indulging ourselves in that movie and share the emotions with what is depicted therein, without however being personally involved in it.  We are then compassionate observers. We neither have any power to change the story, nor a mind to grudge nor lust for anything, nor a mind to be indifferent to what is being shown. We just watch and accept whatever is shown to us.

If such a state of involvement or dispassionate indulgence in shown in day to day affairs and is stretched to entire part of the day or rest of our life, then what we experience in life and the world around us, would lead us to the path of salvation through the medium of art. Art as a means or path of salvation is ‘Kalaayoga-saadhana’.

While practicing kalaayoga-saadhana, we must continuously try to recapture the art experience and re-calibrate our day-to-day experiences. In other words, we must examine the extent of our indulgence or indifference in worldly affairs. While over-indulgence brings a manner of bitterness, indifference brings a sort of roughness to our lives. Both of these have to be curtailed and a fine balance needs to be maintained. In order to achieve this, we have to repeatedly make an effort to correct our day-to-day experiences to reach the state of an art experience.  This is what the Vedanta states as the “Saakshi Bhaava”, i.e. to observe any situation as a mere witness. We would have an edge to achieve this if we perfect art experience or rasaanubhava, for we would have achieved such a state while viewing or listening or performing an art and such a state of mind or ability would have to be extrapolated into our lives. In other words, we are not ignorant of saakshi-bhaava since we experienced it while viewing or performing an art and it is therefore a matter of making efforts to extrapolate the same state of mind to day to day affairs.

Curvilinear nature of Art

Realising these take – away from various forms of art, let us concentrate on what we need to notice while watching various art performances, with special emphasis to Sadir or Daasi Attam, which is now known as Bharatanaatyam in common parlance. The term “Desi or Sadir Attam” is confounded as ‘Bhatanaatyam’ . All the dance forms that are being performed in India is Bharata’s naatya, meaning that which springs out of Bharata Muni’s ‘Naatyashaastra’. This is a generic name. With respect to Sadir attam, the grammar is incomplete, like many of its sister dance-forms. Sadir is presented more as geometric and less as curvilinear in its application. The very nature of Indian art is curvilinear. A straight line is the shortest distance between any two points.  While a line can have none, there are more varieties in curves. There are parabolic curves, hyperbolic curves, helixes, elliptical curves and so on.  Variety is more and therefore the scope for creativity is far more.  Also, the straight line is very utilitarian.  When you look at building structures, wherever there are straight lines, it is for utility and wherever there is embellishment, there are curves. If we look at classical Indian sculpture, or just observe the nature, it becomes evident that everything beautiful is curvilinear. Take for instance, the creepers and branches of trees. The poetic language of Sanskrit, is also oblique and curvilinear. Indian music is yet another example. Compared to all these, Sadir attam, especially in the recent years, is made more linear because of the domination of taala. In the name of precision and perfection,  a lot of linearity is being enforced in Sadir attam.

In classical music, we can notice that in any dominant raaga, the movement (or swara sanchalana) of the notes will be curvilinear. This is the reason why it is suggested that the grammar of sadir attam become less geometrical and more curvilinear and should be based on raaga. While Raaga is deeply rooted in emotions, Taala is more of an intellectual dimension. Today’s Sadir attam is dominated more by head than by heart and it is therefore suggested that it moulds itself to reach out to the heart of the connoisseurs, than being mere precision oriented.


Abhinaya is an element of drama, which includes nritya and nritta. The four main elements of abhinaya in dance are aaharya (costume), vaachika (vocal), aangika (physical) and saattvika (emotional). There is a theoretical possibility for Saattvika to dominate the art form. However, to that level, the artist should be able to withhold the concentration of audience and to do that, introductory aangika is needed. All the four (aaharya, vaachika, aangika, and saattvika) are one or the other aspects/ forms of Abhinaya itself.  One can state that the pinnacle of abhinaya is saattvika. However, a dance recital should have a very rich music and lyrics. Unfortunately, the lyrics in Bharatanaatyam are very poor compared to Yakshagaana or Kuchipudi.  Odissi mainly depends on ashtapadi, which is fantastic, but is very restricted. As compared to pada varnams, thillanas, darus and shabdams, the lyrics in Yakshagaana and Kuchipudi are richer and better.  Unfortunately, the music in Bharatanaatyam is made very mathematically. Due to this, the aangika is made linear and hence, both aangika and vaachika has lost the element of sattva in it. Aaharya too is not geared for brilliance. Nowadays, various artists make a poor show in terms of aaharya. In any dance performance, the artist should be seen for one and a half to two hours, which would mean that the artist’s hands should be seen in a pronounced manner, it should be coloured, the face must be well made-up and the body should be covered with jewellery too. Poor makeup is not a substitute for simplicity. Simplicity should emanate from the heart and not from the manner of dressing. It is a matter of regret that the artists nowadays are trying to show simplicity in dress which in reality, results in poverty of dressing and the dance. Dance requires brightness and this is what Bharata meant when he mentioned ‘Ujjvalavesha’.

Beauty and Shaastra

In order to understand beauty, one may have to look upto shaastras.  But in order to enjoy beauty, one would not need any shaastra and even in the absence of knowledge of a particular Shaastra, beauty (in any form) can be enjoyed.  Only in a situation of debate or argument would you need the help of shaastras.  If you need to verbalize why something is beautiful, you must be able to prove it and for that, you need an objective outlook. This comes from study, from going to masters and learning from those who are educated in Shaastra.  It is important not to confuse subjective individual enjoyment and the objective art appreciation.

Balance between Tradition and Novelty in Art

An artist generally may have a constant persuasion in his/ her mind to make a piece of his/ her work relevant to current time and generation. However, it is also true that art is based on emotions, which transcend time and age. The artist therefore has the impending pressure to balance between novelty in art forms and maintaining its integrity. As for the artist’s commitment to retain tradition, one should firstly understand what ‘tradition’ is. Tradition is the critical conservation of the past. It is not something which is blindly and mindlessly accepted, or ruthlessly banished and shunned aside.  ‘Conserve,’ means ‘to protect’.  ‘Critical,’ is with respect to having an objective mind of analysis of what is good and what is bad. Finding out the best of the past is critical conservation and that is called tradition. Such a tradition should be perpetuated. All or any other blind traditions or rather anti-traditional movements should be discouraged.

While balancing such tradition, retaining integrity and depicting novelty in art, the artist should understand that relevance and integrity are nothing but devotion to rasa. Rasa can never be revealed directly. It is only the Suggestion (Dhvani) in any expression that can lead to Rasa. A suggestion depends upon beautiful expression and such an expression is called  “vakrataa”. The culmination of Vakrataa, Dhvani and Auchitya leads to Rasa. ‘Auchitya’ is the spatio-temporal-cultural-social context. Context may differ and even spatio-temporal structures may differ, but human emotions remain the same.

While ‘Vakrata’ means ‘beautiful expression’, ‘Dhvani’ is suggestion. Auchitya is the propriety or acceptance of Dhvani. If ‘Vakrata’ is not suggestive, it becomes artificiality; ‘Dhvani’ which lacks ‘auchitya’ becomes a riddle and that ‘auchitya’ which never culminates in Rasa becomes a socio-political view or cry. Rasa is realised by an expression which has an acceptable Suggestion.

Being well rooted in emotions and with the technique we have learnt, as well as the context we have around us, art will not go outdated.  Such an art will always have a reach and it will touch the hearts and minds of the rasika. Therefore, one should be rooted in rasa and everything else will follow. An artist should be able to enjoy masters of Indian culture in general and poetry in particular, like Vyaasa, Vaalmiki and Kaalidaasa; enjoy the sculptures of Ellora, Badami Kajuraho, and Konark; enjoy nature, sunrise, sunset, rain, clouds; enjoy varieties of raagas and rhythm, etc.  If an artist’s enjoyment is honest and intense, that is bound to show him/ her the way ahead.

This article is influenced on an interview conducted by certain students of dance at Abhinava Dance Academy, Bangalore of the author. The interview was transcribed by Ms. Aishwarya Chaitanya and posted in her blog –
Kashyap Naik has paraphrased the same for Prekshaa



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

Prekshaa Publications

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

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