Dancing Towards the Point of Bliss

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Issue 298
September/October 2016
Regenerative Cities

The Arts

Dancing Towards the Point of Bliss
by

issue cover 298

Cover: Illustration by Luc Schuiten www.vegetalcity.net

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Satish Kumar interviews Miti Desai, classical Indian dancer, designer and teacher.

Miti Desai, photo © Mitwa Abhay Vandana

Miti Desai, photo © Mitwa Abhay Vandana

How did you become involved in dance?

My journey in dance emerged from my journey in design. I studied applied art in Mumbai, after which I went to the United States to study design. I began to grow more and more uncomfortable at the idea of a life that revolved around commercial and financial transactions alone; and that is when I felt an innate urge to engage with and experience design holistically. This was the beginning of my entry into the world of dance: the need to engage with design internally gave rise to a desire to experience design within my body.

I had had a taste of classical dance as a little girl, and dance seemed to be the road through which I could internalise and experience body design. This search for an internal, spiritual and design approach to dance brought me in touch with my teacher, Mandakini Trivedi. Her dance school in Mumbai, Nateshvari Dance Gurukul, is committed to reviving the yogic (holistic and integrated) tradition in Indian dance through the perfection of technique and the perfection of the Self. I also trained briefly in Bauhaus Theatre at the Bauhaus School of Design in Dessau, Germany. That gave me a glimpse into Western theatre, dance and costumes, but my heart was drawn to the multilayered, integrated and philosophical principles in Indian aesthetics.

Thus communication through the external medium of design led me to an internal expression of body design, rediscovering classical Indian dance. Indian dance has been the key for my return to my cultural roots, symbols and worldview, resulting in an innate understanding of philosophy, culture and aesthetics, as well as their influence and inspiration in design, education, arts and the environment.

How does classical Indian dance differ from Indian folk dance?

The journey of dance begins with the emergence of tribal dances. Tribal dances are a celebration of Nature and most often are ritualistic. As society developed, so did dance. Folk dances came into being as a celebration of humanity and togetherness.

India has a rich heritage of folk dance. Each of India’s 29 states has at least one folk dance form. Folk dances are group dances where men and women come together and dance to celebrate togetherness, Nature, festivals and life events.

With the development of society and individual consciousness, subtler forms of expression emerged. Classical Indian dance is a result of the same process. It is deeply rooted in philosophy and is designed as a medium to travel through, with transcendence being the aim. There are seven different classical dance styles. Each comes from a different state in India, with a different geometry of movement, costume, jewellery and music, yet the principles and values are the same in all. Classical Indian dance forms are solo dance forms, and this is closely linked to the value and goal of the art form, with the focus being about the individual spiritual journey. A spiritual journey must be walked alone.

Folk dances are an outward celebration of togetherness where the form and movements are simple and easy to pick up. Classical Indian dance, on the other hand, is about an inward celebration of awareness where the form and movements are highly stylised and the practice of which requires heightened awareness, integration and introspection.

What is the meaning and philosophy behind classical Indian dance?

The philosophy of classical Indian dance is rooted in the philosophy of the civilisation and the culture through which it emanated. The prime question that the Indian worldview focuses on is, what is the purpose of life? Individual growth to raise the level of consciousness and to reach the highest spiritual potential is considered the purpose of life. This is a rather audacious vision. Thus to help the individual walk on this path ladders were created, in the form of all the arts, and classical Indian dance is one such ladder, created to allow a glimpse into the possibility of a higher self. The design of the art form has the potential for individual transcendence. Thus spirituality and philosophy form the core of classical Indian dance.

In the ancient Indian texts the Sanskrit expression used to describe the experience of the classical arts and its essence is known as brahmananda sahodara, which literally means ‘born from the same womb as the Absolute’. The artistic experience is therefore put at the same level as the supreme bliss of the Absolute.

The form of classical Indian dance is a holistic design in itself, with a heightened philosophical core layered with subtle and integrated aesthetic and symbolism. The form has two aspects. One is pure dance, the exuberance of movement, where the dancer (and through her, the viewer) experiences bliss and joy. The other is the mythological symbolism and storytelling. This borrows from literature and poetry, and it depicts stories about gods and goddesses within the Hindu tradition, and the celebration of Nature. Most Indian art forms are multilayered, and dance most of all, because it combines poetry, music, theatre and movement, each with a specific philosophical core structure and complexities. When all these arts are combined and layered one upon the other, you can imagine the sheer multiplicity and intricacy of thoughts, values and ideas that are presented. Classical Indian dance beams through its spiritual dimension and thus ceases to be purely an art form.

Tell me about your dance form

Among the seven classical Indian dance styles, the one I practise is called Mohiniattam, a dance style from Kerala (Southern India) with a rich mimetic tradition. Mohiniattam literally means ‘the dance of the enchantress’. With a subtle and introverted aesthetic, the style manifests through a circular geometry enhanced with swinging and swaying movements that penetrates into and through the feminine energy.

The form becomes a medium to transcend from the regional traditional into the universal eternal.

Is dance a way of life for you, or simply an art form?

Classicism emerges from a very subtle thought, which requires heightened awareness and discipline. And classical Indian dance is devised and designed in a way that facilitates an inward journey. But it is the combination of intention, integrity and intensity that results in the penetration of the art into the practitioner’s day-to-day life beyond just a profession or an activity. The form by itself is designed such that the mere practice of it also gives immense energy.

The dance school I train in and, more importantly, the teacher I train under focus on the ability of dance and art to penetrate into one’s life. In any master–disciple relationship, you are expected to apply what you are taught to your life.

My teacher focuses on what she refers to as “the yoga of dance”. The meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘to become one with’, ‘to unite’. Through the aesthetic form, the themes and the experience, classical Indian dance facilitates this process at the physical, intellectual and psychological level. And that is how I have been initiated into the world of classical Indian dance. The dancer must integrate with the dance; the essence of the dance must be held within and exist in everything that one does.

Inner growth is of prime importance to me. I try to view every action through that peephole. So professional decisions are weighed against core values. The practice of classical dance leads to an inner journey, an introspection, and I try to support that value in everything I do. I must say, though, that it is a humble attempt from my end and not any tall claim of achievement.

How does classical Indian dance differ from classical Western ballet?

At the aesthetic level, one distinct difference between the two is that in Western ballet the dance expression is skybound and in classical Indian dance it is earthbound.

In Western ballet the dancer’s movements soar upwards to express a sense of flight and freedom, while in Indian dance the dancer’s feet grip the earth and the centre of gravity is lowered, with the navel as the centre, almost as if the soles of the feet had roots penetrating within the earth, like a deeply rooted tree.

At the symbolic level, Western ballet depicts fairy tales and linear stories, while Indian dance travels through mythology and symbols and penetrates into a deep philosophy of transcendence.

How alive and dynamic is classical dance in India?

Classical Indian dance began in temples and evolved over time to become a respectable small industry. Although there is an abundance of practitioners, professionals and young people learning dance, its future seems dim. There is a lack of financial stability for a young person who would like to take it up as a full-time profession. There is not much money in dancing professionally, the experience can be unpleasant, and the commercial and professional aspects are sometimes a complete contradiction to the philosophical aspect of dance. While anything commercial takes away from its intrinsic value, without financial stability the art form will die, so there is a need to engage with the commercial aspect also.

One reason for this decline is that audiences are dwindling. The complexity of the dance form requires the understanding of many other art forms, and there is a language that must be deconstructed and understood. Art education is not active enough, and especially in Mumbai the influence of Bollywood (popular culture) inculcates the exact opposite values to those required for art appreciation. The arts are mediums to elevate you and nudge you to look more deeply into yourself, and Bollywood is a medium to entertain you and encourage you to escape from yourself. To appreciate any art form you need to be attentive and you need to think, and then you will come out of the experience elevated and energised. You can’t appreciate a classical dance recital while you are eating popcorn and drinking cola – but sadly that’s the nature of the society we live in.

Ultimately, why do you dance?

My dancing is a form of self-expression that emerges from an innate passion: from a yearning to engage with something more than the mundane, and towards a possibility of transcendence.

The ancient Indian texts tell us: “From the formless comes the form, and the form takes you back to the formless.” In Indian thought the purpose of life is to elevate, engage, introspect and integrate. This thought is given a form through the actual form of the dance. But the real purpose of dance is for the dancer to understand and express, through the magnificent form, the experience of the formless. In other words, through rigorous training the dancer has the potential to master the form and move inwards to experience the formless and enter a point of bliss (ananda). This to me is a heightened goal and a journey that inspires my inner space.

Do you ever get angry, agitated, anxious, frustrated? Do you ever lose some sense of ananda?

Yes, of course I do! But what helps is the approach and the magnifying glass of the life philosophy through which I view the anxiety, agitations, anger and so on and try to transcend the negative emotion through awareness and understanding. And I have a deep-rooted faith in the generosity of Nature, through which positivity pierces in dark moments.

But the most vital point to note here is that as a practitioner of the art I am a mere traveller walking towards the destination and not yet having arrived.

How do you see your future?

I see myself engaging with the two disciplines I am passionate about – design and dance – with a value that focuses on introspection and awareness, based (rooted) within intelligence, supported by the intellect as a process of being. 

I also work closely in and for a cultural commune under the instruction of a spiritual teacher. This is a project that I will be dedicating a lot of my time to. It is a physical space, on the outskirts of Mumbai, called Shaktiyogashrama Gurukulam, a space dedicated to the study of spirituality, arts, sciences, environment and holistic lifestyles. Envisioned for the future are full-time residential courses on art and aesthetics, environmental and ecological studies, Ayurveda (the traditional Indian science of medicine) and other wellness programmes.

You are a dancer, living independently. How does that fit into the Indian way of life?

Hahaha! It does not particularly fit into an ‘Indian way of life’ at all. A woman living independently and unconventionally is not too common in so-called Indian society. And beyond a point it is not only about the geographical and cultural context, which is that of India, but also about the larger framework of what is called society.

Society wants you to follow norms, to play roles, and to do the so-called right thing! But I question the concept of society itself. I don’t believe that a social construct can decide how I live my life.

I am not a follower. I like to walk my own path, which is led by my inner spirit. If one does not ‘fit in’, one has to be fiercely courageous to hold onto the fragrance of freedom. I innately feel that I don’t belong to anyone or anywhere, and I don’t feel the need to own anyone or anything, but at the same time I feel that I am integrally a part of everyone and everything. And this is the approach through which I live my life!

Miti Desai will be performing at the Resurgence 50th anniversary celebration One Earth, One Humanity, One Future, at Worcester College, Oxford, 22–25 September 2016. For details, see www.resurgence.org/R50event


Miti is the founder and creative head of Miti Design Lab and is Executive Trustee of Shaktiyogashrama Gurukulam. www.mitidesignlab.com www.mitidance.com

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