Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dance Archaeology

More ancient obscure art forms pursued

Finally, after very patient and gentle persistence from the tireless Raju Sakya, I have resumed my Saturday morning lessons in the Newar Buddhist Charya Nritya. (I would say Nritya Dance, but that's redundant. Nritya means "dance.")

I've mentioned it a few times before, and like a lot of my external life so far it's been stop and start. But all those years of Bharatanatyam has given me a solid foundation for Charya - it's amazing how much of the classical dance stuff remains hard-wired after years of slackerdom.

Raju is a senior student of Prajwalratna Bajracharya, who now lives in Portland, Oregon USA and runs Nepal Dance Mandala. To my knowledge, he's the only Nepali teaching Charya abroad. There are a handful of non-Nepalis that teach Charya in their own countries, like
Lianne Takeuchi Hunt, Helen Appell, and Shahrazad.

Not that Charya is by any means a simple dance, but compared to the aerobic demands of Bharatanatyam, so far it's lower-impact. It's certainly more lasya (graceful and lyrical) than tandava (percussive and forceful).

With its Tribhangi (three-bends) posture, Charya most closely resembles Odissi dance, which, if I had had my druthers, is probably what I would have learned long ago. But Odissi teachers are hard to find in the American heartland, outside of perhaps California.

Space: the final frontier
I had planned on having dance class on one of the rooftop terraces of my guest house, since the weather is delightful during the days now. But Raju arrived in my small room and declared the space sufficient for dance. Westerners are quite spoiled in terms of studio space, not to mention facilities like wooden floors, wall mirrors and sound systems. Asian dancers usually manage to learn without any of these. At one point we were meant to make a complete oval around and come back to "first position;" we just kind of had to imagine it (dancing into the wall). And there is not room for us to dance simultaneously.

There are a number of suitable spaces (like yoga studios) in town, but they naturally all want a fee to rent for an hour or so - which doubles my class fee. Probably it's best to go ahead and rent a flat with an extra room, install a wall mirror and get on with it.

Now, to hunt for a flat (Nepali for "apartment"). Flat-hunting is always a drag, but winter should be a good time to look. With the increased load-shedding (power cuts), though, I don't want to be too far out of "town" or in too deserted an area. There's just too much darkness (in several ways) these days.
If you are within shouting distance, I am ideally looking for Lazimpat, Chhetrapati, Paknajol or Sorhakutte areas. Or something like that. I see no reason to pay more than 10,000 NRS at the most.

Baby steps
Every dance has its "first position;" in Charya, that is Suchi-Tribhangi. It looks like so many of the ancient Indian statues, with a graceful goddess poking one hip out.

The basic foot movements are Alida (to the right), Pratyalida (back to the left), Suchi (right foot back) and Vajrasuchi (left foot back), which together make a semi-circular closed step sequence called Mandala. The mudras (hand gestures) are similar to the south Indian ones, but much gentler. Raju is always telling me to relax my fingers (which took so long to get ramrod-straight!) and DROP my elbows (unhearin Bharatanatyam, 90 degree elbows is a cardinal rule!).

The first "item" I am learning, other than the Refuge Prayer (a sort of opening Mangalam), is "Sodasa Lasya" or Sixteen Graces. It's an opening item invoking the sixteen forms of offering, here personified as goddesses. For instance, flowers, incense, and song, rather than just be offered as such, are depicted as the Diamond Flower Devi, the Diamond Incense Devi and the Diamond Song Devi (Vajra Puspe Devi, Vajra Dhupe Devi, Vajra Gite Devi).

Why "Diamond" (Vajra or in Nepali pronunciation, Bajra)? In Vajrayana Buddhism diamond has a significance beyond being an expensive stone, or a girl's best friend. I'm still learning but I would imagine it involves being immutable, enduring, indestructible and pure - like the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Sorry I have no recent photos of Charya, let me poke around and find some.....! above is one I have lifted from Prajwal Sir's website.


incp said...

Not that its any of my business, but I was glad to see you are back in the dance, particularly something similar to the graceful odissi.

Sirensongs said...

@Incp: Thanks for your encouragement; if only you would fill out a profile I could know who you are! :-)

Sirensongs said...

Oh yeah...I was wrong about "Mandala." Mandala is a static foot position...the sequence of steps is called something else - MATRA I think. Live and learn.