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Ouchityam (propriety) in Choreography
- V.P.Dhananjayan
from his book "Beyond Performing: Art and Culture"

July 2012

Civilisation has come about through an evolutionary process and we now call ourselves a civilised society.  Our day-today life style has also changed and still changes are taking place.  The performing arts being the reflection of the culture, or civilisation, are not an exception to this process.  In the case of our spoken and written language, there is a developed grammar and certain propriety of usages has been prescribed.  These norms have been accepted by the progressive society.

The same discipline and grammar has been employed in our performing arts and thus it is classified into Saastriya Kala (classical art) and Graamiya Kala (colloquial art forms or folk arts).  Saastriya Kala is supposed to be sophisticated and systematised, following a grammar in its content and practice, whereas folk art has the freedom to eschew the grammar and make it colloquial.

Therefore, Ouchityam  or propriety, or what can and what cannot be presented in a classical presentation, is prescribed by theory and practice.  As in the case of grammar in literary languages, our Naatya traditions also follow a grammar developed in the evolutionary process.  There have been periodical changes incorporated into the system and accepted by the learned society.  This 'Ouchityam' or propriety is adherence to the aesthetic values of a country, region or a small village.

The modern society, in the name of freedom of expression, liberty, etc., may overturn the basic inherited values and present anything and everything.  This may not fall within the grammatical parameters of the term "Natya" or in a more comprehensive term - "Bharatanaatyam".

This subject of propriety in the performing arts is a broad based subject and it is difficult to make a sweeping statement on what is "appropriate" and "inappropriate" in a creative field.  What is Ouchityam for me may be viewed differently by another person or vice versa.  To cite an example,  a man and woman coming physically closer together on stage may not be accepted here as 'ouchityam', but in a western culture this may not be the case.

In the context of our almost four decades of choreographic ventures, we have tried various trial-and-error methods in choreography and presentation without abandoning the basic values of our ethos and cultural integrity.  The judicious admixture of Lakshana, Lakshya and Swaanubhava has given a new dimension to the art form to enrich it and carry it to the three grades of rasikas, namely Uttama, Madhyama and Adhama.  Ultimately, I think the performing arts should touch the hearts of the onlookers. 

Lakshana (Technique with textual reference)
Following a prescribed grammar with poetical suggestiveness is the basic feature of classical dance or music.  If the sapta-swaras are not in their correct swara-sthana and sruti alignment, they are considered 'apaswara'.  Or if a particular 'aarohana and  'avarohna' is not implicitly followed in a particular raga, rasikas would not accept it as that particular raaga.  In the same way, if dancers do not hold their body postures and mudras properly, they are "ava-lakshana" or grammarless and the scholars may not accept the items as Alarippu, Jatiswaram or Varnam in the context of Bharatanaatyam repertoire.

The ten mandalas and their variations and rhythmic patterns used in dance which follow the Taala-prakarana, form the Lakshana for 'nritta' and the prescribed hand gestures, their various usages in the correct positions, form the 'Lakshana' for nritya or communicative aspect of our Naatya.  (Anga sowshtavam - bodyline).  While doing choreography, a learned Guru or dancer would be creative within the parameters of the prescribed 'lakshana' of the particular dance style.

Lakshya (Technique sans textual rigidity)
Without deviating from the aesthetic parameters of the grammar, artistes have the freedom to create new patterns or simplify the rigid ideas to make communication easy.  The differences may be compared to the classic poems and prose in literature.  Natyasaastra - the mother book for our Naatya traditions - has liberally given us the liberty to use 'lakshya gnaana' of Gurus or artistes as per the requirement in a given situation. (NS chapter on Hasthabhinaya)

From my experience of performing and watching others, I have felt many a time that 'lakshyagnaana' could be more evocative and communicative than 'lakshanagnaana'.  We have all had the experience of watching dancers with less technical virtuosity captivating the attention of the rasikas and seeing dancers with exceptional grammatical prowess failing to impress the audience.

If a performer has the technical excellence and the capacity to arrest the onlookers' attention, that person is certainly a greater artiste in my opinion.

Swaanubhavam (self experience)
Everyone learns from experience.  Practice, performance, seeing others, reading, meeting people and attending discussions, give an artiste ample scope for broadening vision and assimilating those experiences into creativity.  Experience is the best teacher in life.  This is an endless horizon.  The sathwikabhaava or the involuntary state of emotion or expression that is evoked in the onlookers by a creative artiste is the result of 'anubhava' or the experience one goes through in life.  Any performing artiste has the liberty to experiment with experienced knowledge, irrespective of the lakshnagnaana or lakshyagnaana.  The ultimate goal is physical, mental and spiritual enjoyment for the artiste and the audience.

"Pibare naatya-rasam" - taste the nectar of Naatya
(Bhakthi - mukti - pradam, pibare naatyarasam)

In conclusion, I would like to say that the success of any artiste depends on the judicious combination of these three aspects of learning, and all our classical performing arts are forms that have survived through ages. 

A version of this article was presented at the Natya Kala COnference at Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 16, 2004.

V.P Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta Dhananjayan, popularly known as the Dhananjayans are one of the legendary dancing couples of India.  They have trained several students through their dance school Bharatakalanjali.