Friday, February 22, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Dance Scholarship

Many dancers in India are considered, by others and even themselves sometimes, to be exclusively performers. People who work on dance in spheres other than performance are wrongly but commonly construed as having first failed as a performer. I’m not sure if this is an ignorant assumption or a sad truth, or a bit of both.

I say a bit of both because it might be true that some people who work on dance today were first desperately trying, and failing to be performers. But loving dance and all it encapsulates too much to let it go, they ‘resorted’ to becoming public critical spectators, dance critics, writers or dance scholars. But it may also true that some dancers recognize the importance of theorizing about dance, academically engaging with it along with performing it. Moreover, there are a handful of people in India who do not dance and are dance scholars and thinkers of great repute, and have attempted to give dance scholarship a position that is equal and not subordinate to the performance of dance.

I do not know for certain which of these scenarios is more prevalent. But as I said, one does often hear of young aspiring scholars and critics that they first ‘tried their hand at dancing’. If this is the impression of dance research and scholarship in India, then it is problematic on many levels.

First, it builds a mythical and harmful hierarchy where the performer is at the pinnacle, and the researcher, critic or spectator is below the performer. This not only disturbs the equilibrium of the dance world but invents power relationships (between performer and audience, performer and student, performer and critic – which I have written about in previous articles) that are distorted and harmful.

More importantly, it creates the wrong impression that performance is more important than scholarship and research on dance. This hierarchy might be the reason why a comprehensive conference or seminar on dance is not possible in India without the presence of at least some international dance scholars. Perhaps performers in India shy away from scholarship and research because they will be seen as having ‘resorted’ to it because they failed at what they ‘really’ wanted to do.

Finally, if it is true that dance scholarship was a ‘last resort’ to staying within the realms of the dance world, then young scholars and critics are likely to be resentful and not appreciative of the field they are in. Such a situation presents problems of its own – where spite, malice and envy inform their research and work, rather than academic inspiration and an intrinsic value in what they do.

This disturbance of equilibrium in the dance world further complicates ‘what dance is’ in the minds of young people, aspiring dancers, critics and scholars. It pits one aspect of learning against another. Young dancers are more keen to ‘get on stage’ than to even learn the basic theoretical aspects of dance. As a dance educator, I come young across dancers who claim to have been trained for a decade and have no knowledge of the basic theoretical tenets of dance; I stumble upon dance students who sleep through discussions on the importance of dance criticism, history and theory; I fumble to explain to a student in his or her second class that it will be a long while before he or she ‘gets on stage’; and I struggle to keep students whose parents I have told this to. Performance seems to have overridden all other aspects of dance! The ambition to be on stage, then, crushes all other learning in its path.

In such a scenario, it becomes easy to cast off research and scholarship as subsisdiary or optional aspects of the training and learning process of a dancer. And under such circumstances, dance scholarship in India will never be what it is becoming in other parts of the academic world – a serious and crucial study.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Killers of Creativity

Despite what romantics might say, it is not easy to be creative. Creativity is not simply something some people are born with and some aren’t. Creativity is cultivated over many years of training, learning, and experiencing. In other words, it is not an easy task to create something good and meaningful even in the best of circumstances. However, the best of circumstances don’t always present themselves at opportune or frequent moments in time. In fact, many an artist will tell you that the revelations regarding a creative piece of work came at a decidedly inopportune or inconvenient moment!

Moreover, there are certain factors in the art world that make the creation of dance (and indeed other forms of art) even more difficult. One is undoubtedly the lack of inspiration. Inspiration can be thwarted by internal factors such as emotional distress or laziness to actually do the hard work that creativity requires, or to go out there and get exposed to other people’s work – in order to draw inspiration from it.  Inspiration can equally be diminished by external factors such as the apparent celebration of mediocrity, which may cause disheartening and discouragement; a lack of guidance in the form of a mentor, teacher or colleagues; and the economic factor – which in many ways limits creativity.

Let me explain this further. Money, I think, is the second factor worth mentioning that kills creativity. Of course, this is not unconditionally true. An art-funding body that approves funding for a choreographer’s work can be of immeasurable help to the choreographer because it helps him or her to be able to focus only on creating the work, rather than searching for funding. But there is a flipside to this as well. Work that is commissioned often has restrictions imposed on it by the organization that commissions it. Funds are released on the condition that content, concept, vocabulary and so on – will be determined and restricted – not by the choreographer, but by the person or organization funding the work. In that sense, it does kill creativity.

Restrictions are imposed in other ways too, and this particular one seems obvious as a killer of creativity – censorship. Of course, like all of the above factors, this one is also not an absolute evil. Censorship exists in an ideal world for good and important reasons. But sometimes, it does contribute to the bloodless murder of creative potential.

Censorship doesn’t happen in the world of dance very publicly as it does in some other spheres of art – Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ are quite openly censored by society. Dance appears to have escaped that censorship but perhaps that is only the case because the world of dance is less in the public eye than Haasan or Rushdie. Censorship does occasionally threaten to kill creativity amongst dancers. Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer and activist in Gujarat, has faced ‘censorship’ of sorts for having viewpoints that didn’t fit well with people in power. On a more ‘aam aadmi’ level, the police does now impose restrictions on dancers who wish to perform publicly. Of course, the banning of live music (which had a profoundly devastating impact on local musicians and bands) in Bangalore as well as the banning of dancing in pubs has caught quite a lot of media attention a few years ago. But even for ‘serious performers of dance’ in India, a very subtle form of censorship disguises itself as a ‘Performance license’. Amongst several things that the performer has to agree not to do, the vague statements could potentially restrict the freedom of any kind of creative expression – the performance must not have “any impropriety of language”, “indecency of dress, dance, movement or gesture”, or “anything likely to excite feelings of sedition or political discontent”. The basis on which impropriety or indecency, or in fact, the expression of political discontent is to be measured is not mentioned anywhere, potentially limiting the creative freedom of a dancer to speak, dance, or dress a certain way.

So, when the best of circumstances do not present themselves to a creative person, these killers of creativity make the creation of art an even more difficult task than it was to begin with.