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Dance and Hinduism – Two faces of the same coin?

Dance and Hinduism – Two faces of the same coin?

“What does it mean to be a 21st century Hindu?” This was the theme of Hindu Awareness Week, and that really got me thinking. As most of us born in the 90s or later, culture largely replaced technology; cool gadgets replaced the traditional games played by our parents in their childhood times, malls and cinemas largely took over the time usually spent in temples and other cultural gatherings. Did that mean that we stopped becoming Hindus? Was this the beginning of the end?

I disagree. Personally, I believe that religion, and in my case, Hinduism, is a safe haven – a paradise for you to explore through any means you wish to. That path, for me, was dance.

As a five-year old kid who was fascinated by this beautiful art form, because all the cooler, older kids were doing it, I wanted to join dance classes too. My mother, who was over the moon about this, wasted no time in joining me. Needless to say, I was scared by my dance teacher and cried the moment I saw her. I thought I never wanted to come back; the massive harmonium and her big bindhi scared me too much.

It took me a few classes to warm up to her, but one of the key things that I remember was her always making me do namaskaram (humble salutation) in front of Goddess Saraswathi at the beginning and end of every class. “Why teacher?” I cheekily asked one day, for I could not understand the reasoning behind bowing before a picture. Many years later, I learnt the symbolism behind the act – respecting the Goddess of wisdom and knowledge, meant that you respected the classical art form, and the privilege of being able to embody the fifth Veda, Natya Veda, into your own body in the form of rhythmic movements and hand gestures. That is MY Hinduism, my sanathana dharma.

Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form that I learnt, is extremely intertwined with Hinduism. Its roots can be traced back to the Devadasi period, where dancers offered their life to serving the Gods in the temples through dance and music. It comes to no surprise that many of the stories told in Bharatanatyam stem from Hindu mythology. Dance taught me many of these stories; my childhood was warped in stories of Krishna leela (Krishna’s divine mischiefs), the Dashavatharam (ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu), Shiva Thandava (the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva), and many more. Unknowingly, Hindu dharmic principles were inculcated into me with every dance piece I learnt. However, I still took everything at face value.

As a teenager, I was going through the phases of pessimism, and started to question the point of a religion. The more my mother imposed rules of prayer on me, the more sceptical I became. From dance side of things, my teacher threw more intricate choreography at me; every emotion had layers of depth to be explored. She would say, “Akshaya, at this point, it is simply not enough to smile and frown. You have to understand the true meaning of Bhakti. You have to see the God or Goddess in front of you.” I threw a quizzical look at her, because I still could not comprehend the concept of experiencing divinity in dance; I was just not mature enough.

I was sixteen. I had to ascend the stage in two days. I had no stamina, had a bad bout of flu and pretty sure that I was not going to make it to stage. My mother was stressed, but strangely, my teacher wasn’t. She said, “Dance is within you now. Your mind is now going to be your tool. Close your eyes. Imagine a figure. This figure is beautiful, just the perfect shape. Imagine silver anklets adorning those delicate, rosy feet. Imagine a soft, red saree with intricate gold embroidery. Imagine jewels of precious gems garlanding her neck. Imagine those eyes, pure as a lotus and shaped like a fish. Imagine her smile, so sweet that it is attracting all the bees. Imagine the crown sitting atop those luscious locks of wavy hair. Imagine Goddess Parvathi, the one you are describing in your dance.”

At that moment, everything made sense. Those first memories of bowing in front of Goddess Saraswathi to this beautiful image in my mind just made sense. Every little piece of Hinduism gathering slowly throughout the years just formed a complete puzzle. I was shocked; my teacher merely smiled – the sweet smile of success.

That day, I realised that dance was Hinduism, Hinduism was dance. Dance is my prayer, dance is my bhajan, dance is my mantra. Dance is my safe haven; dance is my way of reaching God. Dance is MY sanathana dharma.

So, what is it like to be a 21st century Hindu? Ask me, and my answer is dance.

– Author: Akshaya Rajangam,
President KCL Hindu Society