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  • Dancing Bodies of Devotion: Fluid Gestures in Bharata Natyam by Katherine C. Zubko
  • Kathy Foley
DANCING BODIES OF DEVOTION: FLUID GESTURES IN BHARATA NATYAM. By Katherine C. Zubko. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014. 264 pp. Cloth, $109.

This text adds to the growing body of scholarship by practioners of bharata natyam, including Meduri, Gaston, O’Shea, Devarajan, and others, but with the distinctive slant of looking at the art from a religious studies perspective that transcends Hinduism, the spiritual practice with which the form is customarily linked. The methodology is clear: After discussion of ideas of rasa and bhakti (devotion) as a spiritual discourse that informs dance, Zubko examines a representative work of selected dancers reflecting different religious viewpoints or stories (Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim). She dissects the choreography describing precise mudras (hand gestures/language) and steps of a representative dance and discusses how the text and abhinaya (mime) reflect the religious perspective that the individual artist-dancer has chosen as their theme. She argues that “the dynamically shifting interpretive framework of bhakti rasa transforms and displays dancing bodies that enact a range of devotional identities” (p. 2). This allows the audiences to deepen a relationship between devotee (dancer/audience) and the divine. Zubko argues that though the dance is traditionally linked with Hindu praxis, this is too limited and instead there are religiously “many identities in the Bharata Natyam tradition” (p. 4).

Zubko believes that contemporary dancers share the concept of bhakti rasa as the focus of their dance. She acknowledges that the term bhakti as a core aesthetic “taste” (rasa) the dancer seeks dates only from the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, she never unpacks why and how this bhakti interpretation became pervasive, though one might suspect that the legacy of the Theosophical Society roots of Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakashetra, have led to the proliferation of this link of dance–spiritual practice–bhakti. However, rather than linking the discussion of terms to a sociohistorical progression of the last century, Zubko is more interested in her contemporary ethnographic descriptions and therefore focuses on what dancers say. This is not to deny that the talk of bhakti is part of the dance community, but for me the bundling of the Natyasastra (Treatise on Dance) and the source of rasa theory, the concept of bhakti that evolved centuries later, the realities of dasis (temple dancers) in the early nineteenth century, and the work of contemporary global citizens who practice this high art tradition could be valuably unpacked. How terms, the texts that support them, and the aesthetic practices of dance are conflated are complex, and I would value a critical discussion of how the spiritualization of the dance has progressed as a contemporary phenomenon, which of course [End Page 702] has links to a past but would probably never be described a hundred years ago in the way it is now by elite dancers who often lead rather secular lives.

That said, Zubko gives us good doses of her ethnographic research with interviews, descriptions, and analysis of dances. Her first full case study is Balasaraswati’s “Krishna Come Soon,” a piece that from her description I immediately recognized as one often danced by Balasaraswati’s students. In this piece it is a mother’s love that Yasoda shows for her child Krishna as she forces him to open his lips after eating mud only to see with the whole universe in his mouth.

In another chapter Zubko discusses the New Jersey–based Catholic priest Frances Barboza’s choreographies to Jesus and on Psalm 42 (“My soul thirsts for you, O Lord”). While Zubko argues the universal reach of bhakti, she also notes that at times Hindus have attacked Barboza’s work as “rapacious plunder of indigenous forms” (p. 68). However, Zubko and many others welcome Barboza’s use of Christian themes and see them as firmly grounded in the bhakti tradition.

Later Zubko considers the Kalakshetra dance-drama Sanhamitra (1984) by the husband-and-wife team the Dhananjayans. It tells the story of the Buddhist King Ashoka, confronted by his daughter Meghaveni for his violence, leading him to a realization that he must renounce this practice...