An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)

Sri Aurobindo once wrote:

“The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development” (Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (CWSA), Vol. 1, p. 439).

A dance-drama titled, Beyond Names triggered the following reflections. Produced by a Secundarabad-based organization, Our Sacred Space, the performance “celebrates the paths by which we seek the Essence. Whatever way we choose to acknowledge it. It is but One Energy – to which we assign the name of our choice.” (programme brochure).

The title Beyond Names sounded highly appealing – a movement through the various forms to the essential one, the formless; going via and beyond the varied names to the one eternal nameless. The performance featured Odissi dance by Nayantara Nanda Kumar, storytelling and poetry recitation.

The performance began with the traditional invocation to the gods, the universe and the audience, with the dancer performing Panchadevata Mangalacharan (salutations to five deities – Ganesha, Jagannatha/Vishnu, Rudra, Surya, and Shakti). This was followed by Sthai Nato, a pure nritta piece.(1)

For the abhinaya (2) component, a Hindi poem about a barbaric act of violence committed during inter-religious communal riots was evocatively recited by the dancer’s mother, a librarian and storyteller, while the dancer portrayed the emotions of the story. The combination of dance and storytelling was meant to evoke a certain kind of educative experience. But somehow it failed to do so, at least for me. Only on a couple of brief occasions I felt momentary emotional pull, perhaps because of the story’s emotional content. Overall, this particular performance failed to move me.

For the arts to be an education for the soul, two things are necessary: the artist’s ability to evoke a certain kind of experience through the chosen art form; and the learner or spectator’s readiness and receptivity. Maybe I wasn’t receptive enough that particular evening, maybe I couldn’t open myself enough to take ‘in’ the experience. Or just maybe I couldn’t ‘feel’ a movement beyond the outer phenomenon to the Essence, beyond the names and forms to the Nameless and Formless, beyond the seen to the Unseen, beyond the violence to the Peace.

All the pieces following the abhinaya (Prayer for Peace – Moving Meditation, Transforming Anger, Jung ya Aman) relied exclusively on words, gentle movement, poetry recitation, and a video clip of an interview with a spiritual teacher, and had no dance component. According to the brochure the performance hoped to address the following:

“We are witnessing a revival of fundamentalism of various hues. We are encouraged to believe that the religion we profess is the “best”, unlike the “other” that is rabid/discriminatory/primitive, little realizing that it is the notion of “best” that contains the seed of violence.

“War is but the orchestrated version of the violence that we allow in thought, word and deed. War brutalizes both victor and vanquished and makes violence acceptable, leaving a trail of broken homes, broken families, broken lives…

“Beyond Names asks: Can we not evolve ways that are non-judgemental, inclusive, loving? For, in truth, there is no “other”. To hate another is to hate ourselves….to embrace another is to embrace ourselves. Is that not the Essence that all of us seek…to be able to live in peace with ourselves?”

 I was hoping that the performance would somehow gradually and gently ease the audience into a quieter place of awareness – even if only for a few moments – of the Essence beyond all names and forms, into a place where such questions of violence, war and fundamentalism would be silenced, just for those moments.

Sadly, that never happened. The experience didn’t take me to that place. Even the concluding dance piece titled Moksha and Shanti Mantra failed to do so, perhaps because it ended rather quickly before I could really ‘immerse’ into it or ‘flow’ with the vibration of Peace that it was meant to evoke.

The experience just kept me mentally engaged with questions such as: a) why an exclusive focus on only one particular “name” of religious fundamentalism – Hindu; b) why use a sensationalist-headline type of story to illustrate the deep-rooted violence hidden in the imperfect human nature; c) why not use dance and movement to express the idea of mindfulness instead of a spiritual teacher’s words; d) why use a video featuring more words instead of dance; and a few more.

More questions came later, particularly about the educative role of art (the second purpose of art, as per Sri Aurobindo). What kind of educational experience should art evoke, and in what ways? Are there possible ways through which art can take the audience to a deeper place within or a higher place beyond mind, even if for a split second, where the questioning mind is silenced and a subtler learning begins?

Many artists and art forms take on an ‘educative’ role as their raison d’être these days. But are they really able to do so? Art definitely has an educational purpose, but not through dry intellect or through a sensationalist-vitalistic provocation or activism. Art educates by a subtle training of the intellectual faculty as it helps make the mind quick to grasp at a glance, subtle enough to distinguish shades and deep enough to reject shallow self sufficiency. Art raises images in the mind which it has to understand not by analysis, but by self-identification with other minds, thus helping the mind become mobile, subtle, delicate, swift, and intuitive (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 449).

Art is suggestive and can arouse a sense of sympathetic insight. The intellect habituated to the appreciation of art becomes quick to catch suggestions, mastering not only that which is positive and on the surface, but also that which leads to ever fresh widening and subtilising of knowledge. (ibid.)

But to truly fulfil even its educative role, Art must first discover its essential purpose.

“…the highest Art is that which by an inspired use of significant and interpretative form unseals the doors of the spirit. But in order that it may come to do this greatest thing largely and sincerely, it must first endeavour to see and depict man and Nature and life for their own sake, in their own characteristic truth and beauty; for behind these first characters lies always the beauty of the Divine in life and man and Nature and it is through their just transformation that what was at first veiled by them has to be revealed. The dogma that Art must be religious or not be at all, is a false dogma, just as is the claim that it must be subservient to ethics or utility or scientific truth or philosophic ideas. Art may make use of these things as elements, but it has its own svadharma, essential law, and it will rise to the widest spirituality by following out its own natural lines with no other yoke than the intimate law of its own being.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 229-230)

Art may be inspired by or make use of any aspect from Life and Nature, from current events to timeless tales, from social issues to eternal truths, but in order for it to rise up to its aim in opening the door to the Spirit, it must express what it sees in their essential truth and beauty, beyond and beneath what is on the surface. The essential law, the svadharma of Art is to express through a specific form the formless essence, the very ‘is-ness’ of the thing it chooses to depict.

Even in its educative role Art must not steer away from its svadharma and reduce itself to being merely provocative, reactive, sensationalist or sentimental. When Art becomes Activism and stays only at that level, it may cease to be Art.

“The highest and most perfect Art, while satisfying the physical requirements of the aesthetic sense, the laws of formal beauty, the emotional demand of humanity, the portrayal of life and outward reality….reaches beyond them and expresses inner spiritual truth, the deeper not obvious reality of things, the joy of God in the world and its beauty and desirableness and the manifestation of divine force and energy in phenomenal creation.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 450)

(1) Nritta: abstract dance, where the body makes patterns in space with no particular meaning attached to any gesture or movement. While various mudras are used in nritta, they are not meant to convey any story.
(2) Abhinaya:  a tradition of story-telling in Indian classical dances, Abhinaya is a word which literally means ‘leading towards’, that is, leading the audience towards an experience of a particular rasa. These stories may be puranic, mythological, legends or even contemporary.

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Beloo Mehra
Beloo Mehra donned the hats of school teacher, university professor and researcher for many years, and is now happy to be doing what she does best – learn. Living in Pondicherry for the last 10 years, she devotes most of her time to studying the works of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo (particularly the ones focusing on educational, social and cultural thought), writing, gardening and just being. She is the author of 'ABC’s of Indian National Education' (Standard Publishers, 2014) and 'The Thinking Indian: Essays on Indian Socio-Cultural Matters in the Light of Sri Aurobindo' (self-published e-book). 

4 Replies to “An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)”

  1. Eli Ert

    Love your reflections dear Beloo. Even though a great performance I can understand what you were missing… I think art should always be “free” – the minute someones uses it to make a statement or build up under a message – it looses it power… Great pictures:-)

  2. Harpreet

    We need such more candid and flowing experience of the audience. Well expressed. But may be you experience and study dance more you could empathise more with the hard work of dancers and pinpoint what is needed.

    • Beloo Mehra

      Thanks Harpreet! Oh I completely agree about the hard work and meticulous and detailed work that goes in composing any dance performance, or any artwork for that matter. As you clearly point out, it was really a personal experience as an audience which led to these reflections. I am in complete awe and gratitude of all the artists who can compose, paint, sculpt, write or create any work of art that touches the depth of our being, even if it is for a few moments. Just a verse or a couplet, or a piece of alaap, or a gentle dance movement, or a brush stroke can result in timeless wonder and an eternal work of beauty.

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