Thursday, December 29, 2011

Indian Dance and the 'Western' Rasika by Donovan Roebert

‘It is always the westerner who keeps harping on our glorious tradition. That is because the West would like to see us as Oriental Barbie dolls while admiring our classical arts. Dance, especially, is prone to this Asian Kama Sutra babe phenomenon. The classical can exist but contemporary India is bursting free with ideas and expression…and that is not contained in the classical form. (sic).’

The above is a comment recently made by a well-known Bharatanatyam/ contemporary dancer, much of whose work, incidently, I admire. The comment itself is disappointing. It raises a number of questions about the negatively perceived relation (or misrelation) between the ‘western’ rasika and the Indian classical dance forms, and implies a certain ‘western’ crassness of approach to the dancer, and to the Shringara Rasa.

To confine myself only to Indian classical dance (leaving out the broader ‘glorious tradition’), three central questions seem to be asked here: Is the ‘western’ rasika capable of appreciating the dance on its own terms, and for what it inherently is? Does the ‘western’ rasika have a right to assess and comment on its nature and value? and: Does the ‘western’ rasika view the dancer only as a ‘doll’ or ‘babe’?

In this case these questions are compelled out of an unfortunate cultural prejudice, a sort of dismissal of any ‘western’ interference, or even only a point of view, on the dance. The easiest way to deal with this bias is to assert at once that the dance and the dancer are as liable to be misperceived by an Indian as by a ‘western’ rasika. Both would be equally incapable of correct assessments if they lacked adequate insight into the philosophical and technical elements of the dance, as well as of its history.

But there’s also a more subtle aspect to consider. I once heard a dancer from Chennai doubting out loud whether the ‘westerner’ is humanly equipped to experience rasa at the deepest level, that of the transmission of the tejas. Some Indian dancers, it seems, view ‘westerners’ as deficient in this regard, as though there were a specifically Indian ‘spiritual’ or aesthetic gene that ‘westerners’ are born without.

To tackle the most annoying question first – the assertion that the ‘westerner’ is disposed to view the dancer as an ‘Oriental Barbie doll’ or a ‘Kama Sutra babe’ –  it would be helpful to remind ourselves that the Natyashastra itself prescribes certain standards of physical beauty for the aspirant shishya. Second, there are prescriptive details of costume and make-up intended to heighten the aesthetic-erotic effect. The performing female dancer, clearly, is intended to represent a prescribed, classical ideal of feminine beauty; an ideal that is universally recognisable.

The dancer, that is, ought to transcend the projection of her own individual beauty in order to place before the rasika (whether male or female) an ideal that is immediate and universal, and which invokes an inward response to a notion of beauty separate from individuality. The quality of eroticism also becomes transformed and idealised in this process. One might say that it is returned to its essence, as an energy of bhakti. This is, of course, a simplification which will have to suffice for my purposes here.

Is the ‘westerner’, then, capable of entertaining this sort of transcendent or essentialised experience? My answer would have to be, ‘Yes, very obviously, because the experience is not an exclusively tribal or cultural one, but one that is connected with our common humanity.’

Every human being can, through cultivation of the necessary insights, learn to make the connection between the aesthetic-erotic experience and the ‘spiritual’ one. And this is certainly not foreign to ‘western’ culture. The highest products of ‘western’ art have always been viewed in this way, from the earliest epochs of Greek, Norse, Celtic and other mythologico-artistic expressions. The Grecian Dionysian and Eleusinian rites, as well as the choral odes which form an integral part of classical Greek tragedy (whose purpose, as drama-natya, was religious) are full of the notion of ‘tejas’, achieved through the combination of music, song and dance.

As for understanding classical Indian dance in terms of its grammar and the elements of structure, geometry, flux etc., these are not supra-intellectual exercises. Anyone from any culture can study and understand them. Even the more esoteric aspects, whether seen and experienced as ‘spiritual’ or merely mythological qualities, don’t stand outside of the common human experience.

This being the case, it seems hard to argue against the view that ‘western’ rasikas (or, more plainly ‘educated audiences’) are as qualified and have as much right to assess, evaluate, and indeed fully appreciate Indian classical dance as Indian rasikas do. They have at least as real a right as Indian commentators have to comment on and appreciate ‘western’ art forms and culture. This sort of exchange seems to me fundamentally valid, useful, good and necessary.

In a more general way, I would have to say frankly that I find it impossible to discover a clear dividing line, an absolute hiatus, between Indian and ‘western’ culture as a whole. Anyone who cares to study these matters in sufficient depth and detail would, I think, have to agree that there are far more similarities than differences in these two cultural spheres.

As for the last point, that ‘free ideas and expression are not contained in the classical form’ – with this I would have to disagree vehemently. The most cursory philosophical insight will make it clear that there’s nothing either completely ‘new’ or completely ‘free.’ Every new phenomenon arises as an innovation derived from a pre-existing condition, every novelty has its roots in the classical seed. This can easily be demonstrated by tracing it back to its source.

As a clarification for my regularly placing the epithet ‘western’ between quotation marks, I must point out that there are really no such things as ‘western’ culture or ‘westerners’. This label is convenenient, but often as artificial and misleading as it is prone to be put to mischievous uses. The ‘West’ is made up of hundreds of tribes and cultures, with as many differences and similarities between them as there are between them and the varieties of Indian culture. I think it may be useful to bear this in mind before entering on glib inter-cultural judgements.

Lastly, I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to all the Indian classical dancers who have brought so much joy to so many of us ‘westerners’ through the performance of their beautiful art.

Donovan Roebert is the founder and coordinator of the South African Friends of Tibet. Born in East London, South Africa, he is a painter whose works are sold internationally. He is also a devoted practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism and is an author. Amongst his publications are - Samdhong Rinpoche Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World: Tibertan Buddhism and Today's World; The Gospel for Buddhists and the Dharma for Christians (Wipf & Stock 2009), Lama Charlie's Big Bang and Whimper (Contact Publishing 2010) and The Odissi Girl (Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2011)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Judging Dance

Pre-script: This article talks about the general trend noticed, but I would like to acknowledge that very rarely, there has been some good writing on dance and some in depth reviews. Having said that, that its rare to find good writing on dance is what compelled me to write this piece.

Dance journalism in India leaves much to be desired. Dance is rarely spoken or written about in the media, and when it is, it is usually uneducated, badly researched, and uninterested journalism. The rare writings on dance mostly take the form of reviews/critiques of performances. Dancers across India use these critiques to legitimize their work. But really, dance criticism in India is a dying art. Only a handful of critics validate or discredit the work of thousands of dancers. These reviews have come under criticism in the past (see Sadanand Menon's newspaper article in 1984 on Dance criticism titled 'Those Large Liquid Eyes') and largely today's reviews also leave many questioning the validity and legitimacy of the critics themselves.

Why do many reviews leave so many dancers feeling dissatisfied, cheated or misunderstood? The main reason, I feel, is that the relationship between the critic and the dancer is not of mutual understanding and learning as it should be. A dance critic must critique work in order to constructively guide a dancer, to improve the dancer. A dancer must feel like he or she learnt something from the review. Critique should constructively criticize, not demoralize and vex dancers. But there is such a dearth of critics that they are easily placed on a pedestal and become unquestionable. Thus critiques are like ultimatums - a dancer has to accept the reviews regardless of prejudice or bias, if any - and has no way of questioning the critic or explaining him or herself. The lack of communication and dialogue in a democratic atmosphere fuels the mistrust.

But why does this mistrust exist?

First of all, critics often get facts wrong. This often tells of badly conducted research. Recently, a newspaper article on Mandeep Raikhy's 'Inhabited Geometry' claimed that its choreographer was Desmond Roberts, who was in fact the photographer of the photograph enclosed in the article. Earlier this year, another review got the dancer's history and nationality wrong - an Indian dancer was written off as a German because he had worked in Austria for a while. In yet another article, a Bharatanatyam dancer was said to have studied at Kalakshetra in Chennai, when in fact she had trained in the Kalakshetra style of dancing in Delhi. Poor research and lack of attention, I imagine, lead to the dancers feeling nervous about trusting the words of the critic.

Secondly, critics often lift descriptions of dance pieces from programme notes and pass them off as reviews. This makes one feel that the critic is lazy to critique anything and is trying to fill up space on the newspaper page. Descriptive, rather than analytical pieces of writing betray a reluctance to scrutinize and appreciate the work. A recent review in the Hindu described a dance performance minute by minute, expending precious space on the description of the event, and a mere two lines talking about the performance and its dancers. Who was there at the performance and how many people were present is surely not more important than what the dance performance entailed.

Third, critics make sweeping statements which often contradict themselves. A review a few months ago mentioned that the 'charismatic' dancer 'lacked energy and emotion' and then went on to say that she performed an abhinaya piece 'in a captivating manner'. A classical dance performance lacking energy and emotion is a dramatic accusation which requires further explanation - in what way did the performance lack energy, specially since the critic also thought that the dancer was 'charismatic'? Moreover, if the performance lacked emotion, then how does the critic explain the captivating abhinaya? These sweeping statements have no value because they explain nothing, and serve no purpose. They are useless whimsical words that are of no help to the dancer at all! It is the same as when a critic says the dancer was full of 'grace and poise'. Even a lion resting under an acacia tree in the Masai mara can be full of 'grace and poise'. And it doesn't take a skilled critic to see that. I would want to know what was graceful about the performance and what made the dancer so poised.

There are several other reasons for why dance criticism in India is in a bit of a state of crisis, but even the reasons above are proof enough. Dance criticism needs an overhaul, without which one might lose faith in it entirely! This is so dangerous, because dance criticism is a lively and integral part of the dance world. A good system of critique keeps dancers on their toes. It also informs the larger world about works by dancers and choreographers. Furthermore, it opens up the possibility for a dialogue between the performers and spectators - something that brings the art and artist closer to the people. All this is so important. We need this overhaul now so that we can have faith in our critics. We need to have faith in our critics so that we take them seriously. Critics and critique need to be taken seriously in an intelligent and responsive dance community.

Please do check out 'DanceCritique Anon', an initiative of Pratyayin and NrityaYoga to start a dance criticism forum where audience members anonymously critique the work of dancers and choreographers. DanceCritique Anon currently has a facebook page -  DanceCritique Anon - and will soon have a website.