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Interrelation of Arrested movements and Moving Sculptures

This is a guest post by Suparna Banerjee

‘Vinatu nrityashastrena citrasutram sudurvidam’

In Visnudharmottara Purana, it is stated that it is very difficult to attain the knowledge of chitrasutram without nrityashastra. This statement underlines the interrelationship between the dynamic and the static arts. In both sculpture and dance, the human body is the vehicle of expression; the distinction is that in sculpture, the human form is arrested in stones whereas the latter captures the moving human emotion. Since dance uses living body, hence, King Vajra of Visnudharmottara Purana, Khanda 3 is asked to master the canons of movement in the living so that it can be easily arrested in the plastic medium of stone and color. It is told by Markendeya Muni that as in natya [the theatrical art] so in chitra [sculpture/painting], it is the imitation of the universe, man and other beings in their state of emotion. As in natya, so in chitra, the varied drishti, bhava, abhinaya, anga and upanga present a supreme picture, the parama chitra.

According to Bharata, abhinaya [etymology- ‘ni’, the root verb that means to carry forward] is the most indispensable ingredient of natya. Indian dramatic art or dance abounds in poetic imageries; therefore, abhinaya facilitates the transfer of meaning from one medium to the other. This way the words are visualized in space through dancer’s gesticulation. In abhinaya, the prominent component is bhava [that which exists]. Indian sculptural forms capture the human form which is imbued with feeling. This lays the foundation of aesthetics of plastic art where form imbued with emotion and meaning evokes rasa [sentiments]. Characters are portrayed by the use of the physical postures, movements, turns and thrusts of the body which corresponds to a particular bhava. This relationship of an external gesture to a mental quality; classification of characters according to guna-s [sattva, raja, tama]; measure of forms in terms of tala; the categorization of movements in terms of bhanga [deflection from the central median]; enumeration of images according to asana-s [sitting posture]- are the techniques of Indian sculpture. In dance too, there are few overlapping techniques: characters are portrayed according to the vaya [age]; guna [qualities], abastha [mental state], bhanga [deflection from the plumb line].

Their interrelationship can be studied from various angles. Both Indian classical dances and sculpture consider basic anatomical form of human being; Abhinaya darpana, classifies limbs as anga, upanga and pratangya. The tala is the unit of measurement in Shilpasastra as well as in Natyasastra. For a sculptor, it is the unit of measurement in physical space whereas for a dancer it measures rhythm. Tala is visualized by footwork in Indian dance and the ankle bells highlight this audiometric beats. That is why it is said ‘padavyam talam acharet’. The dance movements are classified into bhanga-s. The beginning posture in many dances is sama [equal weight on both the sides]. Many of the sculptural representations of the Indian dancing are found in the tribhangi pose. The finest specimens are of Nataraja icon, nrittamurti of Lord Krishna, icons of Lord Gasnesha. The concept of bhanga has given rise to the concepts of sthana-s [standing position], asana-s[sitting position] and shayana [supine posture]. Supine Buddha icons, Anantasayana Vishnu icon, icons of Shiva and Saraswati in sitting posture are few worth-mentioning.

Indian dancer seems to aim at attaining a perfect pose after few rhythmic sequences and the moment of perfect balance in a given unit of time. Similarly, the sculptor tries to arrest the movement through the perfection of line. They are immensely fascinated by the dynamicity of Indian classical dance. The representation of the sculptural carvings has definitely helped the art historian and dance researcher to reconstruct dance styles and missing links in the history of Indian dance. Most significant work is done by Dr. Padma Subramaniyam who constructed Bharatanrithyam from the study of karana-s from the temples of South India. Even though a dancer uses the space freely as compared to a sculptor, the emphasis is always on the pose which he/she attains through a series of movement; he/she never deviates from the brahmasutra [central median] or bhanga of the Shilpasastra.

The most striking similarity is seen in hastabhinaya, the use of hand gestures for conveying meaning. Each sculpture uses hasta in a specific way to depict a character. For e.g. the icon of Nataraja, the right hand holds the abhaya mudra whereas the left is gajahasta. In dance, hasta is complemented with mukhaja abhinaya, the facial expression. Treatises enumerate many hasta-s and they are broadly classified as asamyukta, samyukta and nrittahasta. In nritta [rhythmic elemental, devoid of mime], hastas are purely ornamental and do not convey any meaning. Abhinayadarpana also has devata hasta, dashavatarahasta, bandhava hasta etc.

Thus, many Indian dances are enlivened through Temple traditions. And on the other, Indian dance has influenced the sculptors to carve the dynamic movements on the walls of the temples. From the above discussion, one can say that the interdisciplinary study of the sculptural arts will enhance the dancer’s understanding of the precision in attaining a perfect pose though it could have some limitation. Because a movement can only be depicted through a plastic medium when it friezes and the reconstruction of movements from that can only be a partial approximation and cannot frame the entire movement vocabulary of a style.


Abhinayadarpana, Manmohan Ghosh, Calcutta Sanskrit Series, 1954

Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts by Kapila Vatsyayan, New Delhi, Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1968

Studies in The Natyasastra: With Special Reference to the Sanskrit drama, Ganesh Hari Tarlekar, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1999

Visnudharmottara Purana, Third Khanda, vol.II, edited and translated by Priyabala Shah [this passage only] Gaekwad’s Oriental Series, no. 137 (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1961), p. 3.

Suparna banerjee

Suparna Banerjee is an acclaimed Bharatanatyam dance practitioner and scholar who excelled with First Class and Distinction in Bharatanatyam while pursuing her Post-Graduate studies at the Centre for Performing Arts, University of Pune. After qualifying UGC’s National Education Test (NET) in Performing Arts for lectureship, her locus of interest has not only restricted towards University teaching, but her expertise is reflected also in her scholarship in dance research. Her article appeared in a journal of international repute.She is a visiting faculty at the Iowa State University and Penn State University, USA and also rendered professional solo performances in various countries of Europe including Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland and United Kingdom. Drawing on her knowledge of music, classical texts and the rich, nuanced vocabulary of classical Indian dance, she explored the layers of meanings through abstract movements, giving them a visual and melodic dimension. Her choreography, “Tap Natyam,” which juxtaposes Bharatanatyam with Tap dance, has won a number of laurels from the critics. At present she is working as an assistant professor at the FLAME, Pune teaching the Traditional Dance course to the LIberal Arts students.

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