Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/ Indian Dance: Secular and Religious

The relationship between Religion and Secularism is a complex one. Attached to both terms are several connotations and implications, even within the world of dance. To my surprise, I found that the two co-exist in dance very uncomfortably in the minds of many people who feel the need to expel one or the other. To me, they are not in conflict.

Indian classical dance can be of equal value to a religious and secular person. But first, the term ‘secular’ must be explained, particularly in the Indian context. Professor Rajeev Bhargava, a political theorist, has done extensive work on ‘Indian secularism’ and has highlighted its difference from western models of secularism. It is imperative to explain this because western models of secularism are imprinted in Indian minds.

For the West, secular means non-religious. To ‘secularize’ something is often understood to mean removing the ‘religious’ from it. Politically, western secularism implies total non-interference of the state in the sphere of religion. Therefore, the US government does not interfere even when a man threatens to publicly burn the Quran. Western secularism could even be accused of being anti-religious. The French state banned the headscarf in the name of ‘secularism’.  If we apply these western conceptions of secularism to India and to dance, then sure – the religious and secular cannot co-exist in Indian dance.

But in India, this glaring contradiction between the religious and secular does not exist politically or culturally. The secular is not against religion as such but opposes relations of domination within it.  The Secular state in India is meant to practice what Bhargava calls ‘principled distance’. This means that the state doesn’t endorse any one religion, but at the same time, it interferes with regard to religion to prevent domination and suppression between and within religious groups. For e.g, the Constitution (which proclaims India to be a secular state) abolished Untouchability, a religiously sanctioned social evil. Equally, it may help religions by providing subsidies to educational institutions run by religious groups. This is the essence of Indian secularism. All religions are respected equally but ' respect' means  removing those aspects in every religion that permit or sanction any oppression. Nothing in this suggests hostility to religion. The two coexist happily.

Indian dance too is religious and secular at once. An ancient Tamil padam, ‘Muhattai Kaatiye Deham’ illustrates this. Here, a devotee pleads with Shiva to allow him at least a glimpse. Does he not reveal himself because the devotee lacks knowledge of the Vedas, he asks (implying that he is of a lower caste). He complains that when he comes with his tattered clothes to the temple, he cannot get near enough to the idol to see Him. The devotee dares to ask if Shiva's reluctance is due to some inherent blemish in Him? This is a beautiful religious piece about devotion, but equally it questions oppression within religion, invoking restrictions on dalit entry into temples. This religious piece embodies Indian secularism since critical respect towards religion is crucial to Indian secularity.

The legendary Balasaraswati herself believed that dancing spiritually based compositions of love had the same quality as dancing secularly based compositions that make no reference to the divine (see Douglas M.Knight Jr.). Indian classical dance doesn’t require us to make a choice between the religious and secular. It can be both. Then, this apparent conflict must arise in the minds only of those who either fail to grasp what secularism means or who fail to recognize the magnitude of what Indian classical dance is capable of.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/ Speaking of Shiva

During Mahashivaratri this year, social networking websites were flooded with dancers hailing it as the day for dancers. This celebratory mood was understandable. According to myth, Shiva is the cosmic dancer. However, in order to explore whether Shiva has always been at the pinnacle of importance in dance, it is interesting to trace Nataraja's history in that context.

Nataraja has played an important role in the South Indian religious tradition for centuries. He is seen in stone sculptures of Badami, and the beautiful bronze sculpture of Nataraja of the Chola era is famous today. Yet, according to Matthew Harp Allen, “Nataraja had never before been asked to play a role quite like the one reserved for him in the 20-century revival”, when Nataraja was accorded a central role.

In the performances of the Devadasis before the 1930s, Shiva in the form of ‘Nataraja’ was not the primary subject or deity of dance. Records suggest that in the early part of the century, dance was more concerned with sringhara prabandhas – songs involving aspects of romantic love. These were songs taken from Jayadeva’s 12th century Sanskrit text Geeta Govinda and other compositions written
between the 17th and 19th centuries. The protagonists of these stories were Krishna or Murugan - two youthful, playful and romantic characters in Hindu mythology. On the other hand, Shiva is generally considered to be more severe than Krishna or Murugan, according to Kalanidhi Narayan. Shiva’s dance, for many, represented the cosmic destruction of all impurities.

There is only one set of poems that paint Nataraja as a lover. These originated in Chidambaram and, according to Allen, were written in light of Shiva being the local, neighbourhood god, and not a “transcendent cosmic deity”. Other poems of the Devadasi era that mention Shiva neither cast him as a cosmic dancer, nor as a lover. These poems come under the genre of ninda stuti. Here, the god is teased by the devotee. In an 18th century Tamil composition, the poet mocks Shiva, saying “You always have one leg raised; Why such lameness, Lord?” The poem goes on to say, ‘That time you kicked Yama, the god of death…did you sprain your leg and have to raise it, limping?’

As Allen points out, it was during the ‘revival’ of dance in the 1930s that Nataraja becomes “both a patron deity for dance and a subject for portrayal in dance”. After dance moved out of temples, the Nataraja idol, over all other gods, began to be placed in the corner of the stage. Additionally, the number of compositions dedicated to and about Nataraja increased radically during the period of this ‘revival’. Old poems about Shiva and Nataraja that were previously performed as vocal recitals were brought into the realm of dance by choreographers in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, according to some, it is during this time, that ‘Natanam Adi Nar’, a currently celebrated kirtanam dedicated to Nataraja, became popular. It is said that Rukmini Devi always ended her recitals with ‘Natanam...’. Equally important in making Nataraja a central figure in Dance was Ananda Coomaraswamy, who wrote ‘The Dance of Shiva’. According to Allen, it has been the most influential publication in the 20th century popularization of Nataraja. 

Nataraja continues to be popular in the 21st century and stands today as an extremely important figure in the world of Indian dance, but clearly this was not always so. In fact, if Indian dance forms have existed at least since the first mention of Devadasis (around the 11th century) then Nataraja’s importance and centrality is incredibly recent. In that light, is it entirely appropriate to call Mahashivaratri the day for dancers in India? Indeed, can and should dance belong to any one particular god?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

For the Hindu/Friday review/Stretching beyond Idea

Dance has been broadly defined as movements of the body, a form of expression and social interaction. It is defined in terms of technique. It can be ritualistic and ceremonial.  We dance to express and release emotions, and to explore the body in ways that are different to everyday experience, sometimes by taking the body to extreme limits. Dancers also reinterpret the perception of time and space - time is sometimes determined by music and rhythm, whereas space is defined by the path followed by the dancer and the space the body occupies.

My previous article proposed that dance has a tremendously broad and inclusive definition. In fact, it must have multiple and fluid definitions in order to include new and evolving forms of movement under its umbrella. It is equally important, however, to recognize that what we call dance, although broad and inclusive, is not limitless. Certainly, not everything we do is dance. So, on what basis do we classify something as dance, and something else as not dance? I argue that we can do this on the basis of intention.

Any form of sport also requires stretching the limits of the body to extreme levels. Sportsmen also express themselves freely on the playing field. Yet, it is universally agreed that sports and dance are two distinct categories. I believe the distinguishing factor is intention. In a sport, the emphasis and intention is on the competitive display of skills rather than enjoyment in the movement of the body. This is not to say that dance is not a display of skills, and that watching sports cannot evoke enjoyment in the movement of a sportsman. But I believe that the primary intention of the sportsman and dancer in the above example determine the category of movement to which they belong.

Another example can be a procession or a march. Again, movements here are choreographed and stylized, and powerful emotions of solidarity are expressed. But here again, the primary intention is the mobilization of people, not bodily movement or emotion. Certainly, the focus is not on the enjoyment of movement, or the awareness of how the body moves when marching.

Finally, the leap of a gazelle is sometimes more beautiful and graceful than a dancer’s movement. Here again, intention matters. When a gazelle leaps, it is performing an involuntary genetic movement, and its intention is to escape danger.  The leap is not intended to be an aesthetic self expression through the body.

Thus, one can argue that in order for movement to be considered as dance, the dancer must distinguish it as such and certainly must intend it to be dance. As is the case with the above examples, where a sportsman intends to display his skills to win a match, a person involved in a procession intends to mobilize people for a cause, and a gazelle leaps involuntarily in order to escape death, a dancer must intend to dance.

An American choreographer once choreographed a duet where two men simply stood still on stage or four minutes. It was undoubtedly a form of expression, perhaps even social interaction. It lacked dynamic movement, though. The experimental choreographer, however, intended it to be dance. Therefore, the spectators were aware that it was dance. 

A recent performance by choreographer Jerome Bel involved dialogue, two men sitting across from each other, talking about dance. Some would argue that the performance was theatre, not dance. The performers did dance, though for minimal amounts of time. Mostly, they talked. But the piece was undoubtedly about dance, and the power felt when both dancers depicted death through their respective dance forms was undeniable. This was the intention – to make people think about and experience the different dance forms. This intention allowed the performance to be called ‘dance’. 

To conclude, I contend that in addition to the exploration of the body movement that stretches beyond everyday activity, and the communication and release of emotions and self-expression, one must also consider intention when distinguishing dance from other patterns of movement.