Riyaaz as Ritual Connecting The Sacred and Profane in Kathak

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

Riyaaz emerges as a ritual, imperative in connecting the dancer’s everyday reality with the devotee’s ideal world.

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Riyaaz literally meaning ‘practice’, in the context of Kathak dance, is a quintessential element which shapes a dancer and her art. It signifies rigorous practice, which enables a dancer to acquire mastery over her craft. But in the case of Kathak, the repetitiveness of riyaaz endows it with a ritualistic dimension as well, since “the ritualistic approach of riyaaz reflects the exacting method and training of the body within the rigid aesthetic and social structure of the guru-shishya relationship.”(Chakravorty 2008, 98) Riyaaz is not only the repetitive doing of a set of codes, but more crucially, it demands complete submission of the student (shishya) to the teacher (Guru), who is mostly identified as a God. The unquestionable faith and adherence to the teacher renders riyaaz as more than just a bodily habit. Riyaaz transforms the dancer’s body into an expressive body of the devotee, who is longing to unite with the absolute God. In doing so, it thus incites within the dancer both an experience and an enactment of the sacred.

The two significant aspects of Kathak comprising of Nritya (acting or interpretive dance) and Nritta (abstract dance) gives further keys to understand how the sacred is experienced through “a particular kind of embodied aesthetic desire” (Chakravorty 2009, 93). The Nritya or acting section calls for depiction of various roles adapted mainly from mythologies. Through a continuous switching of selves, the dancer plays several roles – both male and female, at the same time. She enacts as the Hindu God Krishna at a particular moment and the next, she poses as Krishna’s conduit, the shy Radha. Mostly such enactments chronicle the narratives of longing of the devotee, Radha for union with her beloved/God Krishna.1 A paalta or a quick turning of the body acts as a visual code separating the two enacted selves. The unfailing adherence to the strictures of the dance form nourishes the skill of the dancer who is subsequently enabled to depict the correct rasa2 (emotion) and the mudras3 (coded gestures) befitting the roles being presented. Through such depictions the dancer temporarily transforms and in turns transports herself (and audience) to another reality (mythic space-time).

Art is place where we gather together to be alone

In the Nritta or abstract dance aspect, the dancer exhibits the nuances of the Kathak movement vocabulary through the characteristic footwork (tatkaar) and pirouettes (chakkar). She explores the intricate rhythmic compositions lying at the core of the dance form and engages in a playful dialogue with the tabla player through Jugalbandi (duet) where they exchange rhythms. The sound of the ankle bells, crisp stomping of the feet, recitation of bols (mnemonic syllables) by the dancer, and the accompanying tabla (percussion) beats and notes of harmonium evoke an aural-oral dazed sensation within which the dancer immerses herself. The initial pain felt by the ankle bells tied to the skin give way to a kinetic pleasure and the dancer receives the most acute perceptions of embodiment which belongs to a dancing body. She dwells in a state of pure pleasure comparable to that of a trance experienced by an exalted devotee. She surpasses her everyday self to temporarily inhabit another self of dancer.

To sum up, riyaaz produces an exalted dancing body onto which the sacred leaves its mark; the devotee (dancer) journeys through a passionate path (practice/riyaaz) to unite with the God. But more interestingly, it is the liminality offered by riyaaz, which sustains and sanctifies such exaltation. Between the dancer and the devotee lies a passage carved out by riyaaz (set of rules), which has to be traversed by the performer during riyaaz (repetitive performance of the rules) in order to become what she is not. Riyaaz as a body of rules and a process emerges as a ritual, imperative in connecting the dancer’s everyday reality with the devotee’s ideal world. Following Schechner, it can be said that Riyaaz assimilates a range of activities from ‘religious rituals to rituals of everyday life, from rituals of life roles to the rituals of each profession’ (Schechner 2013, 52). It also presents itself as a threshold connecting the dancer with the devotee, the profane with the sacred.

A successful attainment of the sacred necessitates the maintenance of the sanctity of the threshold, such that “the threshold itself is made to serve as an organising principle for the preferred mis-en-sceene.”(Bandyopadhyay 2009, 6) The threshold, or Riyaaz, both separates and connects the profane and the sacred selves of the performer, leaving at the end a scape where the boundaries become blurred.

Read More:

Bandyopadhyay Sibaji,‘The laughing performer’, in Scared to Profane, Writing on Worship and Performance, ed. Anjum Katyal, Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2009

Chakravorty Pallabi, Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India, Calcutta: Seagull books, 2008.

‘The exalted body in North Indian Music and dance’, in Performing Ecstasy: The Poetics and Politics of Religion in India, ed. Pallabi Chakravorty and Scott Kugle, Manohar, New Delhi, 2009

Schechner Richard, Performance Studies: An Introduction, (Third edition), Routledge, London and New York, 2013

  1. Pallabi Chakravorty succinctly argues how the theme of longing and desire brought about by the Bhakti-Sufi traditions finds expression in the Kathak dance.
  2. Rasa literally means juice. In this context, Rasa denotes nine main emotions, which are at the core of Indian performing traditions. Each emotion is represented through a definite facial expression, physical gait and coded gestures.
  3. Mudras are coded hand gestures mostly used in the acting section while depicting various characters. There are several dance treatise and manuals, which give a detailed account of the functions and applications of the hand gestures. There are arguably a total of forty-eight mudras.