From Holistic Theatre To Specialised Mime Transition From Bharata To Nandikeswara:
Performing arts everywhere go through two dialectical developments: (i) from participatory folk performance to a cleardistinction between performer and audience; and (ii) from a composite structure of different arts like music, dance, costume and stage setup onto specialization in one of them. In Indian classical dance and music, the first development, namely elitisation and classicalisation, seems to have occurred early. The second development took quite a few centuries from Bharata's detailed discussion of a holistic theatre, including dance, music and costume, in his Natya Sastra, to Nandikeswara's concentration on dance alone, with a sharp focus on mime (abhinaya), in his Abhinaya Darpana to the marginalisation of music, costume or stage setup. Can this transition be explained in terms of societal developments or was it based purely on internal reasons? As a social scientist, I believe that it was strongly influenced by societal conditions. What follows is a brief attempt at such a socio-historicalexplanation of this transition.
We do not have enough reliable historical material on Indian society over the centuries to attempt the sort of explanations art historians of Europe have worked out, like Adorno or Aloi Riegl. This should not, however, preclude an attempt to interpret whatever material there is available.
We can identify four factors at work in promoting this transition. The first obvious factor is the tendency found in all cultures to specialise. We find evidence of this in Kalidasa's Malavikagnimitram (in Sanskrit) and Ilango's Silappadikaram (in Tamil). Malavika is specifically trained in dance and interprets a verse on the pangs of love very much like a modern padam. Though this dance is part of a larger drama to glorify dance, the drama itself is not a dance-drama as such but meant to be staged with vachika and aharya. Silappadikaram is more explict; Madhavi is specifically trained in dance (alone) and her debut is celebrated like a festival. Such specialisation in pure dance promotes more and more angikabhinaya, that is, interpretation by the eyes and hands and less vachika or speech. The evidence from other texts also reinforces this fast development of specialisation. The earlier texts on sangeeta down to Sangeeta Ratnakara treat music and dance together as one, but texts on music after the 16th century, such as Sangeeta Parijata, Sangeeta Darpana or Swaramela Kalanidhi, leave dance alone.
But a more important factor was the gradual legitimization of the single dancer's mono-acting, through the sacralization of the erotic or sringara aspect, through the bhakti movement from the South and Gatha Sapta Sati from the North. I have discussed these elaborately in my published papers and my book The Sacred and Secular in India's Performing Arts (Ashish Publishing House, New Delhi, 1979). Here I will provide the briefest summary of the argument. In Tamil Nadu, when the bhakti movement took shape from the fifth century onwards, the devotional poets who fathered it were exposed to two dominant genres in Tamil poetry, namely Ahattinai and Atruppadai. The former genre included love poems in the first person on all aspects of love and the latter took the form of one lucky minstrel showing the way to a munificent chieftain for another indigent minstrel. The poets who adopted the Ahattinai form considered themselves beloveds of the Lord, suffering the pangs of separation from him. The poets who adopted the Atruppadai format glorified the Lord as a munificent king. This led to the equation of the temple with the palace. Together these two concepts ultimately legitimated the offering of all sensuous arts like music and dance to the king in the temple, as the Ahattinai bhakti poets had already glorified the Lord as the great lover. All this, over a few centuries, led to the main format taken by classical dance, namely that of a single female dancer, interpreting love songs (mainly of separation) on a god or king and representing his valour, generosity and mercy as offshoots (sanchari-s) of his personality. A similar development took place in North India, through the influence of a seminal work on love, Gatha Sapta Sati, on Sanskrit poets and dramatists.
The implications for dance of this complex development were far-reaching. The separation of dance through specialisation from theatre and drama, and the evolution of the format of a single female interpreting not only aspects of love but of other emotions like heroism as offshoots or sanchari-s, placed a premium on abhinaya with the hands and eyes and mono-acting through them of all roles and situations with the merest marginal use of speech or costume. The holistic theatre of Bharata was thus bypassed in favour of the emphasis on the individual female dancer with highly intricate hand and facial gestures for mono-acting. It was in this context that Nandikeswara's Abhinaya Darpana came to dominate the dance landscape. Indeed the later works on dance like Hastalakshana Deepika and Hasta Muktavali followed this concentration on mime. Abhinaya Darpana was also the only work translated into Tamil verse in the 19th century as Abhinaya Navaneetam.
A third factor most probably buttressed this, namely the emergence of various Indian languages with their own grammar from the 11th century onwards. It supported the concept of classical dance not only as a language but a language much like the Indian languages, with a defined vocabulary and syntax. The dancer's practice of interpreting a song in terms of words (padartha), sentences (vakyartha) and context (sanchari) has its origins and legitimation in this linguistic paradigm of dance, which took shape pari passu with the evolution of various Indian languages.
All this is not to say that Bharata's idea of holistic theatre, with its balanced emphasis on angikabhinaya, vachika (dialogue),aharya (costume) and satvika (reality reproduction), was all forgotten. It lived on as such in the Koodiyattam tradition of Kerala, while the dance-drama tradition was revived from time to time in the Kuchipudi plays of Andhra, Bhagavata Mela of Tamil Nadu and Kathakali of Kerala. But the single dancer tradition ultimately became the dominant one.
One may add a fourth important economic reason. After rajopachara with dance and music was established as part of the temple ritual generated by the transmutation of Ahattinai- Attruppadai in the bhakti school and legitimised by the agama-s, the economic base for individual temple dancers was provided by the Chola empire and later by the Vijayanagar empire and its Nayak viceroys. As a result, it developed greater continuity than the dancedrama tradition. Again in the 19th century, the Tanjavur Maratha rulers and the Tanjavur brothers reorganised and refurbished the temple dance into the present alarippu, jatiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padam and tillana format, again for the single dancer. And this new abhinaya-based format established itself (even though temple support was decreasing) mainly through the new agricultural middle class created by British rule with, its expensive marriage celebrations and later by the urban middle class with its sabha-s.
The important role played by this new derivative middle class in the revival and entrenchment of the single dancer tradition should not be underestimated. British and French colonial rule in Afro-Asia suppressed the gradual evolution towards industrial capitalism and favoured the rise of a mediatory class to help their administration, a class which I call the "Derivative Middle Class" because it was "derived" from the needs of foreign rule. This class in India was recruited largely from the literate castes of brahmins and literary non-brahmin castes like Kayasthas and Mudalis, castes which took a backseat under the earlier feudal dispensation. These castes had a strong streak of cultural revivalism as they took quick advantage of Western education. In Bengal, where the class took shape first, it took over Western Liberal values and reconciled them with a reformist Hinduism.
The class evolved in Tamil Nadu much later with no reformist impulse but a strong anchorage in the past. It consisted largely of a small urban professional group and a much larger rural landholder class. The latter benefitted from the peaceful conditions imposed by British rule after a century of anarchy and from the dependable legal system. It was this class which used the resultant agricultural surplus to keep concubines and celebrate expensive marriages, both of which incidentally supported the single female dancer system recreated by the Tanjavur Quartet. Later, the urban wing of this class turned reformist, but fortunately, the streak of nationalist cultural revivalism took over to keep and enlarge the tradition.
My basic thesis is that the Indian classical dance tradition is as much a product of environmental societal factors as of internal aesthetic variables. We have accepted too long Coomaraswamy's sweeping dictum about the religion-art identity without any serious crticism and analysis on the one hand and used the rediscovered work of Bharata to legitimize practice without looking at socio-historical factors. In this article, I have attempted to show that societal developments played the major part. The recent revival of the dance-drama tradition can also be attributed to several societal factors than to a greater understanding of Bharata.
Note: I used mainly the 1981 edition of the Abhinaya Darpana, published (with a Tamil verse translation) by Dr. U.V.Swaminathier Library, Adyar. This edition makes clear that this work is strictly confined to angikabhinaya or gestures (with the eyes, neck and hands) alone and supplements it with extracts from a similar work, Mahabharata Choodamani of slightly wider import. The addendum at the beginning discusses the stage, and the vachika, aharya and satvika abhinaya-s and the addendum at the end discusses the representation of seasons--several birds and animals, various nayika-s and nayakas and several more gods not covered in Abhinaya Darpana.
It is clear that later works from the 13th century onwards had bypassed Bharata's holistic concept of theatre and became manuals specialising in mime, some like Abhinaya Darpana more so, others like Mahabharata Choodamani, a little less so with a few notes on the stage.