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. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Vanity of Being Modest

With the D-day for ‘Chains’ - my new production, coming around in just about two months, the level of activity for the artistic direction turns frenetic.  Nothing new in that one; the (now) famous ‘Dance of Doubt’ from the ‘The Prophet’ settled to ‘this-feels-perfect-now’ roughly two weeks before the show.  In sheer numbers, ‘Chains’ incorporates the most number of dances, because the project demands it.  The moods are all across the radar ranging from vivacious, to angst, wistfulness, to fear, and rage to serenity.  For the sheer range of emotions, this project has pushed me to the limits as its artistic director and choreographer. 
From the photo-shoot for 'Chains: Love Stories of Shadows'
The biggest challenge with choreography however, is not with the body, but the mind.  As an artist, the dancer is frequently tempted to showcase what she/he can do, even at the cost of the movement being superfluous to the content.  This facet has a long history to it.  For several decades, dancers have used performance to be an excuse to showcase their own abilities.  This is a phenomenon so ingrained in artists, critics, and aficionados of classical Indian dance that the evaluation of a performance is solely on the basis of the dancer’s ‘A-ha’ moments. And therefore, innovation in classical Indian dance often centered around a ‘new’ step, ‘fusion’ elements borrowed from other dance forms, creating collaborations that may or may not have synergy, bringing in a bevy of dancers to form a chorus line, and of course do the inevitable multi-handed Goddess look - moments of choreography that are orchestrated to get an applause, much as comedy shows with a cued in ‘laugh now’, ‘clap now’.

The concept of a traditional margam is cleverly packaged.  First pass off the content as divine, and therefore it becomes a sin to critique the dance form.  Second, mask the need for adoration, behind a feigned humility.  An extra-ordinary marketing act – however one that can be perpetuated only in its own community.  You step out of that community and you will be met with at best, a curious interest in something that looks ‘exotic’, at worst, complete boredom.  Add a few words on ‘Indian-ness’ and its rich cultural heritage and the package is complete. 

There are viewers for everything.  It is also true that an artist seeks validation.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Every human seeks validation.  But validation can only be got from true creativity, not a masked choreographic moment that is engineered to get applause.  The minute we merge the dance into its content, the resulting sum is larger than its parts.  Every movement in this product adds value to the product.  Anything that separates the artist from the product is jettisoned.  Choreography is designed to tell the story with honesty, simplicity, élan, and grace, to delight the audience.  But that delight comes from the coming together of all the elements that comprise it. 

The acid test for a choreographer for her choreography is to play it to a non-dancer, preferably one that has no knowledge of the dance or its grammar.  It will seem like a game of dumb charades.  But, do it anyways.  If this viewer gets it, chances are everybody will.  If this viewer doesn’t get it, you go back to the drawing board – don’t justify it by saying this viewer is not art-oriented.

For a perfectly packaged product, traditionalists seem to have forgotten that the consumer is King!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Of Human Bondage

These quiet moments become choreography
The journey of creating content-centric productions has brought me a long way.  From the hesitant steps in 'Music Within' , content flirting with the abstract in 'Soul Cages', bold, bright strokes of black, white, and grey in 'YUDH', to a multi-layered character sketch in 'The Prophet', I feel I have journeyed along with the audience.

The project these have led to is the one I am ready to premiere early next year: Chains - Love Stories of ShadowsChains is an unusual project for me.  It feels like a trilogy - and indeed at one point we had considered this to be the content for three shows.  And yet, when I choreographed it, it  flowed like one, and hence our decision to keep it as one.  In its three parts, Chains moves from the bright and vivid colours of youth, to imaginary colours in black as the protagonist courses on the journey of life.

Chains seems a departure in the writing style of Srikanth.  He does not write love stories, and yet this is one.  But, as the Sai Shree Arts team heard the story through to the third part, we all nodded and said "this is Sri's work!".  The intensity, the questions and the underlying dilemmas - they become larger than life when the story is based on real people instead of mythical or spiritual ones. Rajkumar Bharati in his fifth collaboration with us delighted us yet again with his astonishing score and depth.  The music acquires a life of its own, moving with rhythms from across the world and genres, and still rooted in the Indian classical.

Another first for us has been that Chains does not have any spiritual content. Our earlier productions stayed away from religion, but focused on spirituality.  Chains is about people - everyday people.  I have seen Sri's story in almost every life.  He, with his story has ripped apart the mask we wear to camouflage the inner self.  And a deluge of ethical questions follow.  At its core, Chains seeks to discover the price for inner peace.  Everything in life comes at a price - is there anything that may be valued higher than all else, at all times?

Chains to us has been intensely challenging and personal.  But it has touched a chord with everyone that has heard this story.  Members of our team literally lost their sleep in relating the story to their own lives!  Perhaps, the more different we all are, the more we are the same.  We live, we seek, and we accept. But what we accept, and what we desire is sometimes representative of a chasm.

We can't wait to bring Chains to you - the love stories of shadows!
From Chains: Story and Lyrics by AK Srikanth

They asked why I search for a river in a desert
As I stood drenched in the pouring rain
How do I explain
The pleasures of rains on a hill
Or the parched disappointment of a mirage in the desert
Should be consequences of my choice alone. 

वही सवाल, लोगों के होटों पर
घटाऔं के गरजते बादलों के बीच
रेगिस्तान में नदियाँ ढूढंने के खाब क्यों देखती है
कैसे समझाऊँ ज़माने को
बारिशों का आनन्द हो
या मृगऋषणा की गूँजती निराशा
ये तो मेरे मन का विकल्प है ना
फिर भी
वही सवाल, लोगों के होटों पर

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Great Wall and Beyond..

Click Here For Video
My first realisation as I drove down from the Beijing International Airport to my hotel was that China does indeed have more people than India! The city was packed, lines everywhere, whether it be a visit to the Forbidden City or to get a meal at a restaurant.  It felt like life in 70mm.  The second shock I got was when my Chinese taxi driver delivered a plausible rendition of the Raj Kapoor classic 'Awara Hoon'! It wasn't a one-off case. Bollywood was very popular where ever I went.  In fact, it was assumed I represented Bollywood as a dancer.  Their knowledge of Bollywood was not restricted to blockbusters of the fifties, but extended well into the 2010s with movies such as Ram Leela.  The Chinese recognised stars across from decades, they loved the music and dance, and they adored the films.  There was no derision or superiority, just a pure love for the entertainment Bollywood had to offer.  

In this land, my objective was to offer a glimpse into the world of Bharathanatyam.  My first doubt was on whether the Chinese had the quintessential femininity called for by Bharathanatyam in their genes. The first ten minutes in the workshop dispelled that.  Their grace and elegance was equal to if not better than the best students I have taught anywhere in the world.  Teaching them the kinetics and grammar was not going to be an issue.  They were trained dancers, albeit in their own dance styles.  

The next question that came in my mind was whether they could relate to the Indianess of the mythology that we represent through our dance. True, they did not know who Radha, Shiva, or Krishna was; but they knew the emotions.  They could immediately relate it to their own stories, not just from mythology, but even from television serials!

So, in a context typified by the Ship of Theseus, if you took away all the Gods, Goddesses, the tradition, the stories, from Bharathanatyam and replaced them with Chinese stories, would we still call it Bharathanatyam? And the answer for me is a resounding Yes! If you disagree, you are confusing the content for the delivery.  As long as you think of Bharathanatyam as a vehicle for delivery, there can never be any confusion about a Ship of Theseus.  So, what would it look like if Bharathanatyam was re-interpreted by the Chinese? It would look like the Western classical ballet that is performed in Moscow, or New York, or Tokyo.  It is still ballet.  

The Great Wall of China was constructed apparently to keep invaders out and thus preserve what they had inside - their way of life.  The walls we construct around our cultures and dance forms are no different.  Because we believe that if the dance form is changed in any way other than what you know it for, then it morphs into something else.  Strangely, Bollywood has not bothered about that. They follow a precept - the more eye balls watching, the better.  So you have die-hard Mithun fans in West Africa, Rajni fans in Tokyo, Madhuri Dixit fans in Russia and China, and Amitabh Bachchan fans everywhere in the world! This is usually the point where I see a scoff - ah, that is Bollywood, that is not art.  Well, going by statistics, the world wants more Bollywood and not art! But they work because - they are entertaining, they don't put themselves on any lofty pedestals that they are communicating with Gods, and they have a blast doing what they do.  If only we were to open our minds on what Bharathanatyam can do, it is a medium that can out perform any other in grabbing the audiences attention as live entertainment. The Great Wall of China is just a tourist relic today.  The great walls we have constructed seemed to have outlasted anything the Chinese have ever built.   
(Workshop hosted by WATC, Beijing, March 2014)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Hobbits - they always walk tall

March 9, 2014
Rehearsal in the morning of the show at the auditorium
The children learning the mudra (hand gesture) for 'Prophet'
The Birla Auditorium, Jaipur - a sight to behold!
Four productions, sixteen countries, fifty cities and over a hundred shows later, we had heard the audience commenting that the shows have been an unforgettable experience or even a life-changing moment for several. We traversed through just such a life altering moment when we emerged from a show in a tier two Indian city.

This city was Jaipur, the famed pink city.  When we first saw the Birla Auditorium, the venue of the show, we mistook it for one more of the gorgeous palaces that dot this historic city.  With the state-of-the-art sound and light systems to top that, we can safely claim that this would rate amongst the best auditoriums in India.  Despite having performed in the so-called “illustrious” art centers, this one looked a little imposing. 

In this center, amongst our audience were a group of about 100 children and members from their community that had been invited to watch ‘The Prophet’ at this venue.  They represented a slum in Jaipur, one that particularly suffers from its position at the nadir of the economic order.  The group was brought to us through an NGO – Sakhi Bal Niketan and Amar Seva Samiti.  It was composed of children between the ages of five to fourteen years, accompanied by their teachers, and some other residents of the slum.  

There was a hushed silence amongst this group as they took their seats before the show started.  Undoubtedly, an auditorium that seemed intimidating to travel weary artists, would have seemed inaccessible to these children and their teachers.  When the show started all these feelings were gone.  The children broke out with impromptu applause at many places in a dance-drama that touched them and their lives.  The young ‘Prophet’ who goes through a life of abuse by her own father, battles every moment in the slums for her survival and dignity, overcomes all odds to become a world famous dancer and much later turns a Messiah, helping the needy children… every one of these scenes was watched absorbed and applauded by these children as though the ‘Prophet’ had become a Messiah for their own hopes. 

At the end of the show, the children clambered up on to the stage to pose for photographs with us and even learn a mudra that represented the Prophet!  The honesty and delight in their faces indicated that this was an evening that they would never forget – something that many of them told us also.  It brought a blinding revelation us – if our shows are conducted free, as they all are in India, and conducted to propagate classical Indian dance, why would we not always have children from such circumstances come to watch us? For they, as much as any other child in India, have the right and perhaps the drive to achieve the impossible task of taking on the stage as an artist themselves one day.   When I see at least one child from amongst these audiences is able to do that, then that moment alone is worth more than any accolades I have received over my career. 

In the line-up for the group photograph, we noticed a particularly tall boy and asked him how old he was.  He was 14 years old.  We joked to him that he better stop growing lest he ended up 8 feet tall!  He responded to us that however much he grew, he could never grow as tall as us!  The answer made us realize how little we really were in this world.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Our Experiments, Our Truths

'The Prophet' in Bangalore, Oct 20, 2013

Our Experiments, Our Truths

At the end of the Chennai performance of ‘The Prophet’, the music composer, Rajkumar Bharati, gave a short impromptu speech, where he commented on how he was challenged to stretch his boundaries for the work he did for ‘The Prophet’, by looking at genres of music he had never paid attention to before.  For us, this was a moment of great pride and validation as it wasn’t just us on a learning curve, but every member of our team as well. 

‘The Prophet’, since its debut in Bangalore last October, has played at various cities and venues.  While opinions varied on what part the audience liked the most, there was unanimity in the applause.  ‘Soul Cages’ and ‘YUDH’ have brought us to be seen as intense story-tellers; ‘The Prophet’ was considered nothing short of visceral.  The audience have been very diverse – connoisseurs of the art-form in Chennai and Mumbai, students on an NID campus in Ahmedabad, the young IT professionals of Bangalore and Hyderabad.. they were all shaken by the experience. 

When we performed YUDH at Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai yesterday, exactly a year after its première, we realized that we had been on a learning curve through each of our productions. At the summit of each curve, we find the beginning of another.  In essence, the innovation has no end.  For us, each project has proved to be a bigger challenge than the previous one.  And our next one, which we have started discussing in earnest breaks the mould again by stepping out of the genres and modes of narration we have engaged in thus far.  It is a feeling akin to just being able to continue swimming even as the tides continue to rise.  The difference being, the artists themselves define the height of the tide. 

The most common, and often the most fatal error occurs when the artist summits the learning curve and learns to live there, safely ignoring the other curves to be climbed.  That leaves us in a state of stagnation – the state Bharathanatyam has languished in for over 100 years now!  When we say this, defensiveness kicks in an auto-response – “Oh, but traditional concerts do get huge crowds (really?)”, “We do change things around with new songs and new emotions”, or at the most “We are telling you a new story – Mahabharatha as seen by Nakula!”.  The question to be asked here is – how new is new?  The Mahabharatha is the same whether it be told by Vyasa, Draupadi, or Nakula.  There is no end to the number of perspectives that one can present given the thousands of characters that populate that drama!  But is this really change or even innovation?

Truth is, “innovation” such as the one above is an excuse for self-aggrandization.  At the end of it, it is still all about ‘how well I dance’ rather than ‘what did I convey in my content that was novel’.  In technical terms, whether it be the dancers or the art critics, it is the technique that is dissected, not the content.  The day the entire spectrum decides to shift the spotlight from themselves as dancers, to the content of the production, in other words, go from ‘dancer-centric’ to ‘content-centric’, is the day the art form can evolve.  That is the day when audiences will throng auditoriums, and I mean a much larger number than the microscopic percentage of Indians that currently attend these shows.

Any other form of art, be it literature, cinema, music, or fine arts, judges the work and its content.  If a Charles Dickens were to write today, he would still be judged on the content and not how he looked when he wrote it!  Why should we dancers be any different?  From the times of our first production ‘Soul Cages’, until now, we seem to be looking over the edge of a precipice.  The idea of completely re-inventing every layer, every aspect of the art and the performance of it, is all that matters.  Sure, sometimes we will fall, and at other times we will soar.  But we are not sitting complacently.  We owe this to our audience.