Essays on music and dance (Excerpts)
I am posting excerpts from the (well-known) book, "The Dance of Siva"
(Dover Publications Inc., NY, 1985), which is an anthology of essays
by (the well-known) Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947).
For those who do not know, Shri Coomaraswamy was the curator of Indian
art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A fantastically-erudite man
with a fascinatingly-perceptive mind; with a deep understanding of the
different facets of Indian religion, culture and ethos.
I have culled passages from two essays relevant to these newsgroups.
Hopefully, some of you will be moved to reading the collection (and
other books by Coomaraswamy).
Comments/criticism to: email@example.com
In the first half of this essay, Coomaraswamy surveys some of the
key ideas germane to Indian music. We join him in the passage where
he launches into his metaphysical commentary.
(Indian Music) pp. 78-81
...The Indian singer is a poet, and the poet a singer. The dominant
subject matter of the songs is human or divine love in all its
aspects, or the direct praise of God, and the words are always
sincere and passionate. The more essentially the singer is a musician,
however, the more the words are regarded merely as a vehicle of
the music: in art-song the words are always brief, voicing a mood
rather than telling any story, and they are used to support the
music with little regard to their own logic - precisely as the
representative element in a modern painting merely serves as the
basis for an organisation of pure form or colour. In the musical
form called alAp - an improvisation on the rAga theme, this pre-
ponderance of the music is carried so far that only meaningless
syllables are used. The voice itself is a musical instrument, and
the song is more than the words of the song. This form is especially
favoured by the Indian virtuoso, who naturally feels a certain contempt
for those whose first interest in the song is connected with the words.
The voice has thus a higher status than in Europe, for the music exists
in its own right and not merely to illustrate the words. Rabindranath
Tagore has written on this:
"When I was very young I heard the song, 'Who dressed you like a
foreigner?`, and that one line of the song painted such a strange
picture in my mind that even now it is sounding in my memory. I once
tried to compose a song myself under the spell of that line. As I
hummed the tune, I wrote the first line of the song, 'I know thee,
thou stranger,` and if there were no tune to it, I cannot tell what
meaning would be left in the song. But by the power of the spell of
the tune the mysterious figure of that stranger was evoked in my mind.
My heart began to say, 'There is a stranger going to and fro in this
world of ours - her house is on the further shore of an ocean of
mystery - sometimes she is to be seen in the autumn morning, sometimes
in the flowery midnight - sometimes we receive an intimation of her in
the depths of our heart - sometimes I hear her voice when I turn my
ear to the sky.' The tune of my song led me to the very door of that
stranger who ensnares the universe and appears in it, and I said:
'Wandering over the world
I come to thy land
I am a guest at thy door, thou stranger.`
One day, many days afterwards, there was someone going along the road
'How does that unknown bird go to and away from the cage?
Could I but catch it, I would set the chain of my mind about its feet!`
I saw that that folk song too said the very same thing! Sometimes the
unknown bird comes to the closed cage and speaks a word of the
limitless unknown - the mind would keep it forever, but cannot. What
but a tune of the song could report the coming and going of that
unknown bird? Because of this I always feel a hesitation in publishing
a book of songs, for in such a book the main thing is left out."
This Indian music is essentially impersonal: it reflects an emotion
and an experience which are deeper and older than the emotion or
wisdom of any single individual. Its sorrow is without tears, its
joy without exultation and it is passionate without any loss of serenity.
It is in the deepest sense of the words all-human. But when the Indian
prophet speaks of inspiration, it is to say that the Vedas are eternal,
and all that the poet achieves by his devotion is to hear and see: it
is then Saraswati, the goddess of speech and learning, or Narada, whose
mission it is to disseminate occult knowledge in the sound of the strings
of his vina, or Krishna, whose flute is forever calling us to leave the
duties of the world and follow Him - it is these, rather than any human
individual, who speak through the singer's voice, and are seen in the
movements of the dancer.
Or we may say that this is an imitation of the music in heaven. The
master musicians of India are always represented as the pupils of a god,
or as visiting the heavenworld to learn there the music of the spheres -
that is to say, their knowledge springs from a source far within the
surface of the empirical activity of the waking consciousness. In this
connection it is explained why it is that human art must be studied, and
may not be identified with the imitation of our everyday behaviour. When
Siva expounds the technique of the drama to Bharata - the famous author
of the Natya Sastra - He declares that human art must be subject to law,
because in man the inner and outer life are still in conflict. Man has
not yet found Himself, but all his activity proceeds from a laborious
working of the mind, and all his virtue is self-conscious. What we call
our life is uncoordinated, and far from the harmony of art, which rises
above good and evil. It is otherwise with the gods, whose every gesture
immediately reflects the affections of inner life. Art is an imitation of
that perfect spontaneity - the identity of intuition and expression in
those who are of the kingdom of heaven, which is within us. Thus it is
that art is nearer to life that any fact can be; and Mr. Yeats has reason
when he says that Indian music, though its theory is elaborate and
technique so difficult, is not an art, but life itself.
For it is the inner reality of things, rather than any transient or
partial experience that the singer voices. "Those who sing here,"
says Sankaracharya, "sing God": and the Vishnu Purana adds, "All songs
are part of Him, who wears a form of sound." We could deduce from this
a metaphysical interpretation of technique. In all art there are
monumental and articulate elements, masculine and feminine factors which
are unified in perfect form. We have here the sound of the tambura which
is heard before the song, during the song, and continues after it: that
is the timeless Absolute, which as it was in the beginning, is now and
ever shall be. On the other hand there is the song itself which is the
variety of nature, emerging from its source and returning at the close
of its cycle. The harmony of that undivided Ground with this intricate
Pattern is the unity of Spirit and Matter. We see from this why this
music could not be improved by harmonisation, even if harmonisation were
possible without destroying the modal bases: for in breaking up the
ground into an articulate accompaniment, we should merely create a second
melody, another universe competing with the freedom of the song itself,
and we should destroy the peace on which it rests.
This would defeat the purpose of the singer. Here in this ego-conscious
world we are subject to mortality. But this mortality is an illusion
and all its truths are relative: over against this world of change and
separation there is a timeless and spaceless Peace which is the source
and goal of all our being - "that noble Pearl," in the words of Behmen,
"which to the World appears Nothing, but to the Children of Wisdom is
All Things." Every religious teacher offers us those living waters. But
the way is hard and long: we are called upon to leave houses and lands,
fathers and mothers and wives to achieve an end which in our imperfect
language we can only speak of as Non-existence. Many of us have great
possessions, and the hardest of these to surrender are our own will and
identity. What guarantee have we that the reward will be commensurate
with the sacrifice? Indian theory declares that in the ecstasies of love
and art we already receive an intimation of that redemption......
Most of this essay deals with an analysis of Lord Shiva's dances with
overwhelming emphasis on the Nadanta Dance of Nataraja. This is the
concluding part of the essay.
(The Dance of Siva) pp. 65-66
...Now to summarize the whole interpretation we find that The Essential
Significance of Siva's dance is threefold: First, it is the image of
his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos,
which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance
is to release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion:
Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe,
is within the Heart.
So far I have refrained from all aesthetic criticism and have endeavoured
only to translate the central thought of the conception of Siva's dance
from plastic to verbal expression, without reference to the beauty or
imperfection of individual works. But it may not be out of place to call
attention to the grandeur of this conception itself as a synthesis of
science, religion and art. How amazing the range of thought and sympathy
of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording
an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of
nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable
to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the
philosopher, the lover and the artist of all ages and all countries. How
supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all
who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition
In these days of specialisation, we are not accustomed to such a synthesis
of thought; but for those who 'saw` such images as this, there could have
been no division of life and thought into water-tight compartments. Nor
do we always realize, when we criticize the merits of individual works,
the full extent of the creative power which, to borrow a musical analogy,
could discover a mode so expressive of fundamental rhythms and so profoundly
significant and inevitable.
Every part of such an image of this is directly expressive, not of any mere
superstition or dogma, but of evident facts. No artist of today, however
great, could more exactly or more wisely create an image of that Energy
which science must postulate behind all phenomena. If we could reconcile
Time with Eternity, we can scarcely do so otherwise than by the conception
of alternations of phase extending over vast regions of space and great
tracts of time. Especially significant, then, is the phase alternation
implied by the drum, and the fire which 'changes,` not destroys. These
are but visual symbols of the theory of the day and night of Brahma.
In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Siva wills
it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through the inert matter
pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing
appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold
phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and
names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.
It is not strange that the figure of Nataraja has commanded the adoration
of so many generations past: familiar with all skepticisms, expert in
tracing all beliefs to primitive superstitions, explorers of the infinitely
great and infinitely small, we are worshippers of Nataraja still.