On ‘Pseudo-Spirituality’ in Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


The occasion for this essay is a remark made about Bharata Natyam by the author of ‘The Undoing Dance’. In the course of an interview about her book, Srividya Natarajan referred to much of what passes for classical dance nowadays as ‘pseudo-spiritual’ and ‘boring’. It would be hard to misread her statement as not making a comparison between the hereditary and revivalist forms, but I want to leave that aspect aside for the moment. I think, at any rate, that I know what she means, which is that much of what pretends to spirituality in the dance today is really only a shallow sentimentalism, its superficiality emphasised by its own stress on fastidious coyness and false charm. And so far as that goes, I agree with her, but without going so far as to confine this fault to the revivalist form alone.

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The Sanitizing and Cleansing of Bharata Natyam

By Donovan Roebert


Before I move on to the substance of this essay, let me try to make clear immediately what I mean by ‘sanitizing’ and ‘cleansing’ in the context in which I intend to use these terms:


Anyone who has read something of the modern history of Bharata Natyam will have come across the idea of its having been ‘sanitized’ by prudish Brahmin revivalists (often summed-up in the person of Rukmini Devi Arundale), who objected to its erotic, sringara-based content and form. Of course the idea of its having been thus sanitized has other connotations too, and to these I will return in due course. The clarification I want to make here, at the outset, is that I will be employing this term, well-worn in general recent usage, with reference only to the revivalist movement and the alleged depradations it wrought on the hereditary Sadir tradition. It is not necessarily the case that I agree with these implications.

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A Personal Approach to Dance Criticism

By Donovan Roebert


The simple approach to dance criticism is never the one that begins with a theory about dance, nor, I wager, will theorized pre-conditions advance us much beyond the theoretic. The simple approach, the honest one, begins with the question : ‘Why does this particular form of dance, or this particular rendition of it, have these particular effects on me?’


(When we depart from Grand Theory about dance we are thrown back on ourselves and forced to consider this particular dance recital, the one that is now before us, on its own terms and on ours before we ever presume to generalise. What is this dance, considered apart from all others, saying to me, and so this dancer?)

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On the Movement from One Adavu to the Next

By Donovan Roebert


The movement from one adavu to the next is always a fresh re-embodiment of a motion that is not only ancient but captive to stylization. It is a setting free of an imprisoned idea, a letting go of a captured unit of code into the forum of the vital, the liberation of a codified insight from the field of death into the pastures of the living. The dancer reaching from adavu to adavu is in this sense a partaker in the miraculous, a worker of the impossible act of transubstantiation, the dead letter re-made into living flesh.

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Rasa in Filmed Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


Filmed dance seems to me an artistic entity almost entirely different from the live recital. But I don’t want to revisit here arguments of the kind that were made in the early 20th century by audiences who resented the switch from live theatre to celluloid : the loss of personal intimacy, of the charged group atmosphere, the elements of risk, extemporization, spontaneity, the smell of theatre paint, and so on.

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The Ineffable in Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


An ineffable experience is one that is beyond the reach of any words to analyse or describe it. This kind of experience can only be approached by way of symbol, poetry, or metaphor. From the perspective of analytical criticism there is nothing than can accurately be said about it. So far as practical criticism is concerned, however, we can’t avoid the occurrence of the ineffable by the expedient of just ignoring it – unless of course we have never experienced it and feel ourselves capable of clear analytical statements about the whole of our experience of dance. And I don’t think any rasika would imagine so foolish a thing.

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On Filming Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


If I have claimed in other essays only to be clarifying the obvious on my own behalf, I must make that claim with especial emphasis in this case. The points I will be making should, it seems to me, be self-evident to all camera-persons filming dance and to all dancers being filmed. And yet, when it comes to watching filmed dances, these simple factors seem almost always to be ignored, nor does one readily come across articles that speak about them.

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