Indian Classical Dance as a Narrative

This is an essay that I wrote for a Narrative module I’d taken in my final semester of university. We were asked to choose a hobby and relate how that hobby identifies with the structures that Narratives require. So what are the structures that make up a narrative? That’s explained here – my course materials. My hobby was dancing. And dancing is all about telling a story. So here’s my piece.

DATED: 1 APRIL 2016

GRADE: B-

Indian Classical Dance as a Narrative

Dance pieces fall under one of twelve categories in Bharatha Natiyam. Dance pieces focus on movement of the hand, feet, body and head. Those that follow only to the beat of the music are known as pure dance which include the following categories: Jathiswarams, Alarippus, Mangallams. Dance pieces that follow only to the lyrics of the song are known as expressive dance which fall under the category of Padhams. Most times, dance pieces follow a combination of both pure dance and expressive dance. They exist in the following categories of Bharatha Natiyam: Pushpanjali, Kavuthuvam, Ganapathy Vandana, Shabdam, Varanam, Keerthanam, Koothu, Thillana. Depending on the category, sequences of pure dance and expressive dance occurs at different lengths.

For this essay, I will be choosing to describe dance pieces that fall under Padhams. Padhams seek entirely to convey a story that a dancer interprets from the lyrics of the song through facial expressions and minimal body gestures. Songs created for Padhams are of two genres, devotional or Sringara. Devotional Padhams adopt one of two tropes. They either purely glorify gods or glorify gods while asking to be saved by that god. Sringara Padhams portray either beauty of a girl or erotic love, romantic love, attraction between a girl of marriageable age and a male god. 

These songs usually have three to five stanzas. Each stanza is repeated until the lyrics have been deemed to be sufficiently expressed by the dancer. But the dancer need not follow the lyrics. The dancer can express their own micro events not mentioned by the lyrics as long as the gist of the song is still captured in their dance. Hence, I believe song and dance comes together to form a narrative. We can understand lyrics of Padhams as a story in a bullet points and dance as the discourse of a much more detailed story thanks to the unique interpretation of the lyrics by the dancer. So, in explaining narrative in dancing to Padhams, importance must be given to both lyrics and the dance. For purposes of this essay, let’s assume there is only one dancer.

In both devotional and Sringara Padhams, the first stanza usually functions as an exposition of the narrative – or at least, the dancer is expected to portray what is required of an exposition even if the lyrics omit them. For example, dancers have to establish the setting. In a Sringara Padham called The Songbird Sings, the first half of lyrics of the first stanza explicitly states a songbird singing in a garden, so the garden is the setting. In another Sringara Padham called Ask Velavan To Come, the first stanza goes like this ‘My dear friend, please ask Velavan to come, the one who rides a great peacock in the garden’. But come to where? – probably her house. It is the dancer’s duty to establish the setting; the location of the main character. In devotional Padhams, the settings are rarely explicitly stated. For example in Lord Eshwar, the first stanza goes like this, ‘Oh God why this delay to show pity on this poor man.’ The setting is usually assumed to be the temple which the dancer will express using gestures to show a poor man coming to a temple before he questions the idol of Lord Eshwar.

The second thing the dancer must establish while portraying the first stanza are the main characters of the narrative. Sometimes the characters are explicitly introduced in the lyrics. For example, the first stanza of The Songbird Sings actually goes like this, ‘In a garden where the songbird was singing, a man riding a great peacock came mysteriously.’ Note how the lyrics do not make reference to any girl, but with clues from the rest of the song, it is assumed that a girl is narrating what she saw and she tells us that the other character in this story is a mysterious man. In Sringara Padhams, the main character is usually a girl. The dancer must personify her even if the lyrics don’t describe her, in any way the dancer deems fit. In order to give the main character depth, the dancer is allowed and is expected to add micro events in their discourse as long as the gist of each stanza is captured.

When I danced to The Songbird Sings, I portrayed a girl who showed a beautiful garden with a pond using gestures. She admired lotuses instead of other flowers. She saw the songbird singing on a branch of a tree before making a conscious effort to go up to it and tenderly ushered it to settle on her hands. She played with it as it continued to sing and displayed mesmerisation at its capability. By adding all these micro events, I managed to portray a gentle and innocent character that was very in tune with nature with her favourite spot in the garden being the pond where the lotuses were. Depending on the gestures used, one could portray a girl who was different – maybe a girl who could have been exploring the garden to find the songbird that was singing, to depict an adventurous disposition. In Ask Velavan to come, it is more obvious that there is a main character who beseeches her friend to ask Velavan to come to her – the lyrics explicitly introduces three characters. 

In devotional Padhams, the main character that the dancer adopts may or may not need detailed characterisation. In songs like Lord Eshwar, that has the trope of asking to be saved, the dancer must depict the sorry state of the main character. In other songs, for example the first stanza of Mother Meenakshi goes like this, ‘Mother Meenakshi shower your grace. Daughter of Malayadwaja, oh Goddess of Madurai’. The dancer will portray a devotee that will use dance to describe the god instead of describing himself, the devotee.

The lyrics of every stanza after the introduction, usually has two functions: they are to suggest rising action, conflict and falling action, and they are to provide more description about the characters and the situation. The second stanza of The Songbird Sings explicitly describes how the divine man, through his mastery of the language, was able to give the girl absolute bliss – rising action – before he disappears like a flash of lightning – complication/conflict (falling action comes in the next stanza). Devotional Padhams usually describe the gods in further detail in the second and third stanzas. But just because conflicts aren’t explicitly stated doesn’t mean there’s no rising action because micro events not only allow for characterisation but also rising action, climax and falling action. In A Billion Good Deeds, the second stanza goes like this, ‘He made me his by showing mercy in his eyes. By showing me his hand with the symbol of protection. And increasing innumerable pleasures for me.’ Such lines can be portrayed by the dancer very differently. Maybe the character that the dancer personifies makes a serious mistake (rising action), comes to face an angry god (climax) before being forgiven by the god (falling action). Hence, a dancer need not depend wholly on lyrics. Even in Sringara Padhams, for example in one called, ‘Who Did This?’, it talks about a girl describing four possible divine gods that she believes could have made a mess at her door step and she asks her best friend not to fear and divulge information about the mess maker’s identity. A dancer can easily create tension between the main character and the friend before the friend actually divulges what she knows. Dance hence, gives authorship to the dancer allowing them to create rising action through micro events as long as the lyrics suggest a possibility for conflict.

Micro events expressed by dance also allow for suspense and surprise to be created since they relate a story that’s not been detailed by the lyrics representing the idea of an anti-elipsis, where the discourse does not delete events mentioned by the story the lyrics suggest, but adds events that support that story.

Also with regards to micro events, the settings may change. A fight scene between a god and a demon wouldn’t happen in a temple. Usually, the dancer will gesture the change to a micro setting for the micro event. And when the micro event ends, the dancer will make reference to the main character’s current setting. For example in Ask Velavan To Come, the girl describes Velavan to her friend: ‘He was the one who killed the demons who differed with him.’ Mythology suggests that one of the demons Velavan killed voyaged across oceans and morphed into a tree in a forest to hide from Velavan. Usually, the dancer will portray the demon making this voyage and morphing into a tree before Velavan outsmarts the demon and kills it, after which the dancer will portray the girl who’s beseeching her friend to find Velavan while at her house, even if the lyrics only mentions Velavan killing demons.

A further point on characterisation, narration and diegetic music; lyrics are always written in the main character’s point of view and when there’s only one dancer, the dancer can either portray multiple characters of the story as and when they deem fit or only portray the main character and that character’s interaction with others without portraying the others. 

For example in Ask Velavan To Come, the dancer need not personify the friend but need only personify the main character talking to space making it seem like she’s talking to her friend. Or the dancer can portray the friend as well, to show how ridiculous the main character’s request is. 

In devotional Padhams, the latter approach is more common. To glorify gods, dancers usually take on the role of gods and in fight sequences, they adopt both gods and demons alternately. 

So, the idea of being able to adopt different characters brings an interesting twist to narration. When the dancer portrays the main character dancing to the exact lyrics as the song is being sung, narration is in first person and the main character is an active participant. The music is also diegetic. Narration changes to third person omniscient when dancers start on micro events for example in fight sequences switching roles between gods and demons. Music becomes non diegetic. Singers stop singing the lyrics and the rest of the orchestra takes over. Also music is non diegetic when the dancer pauses in a specific position but the music continues. This form of descriptive pause occurs rarely. In The Songbird Sings, I did incorporate a descriptive pause where the girl kisses the man during the second stanza. The tempo of the music actually quickened at the same time. The increased tempo and the pause at that scene was done to hint that the two characters actually made love. So a descriptive pause can occur but only in dance and not music.

Moving on to lyrics, lyrics usually suggest analepsis. For example, in Ask Velavan To Come, where the song talks about Velavan killing demons, the dancer portrays a fight that happened in the past. Similar anelepsis occurs in most Padhams.

Lyrics usually ends off in two ways in devotional Padhams, either the devotee is waiting to be saved (the saving trope) or it ends with an overarching characteristic of the god that’s unique to the god (the glorifying trope). Out of the many deities in Hinduism only one god has a peacock for his transport – Lord Murugan -, only one god sits on a white lotus – Saraswathi. Such specific characteristics are described in the lyrics at the end. Sringara Padhams almost always ends with the girl waiting. I think it’s because songwriters face a dilemma between encouraging and discouraging a romantic relationship between a girl and a male god. (There’s nothing in the lyrics of The Songbird Sings that suggests that the intimate relationship isn’t just a figment of the girl’s imagination). The fact that they don’t write Sringara Padhams about a male human and female god also tells us that they’re conservative and they don’t want female gods to be portrayed in such light.

Hence, we can find many elements of narrative incorporated into Padhams. Lyrics outline the narrative but it’s the dance that tells a complete one, assuming one can understand the gestures.

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