Iconography of ancient dance

December 4, 1998

This is an innovative work of dance iconography, that is the new study of the visual representation of dance. Taking a perspective rooted in dance practice as well as archaeology and art history, Alessandra Iyer proposes that the dance reliefs found on the outer balustrade of the 9th-century temple of Siwa, in Prambanan, a Hindu central Javanese temple complex, can be identified as karana, the units of dance movement described in the Sanskrit text on dance and drama known from India as Natyasastra.

Given that the Prambanan karana series is older than the first known karana series in India, Iyer argues that the idea of representing karana in a sculpted series was first developed in Java and then taken to India two centuries later. Iyer does not say that karana or the Natyasastra are of Javanese origin - indeed, no copy of the Natyasastra text has been found in Indonesia. Rather, she demonstrates that the category of "indigenous" (in this case Javanese) and "foreign" (Indian) cannot be seen as fixed entities, that the notion of the indigenous cultures of Indonesia being passive receivers is untenable, and that definitions of what is or is not indigenous can never be clear-cut and static. Considering that borrowing of movement patterns is common in dance, one can speculate, as Iyer does, that some of the karana could have originated outside India before their codification, only to be relayed again in Southeast Asia later.

Dance iconography being a relatively new field, is Iyer says, "hardly acknowledged as a valid research area by most art historians" and is not seen in a much better light by archaeologists. The reconstruction of dance from images - whether visual or verbal or both -Jis fraught with problems, as Iyer demonstrates. The Prambanan dance reliefs have been restored and rearranged several times since their archaeological discovery in the late 19th century. Iyer came across errors, for example, in how panels were reassembled with pieces missing or anatomically impossible joinings.

The originality of her work, which is borrowed in part from the methodology developed by the Indian scholar Padma Subrahmanyam, is that it is rooted in dance practice. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Subrahmanyam had put forward a reconstruction of karana based on textual evidence, sculptural evidence and a practical study of the movements. She demonstrated that karana were not, as was commonly believed, poses but rather that each one had a beginning, a course of action and an end, all integral parts of the movement patterns.

Iyer's practical knowledge of performance combined with the analysis of the Prambanan reliefs allowed her to demonstrate that the representations of dancers were not meant to be depictions of an "ideal" dance with no connection with practice, as some have suggested, but rather that "practical knowledge of how the movements should be performed backs up every representation" and that the sculptors "had certainly been given precise guidelines on the design they should follow by people highly knowledgeable and skilled in that particular dance style" - indicating that this dance style was part of contemporary dance practice.

Prambanan is beautifully illustrated with many photographs and exquisite line drawings. Although at time the presentation is technical and complex, the book takes the reader through the argument step by step, and even a reader without prior knowledge can follow it through. Prambanan should be of interest not only to people working on Southeast Asia or on dance. The issues raised about interpretation of the past and the intertwining of cultures as they come into contact with each other are extremely important, especially in today's heterogeneous world, and are significant for everyone.

Andree Grau is senior lecturer, Roehampton Institute, London.

Prambanan: Sculpture and Dance in Ancient Java

Author - Alessandra Iyer
ISBN - 974 8434 12 5
Publisher - White Lotus Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 211

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