A person’s identity begins with being human—a foundation on which s/he adds other layers. Similarly, an artist learns an art form by building a core base—a foundation on which s/he explores further. Drawing on movements of technique of the Odissi and Bharatanatyam forms, the dancers revisit their roots in a paced tempo, beginning their journey together—a quest inward before looking outward, to find a unique purpose for strong ties to the art forms. They parallel their human identity with the process of identifying as an artist, first for education, and later, to create.
The classical Indian dance forms require lifelong pursuit of study and processing, seeking endless refinement. The journey progresses while an artist experiences different phases of being an artist—sometimes empty and at other times, fulfilled. Concurrently, artists often go through more tangible journeys, moving between countries on a physical level. Consequently, the mind exists in many places at different times—sometimes nostalgic for the India that has been left behind, and at other times, searching for greener pastures. Set against Jayadeva’s lyrical composition, Dasavatar, which describes the ten magnificent incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, the dancers metaphorically juxtapose their own journeys—external and internal identities, seeking the essence of purpose and mission in each avatar. Conceptually, they evolve from seeking knowledge in Mastya; experiencing heaviness and sharing burden in Kurma; clearing darkness and illusion in Varaha; and fighting negative energies in Narasimha. The dancers shift, evolving from animal-like avatars into those that are more human in form, exploring ideas of humility and ego in Vamana; fighting for social justice in Parasurama; experiencing realization in Rama; attempting to take control of the future in the present in Balarama; showing compassion and kindness in Buddha; and forging ahead into the future in Kalki.
Hastas represent the mind and its creative potential—extensions of powerful nerves triggering in the artist’s mind, reflecting and creating while journeying. Hand gestures, hastas are like letters, alphabets strung together waiting to sing. Augmented with abhinaya, facial expressions that often convey intense emotions, they are so important to the dancer’s ability to convey an idea, or even a feeling.
The incubation of artistic energy paints a colorfully curated map of patterns. There is an inherent celebration and happiness in moving with others, traveling across an ocean of drumbeats. Rhythmic pieces in classical Indian dance best display the scope of movement and use technique to create group dynamics.
Nurturing the body is obvious for dancers, but harmonizing the mind is also essential. Focused contemplation and deep meditation allows for restoration, absorbing the panchabhutas—earth, water, fire, air and space.
An ethnomusicologist once said that classical Indian music begins not in silence, but by collecting all the sounds of the Earth, melting them into a balanced sruti, which is the drone sound in which the classical Indian music is seated. The Om, the primordial sound, is chanted in a particular sruti, emitting positive vibrations that fill the ears, the heart, even tingling the skin. The Om is the means to go deep into a very special place—a private one that is filled with sacredness—a sacredness defined by the individual self.
With breath, we continue to exist, in the present. But it is the breath that carries us into the future. Being artists, we breathe our work, consciously and unconsciously, day in and day out, in the past and the future. It’s a consuming feeling in a churning samudra, an ocean.