“Because human beings are natural storytellers, narration is the most common method of communication,” says Cheryl Glenn, in her book Making Sense. She presents several examples of narration, like newspapers, television dramas, movies etc (Glenn 133).

In fact, throughout the history of mankind, we see different forms of narration. Take for instance, the early cave paintings from probably as early as 25,000 BC, which depict huge animals and hunting scenes, or, for instance, the sacred writings seen in Egyptian Hieroglyphs from 3,000 BC. Some forms of narration continue as modern day traditions; for example, Wayang Kulit, the Indonesian shadow-puppet theater. Similarly, the German fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel continues to be a popular bed-time story for kids.

When stories are passed along over several generations, they become folklore, and folklore is common to every culture. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines folklore as “traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). In India, dance has been a common and popular form of such storytelling. There are different styles of dance, originating from different cultural regions in India. Many of these are still popular in local village festivals. However, some of the dance styles have developed into well-defined fine arts, as entertainment in the palaces of ancient Indian Kings, or as worship in the Hindu Temples (Rama). I learnt a lot about the Hindu Mythology by watching my mother, who was a teacher of the dance form called Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam originated in the tenth century A.D. as a devotional dance in the temples of South India (Rama). As a child, I would watch my mother teach her students the use of mime-like hand gestures, body postures and facial expressions to describe scenes, characters, and emotions. These were put together using rhythmic movements to present a story to the audience.

Learning Bharatanatyam is similar to learning a new language. To be a good dancer, it takes months and years of practicing the basics, just like learning the alphabet and the basic sounds, and then progressing to words, grammar, and sentences, before being able to write a story. First, students learn the different hand gestures (mudra), dance steps (adavu), and elaborate eye, neck and head movements (bheda). Gradually, students learn expression of emotions (Bhava), musical mood (Raga), and rhythm (Tala). The levels of communication using these dance elements can be classified as Nritta, Nrittya and Natya. Nritta has a set of steps, movements or gestures which has meaning but does not convey a message. It is similar to forming a word using letters. On the other hand, Nrittya involves adding emotions and vivid descriptions to the basic movements and gestures, akin to writing a whole sentence which conveys an idea or explains something. Finally, Natya is the acting out of a whole story. Apart from the dance elements, a good dance presentation also incorporates an enchanting musical composition corresponding to the moods of the story, glamorous costumes to suit the characters of the story, and elaborate make-up and ornaments to mesmerize the audience (Nandan).

Like in a dance ballet, such as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a Bharatanatyam dance recital tells popular stories of great love, victorious battles, supreme devotion or terrible tragedies. In ancient India, these dances were presented in the courtyards of a temple, and were meant for spiritual enlightenment. Many temples would have dedicated dancers and musicians, since dance and music were considered important elements of the daily worship in the temple. Very often these programs would start just after sunset and continue till late in the night. Sometimes, an entire story would be presented over several evenings.

In modern times, movies and television series have replaced dance programs as means of entertainment. But, since Hinduism is actively practiced in India, classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam are an important part of religious celebrations. Bharatanatyam is also very popular in social gatherings, especially in South India. My mother had several hundreds of students, whose parents encouraged them to learn this ancient form of art. The secret to my mother’s success as a dance teacher was her emphasis on perfection at the very basic level, thus building a very strong foundation for her students. This ensured grace and beauty in every step of their dance performance. Though my mother no longer teaches dance, she has made a valuable contribution in handing down this tradition to the next generation. Some of her students have themselves become great teachers, thereby keeping the tradition alive (Philip).

As poet Billy Collins once wrote, “In unsettled times like these, when world cultures, countries and religions are facing off in violent confrontations, we could benefit from the reminder that storytelling is common to all civilizations. Whether in the form of a sprawling epic or a pointed ballad, the story is our most ancient method of making sense out of experience and of preserving the past” (Collins).

Works Cited

Collins, Billy. The Ballad of the Ballad, Poetry’s Bearer of Bad News – NYTimes.com. 11 April 2003. 3 March 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/11/books/the-ballad-of-the-ballad-poetry-s-bearer-of-bad-news.html.

Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. 2nd Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. "Folklore." 2010. 4 March 2010 http://www. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/folklore.

Nandan, Anjali. Online Bharatanatyam. 2010. 24 February 2010 http://onlinebharatanatyam.com/

Philip, Leela. Interview. Thomas Philip. 21 February 2010.

Rama, Dr. Siri. Seven steps to undestanding Bharata Natyam – Introduction to Bharata Natyam. 17 February 2010 http://www.kanakasabha.com/sapta/bnatyam.htm.