The Dance of the Apsara

Historical records indicate that Hindu influence in South East Asia had taken root from around the time the Natya Sastra was written by sage Bharata Muni in India approximately in the 2nd Century BC. In verifying this we see the various disciplines outlined in the treatise including the tenets of dance, drama and art, well ingrained in South East Asian culture.

The Hindu culture in Bali, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos is truly unique as it has remained unaffected by its evolution and rapid modernisation in India. Seeing the Indian culture in this countries today, is like stepping back in time to the era of the ancient South Indian dynasties such as the Chola, Chera and Pandya.

Catching a glimpse of the Khmer Apsara dance tradition during my recent trip to Cambodia, in the form of wall friezes at the world heritage site of Angkor Wat in Sim Reap and a musical performance in Phnom Penh was a true eye opener for me. I could see that the poses and dance steps of the dancers were a stylised version of that dictated by the Natya Sastra. The music at the Phnom Penh show was also an Indochinese variant of Bharata’s musical system.

Attributing the dance to the Apsara or Celestial Nymphs popular among whom and featured widely in Puranic texts are Menaka, Urvasi, Rambha and Thilothama, is particularly interesting as these wives of the Ghandarva’s or Celestial Musicians were said to be the performers of Bharata’s first drama/dance.

The Natya Sastra also lists the following Apsara: Manjukesi, Sukesi, Misrakesi, Sulochana, Saudamini, Devadatta, Devasena, Manorama, Sudati, Sundari, Vigagdha, Vividha, Budha, Sumala, Santati, Sunanda, Sumukhi, Magadhi, Arjuni, Sarala, Kerala, Dhrti, Nanda, Supuskala, Supuspamala and Kalabha. These 26 Apsara serving at the court of the King of Heaven, Indra are each said to represent a distinct aspect of the performing arts.

The bas reliefs of the Apsara that I saw on the walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex came alive on a traditional wooden stage set in the gardens of Cambodia’s National Museum in the capital city of Phnom Penh. I was lucky indeed to catch this show organised by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a non-governmental organisation. CLA which is dedicated to the revival of the Khmer dance tradition which suffered a long period of incarceration by the now quelled wicked Pol Pot regime, through its impressive Cambodian Master Performers training programme. Hundreds of young Cambodians have been trained under this programme.

Many artists of this dance tradition were killed by the brutal regime between 1975 and 1979 but the remaining ones taught a new generation, their skills under groups like CLA with its programme that began in 1998 led by four traditional artists.

We were fortunate to see the fruit of CLA’s success story that evening packaged as a classical and folk presentation by a troupe of young dancers. The classical part of the show was elaborate with female dancers donning intricate pointed headdress adorned with jasmine and frangipani flowers, cosmetic jewellery and half-saree type costumes in white and men in tight ornamental white jerseys and dhoty-pant trousers.

With slow rhythmic movements, the dancers who are first seen as friezes posing against a dimly lit temple wall backdrop, came alive on stage to enact choice puranic episodes. Most interesting was the romantic story of Hanuman and the mermaid from the Reamker, a Khmer version of the Indian epic Ramayana. The episode begins with a group of actors playing monkeys cavorting on stage creating the cause-effect mood of monkeys – crawling on all fours, making jerky head movements and scratching themselves. This is followed by the scene depicting Hanuman’s first meeting with the beautiful mermaid whose role is enacted superbly by a young dancer, employing the full gamut of Bharata’s hand, body and facial abhinaya (gestures).

Several folk items such as the  tonaitin (harvest dance), kuos ang-kre (rice-threshing dance) and  Pailin (peacock dance) was full of gaiety and colour. A sub-plot dealing with the love sport of a young couple in the tonaitin was truly an amazing display of a typical Natya Sastra nayika-nayaka (heroine-hero) exchange.

Walking away from the musical, I was convinced of the importance of South East Asian culture as the last bastion for the upkeep and preservation of the essentials of Bharata’s Natya Sastra.

Picture courtesy of Empire Media. For further information on this show visit:


Sittam Param

Writer, poet, dramatist and former journalist. I have passion for art in all its forms hence my involvement in this portal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *