Sunday, February 9, 2020

Fall of Icarus

God, do not put my patience to such a difficult test that I start to question your very existence”.  

The visual of yesteryear’s megastar shouting out these words on the terrace of his apartment, standing drunk in the rains at night, was what started the project ‘The Descent’. Rajesh Khanna’s meteoric ascent occurred before our times, but I am told that the kind of frenzy he could invoke has never happened before or after his stardom. His fall from the peak was something he fought with for a very long time, watching his juniors ascend the ladder.  His state of mind inspired our short film, ‘The Descent’. 

Why would a story of a 70s superstar have any relevance today? We believe while the star and his reign was unique, his descent is not. Thousands - whether they be celebrities, common people, strugglers, the young, the old, male, female - they all have faced this for time immemorial.  If anything, the statistics suggest that number of people suffering from depression is on the rise. 

‘The Descent’ was not made as a panacea to these people. On the contrary it is a window into one such life so that we are all aware of the dread hopelessness and anguish that is a part of this condition. 

A condition as complex as depression tends to be portrayed rather one dimensionally when enacted through traditional Bharatanatyam. We wanted a location that suggested a stark beauty, haunting even, to accentuate the emotions we were trying to portray. ‘The Descent’ was not shot on a pretty location without reason - the towering twin peaks in verdant wilderness with a lone dancer in its midst brought home the truth vividly. The poetry that plays out in the first part of ‘The Descent’ also added another dimension of the protagonist’s mind - “perhaps fate has written my freedom today!”- plays twice, but signifies the difference between hope and despair between the two instances. 

I am not the best person to offer hope to this growing group of people, but I can point out thousands that have overcome depression by re- inventing their state of mind. They are the heroes that can act as a beacon of hope. 

The power to defeat this silent killer lies within us!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Which Prometheus Do We Unbind?

While we have written and spoken much about the need to bring fresh and novel content to Bharathanatyam performances, one question that keeps rearing its head is - how does one select such content. Well, nothing jumps out from the pages of tomes demanding that it be danced out, which is why we see many dancers take the safe path of recounting stories that have already been said; sometimes just giving it a twist on how it is recounted. 

I think it takes a lot of reading, trials and errors before a  story can be interpreted as a dance. Writers do not normally write for dance. It cramps their style, does not have huge financial rewards like writing a script for cinema would, and worst of all does not even have dancers waiting in line for it. 

Much of what I read cannot be produced as dance. The first reason could be that I do not find the story novel or interesting enough. In order to invest a year in producing a narrative and then several years dancing it across venues, the story needs to be a lot more than just entertaining; it needs to catch me by my throat. 

And then again not all stories that take hold of my head can be danced. Excellent as they may be on paper, the magic cannot be translated into dance, especially Bharathanatyam. Any book by Haruki Murakami would fall in this category. 

It is imperative that I bring out the flavour of the story and add to its visual experience rather than just play out an interpretation for the sake of it. If I cannot accentuate what was on paper, then it should be left on paper. Mr. Murakami, take a bow!

The stories I look for would therefore be those that tell the story of a human psyche or mind. Bharathanatyam is extremely capable of bringing out the best of human emotions well beyond the written word, and possibly well beyond cinema. Therefore, rather than taking on subjects that are larger than life, I prefer to look for stories of everyday people and their mental dilemmas. This is the niche that Bharathanatyam cannot be beaten on.  

And where do you find these stories? Everywhere. You just have to stop thinking about how you would look dancing it and start thinking about how you become that person you are representing.  

Sunday, January 20, 2019

When is a classic, a classic?

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch an interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This was presented by an extremely talented quartet called The HandleBards.  Apparently they cycle across the UK, all props and costumes in tow on their bicycles and enact Shakespearan plays across the country.  They were wonderful performers and were able to elicit genuine warmth from the audience by their interactions with them. And yet, I left their performance at the midpoint.

On my drive home I was wondering what caused me to leave. It certainly wasn’t their lack of prowess at acting; even with a very modest backdrop they were able to tell a story.  But really, the story made my head spin! Twins, separated in a storm, women masquerading as men, love triangles and quadrilaterals...... it brought back memories of watching a Manmohan Desai movie from the 70s.

If this was a story written in 2019 by any of the major writers of today, I have no doubt that it would have sunk without a trace.  And yet, if I say Shakespeare wrote it, there is an aegis of classicism that covers all shortcomings.  Question, is Twelfth Night, really a classic? And if it is, why? Is it because of the way the verses were assembled (the archaic language made comprehension that much more difficult anyways) or was it representative of a socio-cultural system of that age which I failed to appreciate? I could extend this question to any field of art.  Not every movie that had a successful run in its time can be watched today; while some we go back to every year - they never go out of relevance or look dated.  We might go back to the 80s or 70 s or 60s and enjoy these films perhaps for the nostalgia it invokes.  Do the current generation think the same?

I would like to think that a classic stands the test of time on the basis of its own pedigree, and not because of a name associated with the project - be it Chaplin or Ingrid Bergman or Charles Dickens, lends a patina of credibility to an otherwise inferior product.  By the same token a classic could have been written yesterday also.  Likewise in dance, a classic cannot be defined by age or by its performer alone.  It is defined by a certain core that will touch a majority of audiences regardless of which generation they come from and those like gems are valuable, but very rare.  The rest I am afraid just masquerade. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Art Sans Frontier

In the past few months, there were two important landmarks that I crossed as an artist. The first was hitting the magic number of one hundred in the number of performances I have given since I moved to the realm of dance theater productions. The second milestone was that around the same time, the number of views on my online YouTube channel crossed five million. 

The connection that I have to stage, or for that matter any live performer has for the stage, is marked by a sense of satisfaction that comes out of a unique connect that artists make with the audience. Their reactions are palpable; as artists we get instant validation and sometimes gratification on seeing, hearing, and interacting with the audiences. The stage is a magical place. No two performances can be exactly identical and nor do they elicit the exact same responses.  There is no room to correct mistakes and remedy the one thousand things that can go wrong as though following Murphy’s Law to the ‘T’. And yet the excitement that live performances bring cannot be matched by any other media.

The online medium is a different kettle of fish. Here sub average performers can be made to look fantastic. The years and perhaps decades of practice that a classical dancer or singer needs to go through can be substituted by retakes and autotunes which create seasonal superstars who would rarely be able to perform with that prowess in reality. In fact, novices can be made to look better than true blood professionals given camera angles, lighting, retakes, cut shorts and other editing tools.

Then why am I excited about five million YouTube views? The answer to this lies in history; why did I move to dance theater to begin with? The rationale was to spark interest in this dance form amongst the uninitiated so that something as beautiful and important would not fade away buried by mediocrity. If the idea is to evangelise the art form, then the digital media has a reach that live shows can never have. To reach five million viewers via live solo shows in an average theater would take me twenty five years or a lifetime of dancing! The power of digitisation and the digital media struck me very hard when I saw the numbers that were possible.

With six dance theater productions under my belt my decision now is to present these to world audiences through the digital format. No, this is not monetisation - they will be available free to stream and watch for anybody that desires to do so. If 0.05% of my viewers turn to this art form, we would have created over two thousand dancers. I leave the power of geometric progression to the imagination of the readers.

Please stay tuned for the release of these projects online. You will find the same honesty that came through on stage visible here as well.  These are not “autotuned” phenomenon - this is the real thing!

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.