There is a moment near the end of Shantala Shivalingappa’s Shiva Ganga in which the sculptural, antelope-light dancer circles the stage in an uninterrupted chain of small, silvery jumps and skittering steps, arms rising and falling like rolling waves. Her movements are driven forward by the accelerating rhythms of a double-sided mridangam drum and the flickering coloratura of a bamboo flute. Then, as she begins to whirl in place, her hands flutter the edge of her sari, causing it to dance like water in a downpour. She spirals to the floor and spins in the opposite direction, on her knees, long black braid flying. Finally, on a sharp slap of the drum, her upper body collapses forward. Recovering one last time, she turns her head to the side, as if to deflect the rain. Her arms continue to ripple as her head bows slowly, until all we see of her is this undulation, like the glimmer of the moon on the surface of a stream. A metamorphosis has taken place. The body has been transformed, first into a burst of pure movement and speed, and then into an image from nature: water flowing for eternity.

When I first saw Shiva Ganga, at the Jacob’s Pillow summer festival in Becket, Massachusetts, the audience seemed almost too dazed to applaud. There was a long pause, like the exhalation of a held breath, before the eruption. The setting—the dark, barnlike Doris Duke Theatre—was ideally suited to the small revelation we had just witnessed, intimate enough so that each person could see the flash of Shivalingappa’s eyes and feel the vibrations of her ankle bells, the slap of her feet against the floor, perfectly in sync with the drum. If only for a moment, time stopped.

This sequence is the closing number of Shiva Ganga, an evening of Kuchipudi, which is an Indian classical-dance style named after a small town in the state of Andhra Pradesh where it has flourished, in one form or another, since the at least the fifteenth century. In Hindu mythology, the goddess Ganga is seen as the personification of the Ganges, Hinduism’s most sacred river. Shiva, of course, is the Lord of the Dance, said to destroy the universe with his “cosmic dance” to make way for creation. (Shivalingappa’s family name denotes devotion to the god.) He is often represented midpose, with one leg raised (knee bent), supported by a gracefully turned-out leg, each of his four hands held in a symbolic posture, or mudra. The image is a recurring theme in Indian dance as well: a kind of ideal form, like the ballerina’s arabesque on pointe.

Over the course of the evening, Shivalingappa’s dances explore the contrasting feminine (Lasya) and masculine (Tandava) qualities of the two deities and of Kuchipudi in general. Like all the best Indian classical dancers, she slips into each new identity with surprising ease. One moment she advances gravely with the gait of a giant, eyes smoldering, fingers shimmering with rage. The next, her hand softens and she seems to caress the air; her gaze sparkles invitingly. This ability to transform oneself through bodily and facial expression, known as abhinaya, is one of the most prized skills in Indian dance.

* * *

When we listen to music or see dance, something we seek, consciously or not, is transcendence. The layers of consciousness separating our inner monologue and the external world collapse, and our senses are momentarily sated. The feeling isn’t limited to art; some people find it in sport or sex or shooting craps. But there are certain artistic pursuits in which such exaltation is built into the form itself and is not just a by-product: Buddhist chanting, flamenco dancing, Sufi whirling and, certainly, Indian classical dance. Here, as with other ancient art forms born in a context of devotion, the performer is consciously seeking transport through the senses.

Dance has been an important art in India for over a millennium, and in that time it has diversified and evolved considerably. Each state, region and town has its own style, and devotion has not always lain at the heart of performance. For hundreds of years, dancers—mostly women born into a particular caste and known as devadasis—divided their time between performances at Hindu temples as part of ceremonial rites and at courtly functions. At court, they brought auspicious tidings to marriages and births, performed their dances for the pleasure of kings and the elite, and were richly rewarded for it. One man’s sacred dance is another man’s sensual delight: many of the dancers, who didn’t marry, became concubines to their wealthy patrons.

Colonialism, with its infusion of Anglican morality, corroded the exalted status of dancers by turning a disapproving eye on the erotic—to British eyes, dissolute—aspects of their art. By independence, India had become almost ashamed of its dance tradition; in a series of laws aimed at protecting the virtue of Indian women, performances in temples were banned, as was the practice of ”dedicating”—some would say forcing—young girls into the hereditary practices of the devadasis. Further, it became illegal for devadasis to live on temple grounds and perform at private functions, dismantling the dancers’ social and economic base. (Valuable research has been done by contemporary scholars, particularly Davesh Soneji, on the unique role played by the devadasi in Indian culture.) Meanwhile, in the 1930s, just as this artistic decline was reaching its inevitable conclusion, a small group of upper-class dance enthusiasts took it upon themselves to reimagine traditional Indian dance as a classical art tied to national identity. Now divorced from both the temple and the court, as well as the caste it had once been associated with, dance became more like Western ballet, a secular art taught in specialized schools and performed in theaters.

Despite these many twists and turns, dance in India has always had a strong philosophical foundation dating as far back as the composition of the first Vedas, in the late Bronze Age. More concretely, its principles are laid out in the Natyasastra, a surprisingly detailed treatise on the performing arts, which became the basis for all of the regional forms. Whoever wrote the Natyasastra—authorship is traditionally ascribed to a Hindu sage, Bharata—had very clear notions regarding the function of dance, music and drama. “Long, long, very long ago,” it begins, the gods “approached God Brahma and requested him (thus): ‘Please give us something which would not only teach us but be pleasing both to eyes and ears.’” Brahma complies: “Dismissing the petitioners he meditated in solitude and finally decided to compose a fifth Veda incorporating all the arts and sciences.”

The chapters that follow provide minute details regarding the twenty-four positions of the hands (mudras) to be used by performers, the eight mental states (rasas) these performers could evoke through their dancing, the metric patterns on which musical compositions were to be based, and the instruments that were to be included in the ensemble. Even casting choices are addressed: What type of performer should play a priest in a dance drama, you ask? “One with brown eyes, long nose and either tall or short.”

Shantala Shivalingappa was born in Madras in 1976 and raised in Paris, where her parents had met as students in the late 1960s. Savitry Nair, Shivalingappa’s mother, had been trained as a Bharata Natyam dancer at Kalakshetra, a dance academy established by Rukmini Devi Arundale, one of the people responsible for the renaissance of Indian dance.

Arundale is an interesting case. Born in 1904 to a musically inclined upper-caste family, she discovered dance only after her marriage to the British theosophist Dr. George Arundale, then based at the Theosophical Society’s Indian headquarters in Madras. Her eyes were first opened at a performance by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova at Covent Garden in 1924, after which the two became friends. Pavlova encouraged her and even gave her a few lessons. On Arundale’s return to India, as her admiring biographer Leela Samson recounts, she attended a traditional dance performance of Bharata Natyam—then known as sadir—given by two sisters, both devadasis. Struck by the beauty of an art she had barely been aware of until then, she began to study it intensively. First as a performer, then as the founder of her own model school, Arundale set out to elevate and standardize dance training and performance in India. Her reforms were hugely successful and became a model for other Indian dance forms. By the 1960s, a number of these had been declared “classical” and began to be performed not only all over India, but also abroad.

When Shivalingappa was growing up in Paris, her mother taught Bharata Natyam twice a week to the daughters of Indian families. She took part in these lessons, casually at first, then more seriously. Partly because of the 1970s’ love of all things Eastern, and certainly because of her engaging personality, Nair befriended many of the bright lights of contemporary dance and theater. Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch would come over for dinner whenever they were in town. Nair created choreography for Béjart and taught at his school, a tradition Shivalingappa has continued. Encouraged by these family friends, Shivalingappa began performing at a young age, appearing for the first time at 13 in Béjart’s 1789… et Nous, a huge spectacle-ballet created for the bicentenary of the French Revolution. “It was set to Beethoven’s First, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphony, and it dealt with the continents and the four elements. I represented India,” Shivalingappa recently told me in her meticulous English during the first of a series of Skype conversations. (She speaks English, French and Malayalam fluently.) The performance was held at the Grand Palais, on an immense stage, in front of about 4,000 people.

Two years later came a collaboration with the stage director Peter Brook, who cast her as Miranda in The Tempest, which led, ten years later, to another engagement, as Ophelia in Brook’s Hamlet. In a recorded version of that production, Shivalingappa’s acting comes across as earnest, a little wide-eyed. Her Ophelia has the gliding walk of a dancer. Working with Brook had a profound effect on her feeling for stagecraft: “I admire his sense of utter simplicity, having nothing onstage, with lighting that’s elegant but minimal.” While she was appearing in The Tempest, the French horse trainer Bartabas, founder of an equestrian ballet company called Zingaro, saw the show. He was putting together an Indian-themed program and invited her to take part. “There’s a place outside of Paris where they have their horses and caravans,” Shivalingappa said, “and every Sunday he would make me ride.” In the show, Chimère, she danced several short Bharata Natyam solos. More important was the experience of touring, for months at a time, as part of a large company as a teenager. “I grew up during that run.”

* * *

By then she had begun to study Kuchipudi intensively in India, at the Madras school of Vempati Chinna Sat-yam. Recognition was slow to come for Kuchipudi; for a long time, many considered it a folksier version of Bharata Natyam. But even to the untrained eye, it is clear that Kuchipudi is a distinct form, despite sharing the same style of musical accompaniment (Carnatic vocal music) and similar rhythmic patterns and steps. The Peshawar-born, Washington-based Kuchipudi specialist Nilimma Devi recently laid out some of the differences as we sat in the fragrant kitchen of her academy: “Dance in India is regional. Kuchipudi is graceful and light and has a quality of controlled abandon, where Bharata Natyam is angular, rigorous and technical.” Kuchipudi also includes certain dances that are unique to the form, like the tarangam, in which the dancer executes complex rhythms with the lower body while standing on the edges of a brass plate, sometimes also balancing a jug of water on her head. It’s a relatively new addition, meant to impress the audience, akin to the modern ballerina’s thirty-two fouetté turns in Swan Lake.

There are other differences: a greater lilt and roundness in the movements, with emphasis on quicksilver jumps and fast footwork, and a freer use of the upper body. “What I love about it,” Shivalingappa once told me, “is the combination of contrasts: something very strong in the legs—it’s very intricate and quick in the footwork and also very anchored into the earth—but the upper body is full of grace and swaying and undulating.” There are no hard edges in Kuchipudi. “The spine virtually never moves in a straight line,” Shivalingappa has written, “but in waves, spreading out from the center of the body.” In other words, it has swing.

At 15, Shivalingappa “became mad for Kuchipudi,” as she puts it. More specifically, she fell in love with the style of her “master” (the word Indian dancers use to refer to their teachers). Many consider Vempati Chinna Satyam to be something like the George Balanchine of modern Kuchipudi, an unconventional innovator who has profoundly affected the way it is performed today. Despite certain similarities with Bharata Natyam, the history of Kuchipudi is quite distinct. At its origin, it was neither a solo form nor an art practiced by devadasis, or even by women. As the scholar and critic Sunil Kothari has written in his comprehensive history, Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art, its roots lie in medieval folk plays, or Yakshagana, sung in Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. These plays, part opera and part ballet, were based on the Puranas—tales of the gods—and performed at religious festivals.

As the semi-monotheistic Bhakti movement gained strength in the ninth century, Brahmin performers began to adopt the form as a way to spread their beliefs. Then, in the fifteenth century or thereabouts, the poet and sage Siddhendra Yogi had a vision that inspired him to create the first great Kuchipudi drama, the Bhama Kalapam, based on a story about the jealous wife of Lord Krishna. Siddhendra pledged that his play would be performed every year as an act of devotion and to that end assembled a troupe of young male priests. The vow extended to the priests’ descendants, and thus a hereditary tradition was born. All of the roles were played by men; female impersonation (stree vesham) was highly prized. Over time, other dramas were composed based on stories from Indian epics. In the seventeenth century, a local nawab was so enchanted with what he saw that he granted the dancing priests a village in which to ply their trade: Kuchipudi.

This tradition endured for centuries, until colonialism and the rise of the Indian film industry almost killed it off. Fortunately, a savior came along in the form of a forward-looking teacher, Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri. In the 1940s and ’50s, as Bharata Natyam was being adapted for urban and middle-class audiences, Sastri realized that something similar could be done with Kuchipudi. He not only expanded the repertory of dance numbers—inventing the tarangam, or plate dance, for example—but also had the idea that they could be performed independently, as part of an evening of solo dances, as Bharata Natyam was. He saw an untapped market of potential Kuchipudi dancers: women.

Vempati Chinna Satyam, a student of Sastri, took his master’s reforms to heart: he composed hundreds of solos, commissioned new music, opened a school in Madras and systematized the training. Like Arundale, he felt that in order to survive, Indian dance needed to be refined and updated, taken out of its village context, and made ready for the national and international stage. “There are still some folk art elements,” Satyam said in a 1984 interview, but “I am trying to eliminate them, though I am being criticized for it…. And I’m trying to do this without sacrificing dignity, avoiding vulgarity.” He also felt that in the age of films and modern stage lighting, there was no longer a place for female impersonators. Nor was he an admirer of the tarangam danced with a pot of water on the head, calling it a “cheap gimmick.”

“His abhinaya was very suggestive and refined, never the caricature of emotions or facial mimicry,” Shivalingappa said of her teacher, at whose school she studied, on and off, for five years. And then there was the quality of his movement: “He introduced sophistication, clean lines and a scintillating quality with perfect resolutions of movements,” wrote Sunil Kothari. “There was something so alive when he started to move,” Shivalingappa recalled. “It was mesmerizing…. I spent whole classes just watching his back.” From his students, Satyam insisted on clarity, speed and complete involvement without resorting to histrionics.

With his emphasis on purity of form, Satyam pushed Kuchipudi further from its local dramatic roots and more toward abstraction. His style was perfectly suited to Shivalingappa’s nascent aesthetic, already nourished by experiences with Brook, Béjart and, soon, Pina Bausch. Her dancing is buoyant, technically polished and extraordinarily refined. She insists on performing to live music—her musicians are exquisite—and her mise-en-scènes, though pared down, reveal elegant touches: a fluttering curtain, a small altar glowing in the darkness, lighting that creates shadows and silhouettes or pinpoints this or that part of the body, often the hands. Similarly, her costumes—saris with a pleated piece that fans out between the legs in plié—tend to be less ornamented than those of other Kuchipudi dancers and cut for maximum mobility. One is always struck by the pacing within each piece—her use of pauses and contrasts of tempo—and by the arc she creates over the course of an evening. There is never too much repetition or an excess of ideas: “I try to isolate the elements. A lot of the time [in Indian dance] you see everything together, and it’s like you haven’t seen anything. I try to highlight them, put them on a little plate as if to say, ‘Look at this.’”

* * *

One of the areas that have been hotly debated in the last fifty years is whether, in their rush to dignify Indian dance, reformers like Arundale and Satyam dulled its more erotic aspects. One of the eight rasas (mental states) listed in the Natyasastra is sringara, which arises from the erotic “sentiment based on the dialogue of a man and woman in love.” There is a huge repertory of dances that deal with love and yearning, particularly the relationship between Krishna and his lover, the milkmaid Radha. Radha awaits Krishna, trembling with anticipation. The two steal off to a forest clearing to make love. These passages are among the most beautiful in Indian dance. Certain scholars, like Hari Krishnan and Davesh Soneji, have argued that some of the piquancy of these scenes has been lost. According to Krishnan, the introduction of “a whole new community of performers who were not from the courtesan caste” meant that dance’s “spiritual and religious aspects came to the fore and eroticism and sexuality and love moved to the back burner.”

And yet, watching Shivalingappa, one can’t help but be struck by the sensuality of her dancing. In the evening-length Swayambhu, she performs a kirtanam, a type of narrative dance, based on a fifteenth-century romantic song that relates a scene from the domestic life of Goddess Padmavati and her husband, Lord Venkateshwara. The dancer enters slowly from behind a billowing curtain and mimes making the bed, shaking out the sheets and sprinkling them with perfume as she imagines (with pleasure) the night ahead. She closes the window to keep out the cool air. Lovingly, she gestures to her husband and, taking his hand, leads him to the bed, demarcated by an illuminated square. Now the dancer switches roles, playing the husband. He undresses, folds his clothes and invites his wife to lie down beside him. She complies. Once again playing the role of the goddess, Shivalingappa lowers herself into a reclining pose, with her back to her husband. As she makes herself comfortable, she mimes the act of pulling her husband’s arm tightly around her. Her face breaks into an expression of bliss. If there is something more sensual than this, I’m not sure what it is.

Much has been written about the underlying meaning of sringara and its use in Indian dance to represent humankind’s yearning for the divine. (There have been similar debates about the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament.) Such scenes are part of what makes Indian classical dance so appealingly warm-blooded and human, even to the nonexpert: it is an art in which everyday emotions become sublime. “We are beings of flesh and blood,” says Shivalingappa, “and we dance with our bodies.”