The Sacred Space in a Performance is an Extension of the Gaze
If one were to assume that the theatrical stage as a formalized setting for performance wasn’t codified by the time of the 4th century – 6th century C.E., then the creation of the sacred space by the artist could very well rest with the audience. That is, the circle that is formed by the seating of the audience is itself the sacred space of performance. The artist is both curtailed and freed by this space, as it’s held within the mutable power of his or her audience. In extension, their gaze too would be part of the sacred space within which he is performing. Their gaze can censure him, admire him, be a reflection of his dynamic performance and act as a mirror to his failure. The sacred space thus in effect doesn’t allow any pretense or showmanship.
The panels depicting dance and music on Sanchi and Bharhut exemplify this negation of a formal stage. In all of the dance scenes, the dancer is in the centre – not on a stage, a high platform, or cut off from the audience. The idea is not to perform on a platform and appropriate that as your sacred space, but rather to attach and engage yourself with your audience and the space which they create around you. This is typical of folk performances, which naturally acquired its closed-group performance dynamics due to the intimate and ironically, open codices of living in a village. However, in Sanchi and Bharhut, we witness even classical dance poses receiving an intimate gathering and spectatorship.
Sanchi Stupa: Northern gateway, west pillar, upper part, shows the Mallas sing dance around the Bodhi tree
The gaze of the audience in a typical Buddhist dance and music milieu is supposedly one of wonder, reverence and wide-eyed appreciation of the enacted scene. However, there’s a certain element of incomprehension that lurks in their gazes and slightly open mouths. Their faces register wonder at the loud sounds, the flashing graceful body of the dancers, the grace of the accompanists and the rhythm of the musicians. The gaze shows a certain emotion that has moved beyond wonder and into one of dazed incomprehension of reality. This can partly be explained by physicality of the depiction. The scenes in Buddhist art partly resemble an image that has been stilled in mid motion. There’s an element of languor in the movements of the hands, the walk, the gaze and the dance. What because there’s an element of stilled movement in these dance panels – what Niharranjan Ray describes as the slowly gliding curve to illustrate the dance scene panel represented in Prasenajit Pillar, South Gate, Bharhut. The eye of the audience, the connoisseur, thus seems slightly out of focus and the expression, dumb.
Dance & Music: Amravati Stupa bas relief depicting musicians with lyre, flue and drums
There’s also a sense of voyeurism in the gazes of audience who are not in close range of the dancers. Numerous scenes show people peeping out of their balcony and terraces, watching the ensuing celebration or performance with a wide-eyed gaze, mouths partly open. It’s more than wonder. It’s the pleasure of seeing a beautiful dancer in isolation – within the sacred space of the circle of audience – performing with the sole intention of entertaining them. This could very well be the beginnings of recognizing that dance can be used as a form of objectifying women. What is most conspicuous by their absence are male dancers in the stances and movements of classical dancing. You find musicians reveling in festivities with different musical instruments, and some even moving and bending their body in the semblance of a dance. But, there seem to be no male dancers depicted in the pose of classical dance.
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