The Karma of Classicism in Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


In an earlier essay on the Jayantika movement I tried to make a case, based on the reincarnation of karmic traces, for the genuine classicism of Odissi. I argued there that these traces were present in a number of historical givens to which the movement had access for the purpose of re-embodying the dance, and that the classicism of Odissi resided in the fact that these traces were a composite classical ‘meme’ waiting to be reincarnated in a new avtaar.


I want to take this idea a little further here in the hope of clarifying for myself how the argument which I made with reference only to Odissi, may be applied now to the concept of classicism as it relates to the Indian dances generally.


Before proceeding any further, however, I must emphasize that I am using the notion of karma and karmic traces in a non-religious manner, as a symbol and an analogy for certain ideal cultural and artistic traces that survive and are carried forward in the course of the history of ideas.


In speaking of them and of their potential for a variety of ‘reincarnations’, I am really only pointing to the elements of a tradition that have managed to outlive long periods of cultural change, destruction and decadence, so that their filaments can still be traced and lifted out of the remaining fabric. I do so not in order to adduce a spiritual flavour to the classicism of Indian dance but simply because the Vedic and Buddhist theories of karma are more apposite to the case I hope to advance here. They will serve more lucidly to illustrate the few, simple points I will be trying to make.


The neatest understanding that we have of karma is that it operates exclusively in the mental domain. Karma, the law of creative and destructive action, works to shape the mind of the acting agency, to determine its mentational particularities, its attitudes, predispositions and so on. Then, when that agent reaches the end of its present lifespan, it passes through a zone of formless-timelessness before being reborn as a new reincarnation whose mind and mindset are informed by the karmic traces carried over from its previous lifetime. By this theory, too, the kind of embodiment that is attained, whether healthy, beautiful or otherwise, is determined by the karmic forces operating through the mind. Throughout this process of repeated deaths and rebirths, there are innumerable opportunities either for making progress or for backsliding into retrogression. Someone born beautiful and healthy, for instance, may abuse these auspicious bodily marks and take on an unfortunate embodiment in the next lifetime.


(I must stress, for the sake of avoiding difficulties, that I am neither espousing nor disavowing this orthodox view of karma. I don’t claim to know one way or the other. I am using it only as a model for my argument.)


The primal operation of the karma of classicism is the enforcement of order on chaos. It is no surprise then that Bharata Muni’s first successful natya production was ‘The Churning of the Oceans’, a creation myth depicting the emerging out of chaos of the formal cosmic order. From the outset the philosophy of the margam has been based on the principle of strict codification, as the Natya Shastra also insists.


Classicism in Indian dance is concerned with the imposition of heightened formalism on the primitive freedoms of the dancing body. It does this not only in order to insist on the necessity of structural restraints as a spiritualizing and civilizing force but to intensify the experience of formal beauty. There is nothing beautiful about chaos. The abyss is only the abyss. Beauty is snatched from the brute arbitrariness of chaos when it is humanized through human formalization.


The karmic traces of classicism all originate and are defined by this central force of formalism, regulation and structure. We can say that the classical impulse tends to the form that has the highest degree of structural organization and therefore the strongest potential for aesthetic and moral expressiveness – because these dimensions of beauty and sanity are implicit in the imposition of order on chaos.


It seems possible, at least from the tentative dating of certain dance sculptures, that the discipline of form and moral sanity has been applied to the dance from pre-shastric times, and this possibility gives us a strong clue to the validation of the natya-nritya practice as a yoga of the Natya Veda. From those remote times, then, the karma of classical Indian dance has existed in the common mental realm and taken reincarnations, sometimes more fortunately, sometimes less so, in a variety of historical embodiments.


Bharata Muni took upon himself the huge task of making explicit the meanings, purposes and codes of the dance-drama, its karma, and since then there have been a number of commentators and codifiers who have carried on this humanizing tradition, chief among them Nandikeshwara in the Abhinaya Darpana. But I don’t want to revisit the repository of dance manuscripts here. I wish only to point to the ongoing re-embodiment of the karmic traces of dance in sculptures, treatises, the devadasi and mahari tradition, the guru-shishya parampara, and so forth. And, more emphatically, I want to insist on their continuity of historical presence in the thousands of dancing bodies that have embodied and expressed them.


Today the karmic traces of classical dance are in the hands (or rather the minds) of dance teachers, dancers, critics, rasikas and theorists. What we have to ask ourselves is whether they are being maintained and transmitted with the same purity of their aboriginal intention : the enforcement of disciplined form and code on the dance of primal chaos, including the dance of individual dancers.


Because these karmic traces are present and working in two categories of praxis, that of the generality of dance pedagogy and theory, and that of the individual dancer. The point to bear in mind here is that, for classicism in dance, every informal, heterodox gesture partakes in the retrograde, in the anti-classical trend back towards chaos, including the ‘chaos’ of the free dancing body. Now I am not interested in arguing against ‘liberated’ or ‘contemporary’ or ‘fusion’ types of dance. Their karma is their own, and they will take their own course. My concern here is only with the attempt radically to define what is classical and orthodox about the classical dances, and to speak for the purest possible preservation of their karmic traces in the mindset of dance.


Karma is inseparably involved with dharma, and there is a dharma of classicism in dance. The aim of its embodiment is to refine the minds of practitioners and rasikas alike, and its path to refinement is a strictly codified, formal one.


But let us remember also, when we speak of form, codification and organized structure in the dance, that we are pointing at a discipline of artistic and philosophic expression that surpasses those of all the other arts, because in the dance these details of formalism are in the end embodied not only in a poem, a sculpture or a painting, but in the living, moving body of the dancer.


Its organization is an organicization.


That is why I am convinced that the karma of classical dance is the most fundamental and ancient humanizing force that we human beings possess. We ought therefore to consider how we treasure or squander it, and what reincarnational forms we might yet bring it to adopt.




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