The Foundational Ambiguity in Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


The language of art bears a burden of ambiguity because, rather than only speaking about life, it speaks life, and life for us human beings is ambiguous in all its ways. We need look no further, if we wish to confirm this radically for ourselves, than at the simple and essential truth that death is present to life at every living, yet dying, moment. It is perhaps from this quintessential and inexorable paradox that our quotidian struggle against ambiguity derives. We want to be sure that we understand and that we are understood. But art, if it is the kind of art that speaks life, never satisfies our craving for the lucid grasp : always we are left slightly in the dark, groping our way towards its meaning.


The classical Indian dances, because they do speak life, inevitably treat us in the same way, leaving us fulfilled but famished, enlightened but suspicious, and wondering what it is that we ought, in the moment of illumination, to have seen while blinded by their radiance. I am not referring to the things we have been taught to understand in the regular course of the dance. We are all familiar enough with those, so familiar in fact that the only way we can know the dance at any depth at all is to look beyond them, to ignore them with the vague idea of their presence that one maintains in ignoring the literal meaning of a poem.


Some ambiguities in art may be incidental or accidental, providential of intended or unintended moments of ironic paradox. We may meet them with a smile or a feeling of discomfiture, or we may be thrown off balance. In any case we experience these shifts of consciousness as being themselves true to the ambiguous vagaries of our felt and examined lives. We know what they are meant to mean, even when we don’t know precisely what they mean.


Though classical Indian dance can and does afford ambiguities of the incidental and accidental sort, its strongest ambiguities are of the structural kind, which support and inform the mindset and construction of the dance itself. These are on the whole well known to both dancers and rasikas as contributing to the architectural superstructure of the dance.


The foundation of that architecture is the apparent dualism, monist at its core, of the Shiva-Parvati dynamic. Its presence introduces us to the cosmic continuum of creative essence on the one hand and creative transformation through destruction on the other (in the dance each new geometric moment is only made possible by the destruction or dissolution of the previous one). I depart from the more simplistic formulation, the binary idea of mere creation and mere destruction because, as I see it, the Shiva-Parvati symbol gives entry to two radically intertwined givens : the fact of existence itself and the fact of existent things, the ontological and the phenomenal. But let us simplify this for ourselves by asking and answering two questions :


Q : Why is there absolute being rather than absolute nothingness?

A : Because Shiva dances.

Q : Why does the fact of absolute being give rise to a relative realm in which existing things come into and go out of existence?

A : Because Parvati dances with him.


Immediately we see that the existential ambiguity of the cosmic dance can be perceived in three ways. We can look at each of the two facets, male deva and female devi, in turn, or we can rise above that dualism to realize their simultaneity and mutual superimposition as a single essential datum. The two are inseparably one.


In classical Indian dance this nuclear singularity of the male-female force, of the ontological and the phenomenal, of the absolute and the relative, is represented in a humanized and humanizing work of kinetic art. In it the cosmic absolute and its tendency to a relativizing mobility (as creation and transformation in a concrete, material realm) are both felt and transmitted as a microcosmic structure-in-motion, the absolute principle of being and its relativized principle of becoming, the static sthanaka and the kinetic adavu-jethi-thirmanam continuum.


In the dance, the discrete moments of posture and gesture, their momentary fixitude, represent what is absolute in the underlying choreography. No wonder then that these moments have been preserved in mysterious stasis in a myriad temple and cave sculptures, where they persist in relief as symbols of the first principle of being whose essential mudra stands fixed behind the variegated bhavas and rasas of maya.


What is not absolute, what is relative and therefore in ongoing motion, undergoing the process of Parvati’s creative transformation, is demonstrated in the flux of the dance, itself made up of the discrete postures and their connective tissue of geometric flow, the absolute and the relative dancing together.


I have said above that we can look at each of these aspects in turn or else see them fused together in a superimposed singleness of manifestation. This indicates that there are three disparate ways of viewing the constitution of the dance and implies that these three views can be adopted sequentially. If we do consider them separately and in turn, however, we sacrifice the higher insight into the fundamental ambiguity of the dance together with its accompanying sentiments.


The achievement of the genuine rasa of this foundational monism-in-duality comes by sharpening the attentive mind, the concentrated mind, so that it is able to discern the subtle co-presence of this triune vision at one and the same time. Seeing then, in the maya of the dance, the simultaneous presence of the static and the kinetic, of discrete moments bound up with continuous flux, separate and yet inseparable, we attain to those exquisite moments of delicate equipoise that the dance is designed to elicit.


More than this, we arrive at the key to the fuller experience of its other ambiguities : mystical yet sensuous, classical yet evolving, intellectual but instinctual, symmetric and asymmetric, and so forth. We see why the dancer’s charming innocence is yet so replete with alluring experience.


We are infected by the rasleela in the blood and in the brain.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s