A troupe of Kathak dancers from Kumudini Lakhia’s Ahmedabad-based Kadamb School of Dance and Music stood poised, ready to begin their performance—one that would switch vigorously between the tatkar, the stunning footwork, and the chakkar, the dizzying, audacious swirls. The necklace of one of the dancers slipped off her neck. She caught it, subtly, before it hit the ground. If you were not looking in her direction, you would not have noticed it. Would she hold the necklace for the duration of the performance, I wondered.
As the troupe pirouetted into their first chakkar, flinging their arms out, flaring their anarkalis, she flicked the necklace into the wings in a moment full of poise and propulsion. Such a masterful gesture, an effortless grasp of what I have struggled long to theorise—the elusive idea of grace.
What is grace? Growing up in a household that saw Bharatanatyam as the cultural pinnacle, thronging from one arangetram to the next, I was told it was these Bharatanatyam dancers who were repositories of cultural grace, keepers of that virtue. I always felt the word grace mismatched to the feelings that brewed inside me, a square-hole-round-peg discomfort.
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For the most part I never felt anything but awe, imagining the labours that allowed their bodies to be so agile, so sculpted. But like classroom notes, I had internalised the statement as fact. Maybe one day I would elevate myself into seeing and feeling the grace, but this must be grace if I am told it is.
Such is meaning. It is often imposed before it is felt, and we spend our lives trying to colour our feelings within the outlines of these imposed interpretations. To rupture received meaning and to stuff that wound with your own feelings, finally finding the word to express the visceral cartwheels, that is one of the small pleasures of life.
Years later, over a conversation by the sea, a strange, beautiful man introduced me to Odissi, telling me that watching it was like watching the waves. When he saw my unsure face, unsure because I doubt soaring rhetoric, he made his plea more literal. A lot of Odissi, he said, came from Puri’s shores, where the sea is boisterous. That boisterousness has foamed into the dance form….
He was right. Watching Odissi did look like watching waves. I spent hours surfing videos online. Watching Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen perform with Chitrasena Dance Company from Kandy, we were hypnotised, wondering how something “classical” could be so erotic too. Had not Rukmini Devi Arundale’s attempts to cleanse Bharatanatyam of all sexuality leaked into the other dances?
Most of these dances derive their force from temple dancing traditions, many of which expressed devotion as eros, which the contemporary Academy with a capital A wants to distance itself from. When people spoke of dancers looking to temple sculptures for inspiration, I would joke, how would someone interpret a threesome classically? How to invoke the core strength for an upside-down fellatio?
When I saw Bijayini Satpathy perform at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, I was pulped by that familiar feeling of watching the undulations of the dance hypnotically. As children, we would hold a pencil by its end and wriggle it up and down rapidly. The illusion was of the pencil bending, like a wave. The fact was of a pencil unbent.
As Satpathy extended her body to one side, wriggling her hands into that wave, I wondered if her bones were jelly. Has she, over the years, mastered the art of making bones jam-like, to fit into moulds she makes with her intention? Her shadows fell on the screen behind and on the walls on both sides, like companions. She performed the Mangalacharan, the invocation of a god, usually Jagannath, to her looming shadow. As happens in the best of art, what is happening dissolves into the waters of how it is happening. The story, the structure, both feel immaterial when pressed against the sheer artistry of movement. As dance theorists like the philosopher Jose Gil note, she was not moving through space as much as producing it.
What was this feeling that welled up inside me? And why, when days later I watched Leela Samson’s Spanda troupe on that same stage, did I feel a distinct uneasiness, as if I was witnessing a violence I wanted to recoil from. A friend suggested that perhaps Bharatanatyam invokes tandava, ferocity, while Odissi plumbs the depths of lasya, grace. I have always baulked at this distinction because I do not see the two as opposing forces, and it is so easy to label them as excretions of different kinds of body—tandava as male, lasya as female. But perhaps there is a point here. But if Odissi is being called the pinnacle of grace, how do I think of this grace? What is it? How to bottle it into a transferable meaning that I can express?
“If Odissi is the pinnacle of grace, how do I bottle it into a transferable meaning that I can express?”
When Kelucharan Mohapatra, credited with the revival of Odissi, was giving a lecture in Delhi decades ago, he had said something that struck a friend who was then a child in that audience. He had said that yes, a lot of the dance comes from the sculptures, but the pursuit was for how to get to that pose, and having got there, to ease away from it, to the next. I once asked an Odissi dancer what, apart from the tribhanga pose—where the body breaks at the knee, torso, and neck—distinguishes Odissi from Bharatanatyam, and she said Odissi fixates on getting into a pose while Bharatanatyam fixates on the pose.
This unlocked something in me. Was this grace? The feeling of being swept into and receding from something—the flux. The violence I sensed when watching Spanda might have come from the slightly amateur dancers, watching them criss-cross the stage, feeling each time they had closely avoided a crash. But I also wondered if the violence came from Bharatanatyam’s insistence on precision, on sharp movements—what many would consider its virtue, its strength as a dance form. I do not see ferocity as the opposite of grace. But perhaps precision is.
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There is a biological explanation for grace. As Anurima Banerji writes in Dancing Odissi: Paratopic Performances of Gender and State, “Grace comes from mobilising the strength of the spine to control the subtlest of movements.” But there is also a conceptual explanation for it, as Banerji notes later, with the “[c]onstant flows of energy and weight, oscillations between asymmetry and symmetry, the shift from one shape into another, and the lag in time between the completion of lower-body movements and the arc of the upper-body patterns”. It is this softness, these fluidities that produce “the impression of grace”.
After years spent chasing grace, I felt like I had chanced upon an opening, that rupture I spoke of earlier. Now, I just need to stuff it with more meaning.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.