Purush Perspectives 5: Nataraj and Natawar

The uber-cool illustrator, mythologist and former medical man, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik gave a talk at the Purush conference on the 20th of December, 2013.

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Dr. Padma Subramanyam talking to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik after his talk.

Mythology for Devdutt serves the role of helping to clarify people’s thinking and getting back to basics. We, as dancers, use mythology and its ubiquitous characters at length. We become these characters when we dance. Velavare ummai thedi.. …Pattaku ran na kongu Venugopala, Mooshikha vahana modhaka hasta, Yedukithani modi, Swami naan undan, chaliye kunjan mo,……we choose a piece, we know, or find out who our audience is, and even what our audience members are like, we make an effort to understand the meaning and import of the song to the extent we can, we then begin our craft in earnest.

We translate the songs, give them life in movement, we compose nrittha, abhinaya, work out the aaharya abhinaya, music (if not live), we practice, practice, rehearse and rehearse, we make the composition our own. We feel it in our body, we form our own landmarks in the composition, our own favourite bits, fluid bits, awkward bits, devise a strategy to make it less awkward, we navigate the nooks and crannies of the composition and enjoy being in it, dancing it. We know it in a certain way, we know it through our body, we know it through our muscles, through skin touching skin, through balance, through our energy reserves, as our gaze catches the colours on the backdrop of the stage, as the light touches our skin, the heat, as it goes down our throats, as our feet touches the floor, as we connect to the rhythm, to the sound of the voice of the singer, the surge in the head when we draw the strength from our core, to do that massive leap in the air, rising up from the muzhu mandi and so on. We know ourselves like only a dancer can, one with our physical self, and beyond..  But rarely, very rarely do we try to translate this consciously back into our thinking. This whole latter part of the process that we go through, from creating those personal landmarks to feeling oneself in one’s body – how do we channel that back to our thinking? Our starting point was mythology.. and if we are to go by Devdutt’s function for mythology, then knowing, understanding and dancing mythology should help clarify our thinking. It does not happen automatically, it is a conscious process that dancers will have undergo to channel that deep dancerly connection with mythology into our thinking minds, whence we can then get ‘back to basics’ – by putting it back into our lives, others’ lives and into society – through our actions.

Natraja, yes.. but Natawara? We dancers don’t explore much. Our overwhelming shringarafication of Krishna doesn’t take us down the path of dissecting his approach to dancing! Devdutt did a great job of doing a different take on this much loved character. Listening to Devdutt, I could see the scope for expansion of dancers’ engagement with mythology, perhaps from the very early stages of learning.

If Shiva is Natraja, then Krishna is Natawar, said Devdutt. And these are the two aspects of the human mind.   Natraja is in contrast to Natawara. Natraja strides in, ash covered, digambara and embodies in such a get-up the real significance of life – wisdom. This is darshan without a darshak (onlooker). Bharathamuni only just happens to be there, an intruder. Just as fragrance of flowers doesn’t exist for us, we just happen to catch it, so does Shiva who doesn’t dance for Bharathamuni. The dance is fabulous – ascetic dance – with vairagya.

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The stage design by Rex, for Purush Conference at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Madras.

Natawar on the other hand, dances for the darshak. The dance on Kaliya the snake, throngs of spectators are lined up along the banks of the Yamuna. He is bedecked and not ash-smeared, he is in silken clothes, not in a loin-cloth. Raas-lila takes place at night, away from human civilisation, the forest in the middle of night is a terrifying place. There is no lajja -no shame, complete abandon, great joyful dance in joyful abandon. It is all beautiful. Raas bhav prevails, the ambience very different, a conversation takes place. This is the preserver speaking, Mathura – gopeshwar mahadev. Here there is a purpose to the dance, it is not happening in isolation, love making is mutual.

Two different dances!

If Kalanidhi mami had been in the audience, she would have revelled in this talk, right up her alley, this. Her teaching has always been about exploring the full scope of emotions in her abhinaya classes, in a structured way, taking into account the age, maturity, understanding and interest of the learner. Mami’s abhinaya allows us to explore the full range of emotions – from Nataraj to Natawar, from darshan to darshak. Mami does a lot of thinking in her abhinaya. She uses mythology to get to understand the human mind. She subscribes to abhinaya as a means to an end. Something I heard more recently from another senior dancer, Vyjayanthimala. She invites us on the journey with her. But with the clear disclaimer that the end point is hers and hers alone, and we as students are invited to share in it, or create our own end points. For her, Shringara is the means to Bhakti. She uses mythology to get from an emotional to a functional end-point.

This end-point must be something in the air in the city! For lo behold, what do I find at Karpagambhal mess, where I had lunch that afternoon? This!

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Who said Mylapore was not in tune with the Purush Conference?  It even pre-empted the speaker’s themes! 🙂

Chamu Kuppuswamy

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