The Drumbeat of the Heart

By Alexander Campbell

A lot of people in Louisville still may not suspect the size and strength of the transplanted Indian culture that flourishes here. I'm not sure whether there's a Kuchipudi instructor in Louisville yet or not, but you can find one on August 18, which is India Day on the Belvedere, sponsored by the India Community Foundation. It promises to be something special.

There will be an evocative sampling of the wealth and variety of the timeless magic of Indian dance. My own impression is that the opportunities to see and learn about Subcontinental dance forms here in Louisville are as equally rich and vibrant as what is being done by dancers teaching and performing Flamenco and Middle Eastern bellydance.

The Subcontinental dance forms that are currently on the menu in Louisville, complete with instructors, are: (imagine that light, bonking-sounding, Indian tympanum drumbeat here, instead of a Western drum-roll) Bharatanatyam; Kathak; and, of course, the infectiously exuberant, contemporary 'Bollywood' style.

Kuchipudi, a South Indian dance from the state of Andhra Pradesh, is the Subcontinental dance form that most think of when they think of Indian dance. Kuchipudi dancers are usually (but not always) female, resplendent in multi-colored garb and ornamental facial jewelry, executing dance movement that is demarcated by lots of dramatic pauses. It is also this form that is so marked by those characteristic head, neck, and eye movements those 'slidey' gestures they do from the neck up, that seemingly 'leave their bodies behind,' in tandem with those signature snaky, waving arms surely everyone's idea of the world's most exotic form of dance.

Bharatanatham, from Tamil Nadu, which is the most traditional form of Indian dance, is not dissimilar the main difference between Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi being that the former has more sculptured and dramatic poses; while Kuchipudi employs more rounded ones, especially with regard to the legs. The Kuchipudi tradition is known for incorporating dancing with, and on, a metal plate called a Tarangam.

In terms of the dances' cultural subtext of associated meaning, Kuchipudi may have more religious connotations, while Bharatanatyam might be more about expressing the inner fire within the dancer's body.

Speaking of fiery inner expressiveness love that Bollywood which is, of course, that most exuberant, contemporary and fully cosmopolitan expression of modern India in dance. We've all (I suspect) seen it performed in movies and on TV, where you often see it being done in line-dances, or by large groups of dancers; far and away the most nontraditional Indian dance form, it gets people self-expressively 'jumping,' in masses of seductively graceful, synchronization seemingly an urban phenomenon and just that much reminiscent of those Busby Berkley movie extravaganza dance-productions from the 1930s.

It is (or seems to me, at least) the most seamless adaptation of ancient cultural modes into up-to-the-minute, international modernity that one could have imagined.

As for Kathak tradition, it's a real border-hopper: Persian-influenced, it may in turn have had an influence on Flamenco, via Gypsies from Rajastan.

But let's be a bit more thorough about this: there are eight classical dances in India, of which Bharatanatyam is the oldest. (So old, in fact, I find I can't dig up any definite date of origin, so far does it go back). It's agreed, though, that at its center is that expression of the fire element, and the most ancient Indian religious texts, which center on Vedic Fire Sacrifice. Kuchipudi, a relative youngster, was only founded in the 7th century AD, by Brahmins and can be traced to the village by that name, in the State of Andra Pradesh. Kuchipudi dance was originally male-only and for the longest time but somewhere along the line Subcontinental women successfully infiltrated and are now arguably in the majority. There is even a 'gender-bending' form of Kuchipudi, in which the men execute the dance's characteristically feminine forms and vice versa. Kuchipudi has traditionally been used as an individual way to express oneself spiritually, or it can be used theatrically, to tell a story.

There is a 'country,' or rural, as opposed to a 'city', form of Kuchipudi. The rural: rawer, more primal-looking; the classical (citified) version: cleaner, gentler, more refined. I saw a link to the country version of Kuchipudi in which the male dancer was wearing a mask-cum-head-covering kind-of-a-deal and out of an adjunct to the whole thing streamed water. In a depiction I saw of the classical version, there was a male dancer dressed as half-man, half-woman: moustachioed on one side of his face; with make-up on the other.

And lest we think that Bollywood style is the only one that puts armies of dancers into the field there was a world's record set on December 23, 2010, for the largest number of Kuchipudi dancers ever to perform at the same time: 2,800, at a stadium in Hyderada, the Andra Pradesh capital.

The Indian style of music that accompanies these Indian dances in all their forms is uniformly what is termed 'Carnatic' (or, simply, Indian) music.

Follow its drumbeat, follow your heart and mark your calendar for August 18.