Art Beyond Aesthetics: the Spiritual Dimension of Natyashastra

by Gayatri Iyer


Some time ago I attended a contemporary dance recital by a famed British troupe in Delhi. While it had a lot of fancy light-sound technology and the dancers displaying their rubber-band flexibility on stage, I believe the entire recital which includes the stage, costumes, movement, plot, dancers did not really take me through the story. It just left me as I was when I entered the auditorium. As I compared this to a Bharatnatyam performance Namami Gangai (the journey of the Ganges) which I saw a few weeks back, the whole performance from start to end took me through the journey of Ganga and at the end of it I was left with a different feeling as compared to the start. I now understand that the Natyashastra, the text on Indian performance arts goes beyond the aesthetics to aim at awakening the self. Here are some of the beautiful aspects of the Natyashastra that I observed:

1] The entire plot of the birth of Ganga, her power and struggles came to light with the Bhavas being depicted by the characters through their body and mind play. As the journey continued, I went from being in a state of anger to a state of Utsaha at the end. Not only that, I felt a little opening within myself to connect deeper and reflect on my own journey.

2] The entire plot represented the three worlds of the Daivic, Asuric and the divine forces. The story of Ganga was showcased with how human greed clashed with Ganga and how divine intervention saved her in the end. The depiction of all these forces is simply a mirror to our inner being as well. We are a combination of all these forces and we cannot do way with any of them but just invite the Daivic or the good energy to preside over us.

3] It was not just the actors who helped in creating the Rasa Anubhava but it was precise combination of lighting, props, costumes, make up and sound that did the trick. Each step of the performance dunked me into a Rasa or essence just like a food tasting menu. I tasted a dash of veeryam, pinch of raudram and some sringaram all in one performance. Life would be so tasteless without all these Rasas and our ability to savour them.

4] The whole performance was a celebration of Ganga’s journey through her birth, her anger, the struggles but in the end, she regained all of her lost glory. Every moment was a homecoming of sorts that she has moved from one stage to the other in her struggles.

While any performance art has an entertainment angle to it, it is not the end-all. The primary goal and responsibility of arts as our ancient texts emphasised was to transport the audience into another parallel reality, awaken the inner being that is full of wonderment and leave them with pertinent questions about the self and their potential. The performances were a simple and popular way to nudge each person’s inner being and reflect on deeper spiritual questions.


You may also like: An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)  inspired by the words of Sri Aurobindo



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