Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Age, Exposure and Experience

Okay, so it's a morning ramble, but I think I do have something to say. Many 'young' artists face this peculiar obstacle of 'being young'. Because they are young, they are not considered experienced. And young may well just mean that they've not been exposed to audiences enough, for whatever reason. Artists are classified into 'young', 'middle-level' and 'senior'. The senior category is uncontested. You've got age and experience on your side. In most cases, anyway. Incidentally, that still does not always mean they are the most talented.

The confusion comes in the other two categorizations. When a 40-something year old dancer wins an award in the young dancer's category, and a 35-year old dancer with perhaps more exposure, but as much training and experience as a 'young' dancer is termed 'middle-level', I'm baffled. Then, a 26 year old is not eligible to apply in the young dancers' category for most festivals. But does that mean he/she becomes a middle-level artist? Or do they remain 'young' (and therefore, inexperienced) until a cultural organisation/sponsor deems them as 'experienced' enough to enter the middle-level? On what basis are these categorizations made and foisted onto artists? Moreover, why does being 'young' imply less capable of creativity, choreography and composition? Does creativity come at a certain age, and not before that? 

Then, I wonder - Is performing frequently (exposure to the public) proof of being 'experienced' (and no longer young?!)? What if an artist has been practicing his/her art tirelessly for twenty-twenty five years, but has performed seldom in those years because of other constraints or priorities?

Moreover, what about all those talented, hardworking artists who have not had the privilege of pushing their art form onto public platforms? We all know that performance opportunities don't come merely out of hard work and talent - factors such as who we know, how we market ourselves, how we are labelled (young, middle-level, experienced, graded by Doordarshan, empanelled by ICCR etc etc), and how much we can afford to spend - all contribute to how often we get seen in public.

Perhaps it is fair to assume then, that experience is measured not by the years of training/dedication, nor solely by knowledge of the art form, but rather by how old we are and how exposed we are to the public. In turn, how 'exposed' we are depends not on how talented we are, but rather by who we know, how we are known and how we market ourselves.

Isn't it time to set aside these categorizations, and be given platforms to perform based only on talent, hard work and creativity? Young or old, thin or fat, rich or poor, exposed/supported or not - there is talent and mediocrity at all of these levels. Isn't it time to measure 'experience' and worth based solely on skill and perseverance? Isn't it time to cast aside the other factors when measuring experience and worth? I, for one, wait for the day when I apply for a festival/performance, and the only thing they ask me for is a sample of my work.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Secular, and My Religious, in My Dance

The relationship between Religion and Secularism is indeed a complex one, and attached to both terms are several connotations and implications in different contexts. Even within the world of dance, the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ imply several things. 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.

In November, I performed an excerpt from the Kamban Ramayana at the Attic. Because I had said that I have been ‘exploring the relevance of Bharatanatyam beyond the religious narrative, one that is inclusive of secular audiences’, a conflict arose. In response to the fact that I had emphasized human emotions (which implied a ‘secular’ approach), someone rightly said that the piece carries a cultural memory, and it is very difficult to completely remove the divine, spiritual and religious aspect of Bharatanatyam when performing it. I explained that I was not attempting to exclude the religious aspect, but had merely focused on another aspect of the piece – the vast variety of human emotions that the piece explores. 

The intense discussion went around in circles. I kept explaining that I was merely focusing on human emotions, and I kept hearing that it is difficult and inappropriate to have a ‘secular’ approach to such a ‘religious’ piece. The fact that I had focused on human emotions had meant that I was removing the divine aspect of the piece. As for me, I could not understand where the contradiction lay.

I later realized that the conflict may have arisen because we were using the term ‘secular’ differently. I had imbibed the conception of ‘secular’ from my parents, and had naively assumed that this was well-known and widely accepted all over India. My father, who has done extensive work on Indian Secularism has highlighted its difference from western models of secularism. But I realized the Western models had existed for longer and were probably imprinted in the minds of Indians as well. I also realized that when I speak about religion and secularism in dance, I must explain what ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ mean for me.

Hanuman, Rama's
messenger in 'Ni Urai Pai'
I am not a ritualistic and religious person. But I am certainly not anti-religious. As an agnostic practicing a ‘religious/spiritual’ dance like Bharatanatyam, I found that one way to relate to it was through human emotions. But that had never meant removing the religious, spiritual or devotional aspect of it. Even if I had ‘removed’ it, I think that firstly, it does not necessarily imply the removal of spirituality and devotion. Secondly, it also does not mean that I removed the religiosity of the dance piece from the minds and eyes of the people watching. In fact, because of the ‘cultural memory’ that is attached to a piece like ‘Ni Urai Pai’, it is far easier for people to see only the religious aspect of it. Because of that, I felt that highlighting a different and equally important aspect of the piece was exciting.

Rama's pain
The biggest controversy came about because of the use of the term ‘secular’ in my introduction. It was my mistake that I had not realized that many Indians understand secularism the way it is conceived in the west. For the West, secular means non-religious. To ‘secularize’ something is understood to mean removing the ‘religious’ from it. Politically, western secularism implies total non-interference of the state in the sphere of religion, so the US government does not interfere even when a man threatens to publicly burn the Quran. The western conceptions of Secularism could even be accused of being anti-religious (e.g. the French state banning the head scarf in the name of ‘secularism’). Moreover, ‘Secularists’ are commonly identified as hardcore atheists. If we are to apply these western conceptions of secularism to India and to dance, then sure – the religious and secular cannot co-exist.

But in India, this blatant contradiction does not exist politically or culturally. The state does interfere now and then in matters of religion to prevent one religion dominating over another, or one group dominating another group within the same religion. It interferes in order to safeguard the fundamental right to practice any religion. 

Here's an Indian's secularism
The Constitution (which proclaims India to be a secular state) abolished Untouchability, a social evil that has religious sanction. The Indian State lifted the ban on dalits to enter Hindu temples – another State intervention in the religious realm. Rather than complete non-interference, the Indian state practices what Rajeev Bhargava calls ‘principled distance’ from religion. This is the essence of secularism in India the way I understand it. I also understand secularism in India to mean a tolerance for and equal respect for all religions (Articles 25-28 in the Indian Constitution). So ultimately for me, secularism is not anti any religion, but for all religions. It also interprets ‘being for all religions’ to mean removing those aspects in every religion that permit or sanction any oppression. I am a secular person in this regard. In my understanding, religion and secular are not contradictory, but complementary. When I say I am a secular person, I do not mean I am anti-religious, but rather that I respect the freedom of people to practice any and all religions, without myself being attached to any of them.

Having said all this, when I dance, I embody this understanding of the relationship between religion and secularism. And therefore I fail to see the conflict in doing a ‘Ramayana’ piece from a human perspective, a ‘secular’ perspective if you like. Human emotions are just a powerful way of reaching out to people because they transcend race, gender, class and nationality. My aim is not to exclude the religious audience or to rob them of their cultural memory. My aim is to also include audiences that belong to other religions and to no religion. So, between my ‘religious’ and my ‘secular’, there is no conflict. They co-exist happily in my mind when I dance.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Back to School

I have kept myself fairly busy these last two weeks. About a month ago, my school Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV) got in touch with me regarding ‘activity week’ – a week that brought back many memories – of being captain of my sports house, equalizing records and running relays, jumping across poles held high and into long pits, whizzing past the cheering crowds etc. When my teachers wanted to know if I would choreograph a dance piece for students of classes 8,9,10 and 11 to commemorate the 50th year of Activity week, I didn’t think twice and said yes. When I suggested that Kalaripayattu and Yoga would be interesting to explore, along with classical and contemporary styles, SPV was enthusiastic. I'd been given the go ahead and was told that there were about 30 students who had signed up.

Bharatanatyam section
On the first day, I met 'my students', and we just talked. Over the next few days, we became more familiar, 35 students became 55 students, the number of boys increased, and the piece started to take shape and transform. Within ten days, the students and I were ready. We put up a choreography that comprised of Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu, Yoga, Odissi, Kathak and Modern dance. The feedback for the performance was almost unanimously positive – the students loved it, teachers adored it, and parents were impressed by it.

The performance aside, teaching taught me that I love teaching! And from what my teachers tell me – I’m good at it! It was a strangely warm feeling that the same school in which I used to get in trouble and rebel against teachers was now the place where I was to discover that perhaps I am meant to teach as well.

I learnt about the students – they were talented and interested – a generation of confident young people who were keen to learn and explore. Yet they were not arrogant and conceited. Most of them listened, internalized what I taught them, asked questions, and when asked to choreograph bits, took up the challenge and displayed tremendous creative potential! It was exciting to see what they were capable of, without even knowing it!

Paromita Ma'am, once my English teacher, was full of praise
I learnt about some of my teachers – specially their patience, and how sturdy their voices must be - I lost my voice within 5 days of teaching!

When it came to teaching, I just followed my instincts, which told me that you cannot talk down to children; and that a teacher can never win over his/her students if he/she walks into a classroom demanding respect as if he/she should deserve it no matter what. Just as the students were expected to earn my respect, I also had to earn theirs.

That’s all I did, really. I didn’t assume that I should get instant respect, I realized I’d have to impress them and negotiate with them rather than give them ultimatums. I encouraged them to talk and question. They had a say, almost always. Of course, if things got out of control, I had the final word (and the one time I did unilaterally make a decision, one student inquired whether my democratic ways were giving in to authoritarianism – cheeky!), but I tried to let them know that their opinions mattered – because they did, and that their inputs were valuable – because they were! We worked together. It was funny to notice that my methods amused them (my impressions of them 'dancing lazily' always provoked laughter), and they quickly realized I wasn't intolerant to mischief (the boys who had identical phones as mine were constantly interchanging the phones to confuse me).
With two students and the talented young Mridangist, Manohar, an SPV student of class XI, who played live during the Kalaripayattu sections of the piece
But there were 'serious' moments too - scolding (although I was told by them that I didn’t scold them enough), sore legs (theirs), hoarse throats (mine) and blackmailing (I told them that my reputation was in their hands and that they had a responsibility towards me, just as I had a responsibility towards them!).

This is only half of my students, many were scattered, and I
was told that the boys had run off to get out of their salwars
as soon as the piece had gotten over!
What was really special was seeing the transformation in my students, some of whom had never danced (I had promised them that would not be a problem) – on day one, they were shy, awkward, giggly and distracted, and over the two weeks, I saw them transform into confident, fluid bodies. 

The transformation was evident in other ways too - They didn’t want me to yell at them to listen. Instead they were telling each other to keep quiet so that they could hear what I was saying! I heard some of the boys standing up to other boys who were teasing them about being 'in a dance'. They had taken my pep-talk about fighting gender stereotypes quite seriously! I saw the minds and bodies of the students trying to understand my demonstration of the difference between dancing ‘correctly’ and dancing ‘with feeling'. Ultimately, they were making the effort. Basically, it was no longer some ex-student's dance project. They had made the dance theirs. That transformation unfolding before my eyes made me ecstatic!

More happy faces after the performance. I still didn't manage
to get a group photograph of everyone in the dance piece.
The love and enthusiasm of the students made me feel that I had left my mark. To know that you made even a little difference to a lot of kids is an unexpectedly powerful feeling.

I had always thought teaching was something I’d do later on in life. But when I realized how much I’d loved it, how rewarding it had been for me, and how much my students said they gained from me, I realized I wanted to teach now, and I should. So, since I’ve been asked to conduct workshops there in April – SPV, I’ll be back soon.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Musical Collaborations

For many of us who are dismayed and disheartened about the state of the classical arts, yesterday's music concert by Carnatic Vocalist Sudha Raghuraman and Hindustani Vocalist Meeta Pandit was a lovely collaboration. I had often wondered why this isn't done more often, and was even thinking of trying to use both styles in a piece I'm working on - and here it was!

Sudha Raghuraman
Meeta Pandit
I have heard from young singers of both fields about the various prejudices that exist about one another. In that light especially, it was wonderful to see the two singers respectfully singing together, allowing each other space to express, in tune with each other. Sudha Raghuraman, who I dance alongside sometimes, was just stunning. The intensity with which she sang was punctuated with bits where she was connecting with the audience, herself smiling, almost saying - 'Did you notice that?' Meeta Pandit and Sudha Raghuraman melded together as they sang the two different styles in unison in a song dedicated to Jayadeva. Rather than clashing, they really did illustrate that the walls that we create between different styles and art forms, are futile and counter-productive. I loved the way the two voices, the tabla and mridangam, and the sarangi and flute held their ground on the same stage with such ease, beauty and complimentarity.

This performance was part of the Delhi International Arts Festival, and I hope we see more of such collaborations in the future!