• Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

    The Dance of Transformation

    by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)

    Dr. Prakriti Bhaskar humbly and masterfully opened worlds for us in a course entitled The Dance of Transformation, Bharata Natyam, at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG) February 22-28, 2017.

    Bharata Natyam comes from South India and is much more than dance. Historically, it is a part of the Hindu Temple which also includes literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, music and costume. We learned that dance is a language. It is bhakti, pure devotion, and sadhana, a spiritual discipline, as much as it is art. Dr. Bhaskar is a bhakta and an accomplished dancer and teacher. She has danced most of her life and has studied with three renowned dance masters. She met Swami Veda Bharati, an important milestone in her life. This has led her ever deeper in her search for an expression of the divine in dance and in life.

    Rhythm, movement and emotion in synchrony

    “Dance is a sacred communion of the body, breath and being moving in perfect harmony,” one of the printouts in the beautiful folders we received said. Its three chief elements are rhythm, movement and emotion. “Rhythm cultures the mind (alert and focused). Movement cultures the body (agile and awake). Emotion cultures the emotions (aware-catharsis/purification [of the mindfield.])”

    “All that is a projection of goodness from you, that one is rasa.”
    Taittriya Upanishad 2.7.1

    She discussed eight main bhavas (emotions) and rasa (juice, essence or taste) in Indian art based on textual sources and experience.

    “Does everyone feel the bhava the same? You have to have the capacity to savor the rasa, to melt your heart. It’s a refining process,” said Prakriti.  She continued. “Rasa  is the juice of life, the flavors that are savored. The enjoyer has that rasa within. There can be no enjoyment until there is the merging of subject and object. This rasa, this juice in the [art] object and in our subtle body become one. Sahridaya is when the spectator becomes one with the actor, the dancer, the work of art.”

    From Bharata to Abhinavagupta and beyond

    Prakriti explored the philosophy of art in ancient texts. The Rasa Sutra, a cornerstone of Indian aesthetics, is attributed to the muni Bharata.  Abhinavagupta, the 11th Century Kashmir Shaivism mystic took it further. He wrote Abhinavabharati, a commentary on the Natya Shastra in which he gave sadharanikarana, the theory of generalization. The arts’ “primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder and bliss, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.

    We enjoyed intriguing lectures on aesthetics, on the arts of the Hindu temple and more specifically on dance. There were also practicums in chanting, mudras, dance and two vibrant short films featuring Prakriti and her students in Mumbai. Two of her students came all the way from Mumbai and gave beautiful performances.

    Shiva Nataraja on Shivaratri

    On Mahashivaratri, Prakriti talked about the iconography of Shiva Nataraja and Shiva. She took us to the 5th Century A.D. when Shiva Nataraja is thought to have first appeared. An epic tale unfolded in the forest of Tillai, where Shiva disguised as an ugly medicant appeared with his consort Parvati. Tillai is important in yoga because it is the ancient name of Chidambaram, where Patanjali, the codifier of the Yoga-Sutras, walked those woods.

    “Indian Dance is a deconditioning process of body, mind and emotions.”
    –Prakriti Bhaskar

    Many elements come together in Bharata Natyam. “The witnessing mind integrates all this,” she said. As with any art form, you yourself are an integral part of the canvas of that work of art. It is no different in Bharata Natyam. It was a course in mudras. It was about precise alignment, synchronization and rhythm. It was a course in mindfulness. It was yoga and stillness at the heart of action. It delved into Indian philosophy from Abhinavagupta – to Krishna and the Gopis –to Shiva who caught Ma Ganga from worlds above in his matted locks lest she flood the world with the full force of her waters.

    Actually, it was not a course. We were taken into the heart of a guru-disciple relationship that shines in Prakriti, as much an innocent as an informed aspirant who could make you feel like her teachers were with us in the room. It was simple. It was a complex art form that kept unfolding more and more layers and drawing us in.

    “Sa vidya ya vimuktaye: Only that is knowledge which liberates.”
    the Vishnu Purana

    In India, be it philosophy or dance, music or painting, every discipline is a search for the divine. The ultimate goal is moksha, freedom from all props – the absolute union with the Godhead. Prakriti is no ordinary dance teacher. She is down-to-earth, soft-spoken, clear and loving in her teaching. Something in her truly shines. She understands with awe the ground she stands on, Mother Earth, as much as the moon and the stars above. The art of dance is nothing less. Every movement places a mark from the palette and makes designs in space. She led us through the corridors of ancient temple courtyards right into the garbhagriha of the soul. The garbhagriha is the innermost sanctum sanctorum of the Hindu Temple where the murti of the deity resides.

    The course provided rich insights and experiences. Prakriti said “Dance is self-training in which one remains conscious.” She continued “The process of transformation requires self observation, self analysis and meditation.” She added “the foundation of the Indian arts, whether music or dance, art or architecture, erects lofty edifices of silence.”

    She went on to say “when this movement becomes a mindful, deliberate movement, it becomes a different experience. It is training in movement with deep contemplative awareness.”

    I asked three participants what they liked most about the class and got some interesting answers. Here are their responses:

    “I’m someone who looks for meaning in everything I do.  Dr. Prakriti inspired me deeply because, even though there were many technical details to remember and every move was precise, she always kept us focused on the spiritual meaning behind the dance. This is the way she taught and this is really what I needed from this class.”– Hope Pukalanant, Thailand

    “She could really transmit her love and passion for this highly aesthetic form of art. I got so inspired by the workshop, that I would like to start practicing Bharata Natyam myself. It was of course amazing to see Prakriti and her students perform their dance, but even just by observing Prakriti's body language during her lectures one could see the beauty and grace deriving from years of training and immersing herself in dance.” – Lea Sellinger, Switzerland (an SRSG resident)

    “Whatever she learned from childhood to now, when she met Swami Veda, she understood everything that she was doing. When she spoke about movement from stillness, making a rhythm on empty space, she remembered Swami Veda and tears came from her eyes. She was in complete surrender to the Himalayan Tradition and to the Guru of all gurus.” – Gita Bhoi, Manipur, India (an SRSG teacher and resident)
    “We learned about sphota, the power of the word and some sacred chants and then the gestures that went with them. Then we danced it. The shloka we sang after the namaskar, which began and ended every session, still sings in me sometimes. ‘Angikam…Shivam.’ Learning the hand gestures and looking out over the group, there is the sense of a God creating a universe in the merging of the mysterious words and gestures. One feels awe. In assuming this cascade of mudras, a world unfolds effortlessly as though by the hand of God.”–from my dance journal

    Her Dance Gurus

    Prakriti studied under three eminent dance masters: Guru Raghavan Nair, Guru Kadhirvellu Pillai and Guru Adyar K. Lakshman. She has a doctorate in Bharata Natyam with expertise in Cross Rhythmic Choreography, which was developed by her beloved Guru Kadhirvellu Pillai, a dance master who was honored for his brilliant achievements yet who remained a simple, humble man. “He was a sadhaka,” she said. “No certificate, no exams. It was pure transmission.” Prakriti just loved this guru so much. “You inherit a vision from your master and you teach the way he taught you.”

    He spoke only Tamil. It was pure transmission. Prakriti said that she did not understand Tamil but that she understood everything that he taught because he taught from the heart. She told us how he began every class by feeding his students. They were idlis that his wife had made and he had brought from home. He had few physical possessions. There was no definite timeline or structure to his lessons. A class with him could last five minutes or five hours. You never knew what he was going to teach that day. It just unfolded. One gets the impression that if he had been an element of nature, he might have been a waterfall, the sunlight streaming through him, the freely flowing waters of his being tumbling toward his students, drenching them in cleansing light.

    It amazes me that Prakriti was able to teach us so much so quickly. It was an immersion experience in the language of Indian dance. “Indian dance is like the pencil and the space is the paper. Every correct gesture makes a line in space. Every incorrect gesture makes a scribble,” she said. There was synchrony of movement of hands, arms, eyes, neck and legs. How is it possible to make a swan with the hands? A deer, bees, a cobra and so many friends of the jungle?! She also showed us how you make a lion and a turtle that moves across space before your very eyes.

    Bhaskar paints the screen

    Prakriti has such a wealth of knowledge and experience to share yet she doesn’t know until nearly just beforehand what she will present. It just unfolds like the strokes of a brush on a canvas or the pen across a page.

    Her husband, Bhaskar, is Shiva to her Shakti. He is more than a technical genius; he too is an artist. He creates beautiful slide shows, puts together the music and the handouts. I asked him how he could possibly do the technical layout and backdrop for this series –which is so integral to her every performance and presentation, and he replied that he had completed everything two weeks back, that he knew before she did what she was going to do. What a team!

    Her old dance guru is present though he left the body years ago. Prakriti has a reverence for all the parts, all the elements of the whole flow, the world created in an utterance in sound and form (mantra and mudra) and the long line of old teachers who carried this to us all the way from the seer to whom this was first revealed. The guru-disciple tradition is alive in this class. Stillness.

    Awareness of the energy that fills each gesture

    “How is the moon?” Prakriti asks, her voice filled with joy.

    “Luminous,” comes the response. The fingers stretch and their moons become fuller. She showed us how you make a brittle gesture and how you fill it with feeling. Amazing that the fingers can say so much just by how you hold them and with what energy you fill them.

    When I watched Prakriti– and even some of these beginning students of Bharata Natyam– make the mudra for the moon, it was as if they were placing the moon in front of us. I especially loved watching some of them put the stars up in the sky. It filled me with wonder every time!

    There is so much to tell you but really, I don’t know where to begin.

    (Photos by Jay Prakash Bahuguna. The 3 hand photos were provided by Dr. Prakriti Bhaskar.)

    Editor’s Note:

    More photos can be seen in the previous article “Rasasvada – Taste of Bliss”.

    Also more photos can be seen at this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.10155147471643060&type=1



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