Shaking Thunder Hands: Where Martial and Performing Arts Meet in India and China

This paper examines evidence that North Indian Classical Dance (Kathak) and Chen style taijiquan share common movement concepts, theatrical representations, and forms of heightened awareness associated with martial enlightenment. Detailing the performance and martial aspects of both arts we examine them for convergences by drawing on the expert experience of the author as a performer of both Kathak and Chen style taijiquan.
Contact between India and China goes back to antiquity with pivotal exchanges moving in both directions. The Indian origins of Shaolin Temple martial arts is an idea embedded in the theatrical and martial culture of China (M. Shahar, 2008). Similarly a style of the Indian martial art kalaripayattu is called chinna adi (chinese hitting) (P. Zarrilli, 2000), and the notion that prana travels through channels likely comes from Daoism (G. Samuels, 2008). Invoking the concept of tandava (ता#डव), martial prowess; we examine uses of the thunder mudra, comparing it with depictions of Vajrapani (金剛手菩薩), the patron deity of Shaolin Temple (C. Das, 1986; M. Shahar, 2012). We further look at the use of mudras in taijiquanʼs silk-reeling power (chansijin), reframing these taijiquan exercises as theatrical rituals of body transformation called Golden Bell. In Meir Shaharʼs most recent work he makes the case that Iron Shirt and Golden Bell conditioning practices have Indian origins (Shahar, 2012). While offering supporting evidence for this thesis we elaborate from an embodied point of view how Iron Shirt and Golden Bell represent distinct practices, shedding light on the complexity of Daoist-Buddhist convergence and comparing the impenetrable body with the insubstantial body. Similarly we show how concepts of embodied rhythmic perfection as martial prowess in Kathak are strikingly similar to the most advanced martial demonstrations of emptiness in taijiquan. This discussion opens further questions about the relationship between martial arts and low-caste performer status in both societies.

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