The Vaimanika Shastra, a 20th century Sanskrit text that describes vehicles that can fly, spurred debate earlier this year after scientists debunked claims made about it by Hindu revivalists. The technical text has also been the impetus for an unlikely venture: a dance production by New Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar.

Called Antariksha Sanchar, or Celestial Passage, the production portrays various flying characters and objects mentioned in classical texts, in an attempt to capture human beings’ endless fascination with flight. The dancer and her troupe, Abhinayaa, will present the dance-drama in April in the capital, where it made its debut over four years ago.

This Vaimanika Shastra is not, however, a classical text. In a paper published in 1974, a group of scientists from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore concluded that it was not written earlier than 1904. While acknowledging that it showed a familiarity with modern machinery, they debunked both the text’s Vedic origins and its scientific validity.

Despite this, a paper presented at the Indian Science Congress in January by a retired principal of a pilot training academy and his co-author claimed that the text was ancient and showed that Indians had discovered aviation technology millennia ago.

“As a dancer, I am not concerned with debates on the age of the text but with its lyrical content," Eshwar said. “When I spent years researching this performance, I didn’t think of it in religious terms. A lot of people talk of Bharatanatyam as being connected to Hinduism. But I consider it a language of communication and a mode of storytelling.”

For Eshwar, the text was a rich source of descriptions of airborne vehicles that she could incorporate into her production, which depicts flying people and vehicles mentioned in well-known Tamil and Sanskrit epics.

Married to an Indian Air Force pilot, Eshwar had developed an interest in aeronautics and wanted to see how she could fuse that interest with her first love, dance. So when she came across the more than five years ago, she was intrigued. The result was Antariksha Sanchar.

Adapting a form

The production starts with a group of Bharatanatyam dancers portraying Manimekalai, the heroine of the eponymous classical Tamil epic poem, as she flies in the sky. They then depict Hanuman as he zooms through the air. They move on to create a formation resembling Ravana’s flying chariot, the Pushpak Vimana.

They conjure up a vehicle from another Tamil epic, Silappadikaram, which descends from the skies. Finally, the dancers begin rotating on stage to the sound of whirring helicopter blades, and create various formations that resemble the different aircraft described in the Vaimanika Shastra.

The production may have an unconventional theme, but the dancers’ movements are entirely built from the grammar of traditional Bharatanatyam. Eshwar supplements the Bharatanatyam dancers with a smaller group of Chhau dancers because the frenetic energy and swirling leg movements of the Oriya martial dance form went well with the aerial theme.

Eshwar also collaborated with Delhi-based audio-visual group B.L.O.T to provide background visuals and a more contemporary soundtrack. In the production, the Carnatic ragas that accompany a normal Bharatanatyam dance piece have been infused with electronic beats.

“It was definitely tricky to depict the blades of the aircraft,” said Eshwar, who had to stay true to five decades of Bharatanatyam practice while portraying the aerial adventures of mythological characters. “I refused to use hooks or harnesses. This is dance. You use movement to communicate, not gadgets.”

Her solution was to use heavier-than-normal foot movements and heightened abhinaya, or facial expressions. This is illustrated particularly well in one sequence that portrays a scene from Sivaga Chintamani, one of the five great Tamil epic poems. Betrayed by his own minister, a dying king arranges for his wife to escape. He instructs his carpenter to build a flying machine in the shape of a giant peacock to take her away.

As the fleeing queenplayed by Eshwari, approaches her wooden peacock, the other dancers create a form, bending and contorting themselves using different adavus  ‒ canonical sets of dance steps ‒ to form the body of the aircraft. When it takes off, the queen is bewildered yet excited as she discovers that she can control the contraption’s movements just by turning a lever. The mass of dancers mimic its dips and turns to the left or right as Eshwari tugs at the lever.

At the end of the show, when a booming voiceover reads from the Vaimanika Shastra, the dancers get into position. The excerpt comes from a section in the text that lists more than two dozen techniques to fly vehicles and protect them from the enemy, including camouflaging. The dancers merge together to create one entity, their hands making a modified version of the matsya mudra, a stylised gesture that traditionally depicts a fish. With a few measured movements, they become one faceless, indestructible vessel.