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Incomplete mimesis, or when Indian dance started to narrate stories


Ganser, Elisa (2021). Incomplete mimesis, or when Indian dance started to narrate stories. Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques, 74(2):349-386.

Abstract

It has become customary to refer to traditional Indian performance genres as “dance-theatre” in cases where they patently display techniques of narration or storytelling, carried out through the codified and controlled use of the body in time with the music of instruments and sung lyrics. The Indic vocabulary dedicates a specific term, nṛtya, to those forms in which the narrative element clearly prevails over the abstract dance movements—where gestures and facial expressions are used to communicate emotions but the dialogues or poetic lines are assigned to a singer and not recited by the actor/dancer. However, if we look at the way in which Sanskrit theoreticians have divided the spectacular object into specific genres, things get fuzzy. The ancient theory of Indian theatre (Nāṭyaśāstra, 2nd century BC–4th century AD?), in fact, acknowledges only a binary distinction between “theatre” (nāṭya)—the conjunction of a dramatic text and its representation on stage—and “dance” (nṛtta)—movements set to a rhythm with the sole aim of producing beauty and devoid of a narrative-cum-representational function. From this perspective, the recognition of a narrative capacity in dance looks more like the fruit of great theoretical effort rather than a natural development, which has posed a number of significant challenges to literary critics, who must painstakingly negotiate between the constantly evolving genres of performance, the binding categories reiterated in the śāstras (authoritative treatises), and the newly developed aesthetic theories of drama, requiring an ever more specialized concept of dramatic mimesis. Apart from giving an overview of how the performance genres are divided and classified in the Sanskrit treatises, with an explanation of the relevant vocabulary, this article will focus on some of the theoretical problems that emerge when dance starts to narrate stories, in particular in the work of Abhinavagupta, a prominent Kashmirian philosopher writing at the turn of the first millennium.

Abstract

It has become customary to refer to traditional Indian performance genres as “dance-theatre” in cases where they patently display techniques of narration or storytelling, carried out through the codified and controlled use of the body in time with the music of instruments and sung lyrics. The Indic vocabulary dedicates a specific term, nṛtya, to those forms in which the narrative element clearly prevails over the abstract dance movements—where gestures and facial expressions are used to communicate emotions but the dialogues or poetic lines are assigned to a singer and not recited by the actor/dancer. However, if we look at the way in which Sanskrit theoreticians have divided the spectacular object into specific genres, things get fuzzy. The ancient theory of Indian theatre (Nāṭyaśāstra, 2nd century BC–4th century AD?), in fact, acknowledges only a binary distinction between “theatre” (nāṭya)—the conjunction of a dramatic text and its representation on stage—and “dance” (nṛtta)—movements set to a rhythm with the sole aim of producing beauty and devoid of a narrative-cum-representational function. From this perspective, the recognition of a narrative capacity in dance looks more like the fruit of great theoretical effort rather than a natural development, which has posed a number of significant challenges to literary critics, who must painstakingly negotiate between the constantly evolving genres of performance, the binding categories reiterated in the śāstras (authoritative treatises), and the newly developed aesthetic theories of drama, requiring an ever more specialized concept of dramatic mimesis. Apart from giving an overview of how the performance genres are divided and classified in the Sanskrit treatises, with an explanation of the relevant vocabulary, this article will focus on some of the theoretical problems that emerge when dance starts to narrate stories, in particular in the work of Abhinavagupta, a prominent Kashmirian philosopher writing at the turn of the first millennium.

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Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies
Dewey Decimal Classification:180 Ancient, medieval & eastern philosophy
290 Other religions
Language:English
Date:26 January 2021
Deposited On:26 Nov 2020 16:54
Last Modified:02 Mar 2021 01:00
Publisher:De Gruyter
ISSN:0004-4717
Additional Information:eISSN 2235-5871
OA Status:Green
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1515/asia-2020-0008
Official URL:https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/asia/ahead-of-print/article-10.1515-asia-2020-0008/article-10.1515-asia-2020-0008.xml?tab_body=abstract
Other Identification Number:eISSN 2235-5871

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