Friday, December 07, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Not so Secondary...

 In my previous article on the real cost of a free seat at a dance performance, other aspects of what makes dance performances possible were mentioned. These were – sound, light, sets, props, costumes etc. Of course, the dance in terms of its composition, and the dancer or dancers who are performing the dance composition are indisputably fundamental for a dance performance. But we often tend to forget that there are other integral elements to a dance performance. Indeed, sometimes it is the case that dancers are forced by financial circumstances to ignore or diminish the importance of these other aspects. They sometimes become subsidiary elements, but really, they are vital.

Music or sound is undeniably a crucial aspect of a dance performance. Whether it is recorded or live, music and sound (even the sound of silence) are an integral part of the dance – they are part of the choreographic decisions that are made to make a dance performance presentable and meaningful. Because we commonly associate music with dance in our daily lives as well (at weddings, parties, or discotheques), this connection between the two is one that is less often taken for granted than the other aspects of dance performance. Still, how much attention is paid to the quality of sound in a dance performance is questionable. While often dancers and musicians of the dance performance are helpless in this matter because a particular venue has only a mediocre sound system, or only a limited number of microphones, somewhere the dancers themselves have resigned to this helplessness. Perhaps instead we need to look at what can be done about this.

Aside from sound which is essential for a dance performance, lighting is also incredibly important. It is not enough to keep the dancing body lit. Choreographic decisions are made on the basis of the mood and nature of the piece. Good lighting can significantly enhance the quality and communicative ability of a dance performance, whereas bad lighting can take away from all this. Decisions are made regarding when the dancers are fully lit, or in darkness; what colours of light highlight a particular part of the piece and so on. Bad lighting can cause the dancer and the dance to look flat and lifeless. Light designers are coming up all over the country. As dancers and organizers of dance events, we should collectively make use of them!

Sound and light aside, there are other elements to a dance performance such as costumes, sets and props that can transform a dance performance in the way it is presented. Each of these elements are meant to be a part of the dance performance – as much a part – as the dancing itself. We must collectively understand the centrality of these ‘subsidiary’ elements to a dance performance. Most dancers understand this, many implement it, but there are several who simply cannot afford to take care of all that financially. Therefore, it is equally important for the spectators and organizers to understand their intrinsic value, in order to appreciate the other artistic skill and labour that goes into a dance performance, and in order to support the dance performance wholistically.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/The Real cost of your free seat

People all over the world go to see works of art, and in a lot of these places, they pay to see these works of art. People pay for a ticket to enter museums, to watch cinema, see theatre and to attend dance performances. In the rare event that a work of art is showcased without a ticket, the cost of that ticketless showcasing is not borne by the artists themselves.

India is peculiar in that sense. Similar to audiences in the rest of the world, Indian audiences pay to see a film or enter a museum, for instance, but dance performances are rarely ticketed – particularly classical dance performances. Audiences are so used to watching dance performances for free that paying even a small amount to watch a classical dance performance surprises them.

Audiences have never really been directed to think about what the real cost of their free seat is, or who bears that cost. It proved to be an interesting mathematical exercise to discover this.

Theatres all over India rent out their space to artists. Suppose a particular medium-sized theatre seats 215 people. To use the space for half a day, the rent is Rs.5000 (depending on size and repute, rent for other spaces can go up to Rs.20,000 or even Rs. 50,000).

A dance performance usually involves music. For a classical dance performance to take place with live music, usually four musicians perform with the dancer. Depending on where you are in the country, this fee can be between Rs.3,000-5,000 for each of the musicians. Let’s say its Rs.3,000. That amounts to Rs.12,000.

A dance performance also involves light and sound. Unfortunately, in many cases, dancers are at the mercy of the technician for sound and light. One escapes the additional cost of a light/sound designer, but the performance suffers. If he or she did hire a professional light and sound person, who will not make the dancer look flat and expressionless and will provide sound for musicians, the minimal cost I was able to find was Rs.5,000.

Since a dancer is also his or her own publicist, invitations might need printing and sending, a brochure might need to be designed. The cost for 120 (to fill up an auditorium that’s capacity is 215) well-designed invitations can be between Rs.10,000-15,000. Dancers often resort to designing the cards themselves and getting them printed at the local printing store to reduce costs, but if he or she were to do it properly, the average cost can be calculated at Rs.10,000.

Not keeping in mind other costs, because they vary (whereas the ones mentioned above are constant and basic costs) such as the cost of costumes, ornamentation, sets and props, recorded music, not to mention renting rehearsal space for weeks or months of rehearsals, the costs incurred by a dancer are still shocking.

Rs.5000 for renting the theatre, Rs.12,000 to pay musicians, Rs.5000 for lighting and sound, and Rs.10,000 for publicity amounts to Rs. 32,000, which is quite a financial undertaking for a dancer. Dividing that by 215 seats in the auditorium makes us arrive at this number – 148.83. That is the cost of each seat that goes free at this classical dance performance of this size and budget.

For a dancer, Rs.150 tickets mean he or she can at least break even. And Rs.200 tickets mean he or she makes a small means of livelihood. That’s less expensive than going to the cinema. It’s cheaper than a meal for one at a decent restaurant. We don’t think twice before spending money at a cinema or restaurant once in a while. Then why to watch a dance performance?

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Dancing with Disabilities

“As a dancer, I am a body on display. As a body on display, I am expected to reside within a certain continuum of fitness and bodily control, not to mention sexuality and beauty. But as a woman in a wheelchair, I am neither expected to be a dancer, nor to position myself in front of an audience gaze”. Ann Cooper Albright, a dancer who was severely albeit temporarily disabled, said this in her article ‘Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance’.

Her words force us to address the questions about acceptable and indeed unacceptable ideas of body and sexuality. Different dance forms and different cultures prescribe different aesthetic ideals when it comes to the dancing body. In one context, a dancer’s body is expected to be lean, and slim. Others expect voluptuous bodies. In some contexts, a dancer’s eyes are the topic of interest. Whatever the situation is, the ideal dancing body is strong, symmetrical and ‘abled’. Watching a disabled person perform a dance is, for many people, an awkward and unaesthetic experience, for a disabled body is not considered ‘sexy’. This is because the idea of the ‘perfect dancing body’ has been challenged. But like many things, the idea of the perfect dancing body is worth questioning. It has been questioned by famous dancers and choreographers before, when dancers broke away from classical forms to find new movement vocabularies and new definitions of aesthetic dance. Dancers like Albright are taking this questioning a little further through ‘disabled dancing bodies’.

It is also worth investigating into what capability and disability is in dance. It is arrogant and presumptuous to assume that a physically disabled person is less capable of being creative and creating movement than a physically able person. The combination of a physically disabled and mentally able dancer can be a truly exciting one – resulting in new ways of constructing movement and fresh movement vocabularies. Albright explains how watching a disabled body in dance forces us to “see with a double vision, and helps us to recognize that while a dance performance is grounded in the physical capacities of a dancer, it is not limited by them”.

Moreover, to identify being disabled with the famous ‘wheelchair’ symbol is viewing disability in a dangerously narrow manner, overlooking severe disabilities that physically able dancers suffer from. For instance, a common but almost acceptable disability that ails several dancers all over the world is eating disorders. Preventing nourishment from reaching the body and the brain in order to sustain the ‘perfect dancing body’, ironically enough, results in a disabled dancer. This disability – the obsession with being slim and slender bodied – leads to anorexia, bulimia, stress, hairfall and in extreme cases – severe psychological damage. Further, unhealthy competition amongst peers, and emotional strain and sometimes abuse by a teacher or mentor towards his or her student also severely disables dancers. Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ illustrated these disabilities in a brutally honest manner.

So maybe dance and disability are not quite as polarized in reality as they are made out to be. For one, a physically disabled body is by no means incapable of generating interesting and exciting movement. And secondly, disability is not always visually identifiable. Visually non-disabled dancers suffer other kinds of disabilities everyday. In many senses, disability and dance go hand in hand. Clearly, this contradiction between dance and disability is largely imagined. Then, is this contradiction just about the spectator’s discomfort in aesthetically appreciating a body that is differently abled?

The Hindu/Footloose/The Male Dancer

Dance has been historically misconstrued to be a female art form. But there was a significant moment in history when this happened. According to Ramsay Burt, a 19th century lithograph in the Paris Opera reads – “The unpleasant thing about a danseuse is that she sometimes brings along a male dancer”. This lithograph marks a historical moment. Before this, prejudices against the male dancer in the west did not exist.

Ancient sources indicate that male dancers in the west did exist. Edith Hall mentions that Socrates is said to have advocated dance and David from the old Testament is also said to be a dancer. And yet, despite spectacular male dancers flooding the dance floor, dance in the west and more recently in India, does bear signs of silent prejudice against men.

In the western Romantic era, due to the increasing acceptability of patriarchy, dance began to be seen as fundamentally effeminate. Increasingly, men were encouraged not to appear soft or emotionally expressive. Therefore, the expressive male dancer could not fit into the power status of men in bourgeois society. A slow decline in the demand for male dancers began. Similar disappearances of nude male depictions from the sphere of art and sculpture also took place.

Further, ideas of homophobia arose from this patriarchy and the prescribed role of the dominant male. One source of prejudice against the male dancer became his association with homosexuality, says Burt. Many male dancers were and are homosexual, but there are several who are not. In any case, using the dancer’s sexual identity against him was probably disguising a deeper insecurity and crisis of identity amongst the male spectators. Pleasures of watching male dancers became, in the mid-19th century, marred by anxieties about masculine identity. Erotic enjoyment by male spectators of female dancers was threatened by the presence of male dancers. Lynn Garafola asserts that men were freer to enjoy the erotic spectacle when male dancers were eliminated. The heterosexual male gaze, therefore, contributed to the stigmatization of male dancers all over the world.

Burt observed that in the 20th century, male dancers did make a come back, but as far as the audiences were concerned, they came back as ‘good supporters’ for the female ballerinas. In the 1970s, as men were returning to dance, a spate of books were required, says Edith Hall, to propagate the idea that dancing is masculine, portraying some of the dancers of the time (Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and so on) as strong, virile, heterosexual and athletic.

Closer to home, the picture was slightly different. Historically, dance was not exclusively reserved for women. Nataraja was advocated as the ancient patron deity of dance – the cosmic dancer – linking men and dance inextricably. The male gurus of female dancers also indicate that men played a significant role in codifying and formatting classical dance forms in India. Moreover, folk dances in India and indeed all over the world, have involved men and women equally and without prejudice. Moreover, male dancers in India have played monumental roles in evolving dance throughout the evolution of dance forms in modern history – Ramgopal, Uday Shankar, traditional Kathakali and Chhau dancers, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj just to name a few. But the sort of patriarchy that alienated the male dancer in the west, did, perhaps through Colonialism, enter the Indian subconscious. And homophobia also came to be entrenched in Indian society. It is then plausible that the prejudice against male dancers has also seeped into Indian dance.

In the last several decades, male dancers have fought for their place in the world of dance. They have demanded acceptability and well-deserved recognition. But somewhere in the minds of contemporary spectators, centuries-old prejudices still persist. Arising from patriarchal ideas – that outline the dominant role of men in society and prescribe how men should conduct themselves publicly in terms of their feelings – these prejudices are deeply linked to homophobia, and outdated ideas of masculinity and femininity. Male and female dancers cannot hope to be rid of this stigmatization of the male dancer if these ideas continue to exist.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Performance Ethics

Performance Ethics - 1

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with values relating to human conduct. It is a system of moral principles that provides guidelines with respect to the right and wrong of certain actions. In the working world, the terms ‘work ethic’, ‘business ethics’ and so on are terms one hears often. In the world of performing arts, we could say that ideally there should be something called ‘performance ethics’. So, what I’m calling ‘performance ethics’ outlines the rights and wrongs in the world of performing arts with respect to artists and people that deal with them.

Unfortunately, the way a lot of artists view each other and the way they are viewed by the people who professionally associate with them betrays a kind of amnesia regarding ethics in performing arts. And out of all the performing arts in India, dance seems to be at the bottom in terms of ethics.

First of all, a sense of community amongst individual artists seems to be lacking. A lot of artists view each other as competition. While this is true in some senses, it builds very high walls between them. At best, they stay on cordial but not friendly terms with one another, and do not collaborate with each other. At worst, they criticize one another behind each other’s back or openly display their insecurities regarding one another. Of course, this is not to say that all artists are back-stabbing rivals. Many are close friends and even work together. But there are enough who build walls around themselves to make this worth pointing out.

Secondly, when it comes to being in a company or group, the code of ethics is vague and sometimes shocking. For instance, several company contracts make absurd demands out of dancers, such as not being allowed to fall ill or get injured. If dancers do happen to fall ill or get injured, they are unable to perform with the company and their income is affected. Moreover, the companies are not contractually bound to provide medical expenses for injuries sustained while working for them. Dancers are also not allowed to learn or teach anywhere other than within the company. This is not only makes them entirely dependent on the companies, but also arguably stunts their growth as individual artists. Again, this is not the case with every dance company in India, but enough dance companies adopt one or more of these stands with regard to their dancers, making their performance ethics questionable.

Finally, there appears to be a ‘generation gap’ in the arts. Some well established artists who have struggled through the weary days of impoverishment and exploitation in their younger years become festival directors and put young artists through the same exploitation that they faced. Exploitation is a strong word, but that is what it is. I cannot say why this is – whether it’s a lack of empathy, or a genuine belief that a struggle is a necessary part of the journey to greatness. Either way, it discounts the internal struggle a young artist inevitably faces. A struggle that is inherent to the learning process, something that experienced artists are aware of, having been through it themselves in their early years as professionals. Having also been through the external struggle as a result of unfair demands made by organizers, one would imagine that this part of the struggle is something that one generation of artists would want to eliminate for the coming generation. But this has not always happened. The transformation from artist to organizer is perhaps too absolute and maybe lacks the advantages that should exist when an artist organizes festivals. An organizer who has never experienced being on the other side may lack the empathy and understanding, but an artist turned organizer does not have that excuse.

Admittedly, running a festival, directing a dance company and not viewing each other as competition in a fiercely competitive atmosphere are not easy tasks. But whoever said being ethical was easy?

Performance Ethics - 2

The previous article of ‘Footloose’ broadly mentioned some of the ethical concerns that artists are faced with in the performing world. But ethics is not something that is required of dancers and other artists alone.  Often, the individual sense of ethics of artists is strong, but the people they’re forced to deal with on their way to the stage are far less ethical.

In no other professional line of work is it remotely conceivable to expect a service to be provided without adequate compensation. Yet, in the world of performing arts, it happens all the time. Many a time, there is no compensation. And far too often, the compensation is nowhere near adequate.

The biggest problem faced by artists when dealing with organizers and sponsors of an event is the lack of payment. Far too often, artists are expected to perform free of charge. Several explanations are given to substantiate this exploitation, the most common one being that artists are being given a great platform. Another common explanation for not being able to pay an artist is that the organizers themselves were not funded well enough or at all. In my view, if an organizer of an event is unable to secure funding or sponsorship for an event, then the event should be rescheduled for a time when funding is available. If the funds were available, but limited, then it comes down to prioritizing. Is the festival about presenting fifty artists, of which none are paid or about five good artists who are well paid? For outstation performances, paying for the artists’ travel and accommodation should be the basic minimum provided to the artist.

Secondly, many performances involve other art forms – a classical dance performance involves live musicians, a contemporary dance performance may involve multimedia collaborations, a classical singer requires accompanists, and a music ensemble or band involves 4-5 members along with sound engineers and so on. If the performing artist is to bear all these costs, a performance ends up being a huge financial undertaking for the artist. Occasionally, the artist may break even but there is little left for livelihood. To suffer for one’s art is a romantic notion, but to survive in the world, an artist must be able to generate some income from his or her art.  

Several artists are forced to seek other sources of income to survive. They have day jobs, or they teach  – many do this out of desperation, rather than because they like their day jobs or teaching. So much time and energy goes into making ends meet – and it eats into the time that should have been spent creatively and intellectually on their art.

Aside from the questionable ethics related to finances, sometimes organizers unwittingly rob artists of basic dignity by leaving them in the lurch regarding dates. Without confirmation on dates, an artist is either forced to commit blindly or loses opportunities to perform. Last minute cancellations are also common, ignoring the fact that the performing artist has been rehearsing for the performance for weeks before. All this is not only disrespectful professionally, but it is personally humiliating as well.

I admit, that given how much funding the arts receive from the government and how much patronage exists currently for classical and contemporary performing arts, it is easier to point fingers or write such an article, than to actually put proper systems in place to ensure a better 'performance ethic'. But my intention is not to point fingers. It is to highlight that these problems exist, and are very real. They have been firmly put into place by years of tolerance of the attitude 'unfortunately, this is how things are'. But the lack of ethics in the performing world hinders artistic expression and violates the process of creative work. Artists must be allowed to focus full time on their work, with a certain degree of security. And this can only happen if we begin to take 'performance ethics' very, very seriously.

The Hindu/ Footloose/ The Outside Eye

An ‘outside eye’ is crucial to creative work. This article explores what this concept of an ‘outside eye’ is and why it is important. No good work is created without real or imaginary feedback from a relatively impartial outsider.  This person must be one with considerable knowledge about or experience in the field. He or she must have a critical eye and be someone who is not personally involved in the creative process. Finally, this person must be someone who matters to the creator, whose opinions and feedback the creator trusts and values.

This happens in several creative fields. For example, in the world of academia, before a PhD is submitted for evaluation, it is repeatedly scrutinized by a supervisor. A critical dialogue happens between the doctoral student and the supervisor, who provides the ‘outside eye’. Through this dialogue, decisions regarding the work are arrived at collectively before the final product reaches the public in the form of a thesis or book. The thesis or book is still credited to the author, but the book benefits greatly from the scrutiny of the 'outside eye'. This isn’t a choice, but a condition for the creators to get their work into the public sphere. Journal articles and books are routinely peer reviewed before publication. 

In the art world, however, this appears not to be a prerequisite to the display of art work. The absence of critical scrutiny before an art exhibition, a music concert, a play, or a dance performance does not, on the surface, hinder the end result. A dance performance, for example, is not withheld from public simply because the choreographer did not have his or her work critically viewed by an informed well-wisher before a performance. Therefore, very often, this aspect of the creative process is left out during the creation of work in dance. It is often believed that the choreographer knows best how to view, edit and go about choreographing his or her work.

While this is largely true, it does not mean that an outside eye is not important for the creation of dance. Choreographers certainly know better than anyone what their idea and concept is, and should be more than capable of selecting and training their dancers. For the dance piece itself to be as complete as possible, however, there is more skill required. Is the idea communicating through movement? Is this communication so abstract that it doesn’t translate clearly enough, or too literal that it leaves nothing to the imagination? To be sure about answers to these questions, bringing in an ‘outside eye’ is tremendously beneficial.

This is not to say that choreographers are incapable of judging whether their ideas are communicating appropriately. But it is possible to get carried away by an idea when working on your own. An outside eye has several advantages. First of all, the outside eye, has not been personally and emotionally attached to the concept or the choreography. Therefore, it provides an objective view of the piece in a way that a choreographer perhaps cannot. Moreover, an outside eye can provide a fresh perspective on the work and make the choreographer view his work from a different viewpoint. Finally, it can point out things in the piece that are or aren’t working, that the choreographer, for several reasons, may have overlooked.

Often choreographers realize things in retrospect. Receiving harsh critical feedback after a performance or watching a performance video, they realize they could have done some things differently. But in many ways, its too late. The work has already been subjected to public scrutiny. Judgments have been made, grants or further performance opportunities have been lost, auditions have been unsuccessful – whatever the context.

Perhaps the use of an ‘outside eye’ could have changed negative outcomes into positive ones in some of these situations. Because this external standpoint gives choreographers something that they can easily lose sight of – objectivity and critique. Moreover, it provides fresh perspectives and inputs, points out flaws which choreographers may have overlooked. All this feedback comes from a critical eye the choreographer values and an outside opinion that the choreographer trusts. And crucially, the outside eye provides all this before the work goes public. Before its too late to turn back.

The Hindu/Footloose/Dance Criticism

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 often uneducated, badly researched and uninteresting to read. The rare writings on dance mostly take the form of reviews of performances. Dancers use these critiques to legitimize their work. Only a handful of critics are around to validate or discredit the work of thousands of dancers. Herein lies the first problem. Dance criticism is dying in India. There simply aren’t enough critics to review the work of a growing number of performers. Moreover, because of the lack of critics, the few who exist are placed on a pedestal and become unquestionable. The lack of a space for communication and dialogue between the dancer and critic make the reviews, once published – indisputable. There is no room for the critic to clarify any doubts before printing their reviews, and no space for a dancer to respond to this critique in as public a space as the one in which the review appears. This creates mistrust between the dancer and critic.

Secondly, the nature of these reviews have come under scrutiny in the past (see Sadanand Menon’s article in 1984 titled ‘Those large liquid eyes’) and today’s reviews also largely leave many questioning the validity and legitimacy of the critics. This might be so because the relationship between the dancer and the critic is not of mutual understanding and learning, as it should be. In my view, the job of the dancer is to communicate his or her idea through her dance. In turn, the critic’s job is to constructively guide a dancer with his or her critique. Sometimes, however, a review leaves a dancer feeling demoralized and perplexed.

At a very basic level, the mistrust is further fuelled by badly conducted research. Last year, a newspaper article that was covering Mandeep Raikhy’s ‘Inhabited Geometry’ read that its choreographer was Desmond Roberts, who was in fact, the photographer whose photograph was enclosed in the article. Another review wrote off a choreographer as German, when in fact, he was an Indian dancer who had trained in Austria. In yet another article, a Bharatanatyam dancer was said to be a Kalakshetra graduate. In reality, she was trained in Delhi in the Kalakshetra style. Poor research and lack of attention to detail then must be a reason for this mistrust.

Another reason for this mistrust is the regurgitation of ‘programme notes’ and passing this off as a critique. Descriptive rather than analytical pieces of writing betray a reluctance to scrutinize and appreciate the dancer’s work. Reviews often use most of the space available to describe the ambience, the nature of the audience and the general atmosphere rather than the dance itself.

Finally, some critics make sweeping statements which often contradict themselves. One review mentioned that the ‘charismatic’ dancer ‘lacked energy and emotion’ and then went on to say that the dancer performed abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. In making such a contradictory statement, it is imperative to explain how a ‘charismatic’ dancer lacked ‘energy’ and how it came to be that a dancer who ‘lacked emotion’ was able to perform abhinaya ‘in a captivating manner’. Otherwise, the critique is meaningless and vexing!

To conclude, it is absolutely vital that we find some way to arouse the interest of young journalists to write about dance, and train them in a proper manner. Further, those that take this up as a profession must be more careful and responsible when critiquing work, keeping in mind their main purpose – to constructively and objectively critique work.

 Dance criticism needs an overhaul, without which this relationship between the dancer and critic may fall apart completely. This is alarming, because dance criticism is a lively and integral part of the dance world. A good system of criticism keeps dancers on their toes. It also informs the larger world about new work being created in the dance world everyday. Finally, it opens up the possibility for dialogue between the performers and spectators – something that brings the art and artist closer to the people. We need this overhaul now – because good critics are crucial to an intelligent and responsive dance community.

When Dance Criticism is Constructive...

My previous article on criticism led to some speculation on what exactly constructive criticism is. Did the term imply that the critic’s role is to always praise the dancer? Is constructive criticism by a critic meant to help the dancer?

The answer to the first question is a definite ‘no’. Constructive criticism does not imply praise. The very fact that the word ‘criticism’ appears in that phrase implies that it is distinct from unconditional praise. The critics’ role is definitely not to always praise the dancer, and certainly not if it is undeserved. A critic’s job is to critically observe and comment on a piece of work. This may involve praise, but equally it may not. That really depends on the quality of work being critiqued and the detail with which a critic scrutinizes a piece of work.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex. It begs further questions regarding what it means to ‘help’ a dancer. If the second question is linked with the first, then this kind of ‘help’ (undeserved and unrelenting praise) is, as I mentioned earlier, not the critic’s job. But constructively criticizing the work of a dancer is helpful to a dancer in that it inevitably points out what isn’t working in the piece. So in that sense, the critic’s role does lend a helpful hand to the dancer by constructively commenting on his or her work.

At this point, it becomes crucial to explain what I mean by ‘constructive criticism’. Constructive criticism is compatible with honest, hard criticism. A poor piece of choreography must be reviewed as so, but it will be a comprehensive critique only if the reasons for why this choreography is poor are made clear. In such an instance, it not only informs the readers about the work but also lets the choreographer know what went wrong. This is crucial for a responsive relationship that a dancer and a critic ideally share.

An article in the New York times mentioned that what we need are “more authoritative and punishing critics – perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star”. It goes on to say that criticism is about “making fine distinctions” and involves “talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if they matter”. This, to me, is constructive criticism. So, reviews that are detailed descriptions of events cannot do justice to this kind of critique that is crucially needed in the world of Indian dance.

Constructive criticism is so much deeper than the largely descriptive critiques we often see today. Constructively criticizing a dance piece must involve engaging with the ideas that are being put forth by the choreographer. It must involve an informed analysis of movement and whether or not it connects conceptually to what the dancers dance on stage. I also believe that the critic’s personal voice should be more prominent, since it is his or her valued opinion that is appearing in print. As a reader of the review, it is interesting to know whether the conceptual ideas of the choreographer were translated capably into movement. As a choreographer and a dancer, this is not only interesting but also helpful. If it did, then the critique must legitimately involve praise, but if it did not, the critic must feel free to criticize the work. The artists are then informed that their ideas did not translate. This can seem hurtful and harsh, but again necessary for a responsive dance community and a thriving relationship between the critic and artist.

In turn, and this should not be taken lightly either, the dancers and choreographers must value this constructive critique, regardless of whether it praises or harshly criticizing them. Constructive criticism has no ulterior motives and therefore no imaginable reason for criticizing dancers unnecessarily. So, just as dancers shouldn’t be subjected to undeserved praise or criticism, a constructive critique must not be dismissed by dancers. It is in the interest of dancers to take such critique seriously.

As a dance community, we must collectively end the circle of mistrust. The parallel but destructive ideas coming from both dancers (“Why should we take their critique seriously? It’s descriptive, lacks analysis of any kind – praise or criticism”) and critics (“Dancers never take criticism seriously anyway”) can be a never-ending merry-go-round. A resolute decision has to be made by both to trust each other more. A change in the way reviews are written might reflect a change in the dancers’ perception of reviews. Further, a resolve to seriously internalize and appreciate legitimate critique by dancers might improve the way reviews are written. It will undoubtedly be a slow process. Mistrust takes a while to disappear. But if constructive critique becomes the norm, and dancers begin to appreciate the laborious work of critics who put this effort into writing reviews, this mistrust will slowly but surely evaporate into thin air.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Today's Guru-Shishya Phenomenon

The role of a teacher, mentor or Guru is a crucial one in any field. The teacher-student relationship is a revered one the world over. Upon examining the meanings of and transformations in dance pedagogy, the teacher-student relationship in India is invariably complex and fascinating.

In traditional India, the Gurukul system laid out norms for the relationship between the teacher and student. Students spent an extensive amount of time with the guru. The gurus were traditionally the male nattuvanars, and dance students dedicated more or less their entire time to their art. They even learnt other art forms such as music to enhance their understanding and practice of dance. Still, the transmission of privileged knowledge required the student’s demonstration of worthiness. All in all, the guru-shishya relationship remained peaceful as long as the guru had what Ananya Chatterjea calls the ‘student’s unconditional surrender’. In Kumudini Lakhya’s words, there was no room for questioning in the gurukul system.

Amongst the changes that began in modern India with regard to the guru-shishya relationship, Rukmini Devi’s example is noteworthy. After just a brief period of training with her guru, Rukmini Devi performed her debut or Arangetram in 1935, against her guru’s wishes. Moreover, the institutionalization of dance education since the 1930s with the establishment of institutes like Kalakshetra and Kathak Kendra, took away the role of the traditional gurus and therefore a part of the gurukul system as well. Further, with this institutionalization, the one-to-one method of dance training more or less disintegrated. According to Mrinalini Sarabhai, by the time independence dawned on India, the ‘teacher’ had replaced the ‘guru’.

T.G. Vaidyanathan argues that when the harmony and symmetry of this guru-shishya relationship is broken – as it often does in modern India – there is a crisis of identity and authority. I believe this is so because the transition from tradition to modernity is sketchy and incomplete.

On one hand, dancers in the classical world today are still expected to surrender to their gurus and be ‘photocopies of their gurus’, as Kumudini Lakhya puts it. On the other hand, the questioning atmosphere under which modern students grow and live makes this deference to the guru seem strange, notes Leela Venkataraman. While the modern guru is still seen as the ultimate imparter of knowledge, knowledge is often held back from the student. One of the reasons for this, according to Leela Samson, is that the current market forces can result in a guru and shishya competing for the same space and funds. According to Anjana Rajan, a student can even lose out on performance opportunities if they fall out of favour with the guru. Finally, with dance institutions springing up all over the country, students of dance are exposed to a sort of democratization of dance – they elect to train in several dance vocabularies and with several teachers at a time. Yet, dance institutions do not allow their students to train outside of their academies, arguably restricting their learning potential; and despite being taught by several teachers, the inevitable question of ‘Who is your Guru?’ continues to shape a dancer’s identity, says Stacey Prickett.

In India, the concept of ‘guru-shishya’ has survived despite all the modernizing mechanisms adapted in dance pedagogy in India. But it has not survived entirely unscathed. The modern guru-shishya relationship is, at the moment, an uncomfortable blend of the traditional gurukul system, and the modern (and sometimes western) teacher-student relationship. It is altered by institutionalization, democratization and current market forces even as it simultaneously tries to maintain the stark hierarchy and unquestioning reverence that existed in the traditional gurukul system. The modern guru-shishya phenomenon is yet to find its balance in the constant renegotiation between tradition and modernity that Indian dance is currently undergoing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Tradition or Modernity?

The relationship between tradition and modernity in the context of Indian dance is an intricate and interesting one. On one hand, I believe that modern dance in India has borrowed a great deal from India’s traditions. On the other hand, the example of Bharatanatyam also seems to suggest that the ‘revival’ of Bharatanatyam was perhaps an ‘invention of tradition’, or indeed the creation of a modern dance. Could Bharatanatyam then be modern?

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, traditions which appear or claim to be old are, upon historical analysis, discovered to be inventions of recent origin. In short, tradition is fashioned by interpreting the past to suit current needs. It is re-appropriated to mould the present. Another scholar, Terada suggests that “in order to account for the present, justify it, understand it and criticise it, the past is selectively appropriated, remembered, forgotten or investigated”. It is possible that this is what happened to Bharatanatyam. The traditional past was selectively appropriated by post-colonial nationalists by reinventing the history of the Devadasis in order to justify a ‘revival’ of the dance form.

The noted anthropologist, Chris Fuller adds another dimension to this discourse in defining traditionalism as ‘forcefully and articulately expressing an ideological commitment to the authority and legitimacy of tradition’. Yet it accompanies the adoption of increasingly modernist values and attitudes, he notes. Thus, traditionalism constitutes and promotes modernity while simultaneously emphasising the divine authority of tradition. By emphasising tradition, changes introduced do not seem alien and unfamiliar. Thus, they are more easily accepted by society. The boundaries between tradition and modernity become seamless. Other scholars have echoed these thoughts. According to Milton Singer, the flexibility of Indian conceptions of tradition enables Indians to accept many innovations and changes by ‘traditionalising’ them.

The ‘revival’ movement in Bharatanatyam did just this. While a part of the ‘revival’ meant the invention
of a tradition, the simultaneous adherence to tradition in terms of learning from the traditional masters,
keeping the traditional repertoire, while simultaneously reinterpreting it, and making monumental modernist changes is consistent with the concept of traditionalism, and therefore with modernity.

In addition to the removal of traditional nattuvanars, and the focal shift from Krishna’s sensuality to Nataraja’s purity, other major changes include the spatial shift from temple to proscenium stage, and a change in pedagogy. Indeed, dance underwent a profound metamorphosis from Sadir to Bharatanatyam, from “untouchable to national art form and finishing school for young women of marriageable age”, says Matthew Harp Allen.

The revival of South Indian dance “involved a revivification or bringing back to life, it was equally a re-population, a re-construction, a renaming, a re-situation, a re-storation”, according to Allen. Given all the ‘re’s that Allen attributes to this revival, it could be argued that the art form was essentially stripped of most of what was traditionally ancient. According to Avanti Meduri, it was “re-interpreted in a respectable manner for the modern masses”. What emerged after the churning was a modern dance form called Bharatanatyam. In that sense, Amrit Srinivasan’s claim that “in a real and practical sense, it is the Devadasi dance that contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perpetuate” can be questioned. It can be argued that what contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perform is a modern Indian dance.

In fact, Bharatanatyam was modernized in several ways. Rajeev Bhargava states that “the generation of new types of collective identities such as the nation” is an important feature of modernity. By linking the ‘revived’ dance with the nation, a modern collectivity, ‘revivalists’ modernised Bharatanatyam. Educational institutions of dance modernized the guru-shishya relationship as well. The incorporation of Ballet into the reconstruction of Bharatanatyam (as suggested by Janet O’Shea) is yet another chraracteristic of modernity. Finally the presentation of Bharatanatyam was also modernized – the costumes were changed, and the musicians were placed on the side of the stage, rather than behind the dancer as was traditionally done.

Despite all this, the self-perception of post colonial nationalists is that of being revivalists, not as creators of something modern. But could it be that perhaps without even realising it, they did indeed create something much more modern than merely reinvigorating or purifying a dying tradition? 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/Ancient Dance, Modern World

The ‘ancient’ nature of Indian classical dance – specifically in terms of its teaching, practice and performance today – is a contested fact. Many, including myself, have argued that classical dance forms in India as we witness them today, are modern manifestations of their original ancient forms – not entirely unscathed and untouched by changes in history, such as imperialism, post-colonial nationalism, and the emergence of the middle class in India.

However, what need not be contested is its use of relatively ancient poetry and texts. In this sense, classical Indian dance forms still encapsulate and carry the ‘ancient’ within them today. They draw lessons from classical texts such as the Natyashastra, written somewhere between 200 BCE and 200 AD. They also extensively make use of texts such as the Gita Govindam written by Jayadeva, a 12th century poet. Many padams belong to the 14th and 15th centuries and some dance pieces draw their literature from the ancient epics Ramayana (Valmiki’s dating back to approximately the 4th and 5th century BCE,
Kamban’s in the 12th century, Kandhali’s in the 14th and Tulsidas’ in the 16th century) and Mahabharata, written possibly between the 4th and 8th century BCE.

It is the use of these texts and narratives that definitely gives an ancient colouring to these dance forms, however they may have been modernized from their inception until today. This use of ancient literature makes these dance forms a valuable art, binding the ancient past with the present. They also provide rich resources for choreographing abhinaya pieces, reminding the dancer and spectator of the beauty and complexity of Indian mythology. Indian classical dance, when paired with the ancient narratives, takes story-telling to a whole new level.

However, the acknowledgement that Indian classical dance has this ancient aspect to it has led to several questions and concerns within the world of Indian dance. For instance, what is the place of this ‘ancient’ dance in the modern world? How does it remain relevant in modern times?

I have struggled with these questions, and do not claim to have arrived at answers – there is always room for further research and introspection – but my instinct tells me that the answer may lie in the power of interpretation.

Many dancers struggle with this question of whether an ‘ancient’ dance form is relevant or even appropriate today. I do not think there is a simple monosyllabic answer to this question. With regard to some of the narratives, some of it can be argued to be old-fashioned and backward in its thinking – specially their reference to lower classes and women.  In a modern world where untouchability is frowned upon and equality between the sexes is openly advocated, these narratives seem inappropriate. If these narratives are to be performed literally, word-to-word, without the dancer digging deeper to find a meaning and interpretation that is relevant today, then the dancer loses the battle against his or her opponent. The most beautiful part of these narratives in dance, is that they are open to interpretation. If a dancer can interpret these in the modern world, in a modern way – no one could dare call them irrelevant. For example, behind the apparently powerless and hapless ‘nayika’ pining for her lover who has strayed into the arms of the ‘other girl’, there is the powerful strength to survive such a betrayal with dignity, and the potential to unleash her wrath upon the cheating lover when he finally arrives at her doorstep. And of course, as I have always believed, there are other narratives that will always be relevant due to the powerful human emotions that they are able to depict, display and make the dancer and audience experience.

But for all this to happen, the ancient texts must not only be simply read and mimed, but need to be understood, examined and interpreted to find contemporary relevance.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/From Love to Bhakti

The term ‘sringara’ in dance has had many meanings, definitions and connotations over the years. It has sometimes meant ‘love’, and at other times, it has meant ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’ and even ‘erotica’. It is a term in dance that has been historically redefined and often pitted against ‘bhakti’ or devotion. I argue that ‘sringara’ is not one or the other of the above terms, but all of them.

Before the onset of colonialism, which brought with it, an extremely Victorian idea of femininity and female sexuality – ‘sringara’ could freely define itself as all of the above. Whether it was the temples of Khajuraho, the Kamasutra or the devadasis that performed dance in temples – they all embodied this expansive fluid definition of ‘sringara’.       According to scholar Susan L. Schwartz, before colonialism, India was home to ‘some of the most erotic art the world had ever seen’. But this erotic art was equally about devotion, sensuality and love. After all, the Kamasutra is above all, a book about making love. Similarly, the Khajuraho temples, erotic sculptures aside, are built for in devotion to deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Vahana, Surya and so on. Finally, the devadasis too, it appears, did not make a distinction between love, sensuality, sexuality and devotion.

Due to several factors, this definition of sringara slowly became narrower, more codified and more rigid. It is incorrect to blame the entire change of mindset on the colonizers, but it is nevertheless important to recognize the monumental role they played in creating these divisions between love, sex and devotion.

The ‘sexual implications of the dancing body’ did not exist in India until western influence and sensibility pervaded the Indian mind, says Schwartz. The Victorian ideas of sexuality and womanhood changed the perceptions of sensuality and erotica and thus created the divisions within Indian dance between sexuality, love and devotion. According to Susan Reed, another dance scholar, local dances were viewed by the colonizers as ‘excessively erotic’ – the ‘love’ aspect of local dances, as well their inherently devotional nature were ignored. The seeds were sown for the redefining of the term ‘sringara’, which until now encompassed love, devotion and sexuality quite comfortably.

Post-colonial nationalists in India were provoked into responding to this portrayal of the native as sexually unrestrained and barbaric. But instead of fighting this view, they changed their own perceptions of Indian dance by appropriating the colonist conception. Therefore, they spoke about the need to ‘reform’ and ‘rescue’ Indian dance. The Devadasis, who became tainted with the labels ‘sexual’ and ‘erotic’, were slowly extradited from their own traditions, and a kind of ‘bhakti’ that distinguished itself from the Devadasi’s ‘sringara’ came into focus.

Some revivalists found the sringara of the devadasis to be very low sringara, unworthy of being performed by a respectable woman. They saw their goal as replacing sringara with bhakti. Those that were descendents of the traditional practitioners, however, felt that sringara was the supreme emotion. According to Balasaraswati, “no other emotion is capable of better reflecting the mystical union of the human with the divine”. For her, sringara was union, sensuality, love and devotion – all at once. Indeed, it was a union of sensuality, love and devotion.

To conclude, it appears that until quite recently, sringara encompassed love, sexuality and devotion. Sringara encapsulated bhakti, which was not separate from it. And while some of the reasons for making this distinction were possibly a way to let the dance form thrive in a world where it was condemned to possible extinction, it is nevertheless important to recognize that there was a time when sringara meant love, erotica and devotion simultaneously.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Hindu/Footloose/ In thought and Emotion

Must Indian dance choose between ‘secular’ and religious?

My previous article argued that Indian dance is secular and religious at once, especially when one examines and understands the Indian conception of secularism. The concepts of ‘Principled distance’ as conceptualized by Prof. Rajeev Bhargava and ‘critical respect’, both of which are essential to the Indian conception of secularism allow dance pieces within Indian classical dance to have a religious narrative, but be secular as well. In that sense, Indian classical dance can be of equal value to a religious and secular person.

However, I find that even a person who subscribes to the ‘western’ conception of secularism i.e. non religious can find watching an Indian classical dance performance to be an enriching experience. When a classical Indian dance form is performed in a secular manner in the ‘western’ sense, it does not mean the removal of the religious, spiritual or devotional aspect of it. It merely means that the focus shifts to other facets of Indian classical dance. Apart from being embellished with religious narratives and culturally deep-rooted mythology, Indian classical dance concerns itself with geometry and linearity of form in the body, experiments with gravity, uses mathematical calculations to create intricate patterns of movement, and deals with and explores a plethora of human emotions.

Any dance form, to begin with, must concern itself with the body. Every breath between movement, every hand gesture, position of the legs and feet, and every expression for the narrative is made through different parts of the body. The dance forms in India therefore cannot be exempt from being concerned with the body’s geometry, linearity and anatomy. Further, like every other dance form, Indian classical dance involves the use of gravity and weight. Every movement is either succumbing to or defying gravity. Every stretch or bend away from the center of the body while illustrating the narrative is a re-organisation and re-balancing of weight within the body.

Moreover, Indian classical dance forms utilize mathematics in a fascinating and complex manner. In nritta or pure dance, every string of movement put together involves complex rhythmic patterns set to intricate mathematical calculations. Dance 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, as do the different talams that several ragas are set to.

Finally, Indian classical dance forms provide various possibilities to explore emotions. Pieces from the Kamban Ramayana or from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda – they are, of course, stories about Rama and Krishna, gods revered by many. They are tributes to these gods by their devotees. They are in praise of these gods. But equally they are stories of love and union, of pain and separation. They are human stories about separation from loved ones (Rama and Sita getting separated when Sita is captured, or Rama’s separation from his family during exile), and the excitement and intoxication of being in love (pieces about Krishna, and the gopis and sakhis). Similarly, there are Tillanas in Bharatanatyam dedicated to Gods, but equally beautifully choreographed Tillanas exist that make no reference to the divine and instead speak of institutions and human beings such as Kalakshetra (Bilahari tillana) and Rukmini Devi (Natabhairavi tillana).

To conclude, in addition to the religious and mythological narratives, there are many ‘secular’ aspects to Indian classical dance that may arouse the interest of non-religious people. These secular aspects do not and indeed, should not impinge on the cultural memory of dance pieces which have significant religious, spiritual and mythological undertones. Rather, for the religious audience they enhance the enjoyment of the narrative aspects of the dance forms. As for the ‘secular’ (in the ‘western’ sense) audience, they provide other avenues to appreciate Indian classical dance.

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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From the Hindu/Column: Footloose/ What's in a name?

When it comes to explaining what dance is, several definitions are available. It refers to the movement
of the body, a form of expression. It is also a mode of social interaction. Dance can be defined in terms of technique, but also as ceremonial, competitive, combative and narrative. The definition of dance, like dancing itself, is not static. If one is to be inclusive in one's approach to dance, then its definition has to be fluid. It must evolve along with its cultural, social and political surroundings. It must be open-ended in order to include new creations and evolutions.

There was probably only a very brief time when dance meant only certain and very specific things, probably when the idea of dance was only just being conceived. Indian classical dance has certainly had a strict code of what can be called dance and what lies outside the periphery of how we define dance.
Even in the ‘West', before the modernist dance movements began, only ballet was considered to be dance. But new dance forms have been coming into being continually in India and the West. 

When the Devadasis performed dance, the definition of dance was pretty expansive. It included body movement, expression, narratives, social interaction as well as ceremony. With the onset of Colonialism and western notions of femininity and sexuality, dance in India came to be redefined again. What the Devadasis and Indians had considered to be dance was now considered an overtly sexual activity, not fit to be given the status of being a dance form. A dance form that was a ceremonial expression of love was reduced to being defined as crude and erotic. As for the Indian, it became a cause for shame. In the West however, rebellion against a singular definition of dance had begun with Isadora Duncan's resistance to classical ballet.

Post-colonial nationalism in India saw the Tanjore Quartet format find a stable and comfortable place in
India – a format that defined dance in terms of technique, very broadly similar to what Rudolph Laban
did with dance in the West. Dance in India also came to be defined more in terms of devotion and spirituality, rather than sensuality or “shringara”. In the western world, Martha Graham played a historic role in expanding the definition of dance by radically opposing the theory of movement on which
classical ballet rested. In the previous century, the definitions of what dance is have expanded considerably.

In India, Uday Shankar became world renowned as a pioneer in Indian modern dance, adapting western theatrical techniques to Indian classical dance, and utilising Indian folk and tribal dances. Folk traditions such as Chhau have now become reputed dance forms and combative martial arts like Kalaripayattu are used to create Indian movement vocabularies. Genres of Indian dance have developed that use western styles of contemporary dance, sometimes exclusively. And more and more genres have become recognised worldwide as respectable dance forms. These include African dances and dance forms from Latin America. All these genres define dance differently in terms of the body, movement and sentiment. A singular and exclusive definition of dance becomes very difficult then. While some dancers, students,
teachers, critics and spectators continue to search for a singular and exclusive definition of dance, it in turn continues to elude them.

Perhaps dance was never meant to have a single definition. How is one to singularly define something that is constantly growing and evolving? Maybe its beauty lies in the fact that its dynamism repels a static definition written in stone. Perhaps it redefines itself constantly in order to remain relevant and important. This requires it to have multiple, inclusive and fluid definitions. It is, after all, multiple and fluid definitions of dance that will allow for more and more dance to be created, accepted and appreciated in a world that is constantly renegotiating what we call ‘dance'.

Aranyani Bhargav, performer-teacher-researcher, will henceforth write this fortnightly column, Footloose. Feedback can be mailed to