As a dancer, I hear people say the word creative, or some form of it, a whole lot! Heck, even I use it on a regular basis in conversations and in class. Do we all really know what it means? Well, early this summer I was asked to present a workshop during a retreat for Bharata Natyam dancers and thought I would explore this well used term. Since we, as practitioners of a very ancient and culturally specific genre, tend to cling to tried and true traditions in an effort to maintain integrity of the lineage, I thought the topic of creativity might be useful in opening up some thoughtful discussion. Often when a Bharata Natyam dancer does something new or unusual, it is deemed creative. But does creative refer to only that which new or unusual? I wanted to know how this term is specifically achieved so I looked to someone whose work I admire.

I like the definition of creativity that legendary choreographer, Twyla Tharp, gives in her book, The Creative Habit. She calls it “an act of defiance”. I just find that perfect! If you think about it, isn’t that what we do? I don’t choose what has already been done. I choose to do something else. But what are my choices? How do I even know what to choose from? These are the next set of questions that came up. Within my technique what are my choices? Where do I reach for another choice? Here’s what helps me to figure that out...

Often we refer to something creative as being out of the box. This phrase assumes that there is a box that contains specific parameters/rules most commonly used to define a genre, technique, or topic. So to think out of the box would be to grab some other parameter that lies outside of the box or modify an existing one. In order to do this, I need to know what those parameters are. What is in my box?? In terms of Bharata Natyam dance technique, I had never thought of this aspect. This is something that I haven’t seen any discussion about! Unless I am clear about my box how can I reach out of it? So the next task became defining the box.

I thought about Bharata Natyam technique and what elements are used to express meaning to the audience. This would surely lead me to the basic parameters available within the traditional technique. When I made a list of all these elements they fall into four basic categories as outlined in very ancient dance texts!

I define the four sides of my box by four categories of expression, or abhinaya, in Bharata Natyam: 1. Angika: Body Language  2. Vachika: Auditory 3. Aharya: Costuming 4. Sattvika: Flow  Within each of these are numerous aspects of technique. For example, within body language Bharata Natyam defines--amongst many others--foot positions, body stances, and hand symbols. So, if I take a foot position traditionally done with a particular hand symbol and pair with a different one, I have reached out of my box. Or perhaps scrambled its contents in some way! In this manner, one can change the pairings of a number of parameters to create an interesting visual appeal while still keeping within the technique.

There are so many questions and choices that come up in terms of juxtaposing a traditional stance or movement with a different genre of music or dance step that is found outside the technical box. Is this still Bharata Natyam? How far can I reach out before it becomes something else? So many questions! Here’s my take on it. If done with great thought while maintaining the intention to touch hearts and uplift the audience with the theme of the choreography, I think it is still Bharata Natyam. What are your thoughts on this?

Anuradha Naimpally