Wednesday, June 12, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Originally Published March 11, 2013

The Bengaluru Question and Answer session that followed my YUDH performance inspires me to write this. It was, as always, an intense and exhilarating experience interacting with the audience of Bengaluru, more so than other cities. The Bengaluru audience tends to have a wonderful mix. There are those that are attending a Bharathanatyam show for the first time, there are expats eager to learn about Indian culture, there are many that look for meaningful entertainment. And there are dance teachers and performers who come fully equipped with the technical expertise of the dance.

And therefore, given that the mix of the audience is fairly equal in denomination from each of the groups I have mentioned above, the expectations of the show tend to be diverse. While there usually is no problem in addressing the lay audience, the expats, or even connoisseurs who are not performers, it is the fourth group that finds sometimes a lacuna in the purpose of a project such as YUDH.

YUDH, as its predecessors Music Within and Soul Cages, is aimed at showcasing the brilliance of Bharathanatyam to an audience that at large finds little of interest in this art form. This could include people who have attended traditional concerts and upped their score on Angry Birds in the midst of the concert! The Alarippu-Varnam-Padam-Thillana combination is strangely enough the same format that is responsible for slaughtering the interest of a majority of the the audience.

And yet, nine times out of ten (words of a gentleman at the Bengaluru Yudh show), the performances are used to project how well the dancer executes Mathematical footwork, geometric shapes and patterns, coverage of surface area of stage, and other such matters of utterly earth shaking importance. Ask our "uninitiated" Punjabi PR executive how well she followed the Mathematics and she would groan - "why can't you guys just deliver a show, instead of taking me back to school!"

Because, my dear Punjabi kudi, this is not about entertainment. This is about showing off your technical prowess to a band of your students and their families, and perhaps the students of another dance faculty finalised under a mutual audience exchange program; a group of dancers performing to a group of other dancers and marvelling at the longevity of the art form!

YUDH is not for those dance colleagues who come with the mind set of seeing a laundry list of check points to be ticked off that will attest my proficiency. And in any case, no one other than that dancer or their student can ever satisfy this laundry list.

In the 80s some elders in my house would moan that the cricketer Kris Srikkanth was an aberration when juxtaposed with the technical master Sunil Gavaskar across from him in the crease. Technical mastery was all very well; it got India 36 runs from his bat unbeaten in 60 overs. India lost. But, what technique!

We are not Mathematicians. We are entertainers. Technique is a given. Beyond a point, the obsession with technique would follow the law of diminishing returns, taking away from the entertainment quotient. To grab the interest of the audience, you need to have far more than technique. Wake up.

The War of A Million Years

Originally Published Feb 9, 2013

We have just premiered YUDH at NCPA Mumbai, and are on the verge of taking it to the other cities programmed on the tour – Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Bangalore, New Delhi and Chennai. The responses in Mumbai have astounded us; while we were confident on our new production’s appeal, we had not realized the extent to which it would affect the audience till we met with them after the show.

However, one question that seemed to be simmering in the minds of the press and the audience has been, ‘Is this story written to address the horrific incident of the rape of the young medical student in New Delhi? Is this a voice of protest against the issues of gender that exist in the country?’

Allow us to clarify. This story was written in April 2012, eight months before the rape incident in New Delhi. In fact by December, the production, as the audience of NCPA saw it, was ready to hit the stage. However, what disturbed us the most was that this story could be found relevant to the rape incident. If we performed it two years later, it would probably be relevant to some other similar and horrendous incident. In fact, at any point in time that we can think of, there seems to be always some incident that shakes our worlds, and leaves us wondering, the victim did not deserve this…what kind of divinity rules us that allowed this to occur. Will there ever be an end to this?

But that view is one perspective…that of the humans who have been given the freedom of choice and its consequences, whether we wanted it or not. The story of YUDH looks at these incidents from three perspectives, all of which could be equally true or untrue depending on what the viewer takes away from it.

Our earlier production, ‘Soul Cages’ was a cry of angst, a rant against the concept of heaven, as we know it. YUDH, despite all its angst, however is not a rant. It is an attempt to understand and find some rationality in what we all go through. In that sense, it is more of a journey of discovery than a protest.

Many, many people go through tragedies that they do not deserve at all. Yes, the rape incident at New Delhi shook us up, jaded as we may have been with such nightmarish tales that populate our news channels and papers at only too regular intervals. However, these travesties occur across genders, and across the world. Justice in human courts, as we learn it, seems reactive. It (sometimes) punishes the perpetrators. But has it really stopped these incidents from happening?

We are discovering for ourselves that ‘justice’ is a word being substituted for ‘punishment’. The word justice would seem to suggest that good people should never have to go through such travesties inflicted by other humans. But whether God or Satan understand justice the same way that we do, is the question that we think answers the ‘why’, that we as humans ask.

As one of the principle characters in YUDH says at one point, “I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have no answers. Sometimes, we just accept that not everything has to have an answer.”               

The Emperor's New Clothes

Originally Published Sep 6, 2012

"The idea of transactions between bodies, and between bodies and performing space.... A linear non-narrative that moves from one transition to another with an intention to blur the lines of emotionality... To move the emotional from the tangible subjective to an intangible objective"

The above lines describe a highly intellectual and evocative description of a much "acclaimed" work that has played across the country. It left us perplexed. Here we are, graduates from distinguished Universities that have negotiated our paths in the world to achieve what we deem, a success born out of old fashioned values such as intelligence and hard work. We actually prided ourselves on an above average intellect! And that description made us realize how mediocre our intellect was. In plain speak, it made as much sense as equations describing a black hole to a non-physicist.

Words such as the above and the pieces that were played out assaulted our sense of self-esteem in quick succession as we tried our hardest to appreciate art of this nature. This is the usually seen version of contemporary dance.

So, is art meant to be the domain of the masses? Or the exclusive realms inhabited by God's chosen few who could understand the proceedings and better still appreciate it? This is a question that has been asked possibly since the beginning of art itself. It is asked of art in all it's forms - be it dance, music, cinema, sculpture, paintings, ... in fact any aural or visual media that is produced to evoke a reaction. There is the commercially popular, that is lapped up by the masses and crucified by the connoisseurs. Take a look at an average Salman Khan release and you will know what we mean. And yet, the connoisseurs themselves dream ovations and packed houses. A strange brew of intellectuals that also swear by democracy!

The notion that their art is not understood by the masses simply signifies that they are far too "subtle" and "sophisticated" for the layman to understand. In fact, if understood by the masses, it must be childishly simple and awkward in its treatment. "Something wrong there. That makes the masses equal to me. That cannot be!" So goes the opinion of the self-declared cognoscenti.

In our encounters with the "masses" in our question and answer sessions which followed the Soul Cages performances, we stood humbled, NOT by their blinding intellectual posturing, but by their simplicity and openness. They were not wordsmiths nor masters of the abstract. But they were capable of logical thinking and possessed an ability to discern depth in simplicity. Not obscuring the inane into a vortex of intellectualism. Sometimes a simple story is meant to be just that- simple!

Give us the honest men and women of the street any day. Those high flying sophisticates have plenty to choose from. The only criticism we take seriously is from the audience that represents what we are - every day people.

A Tale of Two Cities

Originally Published July 23, 2012

Last fortnight saw us in two cities that could not have been more different had we consciously endeavored to make it so. The first city that I speak of is Kandy, a picturesque town on the foot hills of the grand tea plantation region in Sri Lanka. The second, a very affluent 'planned city' on the foothills of Shimla - Chandigarh.

Soul Cages was not scheduled to be performed at Kandy. The earnest requests that came in from the President of GOPIO convinced us to extend our tour of Colombo to Kandy. Kandy is a small town (by Indian standards), tucked away in the heart of Sri Lanka. The town draws quite a few tourists that visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, and then proceed to Nuwara Eliya - arguably the Switzerland of Sri Lanka. The residents of Kandy however, invoked in us a sense of being in a small town in Tamil Nadu, much like Madurai or Coimbatore. Earnest and hard working, the city wakes up very early and carries with it an air of purpose embedded in a laid back atmosphere. These are people of the soil who believe in a hard day's work and in the values of educating their children to give them a better future. The scars of the years of civil conflict still show in unlikeliest ways and yet, people are trying to put the past behind them and move on. They radiate a beauty that outshines Nuwara Eliya.

The President of GOPIO, Mr. Devarajan, saw me perform Soul Cages at Colombo, and when he met me after the show, he was perturbed. He was unsure whether the audience of Kandy would be able to understand or appreciate anything that Soul Cages portrayed. He felt that the Colombo crowd was more intellectual and therefore related to the presentation completely. "The audience of Kandy had no pretentious of any sophistication and may not be able to comprehend it", he said.

His views did not disturb us as we were confident that the show would be understood. Over dinner in Colombo, we however wrote a synopsis of Soul Cages for Mr. Devarajan so that he could translate it toTamil. At midnight Mr.Devarajan personally wrote out a wonderfully floral translation which was read out to the Kandy audience before the show.

The effect on the Kandy audience was electric. Every scene was applauded and the audience became a part of the performance. In the question and answer session following the show, the audience talked to us. Simple and naive they might have been, but they understood every nuance, explained or otherwise.

A few days later I was in Chandigarh performing Soul Cages. Chandigarh is one tenth the size of Kandy in area, and has ten times the population of Kandy! A city that has the distinction of being India’s richest city on a per capita basis, and arguably India’s cleanest city as well, it was the kind of city which one would imagine would resonate well with the philosophical imports of Soul Cages. The Tagore Theater, venue of the show, is a beautiful structure in Sector 18, and holds a proud heritage of having been inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and having had the thespian Prithaviraj Kapoor amongst its Board.

The audience at Chandigarh comprised mostly of families of retired armed forces officers, business men, and professionals from the corporate world. An audience that was very well read, that completely related to shows with a philosophical edge, and was a connoisseur of art in general. The applause through the show was muted, which we realized later was only because the audience was following the drama unfold with complete attention. The effect was no different from Kandy. Yes the audience used more erudite adjectives to describe their emotions, but the emotions were the same.

Mr.Devarajan's fears that this sort of an artistic expression was more appreciated by the gentry than the common man were unfounded. True art does not discriminate on the basis of education or bank balances. I was much struck by what I heard from two mothers. A woman in Kandy said to us that she had experienced loss of a child and was able to gain some perspective on her loss after viewing Soul Cages. A mother in Chandigarh told us that the experience had left her better placed to explain 'life and death' to her daughter. A Muslim member from the audience at Colombo was so awestruck that he convinced his family to view the show in Kandy. A Christian woman in the audience could not stop her tears, just as a Hindu business magnate in Chandigarh couldn't.

We realized that art is the great leveler. Much before death is.          

The Relevance of Bharathanatyam - a classical tradition meets modern times

Originally Published April, 2012

 Rukmini Devi Arundale, arguably the leader of the renaissance movement of Bharathanatyam in the 1930s, would have disagreed with the title I have chosen to speak on. In her words, Bharathanatyam is eternal and therefore it's relevance lies beyond time. In a purely logical fashion, if I was to agree to the eternity of the dance form, by default what I say is- its relevance in modern times is the same as its relevance in the time of the devadasis, the time of Rukmini Devi Arundale, and will be the same for the next million years. However, as a practitioner of this dance form, I can speak from my personal experience and that of others that the relevance in these times is entirely different from the relevance in the time of the devadasis or any other time in the past. Am I challenging the eternity of the dance form?
I am at the moment reading a book by Stephen Batchelor, a Scottish gentleman who became ordained as a monk in Tibet at the age of 20 years, titled 'Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist'. While the book has no direct relevance to my seminar topic, there is a quote in it that struck me as intriguing and pertinent. He says with relevance to Buddhism, and I quote, " Whenever there is a religion that is embodied in a culturally and historically alien form attempts to find its footing in a new culture and time, it is necessary that its concepts and symbols undergo a restructuring in order to attune with the prevailing spirit of the times". As I was reading over these lines, it struck me that I could have replaced the word 'religion' with 'dance style' and this sentiment would ring just as true to Bharathanatyam as it does to Buddhism. I am challenging neither the eternity of Bharathanatyam nor Buddhism.

For those of you in the audience not very familiar with this dance form, Bharathanatyam is alluded to have about two thousand years of traceable history and was practiced by a sect of women called 'devadasis' - literally translated reads as - 'servants of the Gods'. The devadasis belonged to a matrilineal community and while they flourished from the patronage of King's and wealthy upper class, they did not have to abide by marriage or social conventions expected of other women that might have distracted their practicing and preserving this art form. The current solo dance repertoire that you see the students and artists of this tradition perform world over draws from the organizing, detailing, and refining that this dance style underwent in the hands of four brothers - Ponniah, Chinniah, Sivanandam, and Vadivelu in the Thanjavur courts in the 1800s. The devadasis practiced this style of rendition and while their history has been marred from the contextual social changes that India as a country went through, the art form itself has surprisingly undergone little change in the spirit of its practice.

There has always been a very high premium placed on associating all aspects of the Bharathanatyam practice with religion and devotion to God. Even if the lines of music draw from highly erotic and sensual poetry, the emphasis, as it has been taught to me and thousands before me, is to find my human frailties drawn not to the physical realm, but to God, in spirit and in surrender. And I am sure I am not the first person to have questioned this deeply and unable to reconcile as a teenager learning these pieces, and understanding how I would portray on stage these highly erotic dances, without feeling violated and exposed. Rukmini Devi Arundale who is reputed for reviving this art form in the 1930s when it passed through the darkest hours of shame and abandonment, emphasized that if the spirit of devotion reigns supreme, then the dancer and audience should experience communion with the divine, even if the subject of the pieces remained highly erotic. I am the student of Rukmini Devi's direct disciples - Adyar K. Laxman and Dhanajayans who hail from her institution - Kalakshetra in Chennai. Yes, I practice a more refined technique than my devadasi predecessor and yes, some of the words, meaning, and emphasis in what I dance in my solo repertoire have been shifted to become more dignified. And yet, something rankled in me. Perhaps I was not a good student. My ruminations on this continued.

Now, as long as we accept Bharathanatyam to be a dance form, we are on safe grounds. A dance form is a medium that we use to portray ideas and stories to an audience. The ideas and stories may change, but the dance form itself is a matter of style. A dance form is essentially a set of moves defined by a code of 'what can be' and identifies a graceful set of gestures and kinetics. What is eternal is divine. A code of how to move is hardly divine. The idea of what can be done with it is probably far more thought provoking. When I speak about the relevance, what I mean is whether ideas and stories relevant to today's times can be expressed through Bharathanatyam or is this way of telling stories defunct? What most critics and performers tend to do is take the safe path. They tell a story that has been said since the time of the devadasis and give it the name of culture. A dwindling interest in the art form is blamed on the audience. Since there is hardly anything novel about the stories, the challenge is in who performs it the best. Critics tend to appreciate how well a certain person moved, how gracefully they enacted the story, and how Bharathanatyam lived on. Hardly, I would think! A very small audience attends, a good percentage of them leave in between, and many of those who stay behind are on their iPhones and blackberries. Who does one blame? The audience. They just aren't the same anymore. I performed the Padams, the Varnams, the keertanas, and the thillanas. Nothing more I could do! This is the attitude that is ensuring that Bharathanatyam, as it is widely practiced in the solo tradition has little chance of having any relevance in the modern world. The hubris of the performer and the inability and/or disinclination to adapt or change is the issue that needs to be addressed. In this Rukmini Devi Arundale would have whole heatedly supported us.

Let me elaborate on why I say that the themes presented in these typical, traditional margams are not relevant. In the days of the devadasis, they had dance in front of prospective investors or clients who assured them of some degree of financial support in return for exclusive favors. In very thinly disguised allusions, stories of a highly erotic nature would be played using Bharathanatyam in a bid to entice a prospective patron. When Rukmini Devi tried to revive the art form, she substituted the allusion to the patron with an allusion to a God. What do we have as a result? We have Radha telling Krishna in 'Kuruyadu Nandana', a Jayadeva's ashtapathi - "Come and apply Sandal paste to the bruises on my body that I bear from the night of love-making" or in Pattanam's 'Samayamide ra ra' - the heroine exclaims "Oh Krishna, my darling, come to me now, why do you delay when this is the opportune time. My husband is not in town and my in laws do not interfere. Come and be with me now - let not this opportune time pass away wasted!"

At least the devadasis were frank about what they were asking for. What we have here is the impression that the Gods we revere are all about physicality, with some vague attempt made to tell us that we will find divinity through these pranks of Krishna. We have succeeded in reducing Krishna to the human susceptibilities and frailties. We haven't given him much to be esteemed for. And oh the number of repetitions! In hundred performers, 75% would involve a tale of a Krishna and a Nayika, and the rest have some connection to a mythological tale that has been told and retold through the centuries. When this is performed on stage in today's times, the audience either does not understand, or thinks of it as some relic from the past, or has been brainwashed into believing this is spirituality and hence Radha's sufferings because Krishna is with a neighbor's wife is viewed as difficulties in the path to God. It is rationalization and a very poor one at that. It is not the fault of the dance form. It is the fault of the clique that refuses to change. And that which does not change cannot be eternal. For eternity, change is a device. It is evident in evolution and everything you see or don't see around you. The change that we ask for is not in the kinetics of the form. It is what you use the form to speak. If that is relevant, then the art form is relevant. If that is archaic, the art form is dead.‪‪

Spotlight - our Blog

The way to keep tradition alive is to embrace change. Sri and I found that meaningful change does not come easy. On one hand is an inertia which makes us believe what is, has been, will remain. The other end of the spectrum believes in change for no reason other than change itself. And as we are discovering, neither is sustainable. We aren’t your traditional bloggers. We tend to be far too private resonating our innermost thoughts only between ourselves. So, why are we here? We are, because sometimes a meandering conversation ignites a fuse and leads to an explosion of ideas that we just had to share. In these pages you will find such thoughts. We have no personal biases against the multitude of thought-forms. We are as captive to our lines of thought as others along this spectrum. Some of you may agree, others may not; we would be delighted nevertheless to hear from you on your opinions. This is all about change. When we don’t do it, nature does it for us. The fat history books are made of such stuff!