Roland Barthes describes myth as a type of speech and therefore a system of communication, that is, a message. Owing to this, a myth cannot be “an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form.” Myth is not just commonly conceived mythology but it can be found in almost any text that uses a language to communicate. Dance, as a form has a language of its own. It is therefore a type of speech too whose main aim is to convey a message. Dance uses movements of the feet, single and double hand gestures, facial expression, music and lyrics to communicate. Any form of dance uses myth as a type of speech since all actions are second order signification in dance. However, the use of myth is greater in classical dance as the rules are rigid and thus there are only an exhaustible set of signs that can be used as signifiers for the second order semiological system.
In Manipuri classical dance, the ‘Radha roop varnan’ is a performance describing the features of Radha. This performance is a lashya[i] form and relies majorly on hand gestures, feet movement and the accompanying music and song. Unlike other classical dances, expressions are only given secondary importance. The dancers are required to keep a neutral expression as the dance is performed as an act of devotion to the Gods. In isolation, every movement, every beat and every word of the song in the Radha roop varnan signify a meaning quite different from the collective meaning. Together they create a myth. The text plays in the form of a performance which incorporates the sign, signifier and signified constructed before it. Thus, it relies heavily on second-order signification. The sign in the first system becomes a signifier in the second system. In the performance, the accompanying song is translated as
The flawlessly beautiful Radha is the epitome of Shringara (amour)
Adorned with precious jewels, her smile is as sweet as honey and words full of eloquence
Radha smiles to reveal the luminous beauty of her jasmine- like teeth, set like exquisite pearls
Hail, the daughter of Vrishbhanu whose complexion lights up like sandalwood
With a gait as frisky as the wagtail bird which mesmerizes Madan, the God of love
She is the one who reigns over divine Krishna’s hearts
Moving gracefully as the elephant
Radha strikes you with the golden glaze of her complexion
Attired in priceless gems, her waistband enhances the beauty of her exotic adornments
When she dances, her agile body reminds us of the swift movements of a serpent
Look, how gracefully her delicate hands move
Hail Radha, the daughter of Vrishbhanu, the only one who can mesmerize Krishna!
Her complexion glows brightly as exquisite gold
Intricately delicate, but at the same time spirited as lightning
Radha enchants everyone with her graceful dance
Look! How she has entwined a garland of flowers in her braid, black and long like a snake
Walking like a wagtail, her glances are as swift as a bird
Her beauty surpasses the allure of a hundred moons
When she smiles, her teeth glow like lightning
Sitting in a temple of gold and precious gems
Radha elusively hiding behind the veil, lets us glimpse only half her divine face
Accept the prayers and soul of this Govinda Das at your feet
O Radha! The epitome of Shringara
The dancer puts together single and double hand gestures which are limited in the classical form to express the meaning of the song. The song is made up of multiple signs which form signifiers and point towards a different signification. We use the word signification as the use of the word ‘sign’ is problematized in the case of mythical speech as sign cannot be perceived without ambiguity. The song is an example of mythical speech. When it says “Radha strikes you with the golden glaze of her complexion”, the literal meaning is very direct but it is not what the song intends to communicate, rather ‘golden glaze of her complexion’ becomes a myth we use to communicate the meaning. We see that Radha is called the “epitome of Shringara[ii]”. Intangible qualities are mostly the content of myth.
The same hand gesture is used to depict various signified. The hasta mudra (hand gesture) katakamukham[iii] is used to show eyes, jewellery and smile. The mudra is thus a sign used as a signifier in the second order signification where it is used as a myth. The purpose is to use this mythical speech to convey a message that is not literal. The dancer takes on the role of Radha, Krishna, and Govinda Das, interchanging between gender roles and communicating the message at the same time. Each movement becomes a signified that lends itself to the mythification of the performance. As the dancer performs, she translates the words into movements and forms a new language. The dancer herself acts as a myth. She is herself a second order signification in that she signifies the character she portrays.
Like all classical dance, Manipuri classical dance exploits myth and metaphor to the fullest. Meaning can only be communicated by understanding the performance in its entirety and not the signs in isolation. The language is purely movement. The language is a chain of second order signification that strings together words, movements and music. The language of dance is myth.
[i] Feminine form of dance in Indian classical dance
[ii] Shringara is one of the nine rasa from Bharat muni’s rasa theory described in Natyashastra and it stands for the emotion of love.
Barthes, Roland. "Myth Today." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. By Vincent B. Leitch. New York, NY: Norton, 2001. N. pag. Print.
Doshi, Saryu. Dances of Manipur: The Classical Tradition. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1989. Print.
"Manipuri Dance by Bimbavati Devi Radha Roop Varnan Invis Multimedia DVD." YouTube. YouTube, 09 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKCeGwTTLmY>.
"Manipuri Dance." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 June 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manipuri_dance>.