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.
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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.