Retracing the close link between Indian dance and Southeast Asia
Somewhere off the coast of Cambodia, an old ship from Mamallapuram docks on a beautiful beach after several weeks of travel. The vassals of Mahendravarman I disembark, taking with them Tamil and Sanskrit writing, the spices of southern India and the scent of the arts that originate along the banks of the Cauvery. While many vassals and rulers had come and gone before them, their arrival in Southeast Asia marked a turning point in the history of art and culture.
The influence of Hinduism and Indian culture in Southeast Asia is generally understood as a function of conquest and trade. However, the history of Indian dance is a little more complex. Could the moves have been swapped? Can the repertoire be acquired? As is often the case with embodied forms, the evolution of their practice relies on the individual bodies of the practitioners. This was the case for the Indian vassals who arrived in Java, Sumatra, Bali, Siam Annam Borneo and Cambodia.
The first links between Indian dance and Southeast Asia were identified by Padma Subrahmanyam and Kapila Vatsyayan. Both prolific scholars observed that the sculptural arts of Southeast Asia reflected a deep understanding of the codes within the Natyashastra. This is particularly reflected in the 9th century temple complex of Prambanan in Indonesia, where there are 62 dancing sculptures, labeled according to the postures delineated in the fourth chapter of the Natyashastra, titled “Tandava Laksanam”. This dance catalog is somewhat the oldest of its kind, predating the visual dance catalogs found in Thanjavur, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam and other sites in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, the idea of visually documenting the sequence of dance postures in stone, as they appear in the text, may have originated in Southeast Asia.
Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia | Photo credit: AFP
As part of a deeper exploration of this idea, Alessandra Lopez y Royo has spent several decades engaging with the dance archeology of this site, with the aim of recording the karana sculptures and embodying them. In practice. Edi Sedyawati, a Javanese scholar, explored the links between India and Indonesia and their impact on the Balinese and Javanese dance repertoire. Many other researchers have studied this relationship in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
The common bond
This search, though varied in its manifestations, converges on a single and powerful achievement – the Natyashastra was a text that found resonance in South and Southeast Asian art forms. It is this commonality, explains Aravinth Kumarasamy, artistic director of the Singapore-based Apsaras Arts Dance Company, that allows the forms of the two cultures to collaborate fruitfully. A pioneer in pursuing the embodied conversation between Bharatanatyam and Southeast Asia, Aravinth has worked with Javanese, Balinese and Cambodian dancers across his impressive production profile. He says Padma Subrahmanyam has been a mentor and one of the driving forces behind exploring these commonalities.
“It’s easy to bring these art forms together organically. Although the manifestations of the Natyashastra may be totally different, there is a body of shared knowledge that allows us to engage in the same context. Kumarasamy narrates an example from his production “Anjaneyam”, where the character of Sita had to perform a sanchari. “It is difficult to explain the concept of sanchari to Javanese dancers, especially with a language barrier. But after watching it once in rehearsal, they instinctively understood what we were doing and created a counterpoint in the Javanese style.
Over the years, Aravinth’s works such as “Amara” (dancing stories of Banteay Srei), “Angkor” (inspired by the magnificent bas-reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat) and “Anjasa” (on the architecture Buddhist temples) celebrated the history and culture of India and Southeast Asia. “With each production, I grew more enthusiastic about unraveling that strong bond.”
Mohanapriyan Thavarajah’s Latest Book | Photo credit: Apsaras Arts Dance Company
The temple complexes of Angkor Wat have beautiful intricate panels depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Apsaras Arts Dance Company Principal Dancer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah’s Latest Book Apsaras temple dance: view of a dancer on Angkor Wat, is an extension of his research on the famous temple complex and explores the angika abhinaya of the Cambodian tradition. Mohanapriyan notes that the evolution of the form resonates with that of Bharatanatyam, with similar changes in patronage, from temples to courts, and a comparable prominence of Devadasi dancers. “There are only five mudras popularly used in Cambodian dance,” he explains, adding that “some characters wear masks.” This is one of the many distinctions he has discovered in his practice and interaction with Southeast Asian forms.
Aravinth expands on these observations by noting that Southeast Asian dance forms are much more collaborative than those of India. “At Bharatanatyam, we are all trained to be solo artists, while Southeast Asian dance tradition and training prepares them for ensemble work. Each dancer has a specific role to play.
Asked about the reception by the public of these collaborative productions, Aravinth is particularly passionate. “As traditional Indian artists, we are obsessed with the diaspora. It’s always about [performing at] Carnegie Hall. We already have a discerning audience of rasikas in Southeast Asia who truly understand the nuances of our work. More dancers need to recognize this and perform widely in these regions.
The Bengaluru-based writer is a dancer and researcher.