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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Improv fright - II

Pre-script: Please do read 'Improv fright - I' below before reading this post.

At the intensive first week of the Gati Dance Residency this year that I was privileged to be able to attend as a guest resident, the focus had been on learning how to generate movement. So as you can imagine, there was improvisation involved. As soon as I heard that Chris Lechner was one of the mentors, my body had the same panic reaction that I mentioned earlier. Chris had been my teacher at Attakkalari, and I knew he was all about improv!

It was on the third or fourth day that I felt it, and Chris felt it too. "You had a breakthrough today", he said. I knew I had. It was a tiny thing on the outside. But it was huge for me. Anyway, the breakthrough happened because I succumbed to my fate, really. I knew I could not get away from the secluded place where the residency was being held and I knew I could not, for my own sake and self-esteem, sit this one out. So I just closed my eyes and followed instructions.

I learnt a lot about improvisation as a result of opening my mind to the possibility of improvisation finding a place in my mind and body. Everything I previously dreaded suddenly made sense after I felt like I'd lost the fear. Of course, these realizations might be obvious to those who don't fear improv, but for me (and hopefully others like me), these realizations are enlightening!

I had been afraid of not having time to think of something. My teachers were always telling me 'Let go', but I never had. It was that succumbing to fate that they had meant, perhaps. Because I really just stopped worrying momentarily, and just closed my eyes and did something! It sounds simple and easy, but it wasn't. I had to let my body overtake the mind. And I realized - not thinking too much helps!

I had wanted perfection and I didn't like the uncertainty of it. But improvisation isn't about perfection and what makes it exciting, I learnt, is precisely the sense of uncertainty. If improvisation is about discovery and exploration, then the whole point is lost if you're not uncertain to begin with, right?

With improv, for now, I am happy with closing my eyes and pretending that no one is watching. I can really then go into myself and feel something. The fear of being watched while I explored the unexplored had at some point led to some unintended 'faking' - you don't want to disappoint, you want to impress - and in that worry, you forget to really do the task at hand. And this faking had always troubled me a lot. I had always been able to point out if someone was faking it while doing Bharatanatyam, or any other dance form. And I knew that when I ended up faking it, I was equally transparent. Moreover, I didn't feel right about it. Closing my eyes took care of that problem, mostly. Because it allowed me to shut the outside world and open up the internal one.

As far as feeling exposed and vulnerable, that still happens to me quite a bit. And not just that - I find I have trouble giving weight entirely to someone else. I do sometimes have trouble 'letting go' entirely. I also do still lose my connection with the task once in a while, and I definitely do occasionally generate extremely dull material. But all this doesn't trouble me so much anymore. Because I have an idea as to why its happening. More importantly, seven out of ten times, I've managed to "Let go, Aranyani!"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Improv fright - I

When I was first exposed to 'improv', I was absolutely petrified. Coming from a classical dance background where almost everything is well thought out, 'fixed' and rehearsed well before it is displayed, I found myself totally frozen. I could not enjoy myself and I certainly did not impress.

Dance Improvisation, for those who aren't familiar, is the process of creating movement spontaneously. There are several tools and methods to do this - one can use internal impulses, music, emotions, silence, a particular story or event, or another body/bodies (contact improvisation). It is a movement method that encourages you to step out out of your usual dancing patterns.

When I first became exposed to it, the more exposure I got, the further I went into my shell. It soon became a mental block.Then recently, mainly because the week-long event with dancers meant a lot to me, and I shared the week of dancing with people who's opinions, approval and critique really mattered to me, I was forced to address these fears and finally lost my fear of improv. I would still say I have a long way to go, but losing that fear, I realized, is really the big first step.

The entire process made me reflect on what made me so afraid of improvisation. I share them here because I know I'm not the only one who's been afraid of improvisation, and perhaps what I say will be informative or will simply give a sense of relief to those who think they are alone in feeling this!

Firstly - Improvisation meant stepping into a completely unfamiliar world where I had to generate some sort of creativity in my body almost instantly. It was like I didn't have time to think! For a classical dancer, where everything is carefully thought out, this was a mammoth challenge. 

Second, because the form of dance I knew was about learning something, and practicing it by repetition in order to thrive for perfection, the fact that many a time, the small movements generated in improv were not 'impressive' or 'perfect' really troubled me. 

Third, I felt at a constant disadvantage because the only technique I could impulsively bring out in the body was Bharatanatyam (despite having learnt others for shorter periods of time). My teachers were pushing me to generate something unfamiliar to me but I was unwilling to do something 'uncertain' in front of people.

Next, I felt watched and judged. Now this might seem odd. The many years that I had danced and performed on stage had also involved watching and judging by a lot of people. But this watching was different. I wasn't being judged on perfection of form and technique, or how I used my face while doing abhinaya. I was being judged (I'm not sure I buy that argument that no one judges anyone when doing improv) on something else. I thought it was my creativity. That judgment frightened me too, because while I didn't doubt that I was creative, I somehow failed to impress my teachers, peers and even myself every time.

Finally, outspoken and 'open' as I might seem, I am quite private about certain things. Particularly about things that mean a lot to me, one of which is dance. Improvisation had a way of making me feel totally exposed, and totally vulnerable. I didn't like that discomfort at all.

Because of all this and much more, I had worked myself up into such a frigid frenzy that the very mention of the word 'improvisation' sent panic signals to my brain that translated into atrophy of sorts in my body! My heart would sink, my mouth would go dry, my body would stiffen, my brain would freeze. And as it is with vicious cycles, this frigid frenzy made improvisation all the more difficult. In fact, in that state, improvisation was an utterly futile exercise.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A rolling stone that gathers moss - the full interview

A story about me came out in the New Indian Express. This is the full interview - in my words. While I'm grateful for their interest and the publicity, the printed interview was of course, edited. This here is the full email interview - it tells something more about the current me, and also gives us something to think about regarding dance journalism in India. Have a read.

1)Tell me a little about your background. Where were you born and brought up, education, family and early life.
I was born and brought up in Delhi. My father, Rajeev Bhargava - a political theorist and philosopher, mother -Tani Sandhu Bhargava - a social worker and my sister, Vanya have always encouraged my desire to dance. Though neither of my parents are in any way directly connected to dance, both are great lovers of music and dance. It’s because of their love for the arts that I was exposed to a lot of music and dance from the time I was a toddler. My sister has also encouraged my dancing and is one of my most valued critics. They have always encouraged me to look at dance critically and analytically.

I went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi. After that, I went to St.Stephen’s college, where I did my B.A in Philosophy. Throughout - I trained with Leela Samson. I studied Bharatanatyam with her till 2005, when she moved to Chennai. After that, I studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, UK and the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bangalore I then went to Madras to work with Sadanand Menon, to help organize and initiate the Chandralekha Archives. In 2009, I did my masters in Contemporary Indian studies at Oxford University where I wrote my dissertation on the modernities within Bharatanatyam. Since then, I've been performing, reading and writing about dance and teaching dance to school children.

2) I believe you started dancing at the age of 5. How does a child at that age interpret and understand the different rhythms and movements.  
Yes, I began dancing when I was five. I can’t really remember how I interpreted or understood movement back then, but I’m told I was struck by Bharatanatyam, and in particular, with Leela Samson’s performances. From the little experience I’ve had teaching children, it seems to me that they dance with a sense of complete abandon, and with tremendous enthusiasm. Their minds are also very open and receptive. I suppose the sense of rhythm and movement develop and evolve in the body as you keep dancing, but a five year old, I think, is quite capable of understanding and appreciating movement and rhythm.

3) How did you zero in on Bharatanatyam? 
Like I said before, I grew up watching music concerts and dance performances because of my parents. I think it was when I was four that I expressed a desire to dance. So my parents took me to dance performances of various kinds, and I made the decision that I wanted to learn Bharatanatyam, after I saw Leela Samson perform. I can’t remember what was going through my mind then, but there was obviously something about her dancing that drew me to her and to Bharatanatyam.

4) With the increasing influence of the west, there has been a shift towards contemporary dances. Youngsters these days are easily excited by Ashle Lobo or Shamakh Dawars dance class but not necessarily as much with traditional dance forms of India. What are the reasons for the same in your opinion.  
I’m not sure if the increasing influence of the west is the only reason for a shift towards contemporary dance. It can be argued that a lot of Indian contemporary dance has developed here in India itself. It also depends on what we call contemporary dance. Couldn’t it be that what Balasaraswati was doing in her time was very contemporary, and now that its in the past, we call it tradition?

Moreover, it is a very common mistake to call any sort of western dance – contemporary dance. I strongly suspected that Ashley Lobo and Shyamak Dawar do not come under the contemporary category, but to confirm this – I asked a friend who’s a contemporary dancer. Ashley Lobo is a jazz dancer, and Shyamak can be classified as ‘Bollywood Jazz’. These two genres are quite distinct from ‘contemporary dance’. Salsa, Ballroom dancing and so on are also genres in their own right and do not come under ‘contemporary dance’. The contemporary dance ‘form’ is a broad name given to include dance styles such as Modern, Limon technique, Contact improvisation and so on. So it would be a mistake to club all the ‘western’ forms into one genre.

I also don’t think its true that youngsters are more interested in Shyamak Dawar than in traditional forms. After all, there are a lot of young kids still enrolled in several classical Indian dance classes. I think perhaps the marketing of some dance institutions is better than others – bigger networks, more funding, better exposure on television and so on. But I think youngsters today are interested in a whole lot of things – both “traditional” and “modern” (the two terms are deliberately within quotes).

5) How has dance evolved through the years. What are the new trends and what are people embracing today.
That’s a big, big question! As far as the evolution of dance goes, I think it has evolved immensely, and it should. Dance is not static, so its evolution is inevitable. How that has happened is a matter of great debate amongst dance scholars. I believe history, politics, and society have all played massive roles in evolving and shaping dance in India. Taking the example of Bharatanatyam – its been transforming ever since the first documentations of dance. The Devadasi system impacted it, the Tanjore Quartet modified it, Colonialism and its Victorian notions of sexuality reshaped it, post-Colonial nationalists further changed it, contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers have further experimented with it, and my generation has and will as well.

New trends…hmmm. Well, that depends entirely on the dancers. Some see themselves as carrying forward an ancient tradition, others determine their paths within the the guru-shishya parampara. Then there are others yet who are looking to western forms of dance to examine their own ‘traditions’. Bollywood dancing is another huge trend (they even teach it at some schools, I hear). There is also an increasing number of dancers who are going into a deep exploration and examination of dance forms through different mediums. There is so much happening – I’m not sure if I can identify a particular trend.

What are the people embracing today? I think its best you ask the people!

6) Dance requires tremendous amount of focus and dedication. As a young girl did you find it hard to focus. Share with me in detail about your though process say 7-8 years ago. 
That’s true. Dance does require tremendous focus and dedication. Everything you do does, right? Actually, I’m relieved to say that I didn’t find it hard to focus. Perhaps I did feel a bit left out briefly when I was 12, because my other friends were doing all sorts of things that I couldn’t do because I was going to dance classes and rehearsals, but really that feeling didn’t last long at all. Mostly, I was quite absorbed with dance. 

But my focus and dedication was different to what it is today. About 8-9 years ago, I was focused mostly on building my Bharatanatyam repertoire, and performing it. I wasn’t really theoretically engaging with it as much as I would’ve liked. I was also a member of Leela Samson’s dance company ‘Spanda’, and was absolutely thrilled to be travelling around the country and abroad with the troupe. 

Around the time of my college years, my focus started to shift to the theoretical aspects of dance. I started to question things I’d never questioned before. I started to explore other dance forms as well and wanted to re-examine and re-visit Bharatanatyam in as many ways as I could. So my focus and dedication took a different direction from then onwards. Today, I find myself at yet another crossroad linked to the last path I’d taken. I’m starting to feel ready to put the last 7-8 years of questioning and re-thinking, confusion and articulation - into practice.

7) Who has been your inspiration if any at all. 
My inspiration…there is so much that inspires people, I’m no different. I don’t think I can pinpoint one inspiration. I have been inspired by all sorts of things – people, events, paintings, poetry, music, political events, newspaper articles, performances by fellow dancers, photographs…sometimes just something I see happening in a very mundane manner moves me. Many things inspire me. I hope it always stays that way.

8) Dance is also used as therapy these days. What are the other aspects of dance that most people might not know. 
Well, I don’t know how much people know about dance, but I think a lot of people don’t know the history of their dance forms. This, I feel, can be quite problematic...because people don’t know how the dance forms came to be what they are today, what journeys they went through in their historical evolution. Without that, I don’t think one can fully appreciate or understand  any dance form.

9) What is your diet like? Do you follow a strict regime to keep your emotional sanity. 
I’m terribly averse to the word ‘diet’ because all my life, when I have heard people using that word, it has meant starving. I’ve seen dance classmates get sick because they won’t eat enough, others depriving themselves constantly or surviving on dry cereal for months on end to lose weight. ‘Diet’ has somehow become synonymous with ‘weight loss’, which in turn has become synonymous with starving. I’d hate to endorse that sort of dieting. I’m happy to say that I don’t follow any sort of strict diet. I eat everything – ‘unhealthy’ stuff too, every once in a while! But on the whole, I do try to keep a balanced diet. I’m a big foodie. Freely eating whatever I want probably helps a lot to 'keep my emotional sanity'!

10) You are very young and attractive which must mean you would be getting a lot of attention from the opposite sex. How do you handle that.
Ummm...I'd say being young is overrated. And being attractive is subjective. How one handles any attention one gets is also personal and situation-specific, isn’t it? I'm not really sure how else to answer that.

11) What are the characteristics of a complete woman and who is one according to you. 
I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘complete’ woman. If you become complete, then you’d probably be completely self- satisfied. In that situation, you’d stop feeling the need to do better –  to grow. I think that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone! If you stop feeling the need to grow, you’re at a dead end. That’s it, then. You’re done for.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dance education in schools

Post-script - Recently, I had given my opinion on dance education to Ranjana Dave who was writing an article for the Asian Age. When she approached me about the issue of education in schools, I had a lot to say. Of course, not everything could be incorporated into the article, but here's what I had to say (in full) - its a hurried ramble, unorganised even...but its...raw and real :)


When I was a student, learning dance in school was not even an option. I had heard that some schools offered dance as an extra-curricular activity, but it was in no way part of the curriculum. Though the condition of any kind of art education in schools was pretty dismal and disorganised, dance ranked well below music or theatre in priority. At school, we had compulsory music lessons until senior school, we had a school choir that anyone with a good voice could join and the music at school was of pretty high quality (kudos to the music teachers at school). But us dancers learnt dance outside of school. This was not a bad thing at all, but we were the privileged ones who could afford to learn dance. All the other students were denied this knowledge simply because it wasn't available for learning at school.

More than seven years have passed since I graduated from school, and over the years, I heard that dance had continued to be taught - sporadically, if at all - at the level of an extra-curricular activity. This basically means its optional, even if its offered at school. Sometimes outsiders are hired when a cultural programme is organised by the school, but dance is not something students are exposed to everyday. But recently, the education boards have expressed a desire to make dance a compulsary part of the curriculum

My stint with dance teaching started when I was hired as a resource person by Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV) in December 2010 to teach and choreograph a dance piece for their annual 'activity week'. A few fellow dancers and I had been talking about dance education in India and what changes we would like to see. When SPV asked me to join them as a dance teacher, I didn't hesitate to accept. I designed the same dance programme in some schools in Bangalore, where it was received with tremendous enthusiasm and good-will.

My dance curriculum was designed to introduce, at a very basic level, as many aspects of dance education as possible. At the school level, I merely wished to allude to the various possibilities for students interested in dance. The dance course included introductory practical dancing of various forms, but also learning how to appreciate and critique dance (this would definitely help them to be a better audience, if not better dancers). I had proposed to have them graduate from school with some knowledge about more than one dance form (from more than one part of the world, but definitely one Indian form). I also wanted my students to have learnt about the theoretical, social, political, historical, and scientific aspects of dance. I also wanted to introduce them to the possibility of dance writing and criticism. I wanted them to leave school knowing that dance has a lot more potential than they were perhaps led to believe, and learning about dance provides them with a lot more opportunities than they might think.

The curriculum is ready to be implemented, but I have not had a chance to put my curriculum to the test. The first hurdle, I think, comes here - yes, we've been directed to make dance compulsory. But how many schools have seriously implemented that? I'm not making an informed judgment here, but I doubt if many schools have done this. Dance is still something to be done 'on the side'. And for some reason, it seems to have the least importance in schools even within the arts - most schools have music class, art class, and even theatre class. But finding a dance class in a school is quite rare. I don't see it seriously becoming a part of the curriculum anytime soon. With added pressure on exams and studies, and students and their parents destroying the peace and happiness of their homes over a few marks and grades, I see dance being perceived as something that might be a nice addition to 'serious' learning, but really - utterly unneccessary. It's sad, really. Because I feel that students and their parents are failing to see the dangers and risks of an unbalanced education. There's so much emphasis on high grades, as if a child's development depends entirely on how high he or she scores in exams. All other skills are less important. That kind of pressure might just be why we have little boys and girls taking extreme measures every once in a while. It's also surprising that dance is considered so utterly unneccessary, because we as a people, love to dance at every occasion - be it a wedding, a birth in the family, celebration of good grades, a festival, some regions even dance at a death ritual...but we don't think it important enough to include it in the education system of our children.

Second hurdle - even if dance is introduced into the curriculum (in the way I want it to be - practice, theory, dance history, dance politics, dance criticism, multidisciplinarity, critical questioning involved), what happens to the student when he or she leaves school with this knowledge? Where are the colleges that will train them further? Apart from a thimble-full of 'dance education' centres, where do these students go? Which covetted mainstream undergraduate college offers a BA in Dance? Which journalism school offers a course on dance criticism? If you want to learn anything about dance, you have to go to a specific 'dance' place, where you're cut off from all other disciplines. And even there, I think students are mainly trained to be performers. 

Having said all this, I think there is some hope. Some friends and fellow dancers in Bangalore are seriously examining dance education in schools and I am glad to say that I am getting involved with that. But one thing's certain - it'll take more than just an education board's directive to get dance into the curriculum. It requires a shift in attitude all over - maybe even in current teachers of dance. But certainly in the attitude of school boards, school teachers, the students and definitely, the parents themselves.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Beyond Bhakti

It was actually a sanskrit scholar at the Abhinavagupta conference in Shimla who said that what makes Indian classical dance stand out and differentiates it from western dance is that Indian dance is all about spirituality and devotion, and isn't concerned with the body. I found this problematic. I always have. And to hear an 'expert' say this alarmed me.

If one really thinks about it, it becomes quite clear that this is simply not true. A dance form like Bharatanatyam is, of course, about spirituality and devotion. But is that all there is to it? First of all, beyond the religious narrative, as I have argued many times before, lie the wonderfully diverse range of human emotions. But even if one is to argue that these human emotions, in many cases, take the form of Rama or Krishna or Shiva's emotions, there are other narratives about love and lovers that do not mention gods or goddesses. 

That aside, I contend that there is much much more to a 'spiritual' dance form like Bharatanatyam than spirituality and devotion. At the very basic level, I find it ludicrous to argue that Indian dance is not concerned with the body. How can any dance form not be concerned with the body? Dancers use and abuse their bodies everyday. Every dance position, every hand gesture and every expression is made through the use of our bodies. Isn't that obvious?

It is about the body in another essential sense - gravity and weight. Dance involves physics. Even in a spiritual form like Bharatanatyam, dancers are either succumbing to or defying gravity. After a good dancer strikes his or her foot,  the aramandi often deepens ever so slightly. Arguably, he or she is flirting with gravity. What makes a leap really spectacular is its ability to lift off the floor effortlessly, as if defying gravity. When a dancer, even as a distraught nayika, leaps and falls to the floor in distress - that's also a dancer defying and giving into gravity. This also involves giving weight to the floor. Indian dance (because of its largely solo format and because solid physical contact even with your own body isn't encouraged) doesn't deal with weight in the same way as something like contact improvisation of course, because there aren't other bodies to give your weight to or take weight from. But Bharatanatyam definitely deals with weight in its own way. Every bend and stretch away from the central core of the body is clearly a reorganisation and re-balancing of weight within the body.

Further, dance involves mathematics. Can we really argue that dance in India is only about spirituality when there is such precision in the geometry and linearity of the form? Again, its so obvious. One look at the form confirms the fact that Bharatanatyam focuses a lot on these things. Dance critics in the past have even ridiculed the precision of the angles of the arms and legs, and the painful particularity of lines in the movement. An aramandi position is not correct if the feet are too wide apart or too close together. The diamond shape that the legs form in this position is part of the dance form's geometry. Similarly, the arms are constantly drawing lines in various directions, begging for linearity.

Taking the relationship between dance and mathematics further, every string of movements put together involves complex mathematical calculations. Just like music involves mathematics, dance also needs mathematics to make these strings of movement dynamic and interesting. The five jatis in dance - chatusram (4), tisram (3), misram (7), khandam (5) and sankirnam (9) - facilitate these mathematical calculations. So do the various talams that the ragas are set to.

Knowing all this (and I presume dancers and scholars of dance know these fundamental principles of dance), how is it possible to argue that Indian dance is just about spirituality and devotion? I insist that Indian dance goes beyond bhakti. It is, indeed, about the body. And let us not forget its other essential components - dance would not be dance without its physics and mathematics.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


I recently returned from Shimla's Indian Institute for Advanced Study, where I was attending a study week on Abhinavagupta. While my presentation came in the form of a two day abhinaya performance, others presented papers on rasa, on the Natyashastra and on Abhinavagupta's controversial commentaries on the same.

I returned from there, with a renewed faith in my beliefs and values regarding classical dance. A  lot of what I have been writing about was reaffirmed and reinforced by some of India's best scholars and theorists on the Natyashastra. These scholars also gave some clarity to my thoughts.

In an earlier post, I had written about my experiences while performing excerpts from the Ramayana a few months ago. I had defended my position of performing the piece in human terms, rather than in terms of gods and goddesses by saying that I had focussed on mortal emotions that underpin the divine myths. At the conference, I got some clarity on why, theoretically, choosing to portray human emotions had not been a mistake.

According to the Natyashashra, there are eight bhavas and therefore eight corresponding rasas (the ninth one i.e. shanta rasa, some of you must know, was added later by Abhinavagupta). Crudely put - the bhavas are the emotions that the performer expresses, and its corresponding rasa is what the audience is supposed to feel and experience. For example, in the Ramayana piece, the actor/dancer expresses love for Sita (this bhava is rati). The audience members cannot feel that love for Sita the way the actor does, but can experience the joy of love (this would be sringara rasa). Something like that. But of course, the actor or dancer doesn't actually become Rama. In the 9th century, Bhatta Lolatta (one of the earliest thinkers to analyse Bharata's Natyashastra) said that the actor 'becomes' Rama momentarily, but nevertheless does not forget his real nature as an actor.

So how does the actor or dancer pull the audience into the story? How does he or she make the audience feel that the story is real? My answer to that question was that the dancer or actor reminds the audience of the human emotions they have felt at different times in their lives. According to Prof. K.D. Tripathi, it is through a mechanism called Sadharanikarana. It is the generalisation of the bhava. While portraying myths/ performing abhinaya, the event or story being portrated may be very specific, distant and unrelatable, but the bhava is general and universal. It is this generalised bhava that the audience relates to, and feels.

Unknowingly, I have been using this mechanism to portray (convincingly, I hope) stories of Gods and Goddesses while being an agnostic myself. My firm belief that emotions are universally relatable allowed me to perform a 'religious' piece in a 'secular' manner. And it is this universality of emotions that drove me to analyse and perform the Ramayana piece from a mortal and emotional perspective, rather than a divine perspective. To follow up from my last piece on the matter, the way religion and secularity are interpreted in the blogpost allows for humanising divinity, and apparently, sadharanikarana allows for it as well.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The historical importance of Bharatanatyam and its name

When Bharatanatyam is learnt, many dancers eventually see themselves as carriers of an ancient tradition that has been preserved by dancers for generations and believe it to be their duty to pass it on in its pristine form to the future generation of dancers. In the realm of dance education, there is merely a mention of 'devadasis', and this mention often leads to a restricted knowledge that devadasis were temple dancers who performed many years ago. It is also widely known (its even mentioned on Wikipedia) that scholars like E. Krishna Iyer and dancers like Rukmini Devi Arundale saved the dance by teaching it to the upper classes after its reputation had fallen along with the falling reputation of the devadasis. 

In a dance class, theory is not given as much importance as practice. Moreover, theory to do with dance usually comprises of discussions on the sanskritic texts on dance and drama, regarding the philosophies behind the several sanskritic traditions surrounding dance, or attributes of an ideal dancer - the geometry and symmetry of a dancer's face and body. Some dancers are privileged to have been taught in detail about the ashtanayikas and the navarasas. The knowledge passed on, therefore, is theoretical in the sense that it is a study of some of the ancient texts that refer to dance and drama. Of course, these are important for enriching any dancer's knowledge about Bharatanatyam. But the knowledge about Bharatanatyam cannot be nearly close to wholesome if its history is not taught, if dancers are not made aware of the socio-political surroundings in which the dance has survived over the centuries.

As I entered my twenties, I found words like 'devadasi', 'sadir', 'dasi attam', 'revival', 'colonialism', 'elite', 'nationalism' and 'middle class' splattered across the pages that I religiously read. Through academic papers written by Janet O'Shea, Avanti Meduri, Chandralekha, Matthew Harp Allen, Anne-Marie Gaston and so on, I understood better, the turbulent side to the history of Bharatanatyam that hadn't been taught to me as an integral part of my dance education. I understood more deeply, the changes that the dance form underwent in content and style, and the implications of caste and class on Bharatanatyam. Moreover, I read that the name itself was a revivalist ploy to re-invent the dance to suit a post-colonial, nationalist middle-class.

My master's thesis was a result of all that reading and research. In many ways, my thesis became a starting point to publicly and academically articulate my questions and concerns about dance and the systems in place within it. And in a wider sense, it helped to deepen my understanding about classical forms of all kinds in India.

Recently, I was reading an article by P. Ragaviah Charry (Bharatanatyam: A Reader, Oxford University Press, 2010). His article about the devadasis was written in 1806. Curiously, I found the term 'Bharata Nateya' in it. This shook my recently consolidated belief that 'Sadir' was renamed Bharatanatyam during the early 1900s in order to transform the devadasi dance form into a nationalist dance for the middle classes to be able to take pride in. While most of my research did not contradict his article - the other issues I'd highlighted regarding caste, class, the guru-shishya parampara, and the conflict that I believed arose from the spatial shift from temple to theatre - were still valid. But this one error in my thesis regarding the name was bothersome.

I have not yet been able to resolve this.

There are arguably plausible stories about the name 'Bharatanatyam' originating from bhava (Bha), raga (ra), and talam (ta), but as far as I know, only speculation backs this theory. Other scholars have argued that the dance form was named after 'Bharatamuni', the author of the Natyashashtra, although Richard Schrechner has implied that Bharatamuni himself was myth, 'most likely a pseudonym for a collective oral tradition' (Schrechner, Richard. Rasaaesthetics. The Drama Review, 1988, Vol. 45, No.3) while others have questioned why, despite the existence of several other dance forms of equal richness and value, only this form was bestowed the honour of being named after the author of the Natyashashtra. These are pertinent enough points to question the foundations of these speculations and even fuels the theory about the creation of a 'national dance' in post-colonial India. Yet, Charry's article seems to prove that Bharatanatyam was not a name invented in the post-colonial nationalist era.

So, when did the name change? Arguably this is not a very important query, but I think it is an important question to ask precisely because of the proven monumental role that the socio-political atmosphere has played in changing the style, form and content of the dance form. Given that, it might be worth exploring this question. There must be a distinctive and illuminating reason for why the name was changed when it was. Under what circumstances it was changed, and by whom, will certainly shed light on the reasons for the change in name, and its implications on the dance form itself. I hope to find the answer(s) to this question, because I really believe that it will help in the understanding of Bharatanatyam's past, and therefore its present and future.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More or Less

Amongst the many dilemmas an artist faces today, is yet another one - regarding how many performances to accept in a month. My personal predicament came when I was suddenly bombarded with performances, and found myself hesitating. Was I mad to even consider turning down a performance within a week? Just because I had another one coming up that I had committed to a few months ago? But then again, I was thinking about this next performance, and how the rehearsals for the performance I eventually turned down would eat into rehearsal time for the next one. Luckily that performance didn't work out for the organisers as well. So I didn't have to worry. 

Worry? I know some would say that is being arrogant. Worry about too many performances? Who did I think I was? How could I even dare to enter the league where I had too many performances to handle?

But I don't think I really care about all that. I want to perform, as often as I can. Often enough to stay afloat. BUT not so often that I'm doing a lot of performances badly. I'd rather do fewer performances well.

It is a complex issue, really. Because less performances means less income, less livelihood, less exposure. But is income all there is to performing? Is a lot of bad exposure better than a little good exposure?

I've had my experiences with that, to be honest. Performing prematurely, without enough training - I did that once with Kalaripayattu, and regret it. I will only perform it ever again once I've trained further, and deeper, in it. That's really ok for me. I perform it less, but I'll understand it better. So that when I do perform it again, I won't be injured, I won't feel like I did it in a rush, or that I did it merely for exposure, experience and to sustain a livelihood. Don't get me wrong. These things are important in today's world. Enough of my writing has testified to this fact. But I don't think I ever want to do it at the cost of quality and hard work.

I think the point I'm trying to highlight here, the conclusion that I have come to, is that sometimes less is more, because you gain more from less performances if you spend that non-performance time working hard towards the fewer times you do get to perform.

Essentially..perhaps less is more, because sometimes you gain more from less than you do from more.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Interdependent Artists of India

'Pratyayin' is a community that I'm quite excited about. I thought up this little community in 2010 after attending a conference on global interdependence in Berlin that talked about social, political, economic and cultural interdependence between the nations of the world. I began to think about how wonderful it would be to have an interdependent community of dancers. But it soon became clear to me that the community couldn't and shouldn't exclude other disciplines within art. The whole idea of this community, in my mind, was about inclusion. The intention was to build a strong collaborative community of artists who are excited by the idea of creating new and different works of art through the exchange of ideas and through collaborations, and who are keen on breaking boundaries, demolishing dichotomies and standing up to those who resist change and progress in the arts. With some enthusiasm and encouragement from fellow artists and friends, my interdependent community is becoming a reality. 

The community started out very small but it is growing. So far on board are - 

Abantee Dutta, Dancer/Researcher, Gati, New Delhi
Abhik B, Founder, 'Dear Imagination', Bombay
Abhishek Singh, Musician, Ranchi
Ananth Menon, Musician (Galeej Gurus/Parachute XVI), Bangalore
Anirudh Voleti, Artist Manager/Booking Agent/Tour Manager, New Delhi
Anupam Roy, Music Production (Grey Studios), New Delhi
Anusha Lall, Dancer/Founder, Gati Forum Trust, New Delhi
Aranyani Bhargav, Dancer (Bharatanatyam/Contemporary), New Delhi/Bangalore
Archana Kathpalia, Dhindora (PR Agency), Bangalore
Ashwini Bhat, Potter/Sculptor, Pondicherry
Avinash Subramaniam, Writer, Madras
Bina Shah, Architect, Bombay
Bertha Bermudez, Dancer (Contemporary), Amsterdam
Binoy Joseph, Creative Director, Radio City, Bangalore
Dhritiman Deb Pillai, Designer (Ek Saat Studio), New Delhi
Diya Sen, Dancer (Odissi), New Delhi
Ganesh Krishnaswamy, Musician (Parachute XVI/ Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Gurudarshan Somayaji, Drummer, Live Music Consultant, Bangalore
Hari Adivarekar, Photographer, Bangalore
Himani Khurana, Dancer/Choreographer, New Delhi
Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Writer/ Musician (Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Jayashree Singh, Musician (Skinny Alley/PINKNOISE), Calcutta
Karthik Basker, Musician (The Bicycle Days), Bangalore
Mandakini Menon, Filmmaker/Illustrator, New Delhi/Bombay
Manish Pole, Director, Total Yoga, Pune
Manola Gayatri Kumaraswamy, Dancer (Contemporary/Odissi), Bangalore
Matthew Harris, Musician (Galeej Gurus), Bangalore
Mehneer Sudan, Dancer (Contemporary), Bombay/New Delhi
Mili Nair, Singer, Madras
Namrta Dhar, Theatre Actor/Playwright/Director, Bangalore
Nidhi Mariam Jacob, Artist/Painter/Graphic designer, Bangalore
Parikshit Rao, Photographer, Bombay
Pratik Prabhakar, Artist (Contemporary Mithila Art), Madhubani
Radha Pandey, Designer and Book Binder, New Delhi
Ranjana Dave, Dancer (Odissi), Bombay
Samira Gupta, Desginer Ek Saat Studio), New Delhi
Sandeep Rajan, Writer/Film maker, Madras
Sandeep Srivastav, Indus Live Arts/Musician (Green Ragas), New Delhi
Soraya Franco, Artistic Dancer/ Dance Therapist, New Delhi
Srikanth Panaman, Musician (Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Sujith Shanker, Theatre Actor, National School of Drama, New Delhi
Sunil Baindur, Graphic Designer/Painter, Bangalore
Tarit Pal, Musician, New Delhi
Thermal and a Quarter (Band), Bangalore
Viven Batavia, Performing Arts Photographer, Bangalore
Yashaswini Raghunathan, Film maker, Bangalore
Yasmin Sethi, Product Designer, New Delhi

I just wanted to splash out this bit of information onto my blog in case anyone wants to be involved in 'Pratyayin' either as a participant in collaborations, or by supporting our projects through funding. I can say more and more safely each day, that it'll be an exciting venture! :)

Get Involved!