By Padmashri Guru Shovana Narayan

A voyage into the annals of our classical dances takes us ab initio to ritualistic dancing that were performed in an atmosphere permeating with incense and small oil lamps. It is worth noting that the expressions and the tenor of dance movements when performing a prayer are quite different from that when used as a bridge between the congregation and the self. The first necessarily throws accent on sublimation involving minimalist movements and expressions, for meditation requires minimal lights so as to enable a journey inwards! How can ‘pratyahara’ (shutting out outward impressions), ‘dharana’ (concentration) and ‘dhyana’ (meditation) be achieved when full lights seem to play a tantalising, demonic game luring the impressionable outward mind? On the contrary, more lights are required when it comes to story-telling and explaining as actions and expressions become more pronounced.

The flickering flames of a series of oil lamps served to cast mysterious shadows around. The movements in dance were contained responding to the needs of the illuminated areas, highlighting the use of ‘upangas’ (minor limbs). Every delicate nuance could be seen and appreciated, be it the flick of a wrist, the raising of a brow, the rolling of the eyes, the flutter of the fingers! Thus, the delineation of ‘thumri bhava’ in Kathak could reach a high point in its myriad expressions, creating an aura of romance and glamour that could be so inviting and so alluring! Subtlety and finesse became the key words!

Movements of a Kathakali performance magnified by the use of long shadows cast by central wick lamp.

Movements of Kathakali performance magnified by the use of long shadows cast by central wick lamp. | Picture Courtesy: Flickr

A Kathakali performance performed at night in the open, under a starlit or even a dark night, against the long shadows cast by the central wick lamp, created an aura of stupendous and unreal illusion.

Similarly, a Kathakali performance performed at night in the open, under a starlit or even a dark night, against the long shadows cast by the central wick lamp, created an aura of stupendous and unreal illusion. It was possible for every eye muscle to be magnified in the most surrealistic manner by the flickering flames of that one central wick lamp. It is important to note in such delineations that not only the muted amber colour of the flickering flames lends a soft and ethereal mood, but also the colour of the costumes of the dancers is significant. For the movements to be visible, heavy emphasis was on the use of white and pastel shades.

The performer tries to recreate illusion with the help of movements through more dramatic enactments and through vivid coloured costumes.

The performer tries to recreate illusion with the help of movements through more dramatic enactments and through vivid coloured costumes.

Undulating tenor in day and night performances

A performance in the open, beneath the daylight or even under an awning created and required different usage of space, than when performed by candlelight!

It is therefore not a wonder that in times gone by, there are references to day performances even though night performances remained all-time favourites leaving behind cares of the day! One has to contrast the day-time performances with those of night-time performances to see how the tenor changed dramatically. During the day, the illusion of secrecy, of romance, of mystery – vanished! The entire stage stood naked before the audience. A performance in the open, beneath the daylight or even under an awning created and required different usage of space, than when performed by candlelight!  The performer therefore tried to recreate illusion with the help of movements involving a flurry of activity, through more dramatic enactments and through vivid coloured costumes.

For example in Kathak it saw emphasis on the ‘teyyari ang’ ie the ‘nritta ang’ (rhythmic patterns being danced) and on dramatic sequences such as the ‘gat bhava’ and ‘kavitts’. The skill of the performer was visible in the manner he/she was able to engage the total attention of the audience in an environment that was not very conducive as several distractions were at play. Evening performances saw entirely different mood of the performances rendered by the Kathaks.

Outward display of expression became more apparent following the transition from candle and oil wick to gas lamps.

Outward display of expression became more apparent following the transition from candle and oil wick to gas lamps.

The great leap

Following the candlelight and oil wick lamp era, came the turn of the gas lamps. In this era, the tenor of evening and night performances underwent a slight change. The extent of the performing area that could be covered by the illumination from gas lamps extended manifolds. In a way, the performer stood between an illusionary meeting of a night and day performance. Then imagine the reaction of a performer and the audience when the era of electric lights came in. Lo and behold! Daylight at night! Flooded with lights, an illusion of infinite space could be created! What freedom! No more need for extremely contained movements because by now the performers of various styles had got used to spatial movements. The performer could let go in the barrage of movements involving various ‘bhangis’, ‘caris’, ‘bramaris’, leaps and jumps! Outward display of expression could afford to become more dramatic.

With the invention of dimmers, another world of infinite possibilities opened up before the dancers as lights could be controlled. This provided the much-needed relief to a latent longing for experiencing and being part of mystery and romance. But it also created a dilemma for the dancers.

Kathakali performers faced a dilemma of using technical gadgets or woo the audience on the strength of their performance

Kathakali performers faced a dilemma of using technical gadgets or entice the audience on the strength of their performance.

Let the strength of the performance of the artiste create that illusion of mystery, romance, subtlety and finesse and yet be spectacular and a breathtaking performance was the oft-heard refrain.

Dilemmas of digital paradigm of lighting

Should dimmers, spot lighting and such other technical gadgets be used or not, were questions that tormented all – dancers, viewers and critics! One school of thought that was especially prevalent from the fifties up to the end of seventies of the twentieth century favoured no usage of such gadgets. Many dance forms succeeded in facing this challenge but such a demand, together with an urban audience who preferred witnessing performances in the confines of an artificially air-conditioned surroundings, certainly did not mete out justice to dance forms such as Kathakali. How could such lights even re-create that mystical supernatural and splendorous aura of a Kathakali performance against the flickering lights of the oil lamp? The mystery was gone.

Understandably, the innate hunger for change present within each member of the audience as well as the performer, desired living in a world of illusion, even though momentarily and to be able to seek and be part of mystery! Such an unspoken wish coupled with further technical developments surfaced hesitatingly, gradually engulfing all. For thrust areas, three-dimensional approach to lighting has been adopted where necessary. Mystic romanticism of limited space of illuminated area of the candlelight era is being re-created. Intelligent usage of space and consequent impact on movements are being enhanced by use of lights. The artiste is able to share the beauty of expansive and contained movements as well as the use of minor limbs. What has been a great realisation is that lighting is only a ‘matter of hanging the right instrument in the right place and focussing on the right target’. Judicious use of lighting has helped in directing attention towards those movements that the artiste wishes to be highlighted.

The unprecedented feat

Dance by daughter of Bihar.

Dance by daughter of Bihar.

My performance at Patna in 1982 strengthens the point. Twenty minutes after the commencement of my performance there was a major power failure. As soon as the lights went off, I did not stop dancing thinking that the lights would come back soon without being aware of a major power failure. Thanks to the limitless repertoire of Kathak, I kept dancing complicated rhythmic patterns of footwork for over twenty minutes, till an enterprising soul brought in candles that cast tantalising shadows of my feet, which I used to the fullest extent. Later when lanterns were brought in, I sat down and did seated ‘abhinaya’ (miming out emotions of the text) sequences. It was only when gas lamps were brought in that I then had the freedom to dance out patterns covering a greater part of the stage. Thus my entire two and half hour’s performance was performed in various kinds of light so much so that next day it made front page headlines in all newspapers of Patna.

Illusions, the fodder for man enabling him to escape to a world of fantasy affording him a breath of air, are within reach, enhanced by right movements and right focus that can be assisted by judicious lighting. We are able to enjoy the fluttering of fingers as bees hover over each flower petal. We seem to be able to hold infinity in the palm of our hands. We are able to enjoy the beauty of the illusionary mass looking like a unit or dispersing like a planetary explosion. We are able to follow the path of each falling particle of the debris as each particle can be made visible and each can be highlighted! The eternal silence of infinite space speaks and cajoles. It no longer frightens! The eyes are able to feast on each strip of the colourful rainbow, on the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun! ‘Laghu’ (small) and ‘deergh’ (big) have learnt to co-exist!


Shovana Narayan is Padmashri, Sangeeta Natak, Bihar Gaurav, Delhi Government’s Parishad Samman, Japan’s OISCA awardee among many others, is a Kathak Guru, performer, choreographer, activist, author-researcher-scholar.

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Posted by The Indian Economist