Harinie Jeevitha: In Conversation with Navin Sinha

The core essence of Indian spirituality is oneness of the Individual Consciousness and the Universal Supreme Consciousness. The entire pursuit of Indian spirituality is a remembrance, realization, and recognition of this oneness.

This is too multi-dimensional a concept to be understood entirely by our rational, conscious mind.

A part can never understand the totality. A leaf trying to understand and analyze the tree would only wonder at how absurd and unfair the tree is. The leaf can only view everything from its own limited perspective, and could only react to any event based on its own analysis of whether something served it in the right way.

Indian spirituality asserts that the only way to understand the Whole is to become one with the Whole. The only way to understand the Creation is to become one with the Creation. The only way to understand the Creator is to become one with the Creator.  

To know God, you need to become God.

Indian Art forms are a phenomenal means of experiencing oneness with the Divine, by providing a real-time, in the moment, transcendental experience through an orchestration of a wide range of components, weaving together a unique culmination of beauty, aesthetics, elegance, grace, harmony, and sensuality, that transports everyone involved into a state of consciousness beyond the ordinary and the mundane.

Art as a Spiritual Path

One of the several articulations of God in Indian spirituality is in terms of Truth, Consciousness, Beauty—Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. 

Beauty and aesthetics have been an essence of many forms of Indian spirituality, and hence, the Indian classical art forms have been pursued as spiritual paths and disciplines in their own right.

The Indian spiritual heritage transforms every act into a spiritual path, and based on one’s inclinations, one can pick up one or more of these paths, knowing that every single of these paths is complete in itself, and can lead to the realization of one’s divinity—without having to make any change to one’s nature, tendencies, habits, lifestyle, interests, likes, and dislikes.

Some paths may act like by-lanes to the divinity, far removed from the hustle and bustle of life. However, most spiritual paths in India take you to the divine right through the heart of a happening, high-octane life, weaving the most sublime aspects of divinity into the most mundane aspects of our everyday life.

This is evident in its most evolved form in Indian classical dances.

In this edition, we will focus on the most ancient classical dance form, called Bharatnatyam.

The Sublime Dance Form of Bharatnatyam

Bharatnatyam is a dance that originated in the state of Tamil Nadu. It evolved by mixing elements from two ancient dance forms, one of which was a dance of the temples, and the other a dance of the royal palaces.

This form was known by different names in the past, but in the last century, it was named “Bharatnatyam,” to represent its essential form through these roots:

Bha – Bhaavam – emotions
ra – ragam – music
ta – taalam – rhythm
natyam – dance

Essentially, it is a dance that is centred around expression of deep, intricate emotions with the aid of music and rhythm, expressed through various body poses, hand gestures, and facial expressions.

The Indian classical dances, including and especially Bharatnatyam, is a feast to the senses and the soul alike. It is danced to the most poignant music and rhythm played on instruments that have withstood the test of time, instruments that have thrived for several centuries, and give out sounds capable of racing past your senses and piercing deep through your soul. 

Bharatnatyam involves dancers dressed in the most colorful and graceful attire, presented in an extremely delightful ambience. 

A Bharatnatyam performance is no less than a trip to another realm of consciousness, for the performers and the spectators alike. It is an exquisite melange of footwork, body language, postures, musical notes, outstanding vocal renderings, soul-pounding percussions, complimented with the tinkle of leather anklets (ghunghroo), a jewellery belt adorning the waist, aesthetics, costumes, exotic make-ups, jewellery, facial expressions—all working to express the deeper meaning of a sublime text that is being sung to the performance.

The Bharatnatyam compositions can take on different forms, ranging from pure movement (Nritta), to an expression that involves communication and story-telling (Nritya), to a dance-equivalent of a play (Natya).

A snippet of Bharatnatyam often comprises a sequence of perfectly “sculpted” poses, weaved with a graceful transition between these poses, adorned by hand-gestures, called Mudras. Most of these performances express a divine narrative.

The Cosmic Dance of Shiva

BIG BANG

Her forehead slighly tinted
With ashes from His chest;
Her neck gently tickled by
The slithering snake;
With the imprint of Rudraksha beads
On Her bosom,
And the fragrance of Kandrai flower
Still tantalising Her,
She slowly looks Him in the eye.

The magical moment,
The Universe is born.

Harinie Jeevitha, in ‘Perspectives’

In 1975, Fritjof Capra, in his book, “The Tao of Physics,” drew the attention of the world to the parallels between Tandava, Shiva’s Cosmic Dance that represents the cycle of creation, sustenance, and dissolution, to “the dance of subatomic particles.”

In 2004, the Indian government presented a gift to CERN, the European Organization of Nuclear Research, an image of Nataraja, the name given to the form of Shiva performing this Cosmic Dance, which CERN was happy to install in its premises.

There are hundreds of sculptures of Nataraja in various poses carved out in the temples of South India. Bharatnatyam is largely inspired by these poses.

Just as anyone delving sufficiently deep into yoga knows that yoga is beyond physical movements, stretching of muscles, or pulmonary and cardiac activity. Yoga is about the movement of subtle energies, called Prana, through the subtle channels in our energy body. 

Likewise, Bharatnatyam is much more than graceful movements or symbolic gestures that one may perceive tangibly. Essentially, Bharatnatyam is a means to move our subtle energies, in special ways, and when done appropriately, it is as effective a spiritual activity as yoga. The vast repertoire of Yogic postures (Asanas) and Yogic hand gestures (Mudras) used in Bharatnatyam distinguish the sublime movements of this form from regular body moments.

That’s what makes Bharatnatyam a dance of the divine, and a Bharatnatyam dancer a perfect instrument of the divine.

The Doyen, The Diva of Bharatnatyam: Harinie Jeevitha

Beyond all external appearances lies the soul of a Bharatnatyam performance—the consciousness of the performers, right from the musicians, vocalists to the show stopper: the dancer.

We can read all about Bharatnatyam as much as we like, we can watch performances one after the other, but none of these would ever give us a glimpse into the soul of Bharatnatyam, other than a first-hand narrative of someone who has given her life to it, and stands at the peak of this dance form.

In this edition, we speak to one such doyen of Bharatnatyam, one of the foremost youngsters who has taken the entire world in her stride through her talent, her skill, her perfection of the technique, her grace, her elegance, her aesthetics, her perfection in movement and expressions, the devotion that oozes out of her persona and performance, and every aspect of this dance form that one can imagine. 

Her persona and her performance define the epitome of Bharatnatyam in the present era.

We present a brief conversation with the global icon, Harinie Jeevitha

I stumbled upon an online article that described the elements that make a perfect Bharatnatyam performance. Toward the end, the article presented a video as a demonstration of all these parameters. This was a clip from one of the real-life performances of Harinie.

Such is the stature of the recognition of her perfection in this dance form.

While we would briefly look into her life and her persona, it is more of her consciousness that she brings to this sublime art that we would explore here, as a live example of what it takes to be an exponent of an art form like this, on what makes her the most perfect instrument of the divine when she performs this dance form, and how does it all tie up to the core essence of Indian spirituality. 

Her book on poetry, Perspectives, reflects the spiritual essence of her art, her persona, and her life with a great depth.

This is a poem from her book, which has the fragrance of surrender to the divine. When I first keyed in this poem, I ended up doing so with the normal rules of punctuation. Checking back, I realized that I had used the normal upper-case form of “I,” as one should, while her poem used the lower-case “i” throughout the poem. 

That’s how she loses herself in the pursuit of the divine and celebrates being “caught” by the divine and being subsumed by it. 

This poem reflects her art and her persona completely.

THE CATCH

We played a game together,
She and i,
She opted to run first,
And made me seek Her,
i ran and ran,
And as far as i could,
i ran,
i gasped,
i tired out,
i couldn’t catch Her. i lost.

Next, it was Her turn.
This time, She was to catch ,
And i, to run, run and run,
i ran slowly; inch by inch,
i ran slowly so that
i would lose to Her.

She caught me: but i didn’t lose.
i won,
i was caught by Her.
i won.

NS: I came across an Instagram post of yours, where you shared a video of you performing at the Kaancheepuram Temple. Your expressions were so deep and intense, and anyone who goes through the post would presume that you felt the presence of the Divine as clearly and vividly as any tangible experience a human may have. 

Could you share for our readers on this connection that you felt for the divine that you expressed so intensely in that short clip? How is your art connected to the divine and spirituality?

HJ: ‘Spirituality’ is a vast term, and it could be different for each of us. I believe that the Indian Classical Dance forms are spiritual in nature because they allow us to traverse past the mundane and touch a Higher place, even if it is only for a few moments. ‘Natya’ (Indian Dance), and in this case, ‘Bharathanatyam,’ involves a lot of conversations with the Divine, which is usually personified as a Deity. The tone could be that of plea, of praise, or even chiding, arguing, or romance. 

I believe that Dance offers an ‘Experience’ to any sincere seeker. The experience could be surreal, cathartic, or of simple joy. While I dance, I strive to have a taste of that Experience.

NS: How do you prepare for a dance performance? What do you do after your dance performances?

HJ: The relationship that I have with Dance has constantly changed over the years, and so has the meaning of ‘practice.’ Rather than ‘preparing’ for a performance, I wish to see performance as an extension of my practice. I see practice as a means to cleanse the body and mind, thereby preparing it to have an experience. Finesse in technicalities and nuances might come as by-products of the practice.

After a performance, it is mostly pensive recollection of the event and experience, and of course, good food and sleep!

NS: That’s a priceless wisdom for all artists. I know many bright and talented artists who excel at practice, but freeze during performance. Performance as an extension of practice is a deep sign of commitment and transcending your small self in your pursuit of art.

You have played a devotee in many of your dance performances. You have played Shiva in your dance performances. You have also played Goddess in some of your compositions. How do you prepare differently when you are playing a devotee vis-à-vis playing the Divine? What is the difference in your states of Consciousness in these two kinds of roles? 

HJ: Dancers are, in a way, actors. We are constantly engaged with expressing emotions, either our own or ‘borrowed.’ This gives us a chance to be empathetic and the exciting possibility to see the world through the lens of another and experience a wide spectrum of emotions. Whether it is the role of a devotee or a deity, a villain or beloved, a child or a wise man, it’s the dancer’s duty to visualise, understand, internalize, and project the assigned character in all possible authenticity and honesty.

Some roles might come naturally to us because of commonalities between us and the character; while others could be challenging to portray. Again, it is about preparing the body and mind to step into the shoes of another, leaving behind inhibitions. Depicting some characters can be a little exhausting too, because of the intensity and depth in emotions. But, eventually one learns to ‘detach’ from the character and just ‘perform’ the role, which could become a lesson for life too!

NS: How do you approach a performance that is not explicitly spiritual? How are such performances different from those that have a direct connection with the divine?

HJ: ‘Spirituality’ is not limited to ‘Bhakti’ or religion.

According to me,
‘Discipline’ is also a form of spirituality.
Being in the moment is spirituality too.
Having a pure intent can also be spirituality.
Giving your best without any expectations could also be termed ‘spirituality.’ 

If you ask me, a piece in the repertoire (known as ‘Jathiswaram’ in Bharatnatyam), which only has groups of movements of the body, which usually might not convey any meaning (technically called ‘Adavus’), is as ‘spiritual’ as a song that sings the praise of a Deity.

NS: How do you think young minds can develop an interest in intricate, traditional Arts like Bharatanatyam? There are so many means of instant gratification out there—how do you attract more and more young minds to Arts which call for a lot of patience, forbearance, and painstaking work?

HJ: Art is for all to experience and enjoy, but to learn it or pursue it full time, demands a lot of discipline. A sense of interest and awareness can certainly be created at home or in the schools; but only if the child has genuine interest of their own, can they pursue it truthfully. I also think that dance teachers play a major role in sustaining the interest of the students, by making the learning process interesting and inspiring. 

NS: If you got an opportunity to popularize Bharatnatyam in the West, through shows as well as through teaching opportunities, what would you do differently to involve more Westerners into the dance form?

HJ: It is said about the famous Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’ that, ‘Anything that is there in the world is in Mahabharata; and all that Mahabharata has, is in the world.’ I like to think that this is true of Natya too. Anything can be expressed through the medium of Natya; from the complicated scientific innovations to the subtlest of human emotions. Of course, whether or not the aesthetic quality of the art was not compromised in doing so, depends on the artist’s propriety.

It would be an exciting prospectus to try something ‘different’ for the thrill of it, and certainly, it is not impossible for an artist to choose themes and stories that might be familiar to audiences they address. But, isn’t the true challenge in exposing the audience to something new and make them learn something from it, and leave behind a thirst? After all, art is meant to be educative too. 

I believe that our Indian dance forms are steeped in beauty, which any keen audience wouldn’t fail to take notice of. There are many inquisitive students from the West who pursue this art with sincerity.

I think that is the duty of the artist to present a feast to the audience which is a good balance of what they might know vs. what might be new to them. 

At the end of the day, names of characters might be different; circumstances might be different; plots might be different. But, human experiences and emotions are the same in whichever part of the world they are.

NS: Your insights and perspectives are as deep and poignant as your dance and poetry. It creates a curiosity to know and understand all the factors that shaped all this.

A friend of mine from U.S. visited Sridevi Nrithyalaya last year, accompanied by her very talented daughter, and they were totally blown away by the environment there. They found the rigor, creativity, and the expectation of perfection from every student to be very clearly perceptible.

You started learning at the age of 6 at Sridevi Nrithyalaya. What role did Sridevi Nrithyalaya and your guru Shrimati Sheela Unnikrishnan play in moulding your dance?

HJ: I had met Sheela ma’am in my school where she worked as a dance teacher, and my mother tells me that I was the one who told my mother that I want to learn dance from her. That’s how I joined Sheela ma’am’s institute Sridevi Nrithyalaya in October 2001. My batch mates and I, a group of 10, used to spend hours together in dance class, under the watchful eyes, commanding voice and caring arms of Ma’am. It was almost like a Gurukulam (an Indian system of learning where the student lives with the Teacher and pursues the learning). She was a strict, demanding teacher whose presence was enough to extract the best from you. Many of her classes and corrections are still etched in my memory. Her efforts were untiring; she literally moulded us inch by inch. She was not just a teacher to us, she became a mother who would make sure that we ate our veggies, and a friend who ensured that we had our share of fun! 

In my former years of learning, Sridevi Nrithyalaya has offered me varied experiences which demanded hard work, time management, planning, good memory power, physical endurance, team spirit, creativity, patience, resilience, presence of mind, etc. It was not just the learning of the Art that was happening, but in a way, a preparation for Life itself.

Now, as a teacher in the same institute, it brings a smile when I see kids coming in with eyes sparkling with aspiration and hope, and I feel compelled to take them through at least fragments of the journey that Ma’am has taken me so far.

NS : You are a mega-icon to a very large number of youngsters all over the world, including the very talented dancers and dance aspirants of the next generation.

What message would you give to these youngsters who look upon you with such reverence? 

HJ : The beauty of Art is that it has multiple faces; all beautiful ones! Anybody can learn an art form; Art is a warm host that welcomes us with open arms. For some, Art might not mean anything more than a hobby. For some, art can become a friend, a confidante to which we pour out everything—joy, agony, excitement. It could become a mother that embraces us, or even the Supreme that’s walking us through the Roads.

But, it is up to us to earn the Art for ourselves—be it as a friend or the Supreme, and that happens with relentless engagement with the Art—learning, practising, reflecting, and finally trusting and surrendering.

NS: Thanks a lot, Harinie, for providing us a glimpse into the consciousness behind the amazing artist that you are. We wish you all the best for all your future endeavours, as an artist and as an ambassador of this wonderful art to the whole world. You have truly come across the perfect “Instrument of Divine” as we have always thought of you to be. 


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