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  • Prateesha Suresh

Dance, Spiritualism and the Natyashastra

Being a classical dancer there is always a deep interest to know about how the classical dances would have originated and evolved through the centuries. Although we get to know plenty from ancient books, scriptures, commentaries, temples, etc., we also know that there are unwritten traditions held close by communities - practitioners who believe in a sanctity of their tradition and strongly safeguard them from the outside “modern” influence. Inadvertently, as we have been seeing in the world of creative arts, there is always a chance of such traditions slipping into inexperienced hands.

I have been practising Sattriya Dance for more than thirty years now. It is the classical dance form from Assam envisioned by Shrimanta Shankardeva - a saint, poet, playwright and social-reformer - as he was on his journey on the Bhakti Marg. He and his disciples were creating a wonderful school of art consisting of music, dance, drama, craft, etc.I was curious to study the various aspects that may have influenced the art of Sattriya. In this course, it interested me to find out about the role of Buddhism in Assam of which, not much has been written. It was at this point that I was having a conversation with my husband. His casual remark, “Why don’t you find out about the classical dance of Nepal?” had me thinking and led me to a very interesting experience. So far I had never heard of any classical dance from Nepal. I turned the internet and what I found intrigued me. In my search for the influence of Buddhism in the Arts I came face to face with the beautiful Charya Dance of Nepal.

Charya Dance, (as my interaction with Mr. Swayambhu Ratna Shakya and his wife Mrs. Sangita Shakya from Dance Mandal in Kathmandu led me to understand) is a sacred ritual dance of meditation. It is practiced by the Vajracharyas of the Newar community of Nepal - the lineage of Lord Buddha! The dance is for the ‘self’, as the philosophy of Buddhism teaches. It is propitiatory and meditative in nature. The dances represent Gods and Goddesses and the dancer dances to imbibe the qualities in them by practising the dance which is meditative in nature. There is a long story of how the dance came into existence, how it has been handed down through generations and preserved in its sanctity till date.

In all these revelations, what struck me, was the similarity of this dance form to the classical dances of India and its closeness to the Natyashastra and Indian Puranas. At the outset, I was pleasantly surprised when their prayer song was introduced to me.

Om Guru Buddha

Om Guru Dharma

Om Guru Sangha Tathaivacha

Om Bajra Dhadassaiba

Tasmin Shree Guruvya Namo!

is so similar to the Dhyana Shloka of Indian classical dances, taken from the Skanda Puran,

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu

Gurur Devo Maheswaraha

Guruh Sakshat Parabrahma

Tasmay Shri Gurabhye Namaha!

As much as this was a revelation for me, so was it for them! There was more to come!

The basic footwork used in the dance are called ‘aalidha’ and ‘pratyalidha’. These terms again are used in our classical dances taken from the Natyashastra. Coincidentally or otherwise even the movement followed by these footwork were the same. Next came the hand gestures which followed the same trend. Although they were not particular about the names of the hand gestures or “hastas” as we call them, the use of gestures for denoting ‘eyes’, ‘cutting’, ‘blessing’ or ‘praying’ were the same as “kartari”, “pataka”, “anjali”, “alapadma”, etc. But not once did the mention any reference to the Natyashastra.

As we moved on to the talaas and the raga patterns, I realised they were not conversant with Indian classical music. But when they showed the “jati taal” with seven beats and the “jhapa taal” while also mentioning raag ‘Dhanashree’ and ‘Nata’, my mind had no doubt that the Charya Dance is so similar to our classical dance tradition.

As explained to me and from the literature provided to me, Charya dance is a tantric, ritual dance of meditative nature. Here the body is used as a vehicle to dance and the mind meditates for spiritual transformation. The dances are for deities and the dancer dresses up as the deity whose dance is being performed, imbibing the qualities of that particular deity through the dance. In other words, the dancer dances as the deity which comes alive, for the audience, by which they experience the divinity of the deity. The dances are accompanied by very slow singing of the Charya Gitis and the rhythm is kept by playing small brass cymbals called “Taa” which create the sounds - “tin-chu”, Only when the dance is slightly aggressive the drum called ‘Dabdaba’ is played. The drum with the hourglass shape is very much like the Indian “damaru” which is Lord Shiva’s instrument but which is not used in the Indian classical dance tradition. The language used in the dance is Sanskrit. It is believed that this dance form has been practiced by the Vajracharyas or Newar priests of the Kathmandu Valley for over a thousand years. A Charya Nritya practitioner’s role is to bring the Buddhas to life by offering through the body, speech and mind as vessels for enlightenment.