Dance Imagery in South Indian Temples: Study of the 108-Karana Sculptures

by Bindu S. Shankar

Publication: Dissertation for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Ohio State University, USA

Published: 2004

Pages: 355

Language : English

This major study in the history of dance and in Southern India architecture brings to us numerous notations which can be helpful for a better understanding of the Indian sources of Southeast Asian dance traditions:

  • What is Karana? "Karana literally translates as ‘doing, producing, or effecting,’ and relates to the performance or causing of an action. Derived from the root ‘kr’, meaning ‘to do’. (...) In the realm of dance, the karana is defined in the Natyasastra—an ancient text on dramaturgy -- as “the simultaneous movement of hands and feet while dancing”. One hundred and eight karanas are first listed and then defined in the Natyasastra in the section dealing with the characteristics of the Tandava dance. In this text, a two line verse (sloka) presents a concise and pithy definition of each karana. These definitions include terminology primarily relating to hand gestures (hastas) [mudra being a term more associated to yoga practice], foot movements (charis), and body positions (mandalas)." (...)"The first karana is Talapuspaputa, literally ‘holding the flower cup at level,’ depicts the action of holding the flower cup levelly. The puspaputa gesture symbolizes the presence of flowers in the dancers’ hands that are offered to the presiding deity at the start of a dance performance.It generally indicates the initiation of a religious and auspicious activity." (...) "According to the Natyasastra, the 108-karanas were introduced to the author Bharata by none other than the Hindu god Siva [Shiva] himself. In this account, Siva claims that he employed the karanas and their combinations—the angaharas-- in his evening dance and their inclusion in natya would enrich the latter. Bharata agrees to their inclusion and then Siva orders Tandu to instruct Bharata on the karanas and the angaharas—hence the name, Tandava."
  • Dance and Ramayana: "Ravana’s court and his palace reverberate with references to dance and music. There are court dancers, his wives are proficient in dancing, and in a later tradition, he himself is credited with being a fine dancer who pleased Siva with his prowess in dance. Even the term angahara [combination ("garland") of karanas] is used in this section of the Ramayana while referring to dancers who even in their sleep, after a tiring session of dance, present dance-like attitudes."
  • Purvaranga and gopura, relation between performing art and architecture: "A prelude to the actual natya [acting, performance], the purvaranga consisted of a multi-media ritual presentation that heralded the enactment of the central plot. I had seen in its ritualistic structure elements of dance that are intermingled with better known temple rites. In fact, the 108-karana are directly associated through their legend to the purvaranga rite. An analogy may be drawn between the purvaranga and the gopura: the former is a prelude to the drama much like the way the gopura is a prelude to the vimana. The gopuras introduce the devotee to the devotional space and prod him into a spiritual journey. Clearly, the purvaranga rite is based on exactly the same principle where it directs the audience to the actors and central plot of the play. The 108-karana is common to both these enterprises—ritual and the physical structure."
  • Nataraja (The Lord of Dance) and female dancers: At some point, the stone representations of the karanas start to focus on women dancers: "The dancer is a female, a major departure from the earlier Rajaraja karanas as well as the Sarangapani karana carvings, signaling what I suggest, as a watershed in the evolution of the 108-karana based dance sculpture. From this point on, a female or a pair of females are portrayed as dancing the 108-karana. A two-armed female dancer performs the 108-karanas in the Nataraja Temple, often flanked by two human accompanists, not ganas, in each panel. They accompanists’ play the drum and cymbals and share the limited sculptural space with the dancer."
  • The transformative power of dance: "In course of purvaranga ritual, at a prescribed moment of time, dancers dressed as goddesses come on the stage and perform angaharas. 112 Going by Indic natya conventions, I interpret the statement that dancers dressed as goddesses means ‘dancers become goddesses’, i.e. they transform into divinities, and it is in this transformed state that they perform the angaharas. Therefore, in this verse, the angaharas (that are made up of karanas) are associated with transformation and also with divine players."

Photo: Siva-Nataraja. Sembiyan age bronze, Vriddhagirisvara Temple, Vriddhachalam. Chola period, 10th century. (reproduced by the author courtesy of S. R. Balasubrahmanyan).

Tags: dance, music, Indian music, Indian dance, sanskrit, Hinduism, hand gestures, Indian aesthetics, women, Ramayana, Chola, Southern India, Tamil Nadu

About the Author

Portrait of Bindu S.  Shankar

Bindu S. Shankar

Bindu S. Shankar is a Bharata Natyam dancer and researcher from Chennai with a Ph.D in Art History from the Ohio State University, USA, She pursued her dissertation research on dance imagery in South Indian temples and studied the relationship between the temple tradition and the dance tradition through the 108-karana sculptural program.

In the US, Bindu founded the Vrindavan Dance Academy in San Ramon, California.