Adult Indian Dance Student - 2021

Dance as Medicine for Dharma

By Preethi Sriram

Within the Natya Shastras, a text about theater, drama and dance, one of the origin stories of how classical Indian art forms came to the Earth was that Dharma, or righteousness in the Earth, was in decline in Thretha Yuga, so divine beings known as Devatas beseeched the creator Brahma for a kridaneeyakam, or a form of entertainment for teaching Dharma. This entertainment would be like a medicine for the people so to help them understand the concepts of Dharma.

As a child, I attended shows with my parents during cultural festivals like Pongal, Ugadhi and Deepavali where I had the opportunity to watch various cultural performances from various parts of India including kolattam or stick dance, Garba/Raas, and bhangra. I even watched a Maypole dance during a festival, and always thought it was Indian until only very recently learning of its origins.

The last one about the Maypole dance is most fascinating to me from an artistic, spiritual perspective in that art is something that should be shared amongst all of us to be enjoyed, as we are all family in the grander context.

For classical dance performances, I would attend as a child with my parents many arengetrams, a dance recital that a student performs as their first solo piece once they have attained a level of knowledge of the dance form of Bharthanatyam.

Recently, when attending an arangetram, I watched the show from a different perspective: that being of an adult dance student. The appreciation for the stamina and determination of the dancer was enhanced in that I could appreciate the amount of dedication and devotion it takes to get to perform at that level. The dancer is performing solo pieces throughout the show for nearly two hours straight, with a specific type of dance piece that can last around 12-15 minutes. As an adult, I can see how this lesson of being on stage and practice for the dancer is a lesson in life that they will carry with them.

The Triangle in North Carolina also has had a great share of local artists and talents that have performed on different topics. I have seen a classical dance show in the dance style of Kuchipudi that has taught me about the life of Annamacharya, a 15th century saint who composed many songs to praise Lord Venkateshwara of Tirumala. In another show, I was able to travel through time and get a view of Krishna advising Arjuna.

I attended another dance show where the poem Meghadootam by Kalidasa was performed in the Triangle and the stage was transformed to the flora and fauna of India where the banished exile sends his wife who lives in the Himalayas a description on a cloud messenger of the sights that he encounters.

A stunning piece for the artistic creativity and mastery of the choreographers and artists, is a dance piece I had watched where the dancer transforms to the young child God Muruga. This artistic imagination of the choreographers showed through where the dancer becomes the young child seeing his parents as not “Mother" or not “Father" but “Ardhanareeshwara" and the confusion felt by the child was a piece that has relevance to the time period we live in as well.

To add to all the splendid shows mentioned above, I was highly impressed from a dance piece from a group from Karnataka, India who are visually blind, who changed the way I thought of dancers in general and who can dance and perform. I felt fortunate that the Hindu Bhavan in Morrisville, NC had invited the artists to perform.

Tying back to the concepts the origin story of dance/drama/theater from the Natya Shastra and its purpose in society, by watching these shows, I felt a transformational experience.

The aim of the Indian classical arts is to provide the teachings of Dharma through entertainment. As the classical arts are intertwined with the philosophies and teachings of various texts, as an adult dance student, it is hard to separate the concepts of entertainment and the spiritual desire for transcendence.

The feeling of transcendence comes into play when watching various shows. Various texts say that we are all one, we are divine, and that the divine is one by different names and forms.

Watching an artistic performance within the Indian arts can be a mode for achieving the feeling of transcendence from our physical form and associations of superficial divisions, so to see the fabulous creativity of the divine within all of us and amongst us.

This article is part of a series about the journey and unique insights of an adult dance student learning classical Indian dance. An introduction to the experiences and a perspective of taking classical Indian dance as both an American and an Indian, and how this shapes her personal journey.

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Preethi Sriram is a classical Indian dance enthusiast and lifelong learner of dance. Contact: SriramPreethi@hotmail.com