This experiment is an outcome of our (me and my wife Yogita) conversation. Under the guidance of my mentor and teacher Prof. Santosh Kshirsagar we could give our thought the current form. We presented our experiment at Typography Day 2011 at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

Paper Presentation at Typography Day 2011

This paper attempts to illustrate the similarities between the current form of Indian script, Devanagari and the Indian classical dance style, Bharata Natyam. The similarities are explored around the structure, construction and formation in these two distinctly different visual expressions. The linguistic approach can be explored as well; though this paper explicitly explores the visual aspect of script and dance.

1 Indian Scripts

Sanskrit grammar has references about creation of phonemes. The phonemes were originated from Shiva hymns. Tradition has it, that when approached by seers like Sanaka, Nataraja (Shiva) danced at Tillai (Chidambaram, an old town in South India), and during an interlude played 14 aphorisms on his Damaru (Drumlet). These were called as 14 Maheshwari Sootras. This became the basis of the phonetic alphabet and also the key to Panini’s (ancient grammarian) grammar.

2 Devanagari Script

2.1 Origins and History

Indian letters are the result of deliberate schematic design based on the well-classified Vedic phonemes. The archaic Indian cursive forms were changed into angular forms of Asokan letters, and later reformed in the letters of Brahmi, Bharati, Devalaipi (Nagari) and, Devanagari.

Brahmi script is considered as parent of all Indian scripts. During evolution, Indian scripts developed some stylistic features in respect of the top stroke and the formations of the lines, curvilinear, angular, flowery cursive and so on.

Vedic works illustrate basic structural elements of alphabets. Which are as follows.

  1. Inherent vertebra in every letter.
  2. The cursive crescent form in all letters based on impact of Shiva’s Drumlet arcs.
  3. Top line to appear on all letters except the mystic ‘AUM’.
  4. The Matra, the representative vowel marks which modify consonants and conjuncts to produce ‘syllables.’

2.2 Contemporary Form

The languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, Pali, Magadhi, Ardhamagadhi, Nepali, Rajasthani, Avadhi, Bihari and many other dialects of these languages use Devanagari as their script. The acknowledged contemporary Devanagari script is as follows:

Table 1. The contemporary Devanagari script.

3 Bharata Natyam

3.1 Origins and History

The dance in Indian culture is considered as highly divine art, which helps an individual to attain salvation. In Natyashastra (a text on performing arts), a mythological story tells about lord Shiva introducing the art of dance during presentation of the first drama.

Later dance used to be performed at the commencement of ancient Sanskrit dramas. The oldest mention of dance is found in Rigveda. Buddhist literature and other texts like Kamasutra, Arthashastra mention the existence of dancing tradition.

This art was first developed in temples of South India. The courtesans were known as devadasis therefore the performance was called as ‘Dasiattam’. It was later converted into court dancing. The dance of the royal court was known by different names like Kelika, Sadir and Kutcheri Attam. Later it was re-invented for the modern proscenium stage and re-named as Bharata Natyam.

In Tamil Nadu, this art flourished as a dignified art that was open to all. Today, this is one of the most famous Indian classical dance forms in the whole world.

3.2 Contemporary Form

The word Bharata Natyam is made up of ‘bhava’, raaga’ and ‘tala’ i.e. expression, melody and rhythm. This is perhaps the only dance style that follows most of the rules and regulations of Natyashastra.

The true beauty and vitality of Bharata Natyam may be seen in its unique features like the gentle gliding of the neck, the poise and grace in the dancer’s stance and the forceful yet controlled movements of the limbs.

4 Scripts and Dance

It is seen that both these forms are originated from same source i.e. the cosmic dance of lord Shiva; still, each form has a unique mode of representation. Inspired by this, patterns can be explored in the current form of Devanagari script and Bharata Natyam.

5 Human Body and Character Body

5.1 Form

The human body is placed in space, in relation to the floor space and the space around. It is conceived of as an erect man with his feet equi-balanced on the ground and equidistant from a hypothetical vertical pull of gravity. The central median is also suggestive visually of a diameter in a circle. The two extended arms are in the horizontal dimension and all action and movement takes place from this moment of perfect equipoise, known as sama. Primary and secondary movements of the Natyashastra commence from this basic physical posture. It is the physical and psychical centre, which are the beginning and the end. It symbolizes the play of energy from a central point and finally collective of these energies in a moment of perfect control and discipline.

Similarly, a letterform has a vertical median and a perfect center, which establishes and balances it visually in space.

When approached with same point of view, it is seen that the letterform ‘Ka’ in Devanagari script is in the closest proximity with Sama. This letterform defines the maximum width and height in the space around. It also gives a guideline for the counter spaces to the other letterforms. Similar letterforms corresponding to sama can also be found in other Indian scripts.

Figure.1 Devanagari letter ‘Ka’ is placed in comparison with dancing figure ‘sama’ Sama: Image courtesy The Square and The Circle Of The Indian Arts

5.2 Levels

A letterform when imagined as a human body can be placed on a grid of horizontal guidelines. These lines define some principles of formation of an alphabet, word and sentences resulting in no confusion in reading or deciphering. These guidelines can be named based on human limbs as top line, head line, shoulder line, navel line, knee line, foot line and bottom line. Natyashastra and Shilpashastra also mention about the similar lines in relation to human body in space. In Natyashastra the human body is not considered simply as a medium of subjective emotion but also as expression of deep aesthetic beauty following certain principles of composition.

The lines mentioned above can be described as follows (refer figure 2).

Figure.2 The horizontal grid

Urdhvarekha (Top Line) - Line at the extreme top of the letter, which is above the alignment line and where the vowel marks are placed.

Shirorekha (Head Line) - The line that gives the alignment to the letter and guides the movement of eye while reading.

Skandharekha (Shoulder Line) - The line, which goes through the shoulder of the letter i.e. between the head line and the center of the character.

Nabhirekha (Navel Line) - This line defines the center of the character, which, in human figure, is termed as nabhi (navel).

Janurekha (Knee Line) - This is the lower line, which is drawn between the navel line, and the line of the lowest limit of the letter.

Padarekha (Foot Line) - This is the base line where the letterform rests and the vowel signs are placed below this line.

Adhorekha (Bottom Line) - This is the lowest line where the vowel signs rest. This is the extreme lowest limit of the letter.

In both these forms these lines help presentational aspect.

6 The Similarities

6.1 Branches and Stem

Each alphabet can be split into two sections, namely branches and stem. Branch is the group of lines, which define the shape of an alphabet and the stem gives base. This metaphor is derived from the visual form of branches and stem of the tree. In figure 1 the vertical line and the top horizontal line is considered as stem and the two curves on either side defining the shape of an alphabet ‘ka’ as branches.

Figure.3 the gray lines are referred as branches and the black lines as stem.

Similarly, in Bharata Natyam, stance can be referred as a stem and the footwork and accompanying hand movements can be seen as branches. E.g. keeping the same stance of aramandi, Tatta Adavu, Natta Adavu and Visharu Adavu can be performed (refer figure 4).

Figure.4 From left to right Natta Adavu, Tatta Adavu and Visharu Adavu.

Further this leads to the family of alphabets with similar types of branches, stems in Devanagari script (refer table 2).

Table 2. Showing the categories of consonants with similar stem

The conclusion is both these visual forms share a pattern of lines, which define the form and a constant factor, which acts as the base to the form.

6.2 Visual Balance

The shape defining the character covers particular area in a give space.

In Devanagari, based on the lines defining the letterform, alphabets can be categorized into three groups at high level. The letters balanced across Shirorekha (head line) and Padarekha (foot line), Shirorekha and Nabhirekha (navel line), Skandharekha (shoulder line), and Padarekha.

Figure.5 In the first character ‘ra’ weight is distributed across head line and foot line.

Similarly in Bharata Natyam three positions are distinctly seen while dancing, i.e. Sampada (Full Standing), Aramandi (Half Sitting) and Murumandi (Full Sitting, figure 6).

The whole dance revolves around these three key positions and branches out to more stances.

When human figure placed on the same grid of horizontal lines it is observed that Sampada is balanced across head line and foot line, Aramandi across shoulder line and foot line and Murumandi across navel line and foot line.

Figure.6 From left to right Samapada, Aramandi and Murumandi

6.3 Construction of an Expression

Combination of consonant and vowel results in a syllable. E.g. The combination of consonant ‘Ka’ and vowel ‘Aa’ results in ‘Kaa’, and ‘Ka’ when combined with vowel ‘Ee’ ‘Kee’ is formed, which shows an additional graphic attached to the original letterform ‘Ka’. In this process the original letter form of consonant gets modified (refer table 3).

Table 3. Formation of syllable

The similar method of combining two elements can be observed in Bharata Natyam. Bhavas (facial expressions) can be seen as vowels and adavus (movements) as consonants.

The rasa (sentiment) is created when bhavas and adavus are performed together on stage. E.g. when Visharu Adavu is performed with an expression of love, Shringara rasa (erotic sentiment) is created. When the same Visharu Adavu is performed with an expression of anger, Raudra rasa (furious sentiment) is created (refer figure 7).

Figure.7 Raudra rasa and Shringara rasa in Visharu Adavu

This pattern elaborates the common process of combining two elements, resulting in a unique expression. The conclusion is both these visual forms share a similar process of constructing an expression.

6.4 Structure of an Expression

Looking at the structure of syllables, it is seen that each vowel mark has its own place (left, right, top and bottom) and shape defined irrespective of an alphabet. The short vowel marks are always attached from the left side or directed towards left, and the long vowel marks are attached from right side or directed towards right. This is a distinct character of Devanagari script, which reduces the necessity of remembering the spellings.

Table 4. Illustrating the difference between short and long vowel marks

In Bharata Natyam, the hastas (hand gestures) play similar important role. The hastas depending on the movements and position convey a particular meaning. E.g. the meaning of right Katakamukha hasta (opening in a bracelet, figure 8) changes with the combination of left Katakamukha hasta. When held at chest level it means a flower. But when held in front, in combination with left Katakamukha hasta, above the head means driving a chariot. This pattern shows that there are rules for combination of elements to achieve particular expression.

Figure.8 Katakamukha hasta

The conclusion is such rules in both these visual forms, ease out the complex process of combination.

6.5 A Letter, Word and Sentence

A sentence is formed when one or more words are arranged in a particular order, and a word is formed when letters are put in a certain sequence. This arrangement when done with a purpose, a meaning can be derived. The break between two words is shown by an empty space between two consecutive words. And a full stop at the end of sentence indicates visual break between two consecutive sentences. A set of signs also help to convey the meaning more expressively e.g. Question mark, exclamation mark etc…

This pattern in writing can also be observed in Bharata Natyam.

Table 5. Illustrating the sequence of letter word and sentence.

Adavus (movements) can be compared with an alphabet. When more than one adavus are performed together, the formation is known as ‘korravai’. When more than one korravais are performed along with syllables of mridangam (percussion instrument) and arranged in a particular sequence of speed, the dance piece is known as jati.

This pattern explains the construction of elements, which result in a meaningful and beautiful presentation. The conclusion is both these visual forms share the process of binding together the elements systematically so that it gives the perfect visual and meaningful expression.

6.6 Direction

In Devanagari, sentences are written from left to right and numbers from right to left. In Bharata Natyam, dancer starts the movement form right side of the body (right hand and right leg), which executes the flow of a movement form left to right. The direction of execution in both these forms is same i.e. from left to right.

The conclusion is that, the direction plays an important role in the way visual expression is executed in both these forms for better understanding.

6.7 Beauties of Presentation

The mode of presentation is unique in these two visual forms. They have their own set of rules to judge the beauty and perfection.

In Indian script, the letters must be circular, compact, equal and symmetrical. They should be presented in suitable measurements in one straight line and quite unmixed with the other letters, so that there can be no confusion in reading or deciphering them. The distance between the letters and the lines must be equal and similar.

In Bharata Natyam two aspects judge the beautiful dance. Angasaushthava and Chaturashra. Saushthava is a state of the body (Anga), characterized by raised chest, elbows and the upright head. The waist and the ears must be in straight line. Chaturashra is the squarish position of the body, where the knees are bent sideways keeping some distance between two feet yet each limb is symmetrically equidistant from the vertical median. The hands are rested on the waist to form a square.

This pattern elaborates the similarities between the rules, which have the concept of shapes, lines in space at its base. Such rules help to develop the aesthetics in these two visual forms. Also this clearly illustrates that both these Indian visual forms have their own set of rules to achieve the highest perfection in beauty of presentation.

7 Conclusions

While comparing the two visual forms, script and dance, one cannot forget that these two are totally different dimensional forms. The dance is always performed on the stage and is perceived as a three dimensional body in space. On the other hand, the letterforms (though they can be presented at three dimensional level) are observed as drawn on a two dimensional surface. Keeping these limitations, both these forms share the concept of lines and shapes that provides scope for the comparison. Also, the rules and regulations, which govern both the forms, are strong enough to maintain their originality and beauty of presentation.

Special thanks to Prof. Santosh Kshirsagar for guidance and support.


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