Ban's View from the Outside


by Harbans L. Nakra, Ph.D. No Comments

The Bharata Natya that we practice today is actually a composite art made up of two separate art forms – NRITYA and NRITTA. Nritya in its early form was known as ABHINAYA. One day, in those long ago days, Lord Brahma saw Lord Shiva perform his dance. He was so pleased that he immediately asked Bharata Muni to teach it to his students. Lord Shiva in his turn deputed his senior student Tandu to dutifully do the teaching. When Bharata Muni informed his students, they protested, asking, “why should we do this when we already have Abhinaya?” To which Bharata Muni replied “Because it is BEAUTIFUL.”

The new dance was named Tandava and incorporated in their program. It was composed of a set of postures called Karanas. There are 108 of them that have survived as sculpted figurines on temple walls and pillars in South India. Dance pieces, called Angaharas, were created by stringing together some selected Karanas. The Natyashastra contains the descriptions of 32 Angaharas and also of the 108 Karanas.

The Tandava dance was vigorous and highly energetic and probably seemed to the students to be complicated and difficult to do, particularly given their initial attitude. This might explain the lack of any evidence today that would indicate their having been widely performed in their time. What pieces have survived are simpler forms which got incorporated, over time, into performances of Abhinaya. Together they got designated as NRITTA. In this situation the Nritta parts do not get their full potential for performing as parts of an art apart. Incorporating Nritta parts in Abhinaya pieces was not easy. The limitations of doing that arise essentially from the fact that these two art forms have different aesthetic paths. The rasa in Abhinaya derives from emotional empathy whereas in Nritta, its source is kinesthetic empathy.

One might ask “Is there a difference between the two rasas?” The feeling produced in the spectator is what we call Rasa. It cannot be defined except to say that it is a mental state of pleasure that is related to the quality of the performance. In the beginning the feeling is closely linked to the performance, but as the performance builds up, the rasa developed in the spectator from a good performance, starts to lose its connection with the source and in the ultimate state it can get detached from it. This state of the mind is sometimes referred to as ANANDA while others have called it a transcendental state. This state is not easy to reach because the mind is innately designed to produce random thoughts and resists any attempt to stop that. Because the performances tend to be of short durations, the transcendental state, if at all attained, is temporary. The aggregate of their duration over a whole performance can be used to determining the performance at some level on the “good” scale. Pursuing this line of thinking further would take us into the spiritual realm. The well known Hindu teacher- philosopher Abhinava Gupta has stated that the pleasure one derives from a real work of art is no less than divine pleasure.

Much critical study has gone into the analysis and the understanding of Rasa in Indian literature, always starting with its origin in emotional empathy. By comparison there is no evidence of any study of the Nritta experience as developed from kinesthetic empathy. Fortunately, the latter has received much scholarly attention in the West, especially over the last century because of the sudden emergence of interest in Modern dance. It is now asserted that the feeling that arises from watching beauty, either in a static image or in a dynamic action, is the same as an aesthetic experience that can rise to the level of the sublime. This experience can be had in a dance or even in certain actions in sport.

In fact the ultimate aesthetic experience in both cases is the same. It is the feeling of pleasure which leads to varying levels of Ananda or the sublime. Differences might arise from the different nature of the actions that produce such feelings. In a dance, the effects of kinesthetic empathy, over the duration of the performance, can be integrated and a total impression formed.

Defining actions that promote kinesthetic empathy imply prescribing actions in the performance of the art. Such prescriptions are difficult to state and even more to defend. What is easy and certainly more useful would be to do so with respect to the practice of a given individual or a group. Here I would like to describe that which is reflected in the training provided at the Kala Bharati Dance School in Montreal by Mamata Niyogi Nakra. Her work has evolved over the years starting from 1981. Her initial guidance came from her Gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga Devi, of Bangalore, who had themselves received their initial training from Guru Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai. Learning from her gurus, Mamata has developed a special interest in the Nritta aspect of Bharata Natya, somewhat helped by her exposure to Western dance in Montreal.

Mamata recalls how ‘Guru-ji’ used to emphasize the qualities of precision and consistency in all movements. By precision he did not ask that “I conform to any otherwise conceived standard but rather to follow precisely what I as a teacher determined was the best, consistent with beauty and whatever expressive meaning that was intended, if any”. Having defined the action, all repetition of it had to follow with consistency.

Another quality that her Guru emphasized was that all movements of the limbs must be imbued with energy and the intensity should be palpable. For example the hand not involved in showing any mudra should not be left hanging limply but should be sufficiently energized to be in a defined position.

To the above directions, Mamata has added some ideas of her own. She has introduced the concept of ergonomics in the movements. What it implies is that any kind of contortion or apparent constraint in the movement or posture should be avoided. Further, all movements and postures should respect the laws of physics to ensure balance and stability.

Part of Guru Krishna Rao’s legacy that he has bequeathed to Kala Bharati, has been the classification of some basic movements of Nritta, that is, the adavus . More details on the adavus will be available in a publication with a video, under preparation by Kala Bharati.




Do I enjoy Nritta as much as Nritya? - Michel Laveldiere

I used a comparison with modern and contemporary art: many people will never understand anything to Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko’s paintings, nevertheless, they are praised all over the world for being two of the greatest American modern painters. In dance, it is easy to understand that the majority in the audience will enjoy abhinaya and stories they can understand, still, when Nritta is performed, it doesn’t need to be understood in the same way. The movements are moving sculptures and they don’t need to mean something concrete. What is unique in Bharata Natya, is that a performance will include both styles and both will become one in the end as two parts of the same artform.


My experiences as a dancer - Renu Chitra

This article gives dance enthusiasts a great opportunity to connect and discuss thoughts on Nritta, Nrtiya and Natya. A question to ask ourselves is: Does Nritta evoke emotions (rasa) or feelings and finally can dance give one Ananda (feeling of peace)? To me Nritta does generate emotions. As a dancer, it generates feelings of joy when dancing, for example, the Alaripu, Tilanna or Jatiswara, as it does when I do a Pada. Of course, the latter may be interwoven with an array of feelings as the dancer depicts a story or a scene. As stated in the article it’s the difference between the kinesthetic empathy and the emotional empathy. For myself I prefer engaging in items that are dense in generating emotional empathy. Items in which I am able to connect with a character or a story being told and allow the audience to feel what I am conveying. This is not an easy task; it is easy to shake my head a dozen times trying to express a simple ‘are you alright?’ versus looking at a direction and using the body holding a position, fixing a gaze of concern then requiring affirmation to express the same ‘are you alright?’.