Psyche’s Jewel

Janani Lakshmanan

November 29, 2019

Major: Mathematics (Astronomy minor)

Genre/Medium: Bharatanatyam (Indian Classical Dance)

About the work: Bharatanatyam is a 3000-year-old traditional art form from southern India. Initially, it was used to tell devotional stories from Sanskrit literature. This art originated in the dance halls of temples before spreading to courts of royalty and to stages all over the world. Bharatanatyam performers are trained in all of the following techniques: abhinaya (emotive), nritta (rhythmic), and nritya (a combination). The first of these has its roots in the operatic style of theatre, from which all classical Indian dance forms are said to originate. This piece represents a storytelling endeavor. I’ve been learning Bharatanatyam for the last sixteen years, and one of the lessons my teacher, Nita Mallya, has taught me is to never forget that all stories are based on several universal truths that connect us across continents and aeons. This inspired me to reach for a myth nearly as old as my own art form. For my first piece, I was inspired by the asteroid Psyche — the eponymous damsel-turned-deity, whose grief from being separated from her lover was enough to turn the minds of the gods.

I thought long and hard about how I wanted to present my first piece. I wanted to represent the story of 16 Psyche from various lenses across my projects this year, and I hoped to introduce a mode of expression that has rarely been used to tell stories to both artistic and scientific communities. As a result, I constructed my first piece with the most natural connection in mind: the storytelling techniques of ancient India wedded with a story that originated from ancient Roman literature (“Cupid and Psyche,” from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Drawing inspiration from the past is a process that is slowly becoming familiar to me, as I am a young woman growing up in the twenty-first century and studying a form of dance older than I can even hope to understand. As a result, it is imperative that I preserve the integrity of my dance form’s grammar, even as I experiment with storytelling techniques through narrative, costume, and theme.

In this piece, Psyche is fleeing both the humiliation she suffered at having to run from her lover’s own home and the curses the goddess Aphrodite placed on her in a fit of jealous rage at the mortal woman’s breathtaking beauty. An abandoned Temple of Demeter offers her shelter for the night. In her natural conscientiousness, Psyche lights a lamp and cleans the altar for the goddess of grain. She is so taken by the sight of the goddess’s idol that she adorns it with one of her own prized ornaments as an offering. It then strikes her that she is now bereft of her honor, her dignity, her character — her own jewel. In return for her service, she pleads for a reprieve from her torments, explaining that it was her own foolishness that led her to mutely obey her sisters’ encouragements to peer at Cupid’s sleeping visage despite having been forbidden to do so. Exhausted by her grief and her trials, she collapses at the altar’s base.

With my attire, I hoped to offer a nod to the three traditions that inspired this piece. Long, white and gold robes gave a passing resemblance to a Greek chiton while the draped golden scarf served the function of both a himation and a pallu, which are parts of a traditional costume. The mixed metals of the were a nod to the Greek and Roman origins of the myth. The silver represented the former, and the gold represented the latter. The makeup choice of not applying eyeliner to the bottom lid (as is customary) echoed Greek theatre traditions. The prosopon (or theatrical mask) was crafted to resemble a specific character’s mood and emotions. Distinguishing the top lid and not the bottom lid of the eyes has the dramatic effect of exaggerating fear, guilt, or shyness. Psyche in this piece represents one of the Bharatanatyam heroine roles of Kalahantarita, the woman who regrets quarreling or disagreeing with her lover. Finally, the bindi— the dot worn on the center of the forehead in Hindu tradition— is distinctively and nontraditionally white. This is because the bindi symbolises the soul within each person. I felt like Psyche, who was identified as the goddess of the soul, ought to be special.

When addressing the theme, I knew this would be the best-forged link between my piece and the endeavor of the Psyche mission. At the core of all of these is a note of longing, the desire for connection. We journey to a likely metal world because we find it akin to something within ourselves, just as I seek to link my tradition to modernity, and as Psyche yearns for her Cupid.

Date Added: 11-29-2019
Credit: Janani Lakshmanan

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