Choreography as a changing movement
- Glancing at the impressions of choreography on dancers -past and present
by Lada Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: ladasinghg@yahoo.com


March 29, 2004
“What's contemporary today, if it stands the test of time will become traditional to the next generations. The Kathak or Bharatanatyam that we see today has evolved quite a lot from the days it used to be danced in courts and temples. But to stand the test of time any dance should have substance and a solid base.” - Kathak Guru Maya Rao

The need to acquaint oneself with ones environment has inspired a number of established and upcoming artistes to shift away from the structure of Bharatanatyam.

As far back as 1957, Ram Gopal, one of the early Indian classical dancers to set a precedent in experimentation, was still a student when he realised the need to prune the traditional dances of all repetitive movement and light the stage adequately. This decision was first related to the Indian audiences and then applied to the European audiences.

Mrinalini Sarabhai gave the Indian dance world a sense of direction to shift from traditional to contemporary by addressing social issues like the suicide of Saurashtra women or the effects of natural disasters through dance. “Yesterday's anger was against evil elements of society depicted through stories from the great myths. Today it is against the elements of destructive values in the entire world. Today the dancer's message changes, though with full artistic integrity and complete knowledge and reverence of tradition. It reflects the cultural values and conflicts of our age.”1

In north India, Baroda and Benares became the new centres for Bharatanatyam. Yamini Krishnamurthy, A S Raman, Mohan Khokar and C V Chandrashekar to name a few, popularised the dance form in the north, not only as a performing art but also as an academic discipline. Yamini became the new face of Bharatanatyam in the 60s. Talking about her experience in performing to the north Indian audience, she once said, “You have to hold the attention of as many as five to ten thousand people, a lot of whom do not follow your language. Ignorant about Bharatanatyam, they come to watch you more out of curiosity than genuine interest.” 2 Yamini's Bharatanatyam was inspired by her Kuchipudi training and came as a fresh respite.

Mohan Khokar was the first head of the first Dept. of Dance in the country (M S University, Baroda), the first special officer for dance at the Education Ministry, and served 18 years with Sangeet Natak Akademi. His career spanned over 50 years of writing nationally and internationally and he amassed India's largest dance archive holding.

C V Chandrashekar, former head, Dept. of Dance, M S University of Baroda, choreographed Bharatanatyam to works in various languages while sticking to the basic structure. In more recent years, he has composed and choreographed many items where he has used ‘rhythm as a signifier'.

Sudharani Raghupathy set a trend in group choreography as far back as 30 years. She says the change in the structure and format of Bharatanatyam has largely come because the audience is not patient to sit through the entire dance performance.

Padma Subrahmanyam totally agrees that her dancing is different from the prevalent style of Bharatanatyam. She dispensed with several accepted norms and projected movements that were not in the Bharatanatyam grammar. She expanded the technique through use of the entire body with leaps and extension of legs and fast footwork for ramification of rhythm. She did away with nattuvangam, but retained sollukattus (syllables of spoken rhythm) to suit her movements. She revived mono-acting technique. Based on her doctoral thesis ‘Karanas in Indian dance and sculpture', she announces her programs as ‘Bharatha Nrityam'. Padma's style of dance is unique to her school. “Her style is good only when she dances…” commented Kamala Lakshman. 3

The most well known artiste to break away from the shackles of rigidity, Chandralekha went into self-exile for 10 years, at the height of her career in 1971. She wanted to break away from solo dancing and stop being an entertainer. Her aim? To strip Bharatanatyam of all that is merely decorative, ornamental and sentimental and return to the essence of form, to reach out and re-discover the vibrant and vital language of the body. “I respect tradition but I have a contemporary consciousness.”

Much appreciated and much criticised at the same time, she nevertheless became an icon of radical changes in Indian dance that were taking place then. Chandralekha did away with rich silks, jewellery and make up and moved back to the very basics of presentation, where the attention was only focused on the bodies of the dancers. Productions like Sharira and Raga were received with angry reactions and labeled as “cheap sex manual,” “pseudo esoteric fare,” and even as “an export product.”

The late 80s and early 90s saw the emergence of Leela Samson, Malavika Sarukkai, Alarmel Valli, Geeta Chandran, Urmila Sathyanarayana, Priyadarshini Govind and Rama Vaidyanathan to name a few. Malavika Sarukkai feels, as an artiste, explorations in choreography are fine because one has to explore. But what one must keep in mind is whether the dance speaks. This puts pressure on the dancer to create something new and different in order to get good press and keep ahead of one's contemporaries.

Successful choreography happens if there is a thorough interrogation and proper understanding of the given structure. “In flirting with the adavus, most of the current dancers are confusing choreography with fusion,” says C V Chandrasekar. For Leela Samson, Spanda is, “Doing it as it comes.”

How do the dancers themselves view Bharatanatyam today?
Navtej Johar (Delhi): “What bothers me is the highly over self-conscious presentation. I find the presentation of Bharatanatyam very stifling, not the form itself.”

Anita Ratnam (Chennai): “My themes are all very traditional, but the way I present them is different. It is not as easy as it may sound, as by choreographing something different, you move out of the secure structure of Bharatanatyam.”

Geeta Chandran (Delhi): "The art scene is changing rapidly. There is so much exploration in terms of music and thematic content. The earlier generation of dancers could do with a margam. Today, either they are already seen before, or their new interpretation is not distinctive enough. I'm not at all against traditional repertoire and there are forums for it. But there's a need for fresh formats and I need to expand my reach, to keep the tradition alive and to push the frontiers of the style. Bharatanatyam must not come across as a decorative and ancient art form.”

Leela Samson (Delhi): “Athai did not teach us herself. She had groomed others to do that. I only developed upon what I learnt from Kalakshetra. This is what any of us would do, depending upon our individual capacity. My attempt has always been to improve body conditioning. How do I place Bharatanatyam in the context of contemporary/free style dancing? Why does it have to be placed anywhere? Is there some measuring scale you adhere to? To me there is no difference. I think my style is totally contemporary and free. Only minds are bound by these categories you refer to. Not the dance form.”

Jayalakshmi Eshwar (Delhi): “Evolution of an art form and broader changes in the perceptions of the performance will always happen. But the grammar remains the same. Metropolitan life has given exposure to international cultural flavour including different styles and dance forms even within India, different choreography, themes, techniques of presentation, costumes and stagecraft. It has added greater openness to ones thought process and choreographic presentations. Free style cannot compete with the traditional as it can be just entertainment at a superficial level. Of course, the choice rests with individual artistes, who feel what they are doing is right.”

Rama Vaidyanathan (Delhi): “There has been a tremendous change in the presentation of Bharatanatyam during the past 20 years. It has become more professional and why not? Showcasing a tradition through modern techniques will only enhance the tradition and help in its propagation. More youngsters, non-south Indians and people absolutely unconnected to the arts are attending Bharatanatyam recitals. All credits go to the change in the general presentation of the dance form. Dancers have started using more cross-cultural languages and themes and started addressing social issues.”

G Narendra (Chennai): “When Rukmini Devi could accept contemporary ideas, why do the present Kalakshetra not accept contemporary ideas without generalising? Why is the contemporary idea being hyped up? Could it be that most Bharatanatyam dancers are mediocre?”

In critic Ashish Khokar's words: “Bharatanatyam is not about adopting some stances and saying they are going beyond the language. Bharatanatyam is not about twisting tradition, even dismissing it by saying it is only 200 years old as it exists today. Bharatanatyam is a state of mind, body and soul and if any one of it is missing, then it is not complete. The problem today is: teachers are pandering as gurus, there is a severe lack of real gurus; shishyas have no time and quantity rules quality. No blue book is needed because Bharatanatyam is truly blue-bodied.”

In 2001 choreography as a concept was given its rightful place as the topic of importance in conferences such as The Natya Kala Conference and dance related books like Attendance.

1 - “Dance Shaped my Entire Being,” Ranvir Shah, The Hindu, Aug 11, 1991
2 - “She Steps to Conquer,” Sheila Kumar, Femina April 1, 1997
3 - www.narthaki.com, Interview, July 2000

Lada Singh is a Bharatanatyam dancer, poet, freelance writer and a TV Journalist. Lada hopes to use his space in creating interest and curiosity in Indian Classical dance among the people of his generation. He completed his post- graduate diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai in 2003. The above article is the third excerpt in narthaki, from his dissertation on “Bharatanatyam: In step with time” for which he interviewed gurus, dancers, editors, critics, presenters, art impresarios and dance historians in person, on telephone and email.