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Grace – A Value Embedded In Indian Classical Dance


 It was in Class 4 when my parents initiated me into Bharatanatyam. Vinod ‘Sir’ began by teaching me how to stand with my hands placed on the hips on either side. As the training progressed, trying to get the shoulder, elbow, hand, palm, fingers in the right position along with the right aramandi and the right position of the legs, knees, shin, feet, toes, back, buttocks, neck, eyes, forehead – all together was a challenge! But, one fine day when I did get it; it translated into a joy that spelt fulfilment as well as an emptiness that came from not wanting anything more. It was a feeling of unseekingness, a completeness. When teaching abhinaya, my teacher would ask me to communicate with my body; most importantly with my eyes. Emotion was not to be overstated, it had to be subtle and just right. When I finally got it, I was happy. And others told me that it was graceful.

One day, I was chosen to be part of a group dance. ‘Sir’ said, “when you’re dancing in a group, give space to the person next to you, in front of you or behind you.” He marked our respective positions and said, “even if you are in the right spot but your neighbour is not, you must adjust so that the dance looks right to the audience.” Thus, many times, we would move away from our designated spot to accommodate a team member who had strayed away from her designated spot! The same is in the dance of life. There are times when one feels that one is right but proving the point there and then could only spoil relations; so, one needs to move away from one’s own righteous position temporarily in the larger interest of group harmony.

To me, grace is a mother value presented by Indian classical dance which encompasses many other values. Being graceful is expressing assertively; appropriately like Indian classical dance is a way of expressing one’s feelings and stories in a controlled manner that is ‘just right’ so that it appeals, not repeals.

I believe that all classical arts are located in the space of assertiveness – expression which is just right and so is SPIC MACAY - the movement. We are not passive like some who only lament the depreciation of values and interest in classical arts; and do nothing about it. Nor are we aggressive – breaking TV screens and attacking people for promoting western culture. Instead, as we harp on the greatness of Indian arts by organizing an increasing number of programmes every year, we leave a mark on the minds of the young that values Indian culture and reposes faith and benevolent pride in Indianness. As a movement, we’ve been assertive all along and that has earned us respect. India’s independence movement - an exercise in assertiveness still inspires leaders the world over.

Being graceful requires being consistent. SPIC MACAY has stood the test of time. Not only has it survived for 35 years, it has grown far and wide. From 500 programmes in 1997 to 6500+ programmes in 2012-13, it has taken a giant leap consistently enrolling new artistes, art forms, venues, countries, towns, volunteers, corporates, Central and State govt depts.

Once, Vidushi Malavika Sarukkai after an immaculate recital said that “practice makes a man perfect” is not the right adage. According to her, “Perfect practice makes a person perfect.” The same is with one’s behaviour – it needs to be graceful time after time, unruffled by circumstances. I wonder if practicing perfect grace consistently is possible?

Practising grace as a value has many dimensions. One such is egolessness. Anna Saheb Hazare says that people must have the ability to bear insults to dissipate flaring situations and allow peace to reign. Dr Seth often mentions that ego is the root of discord between two people. Is this ‘ability to bear insults’ a more direct way of saying ‘subdue your ego’? It could be.

It’s a hint that one might be egoistic, when one is shouting and screaming, when our sentences contain words like ‘I’, ‘me’- Why didn’t he tell me? Why should I allow myself to be insulted?? Don’t I have any self-respect??

There is a fine line separating ego from self-respect. Ego is at play when after getting hurt, one focuses on controlling another person’s behavior without trying to change one’s own. Whereas self-respect is at play when after a disturbing incident, one gets introspective and acts to change one’s own behaviour to foster peace. Egoistic behavior evokes an outward response whereas self-respect takes us inwards. The SPIC MACAY logo put on the backdrop for every programme is a reminder to look inwards, introspect and reform rather than focus on others’ faults. When SPIC MACAY volunteers operate in a world of egolessness, our work will be done effortlessly and its impact – profound. Like art created in a state of egolessness is divine; for it is completely free of focus on the self.

Ego & low self-esteem dictate cutting off communication with the other person, mobilizing action by generating fear. Self-respect and humility generate action out of persuasion and compassion, always open to communication. When volunteers commit disastrous mistakes, Dr Seth gently corrects us but never stops talking to us. Our language is a reflection of the state of our ego. Very often the written word is a pointer to the spoken word of a person. There is an illusion that the spoken word is temporary whereas the written word is an inscription and seems to have longer lasting power in people’s memory. That’s why before putting anything down in writing, we double check and want to be completely sure. But we rarely hesitate before blurting out something. The care we take with the spoken word and the written word as an extension of it often reflects how graceful one is. Emails and phone calls to all & sundry who can make no difference spreads gossip which is redundant in our work marked with immense purposiveness. Communication in SPIC MACAY must be directed responsibly, be result-oriented, balanced and just right so that it enhances the accomplishment of our purpose which is not just to organise programmes but to access the values embedded in our cultural heritage.

Restraint is a value embedded in grace. It distinguishes classical dance from other types of dances. That which is restrained appeals to the finer senses, uplifts & leaves a soothing feeling of peace and contentment. Restraint in words, holding back and not saying hurtful stuff or delaying response is often helpful. Vinod ‘Sir’ always reminded me that there is a framework that the body provides a dancer with the shoulders; and that the hand should not go out of this framework. SPIC MACAY provides a certain framework of values and an unwritten code of conduct and staying within that framework elicits graceful behaviour.

In SPIC MACAY, we are able to raise the seemingly mundane tasks of event management into experiences that enhance our behavior. By just being around highly evolved artistes, volunteers absorb and internalize values from the classical arts and express them in our behavior gradually. Like the Zen story that Dr Seth often tells us: a boy who went to learn about Jade from a Master was asked to hold a stone for many months which he did reluctantly, until one day the Master gave him a different stone and he remarked, “But this is not jade!” The Master had subtly but surely taught the student the subject. Subtlety is the hallmark of grace.

Something said very explicitly often engages only the person who is saying it. The person listening is given little choice in interpretation of the message. Indian classical dance is an exercise in subtlety. Dancers communicate in a stylized, mystical and suggestive way which builds an aura around them that attracts viewership and appreciation. Similarly, when we leave a few things unsaid, especially the harsh stuff, we might get greater listenership. Prof U.R. Anantamurthy once told Dr Seth, “Great art conceals more than it reveals.”

Explicit expression may be popular but it rarely raises the standard of life of people in a country to a civilization. Does art refine our sensibilities and raise our existence to a higher level? If we go with the classical arts, we’re bound to influence - raise the bar and the standard of life of our people. SPIC MACAY’s Core Purpose,

presents the tremendous task of sensitizing young minds to the values embedded in the classical arts and sharing opportunities to imbibe them. SPIC MACAY’s strength lies in the moment of interaction between the artiste and the student, when the magic happens, when the spark of inspiration touches. It’s in the experiential domain; which facilitates the meeting of two minds – the artiste who is a repository of great art and is the giver to the student - a seeker of that greatness.Grace not just in actions but also in thought completes graceful behavior. It’s about how one’s mind operates especially when confronted with disagreement or denial. Grace in thought gives benefit of doubt to the other person, allows us to consciously let go of a recurring feeling of teaching the other person a lesson. Learning to think ‘koi baat nahin, it’s okay’ may take us in that direction.

Many a time, one needs to only apologise for having caused hurt, even if unintentionally. Apologising communicates that one is sensitive to another’s pain and helps bond people. Insensitivity creates gaps, which when filled with gossip and narrow-minded righteousness creates rifts that are divisive and destructive. So, an apology is not an exercise in subduing the ego alone but also in building bridges which we must strive to do if we are to be a cohesive group.

So many times, Dr Seth has apologized to an artiste for a mistake he never committed; gently teaching us how to be responsible collectively and gracefully. Great people have valued tolerance as a virtue. Pt Nehru said, “Live and let live”. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of tolerance with a positive interpretation, an ability to include others who think differently. Inclusiveness and plurality have been the epitome of Indian culture which has been a melting pot, magnanimously absorbing all that came along. SPIC MACAY encourages plurality in thought as also individuality in expression. And so, to the chagrin of many fond of mathematically precise systems and processes, we continue to work in myriad ways yet achieve our goal.

There is equanimity and also balance when one is graceful. Lord Shiva in his form as Ardhanareeshwara reflects the balance between masculine and feminine energies. Maintaining the balance between the yin and yang energies in oneself is a challenge. And I often see that reflected in Indian classical dance. When I was taught the ‘Nataraja’ pose in Bharatanatyam, standing on one leg seemed difficult but once I got it, it was an amazing feeling of dignity, benevolent superiority, responsibility and grace all together. 

Though grace is often perceived to be a feminine quality, Indian classical dance has often belied that notion. Pt Uday Shankar, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Ammanoor Madhava Chakyar, Pt Birju Maharaj, Kalamandalam Gopi, Vempati Chinna Satyam, Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, Guru Ghana Kanta Bora and so many male dancers have shown a rare ability to showcase grace most effectively. With well-defined movements of the hand cutting through the air and swift turning of the torso, they often bring a definitiveness to the art that seems masculine alongwith a gentleness that seems feminine - a balance that spells grace. Similarly, I’ve seen female dancers like Smt Kapila Venu, Smt Rama Vaidyanathan and many others depict Lord Shiva or do the taandav - aggressive yet so graceful.

The motto for graceful behavior could be “just right”. And gratitude is an element that would make it just perfect. In all classical dances, artistes start and end their performance by seeking the blessings of and thanking God, Gurus, Mother Earth, their accompanists and the audience.

I can’t thank Dr Seth enough for having started SPIC MACAY. I can only marvel at how he has attracted so many like-minded people from across the country to work with single-minded devotion for impacting a young student’s mind in favour of the classical arts. My participation in the movement has left me richer by allowing me to reflect on many aspects of life, find solutions, simplify concepts for myself and invest me with greater inner strength.

Thank you SPIC MACAY!