Nataraj: The Cosmic Dancer

“…This was the Ananda-Tandava, the dance of bliss.  Shiva struck a whole series of poses to stir the imagination.  He finally froze.  This final pose contained the wisdom of the Vedas.  What had not been realized by priests and ascetics after performing hundreds of rituals, was realized by that one pose.” – Devdutt Patnaik, Seven Secrets of Shiva

As the Lord of Dance, the King of Dancers, Lord Shiva is the ultimate teacher.   He teaches through dance because words are too literal to capture the essence of the formless; it can be heard and read, it entices the senses, arouses the emotions of the viewers and invites the mind to analyze it intellectually.  “In this process, tools to deconstruct Maya are passed on.”  However, how many of us dancers really meditate on his teachings, really trust his liberating blows?  When we go up on stage,  how can we experience Lord Shiva as a live entity, as the energy itself that keeps the planets revolving?  How to forget ourselves, forget our fears, and stand unshakable on one leg? This traditional item can be the door that leads to a path of realization that invites the practitioner to dissolve and become as fluid as water and as vigorous as fire.

The item consists of three different moments that ultimately reveal the nature of the deity, and act as a metaphor for the neverhlf-danza-marcial-chhau-3 ending phenomenon of creation and destruction in the universe.  The first portion known as “sthai” depicts a series of poses, or asanas in which Lord Shiva stands to witness the cosmos, dwelling in his infinite, meditating self. Between pose and pose, he shifts through space with ondulating movements that give account to his fluctuating identity: the one who can become water, ever flowing, giving the substance for birth and washing away with death.  The gestures of the hands in each asana communicate qualities, states of mind, elements and the reassuring blessings that invite us not to fear.  His stance is generally on one leg, disclosing the balanced, calm and composed state of the self, where he is comfortable, again free from fear.

The dance then follows to represent the story when a group of Mimansikas (those who yearn to understand the meaning of life) were performing rituals in the forest and Shiva walked past them.  Seeing such an oblivious state of bliss, they were distracted, blamed him, and feared him, for he was so content and blissful that he did not seek wealth, power, or even knowledge.  In Shiva, they saw a threat to all they greedily aspired for and so they decided to destroy him.  Consequently, they used their knowledge to invoke creatures from the fire: first came a tiger, then a serpent and finally a dwarf demon.  Shiva feared none, but instead defeated each and ultimately ripped the demon apart, hence starting to dance.

Third eye opensIn the item, this part starts when The Dancer sits down to meditate, and with the upbeat change of the music is shown to have been disturbed by a demonic entity.  This demon is precisely our ego, the fear of the Mimansikas, our pride, or greed and ambition, even for spiritual attainment. As of that moment, Shiva unleashes the fire of his third eye to burn and destroy our attachments and petty illusions. The demon is elusive, hard to catch, so He chases him around the stage, until with a swift jump he stands on his back.   This forceful dancing is known as Tandava, demanding attention through realization, evoking thought and img_4279provoking consciousness.  After having ripped out the insides of the demon, he proceeds to throw him at each of the four corners of the world.  This is enlightenment, thus the dance of bliss starts.

The last part of the dance, known as Nataki, is supossed to disclose the mesmerizing ecstasy in which Nataraja lingers.  Once again, this is the chance for the Dancer to let go.  I imagine his form expanding, the locks of his hair flowing through the universe, his hands juggling planets.  By the time I finish my last round of paltas, just about to take the chouk stance and turn quickly and taking up that final pose. The mastery lies in holding it a little after the music has finished, so that iShiva's dance of blisss can unfold its mysteries in stillness. The most mystifying thing is that the dance really begins after having finished.

The music for this traditional item of the Northern School (Uttar Sahi) follows a 12 beat pattern in the sthai part, then a 7 beat in the antara and 16 beats in the Nataki. One of its best exponents was Guru Sri Hari Nayak.

On the white hill tops of eternity, he reveals his infinite soul behind a peaceful veil of fire.  Blissful just to be, he witnesses the unfathomable deepness and watches over us in compassionate silence.  “Oh Lord Shiva, do not hurt your feet by dancing on the rocky slopes of Himalayas, instead, come and dance in my heart.”


Dandi: The Dance of the Wandering Ascetic

Dance with a Wooden stickMoments before going onstage I pick up my dandi (wooden stick) and kamandal (small pot).  Naturally the memories of those I have left behind, to embark on this journey of dance, start coming.  I remember my mother’s face as I cross the emigration gates at the airport, she wonders when she will see me again.  She is happy that I have taken this path, but sad to let me go. My sister, holding her beautiful son who calls me “antie Tonina” looks at me hopefully as small tears roll down her cheeks.  To my father I have said goodbye the night before.  Dancer and all, he accepts me now, he believes in me…”Live your life, do your best” he has said.

As I take the steps for the entry and sit in dharan (basic chhau position), my eyes get watery and then I know that the dance will be real.

Dandi is a solo dance item of the Southern school of Mayurbhanj Chhau.  It is based on the traditional ritual carried out by Brahmins and Kshatriyas to celebrate the development of a boy into manhood and his possibility to become a Brahmacharia (a celibate saint).  This custom is well known as Branatopayan, Upanayanam, or sacred thread ceremony.  Priorly, in the time of the Yajurveda it was conducted for boys (tying the thread) as well as for girls (ear lobe piercing) just before they would leave their homes to begin a process of training or education in a Gurukul.  Later on as the role of women changed in the society, it was only directed to boys between 7 and 14 years of age. Nowadays, if for some reason it can not take place then, it is mandatory to be done before marriage.

Meditation StanceBefore the ritual, the boys take bath, shave their heads, apply turmeric on their bodies, and wear saffron colored loin clothes, the color of ascetism and renunciation.   The thread, also known as janeu is worn underneath the clothes in the company of a group chant of ‘Gayatri’ mantra. It is twisted in an upward direction to make certain that ‘Sattwaguna’ (good quality of truth) prevails.  After tying janeu, the initiate goes around soliciting alms from his relatives, as this is the time when he can decide to leave home, and renounce the world to live the life of a wondering ascetic, carrying only a wooden stick taken from the branch of a holy tree, and a small pot with water.  The Priest whispers three “magic” mantras into his ears.  These, encouraged by the hypnotic sound of the dhol will empower him to cross the three lines drawn outside the house with rice paste and turmeric.  The uncle usually stands here as a protector to make sure that he doesn’t.  The three lines represent our worldly attachments: to our loved ones, to material goods and to our own ego. They can also be associated with triplets such as the three qualities: sattva, rajas and tamas; the three states: wakefulness, dream and deep sleep and the three dimensions of Heaven (swarga), Earth (mrityuloka) and Nether Regions (pataloka).  If he decides to cross them, he can never come back and must dedicate his life to seek for the immortal Supreme Soul.

In the dance we cross the lines

the wandering asceticAs I symbolically draw them with my leg movements and lightly jump above them, I look back to see what I am leaving behind: a secure family life, material luxuries and economic stability.  Still I cross them.  I breath deeply.  Though I know the movements that will follow and the effort required, the journey through the item is always unknown.  The fear and sad departure of the beginning slowly changes into a streak of hope, “will I be able to make it this time?” and a gush of energy that motivates me to continue.  Avartam by avartam (complete dance cycles) I travel through forests, cross rivers, jump over rocks and stumble upon my ego, breathing through my weaknesses and discovering new strengths.  Suddenly the transition of the music comes and as I jump to take the sitting position, I close my eyes and wait for the uplifting music that will carry my body till the end of the item.  The nataki (celebration part) starts: the Brahmachari has discovered the joys of meditating and now he indulges in the ecstasy of being one with the Higher Self.  Sometimes the dance gives me the blessing of experiencing a bit of this feeling.  And as I very slowly exit the stage with a feeling of togetherness, I know my journey continues.

Dandi is one of the items that draws upon traditional Odiya music and it is set to Dhamar taal with 14 beats.  The movements involved, express the softest quality of the Mayurbhanj style called Kalibhanga, thus back bends and deep sitting are utilized.  Guru K.C Naik (a guru brother of Guruji) was said to be the best exponent of this item.  Guruji tells us that his expression was so powerful and real in the beginning of the dance that people used to cry and then they would be amazed at how supple he was and how he could bend touching his head to the ground.