Friday, August 21, 2015

The Accents of Bharathanatyam

On a crisp winter's evening in January 2012 Srikanth was introducing Soul Cages, my first production to the New Delhi audience at Kamani Auditorium.  The words he used were, " Solo Bharathanatyam Dance Theatre" and went on to add that this was the best he could describe the production, because the production defied characterisation.  I would think 2015 is a year when "dance theatre" came to its own.  It is refreshing and invigorating to see how many dance theatre projects are hitting the stage across the country and abroad.

I have had the opportunity to watch a few of these.  Some of them were superlative. A few others, efforts in a theatrical direction but not quite there yet.  The ones that I thought missed the bulls eye did not do so for lack of an ability of the lead dancer.  I would think what the production missed was naturalisation and/or nucleation.  Is that a word? Well it is now!

Let me elucidate. When I say naturalisation, I mean adapting work by foreign writers to an Indian dance theatrical performance. A lack of naturalisation would mean using the work as is and presenting it through Indian classical dance. An example would be to present Romeo and Juliet as is in Bharathanatyam.  The problem that I have here is being unable to reconcile an essentially foreign tale being told in an Indian dance language. It would be something like Romeo breaking into a Tamil song under Juliet's balcony. Some dancers indulged in a little bit of naturalisation - the names of the characters would become Indian, a few Sanskrit shlokas would pop up every now and then to emphasise the Indianness of the project. It is better than the first category but it is still two insoluble liquids for me.  What I am looking for is a complete naturalisation, something like Vishal Bharadwaj did with Macbeth, Othello, or Hamlet in Maqbool, Omkara, and Haider respectively. If you haven't seen these movies, I couldn't recommend them highly enough.

The second issue is what I term as nucleation. Here, the dancer performs the project without ever getting to the core of what the story is about. Kalidasa's Meghadootam would be performed with extensive emphasis on how to portray the cloud, the pining lovers, or the wonderful poetry.  What gets missed out is the unsaid futility of hoping to send a message through a cloud, thereby missing Kalidasa's real genius. The adaptations tend to be structured around the dancer and the danceable elements and not the story.  Therefore the adaptations look very superficial.

We are moving a long way from the process of six dance pieces largely based on pining heroines.  It thrills me that connoisseurs of dance have started openly commenting that such a repertoire meets the needs of an Arangetram, but not much else.  The next step is more and more meaningful adaptations whether they be of popular works or original stories. And soon dance theatre will be authoring Meghadootas of their own!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Gone With The Wind

I must have seen this many times before, but this time I really put my thoughts on it. I am referring to Edvard Munch's painting titled 'The Scream'. What it features is a woman on a bridge screaming in what seems like terror. The bold brush strokes and an intriguing portrayal of a moment frozen in time lends itself to myriad interpretations. What led to that moment? How did it go from there? What is the story?

'The Scream' is not the only one. There are many other paintings that leave us trying to read the story that a frozen moment speaks. Given that an art form such as painting or sculpture by their very nature are forced to portray a moment, it amazes me how these artists manage to tell a whole story in a moment!

As dancers we are far more fortunate.  We have ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes to tell the story behind 'The Scream'. An amazing opportunity to present the what's, why's and what's-next behind that moment. But what do we actually do?  We take one moment perhaps the scream itself and describe it for an hour and a half!  The mythologists would compare the scream to the baritone of Lord Shiva in some moment of rage. The Mahabharatha addicts would claim this was akin to Draupadi's most famous moment. The environmentalists would probably talk of pollution and its effects on humanity. The more enterprising would cover all this and call it - 'The Anatomy of a Scream' and add many more allusions!  The contemporary artist would make obtuse references and possibly leave the poor screaming woman wondering why she screamed in the first place. In a nutshell 'The Scream' itself would become the content which by way of hundreds of examples would constitute the entire show. 

This is just one example. Dancers frequently take one brief moment and describe it ad nauseum. The burning that Radha felt in the absence of her beloved Krishna would be described over twenty minutes, a waft of cool air - an experience you probably felt for ten seconds or less would be described for an hour in a production called 'Vayu' (Wind). 

In fact, Vayu is a great example. All you need to do is have Vayu as cool mountain breeze felt by the lover in the arms of her beloved, as hot desert air signifying the parchedness of life in his absence, Vayu as the tempest signifying fury at her lover cheating on her, and so on and on - enough material to be called artistically different. I wonder if a kid in school can be taught the wind with these examples! Or whether the kid's teacher is likely to give a score if she finds these in the answer book.

With over ninety minutes and a kinetic canvas, why would an artist or dancer restrict herself around one phenomenon?  Interesting art compresses a story to fit into an hour and a half by editing out the long portions of inaction that real life gives between the denouement of a tale. The idea of blowing up one moment into a hundred and fifty or more is a certain recipe for over statement and hyperbole. 

The touchstone test again - would you go see a movie which spent three hours giving various examples of what wind is? Can we stop this masquerade on stage please. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Perfect Murder

From 'Dance of Loneliness in Pursuit' - 'Chains' performance
The world of art, especially the world of art as created by a woman tends to point out worst-case scenarios as the average truth.  We have a lot of blogs, commentaries by fairly renowned women that speak of the need for freedom without boundaries or regard the opposite sex as completely and irrevocably lecherous. 

In the world of dance perhaps more so than literature, the plight of a woman is typified by Sita or Draupadi when the subject is women-centric.  Women feature in other dance productions, but a Radha is always a step below Krishna; a Parvati is so exalted that her gender does not matter!  When it comes to gender inequality, we have two idols in dance – one an ever-suffering woman who loved despite rebuke and rejection from the one she loved.  The other woman is feisty and wears the victims-out-for-revenge attitude for the most part of the narrative. 

I do not dispute that the victims of heinous crimes do not exist or suffer.  I do not dispute that thousands of Indian women put up with atrocities far beyond any logic or reason.  But the women I am referring to number in millions – these are everyday women like your mother and sister.  They are the founding pillars of the massive and growing middle-class Indian community.  A vast majority of these women do not get raped, do not get kicked out of their homes when they are pregnant, do not get stripped in public while their husband watches, nor have husbands who leave them for some higher calling.  Does this mean these women do not have any suffering?  They do.  But what they suffer is so subtle and nuanced in everydayness that they do not even know that this could be classified as suffering.  In general a woman who has a husband who gets bread on the table, children who study and top their classes, in-laws who live-in and are supportive, are supposed to have it all.  Anything beyond the happiness of this family that the woman seeks is termed as selfish by the society.  And therefore we have generations of women who do not even know that they have the permission to dream bigger.  The dreams can be for her husband’s promotion, an American university for the son, a multi-national company for the daughter… but for herself it is only vicarious.  Even if there is a dream, it would have to fit-in to the scheme of the family’s priorities.  More often than not, she herself would put it at the lowest rung.  I think the biggest injustice to women-kind is that society has conditioned all to think this is fair and therefore we have a perfect crime.  The murder of a dream in the name of family-well-being.  And it has been perfected so well that there is no case legally, emotionally, whichever way you look at it. 

Why do these women not change their fate, you might ask.  If the woman had a drunk husband who would beat her or a sarcastic mother-in-law who would torture her, society makes for a case for her to leave them.  More often than not, the husband is not a decrepit soul who willingly inflicts the suffering on purpose.  He has been conditioned to be apathetic to the woman’s dreams.  He believes that whatever her needs are, are met by him.  How do you leave this man?  He is loving, he does everything the society expects of him for his wife and his family. 

The proof of this revelation to me came from ‘Chains’ – my latest production.  The one refrain I heard from the women audience everywhere it was performed, and this includes China, was that it was their story. A sprightly young girl with stars in her eyes morphs into a dutiful robot who acts her role in a family and finally ends up as an old woman preferring solitude for company – this was not what the young girl dreamed of becoming.  But this is what she became.  Do we even acknowledge that this is a tragedy that has happened? 

I think liberation is about respecting equality of choices within the family parameters. It is not dissolving parameters altogether so a woman could do pretty much anything she wants. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The form is eternal – keep changing the soul!

Photo by Anushree Fadnavis in the days before the premiere

It has been a spectacular opening and reception from Mumbai audiences to my production ‘Chains: Love Stories of Shadows’. This story and its heroine Vichitra has struck a very deep chord with audiences and their gushing accounts to me after the show of how Vichitra’s life has in fact held a mirror to their own personal life, is most remarkable and humbling.  Rarely in life does a piece of art connect with us so deeply to wake up to our own dreams that may have been brushed aside for another day.  Chains seems to have that tug at the heart for many of the audiences and I am in awe of the power of this art form to be able to wield this magic once again!

I received a beautiful note from a Bharathanatyam student who has more recently moved on to becoming a contemporary dancer.  I am not sure if it was the ‘lack of options’ for a performer in Bharathanatyam that drove her to change her focus or if this is a brief detour from Bharathanatyam to experiment with other forms, only to return to this dance form with the experience of dwelling in a different world artistically.  Time will tell, but I do hope that she returns with an even deeper conviction in the art form that she was originally groomed in.  

When students from across the world write to me that they are trying out new forms of ‘fusion’ with Bharathanatyam or in the above instance where a student has departed completely from Bharatanatyam, I take a long breath in and wait before I give them what they want to hear – my assent.  I am of the belief that a dancer should listen to their calling and if the call of the moment is fusion or contemporary dance or Salsa, so be it.  I am delighted that these students look up to me and have placed me in a position of trust to give them a few words of encouragement.  Easy enough, you would think, then why this blog? 

Perhaps the moment is not right for that student who has decided to step away from Bharathanatyam to hear my take on this subject.  Perhaps their own frustrations with Bharathanatyam were too significant or maybe the faith in this art form to serve their artistic impressions of the world, too limited.  But, after living the life of a traditional Bharathanatyam dancer who was equally frustrated and out of options at one point with the system, and having found that true change is possible within this very framework of Bharathanatyam, I feel that the way to artistic freedom and success in this field is to reinvent the use of Bharathanatyam and not have to step away from it or ‘fuse’ it with other dance/music elements.  I am so utterly convinced of the power and beauty of Bharathanatyam in its design, its repertoire of expressions from the subtle and sophisticated to melodrama and theatrics, and its ability to communicate a story so elegantly that I would never depart from using Bharathanatyam and Bharathanatyam alone to tell my stories in my productions. 

Chains is an ode to women, and an ode to Bharathanatyam.  May it inspire students to renegotiate their wanting to depart from the medium, and instead discover new paths and myriad possibilities within this art form. Do not make the mistake of throwing away a state-of-the-art movie camera, because you don’t like the scene you shoot through it. Change the scene!

After the show

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lord Rama at T Nagar or Krishna in Mylapore?

“God definitely resides in Chennai in the December month” – eminent Carnatic musician

It seems to be the season of contradictions.  On one hand we have the recent blockbuster ‘PK’ that questioned blind faith and despite its share of brickbats from some organisations, has emerged to be a runaway hit across India.  On the other hand the Chennai season which consists of approximately 2000 shows within one month, with 30 odd Sabhas averaging four to five concerts in one day, sells an hour long tryst with divinity as per the timetables of the performances scheduled.  Much akin to a good Raymonds or Allen Solly showroom, on offer are various types of divinity.

Seekers of the Rama variety can experience Rama through a performance exclusively dedicated to Him.  Krishna is more common, and you can see Him across events more often as a philanderer, but with divine justification for his actions.  The ones that lean towards female power can choose performances that glorify the slaying of demons by a female God-head. 

The problem is not about depicting stories from Hindu religion.  The problem is proclaiming that divinity is visible for that one and half hours when the dancer connects with the divine in her hour slot in T Nagar or Mylapore. 

The effects of such divinity are obvious.  Violent crime drops to near zero levels in Chennai in December.  Rapes are non-existent.  Most senior policemen take this as their time of vacation as divinity has taken over their jobs.  Politicians become perfect – everything is done by the book.  No scams, no corruption.  There is a feeling of love, peace, and hope among all the denizens of Chennai.  Even an auto rickshaw driver will come by the ‘meter’ charge!  White collar crimes, petty crimes, adultery, affairs, lies, deceits, envy, hatred all these go missing in December.  Especially if one is close to where the main Sabhas are, in TNagar or Mylapore, the effect is a lot more pronounced since divinity radiates strongest near the epicenter.  For that one month no one goes hungry, no child is mistreated and made to beg on the streets, no woman is abused by her husband or family, people exiting after witnessing divinity in a concert empty their purses with tears in their eyes to the nearest charity…. Heaven descends on Chennai for this month. 

Give me a break!

If divinity could be made to order in such performances, why doesn’t the government think of a scheme where there is someone always dancing just like the ‘Amar Jawan Jyoti’ is always burning in India Gate! That would be the end of all our problems, for divinity would rule this earth.

Think rationally folks.  Everything on earth is divine because He made it all.  He does not appear on a timetable or certain seasons.  By claiming that we attain God only in that hour of dance, we insult something we do not even begin to comprehend.  Do not mistake an endorphin high, an adrenalin rush, or an emotional response to be divinity.  He exists in us all every second that we breathe.  Whether you choose to acknowledge God or turn a blind eye to Him is a choice He has given you.  A homeless food deprived child can find Him as easily as a dancer or musician on a stage.  Artists are not special, everybody is. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Savitha Sastry in 'Chains'

Trailer of 'Chains' my latest production.  The count down to the world premiere on Jan 31, 2015 at NCPA, Mumbai begins!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Out of Africa

“A part of India’s soul resides in South Africa as a revered part of our national life” – Nelson Mandela

Cape of Good Hope -  an idyllic moment
“South Africa is not like Africa”, said a fellow traveler from Eastern Europe. “It is far too westernized with its infrastructure, standards of living, and development.”  A fortnight later, I left the country convinced that South Africa may not resemble the rest of Africa, but it is not the west either.  It is South Africa and that is its identity.  Barely two decades out of their era of apartheid, the country now has far more intermingling between the Caucasians, the blacks, the Indians, and the colored.  But, they are all South African – a living testimony to the visionary Nelson Mandela whose benevolent hand continues to bless the country.   It was a matter of huge privilege that the day of my Durban performance was also the day of his first death anniversary, a validation to Mandela’s beliefs of equality of all and a triumph of the human spirit over petty man-made barriers.

At the workshop in Durban
The community that I interacted most with was the South African Indian community.  And when I say ‘Indian’ I do not mean it in the sense as used in the United States.  These children and students are possibly fourth or fifth generation South Africans.  Many have never traveled to India.  But in their culture, almost like a fossil we catch traces of Indian culture as exported in the 19th century; pure, sometimes a little quaint, and altogether refreshing.  When I say Indian culture, I do not mean getting our children to dabble with art forms like Bharathanatyam so as to preserve their Indianness.  In these South African children and their parents that culture is their way of life and their identity.  Here students do not learn Bharathanatyam to enhance their portfolio or establish a tenuous connection to their roots.  They learn it because it has never ceased to be a part of their culture.  This is what they do – live as South African Indians. 

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg
Their respect and love for me is something I will never forget.  It almost made me wonder if any guru is worthy of such adoration.  And the beauty is, it is given freely with no expectations in return. 

Artists frequently speak of perpetuating culture through their art.  I am proud that the South African Indians have perpetuated art through their culture.