Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Shiva’s Moon The Dance of India by Marisa MogliaGo Back to Table of Contents
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Even in Ancient Greece, where dance was the prototype for what was to become the chorus in drama, and finally song-in which dance was a part of all ritual and celebration and was considered a fundamental part of the education that was to create of each member of society a complete citizen-dance never acquired the sense of the sacred that it did in India. There, dance is both worship, ritual, sacrifice and adoration-an offering and consecration to please God and to liberate humanity from the eternal cycle of life and death. The ultimate object of the dance is to achieve sacred liberation, or what is termed Mukti.

A dancer of India is thus not merely a performer, and a dancer in the West might find it difficult to imagine such ecstatic liberation-or even to genuinely desire it. The Western practitioner may be able to identify and define most of what binds them to the illusionary world of ego and matter-but if one were to break such binds, what lies beyond? The only hint of liberation is the reprieve into harmony that the practice of the dance creates. This total absorption into a divine absolute challenges the aesthetics of relativism in which all is tolerated in the name of self expression and individuality.

Contemporary aesthetics, with its emphasis upon the ego, contradicts the absolute values so vital to ancient art. Dance in ancient ritual is precisely self sacrifice: a loving devotional service (Bhakti), which is itself a form of liberation. Such devotion teaches extraordinary concentration and humility and brings a sense of release from personal and potentially claustrophobic life experiences oriented only around individual concerns. Bilvamangala Thakura, a great devotee of Lord Krishna, pierced his eyes so that he would no longer be disturbed by the material world. Through penance and austerity he was afforded transcendental liberation. So gratifying was his devotion that he wrote “Bhakti (devotion) is such that Mukti (liberation) is nothing for me.” If one devotes oneself to the hours of practice that Indian dance requires daily one might be tempted to agree. Why should one seek the cure when the medicine is so good?

Still one can imagine the ecstatic liberation that Devadasis (ancient temple dancers) experienced. The suggestion is overwhelming to the arts, in that through dedication and sacrifice, art is sacred precisely because it is associated with a greater creative force. Indian dance, with its origins in antiquity, has maintained this vital spiritual content.

To sustain this spirituality in the present, the first preoccupation of the dancer is to aim at perfecting a given time-space. The second is to create an aesthetic emotion termed ‘Rasa.’ Rasa is explained in a simple verse in the Abhnaya Darpan, an ancient text on the gestures used in dance and theatre: “Where the hand goes eyes also should go there. Whiter the mind goes psychological state (bhava) should turn thither, and where there is the psychological state, there the sentiment (Rasa) arises.” Where Rasa is created by the dancer, it is as well transmitted to the spectator, who, in turn, reciprocates the sentiment. In Indian dance this art of transmission and empathy is called Abhinaya.

Thus the completion of the dance depends not only on the artistic level of the dancer, but also on the sensibilities of the spectator. Spectators are often initiates (Rasika) who must practice their capacity to open themselves to the horizon of the Rasa experience. Once open to this experience, they must permit the energy of Rasa to penetrate completely their mind-body-soul; breaking defined time-space into all time-space; one individual life to all life. This experience creates a state of joy and a feeling of communion of both mental and physical identification in which the ego encrusted activity of the mind and senses is put to rest-leaving an open horizon of unending higher reality.

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