by John Stoehr
We don't talk about the Truth much anymore, the source of being, the primal essence that energizes existence, that ineffable something that makes somethingness out of nothingness, the metaphysics beyond the veil of physics that Plato made clear in his Cave of Shadows. In our post-colonial, post-industrial, postmodern world, we talk about truth but not Truth.
At least not in Western intellectual circles dried of religion or spiritual sentiment or any such metaphysical thinking that's a vestige of the Enlightenment, an age before we theorized ourselves into a corner. We can never get away from ourselves, the Subject. All is radically contingent. There is no source of being in the universe. The universe is us — the measure of all things.
So what to make of Shantala Shivalingappa, the South Indian dancer whose performance Saturday was a reflection of mankind's yearning for something greater than itself. The performance was religious in nature, reverent of the source of the universe. There were dedications to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. To Shiva, the goddess of dance. To the Ohm, that faceless eternal vibration that flows through us all and that "is the source of us all," she said. It's that thing that Plato might have recognized as the Truth.
It was a beautiful performance. Shivalingappa danced alone, accompanied only by four musicians: two drummers, a singer, and a flute player. She dances the Kuchipudi, what she has called a "treatise on dramatics." Theatricality was evident in her brief performance. The religious reverence is channeled through numerous hand gestures, facial expressions, and stylized forms.
The hands alone are dazzling in the variety of form and shape that take. They are a symbolic language that doesn't transcend in meaning but does in its poetry. Shivalingappa wore striking red on her finger tips. Set against a black backdrop, her fingers popped out at the viewer so that even if one didn't know the meaning of each gesture (like me), one could see the sheer variety.
The head, eyes, and face also play prominent roles in Southeast Asian dance. Shivalingappa demonstrated her total command of her body. Her head movement (that is, her ability to slide it from side to side without tipping her neck one way or the other) was graceful and serene. Her eyes, in one dance in particular, shifted in concert or contrast with the head, shifted up and down, with and against the music. Her facial expressions are aided by Shivalingappa's beauty. She's blessed with a fearful symmetry.
Even so, how do we understand this performance without reducing the conversation to a checklist of cultural signifiers, as if this were Anthropology 101. I don't believe in Ganesh. I don't believe in what we usually think of as God. But I do feel something. I do sense it, whatever "it" is. Am I being quaint in admitting there might be something greater than ourselves? Am I being condescending in being reminded of that mystery from a dancer who clearly believes there's more to Truth than just truth?