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Transitions in Tradition
- Purvadhanashree

September 24, 2018

(Purvadhanashree presented this paper on 25th July 2018 at the seminar organized by Manasa-Art Without Frontiers at Looking Back to Move Forward Dance Festival in New Delhi.).

Transitions and Tradition - both are multidimensional terms and I think they are like Yin and Yang. One has the seed, the possibility of the other. A true traditional form gives itself to transition and there is transition because the form is rooted in tradition. At the end of Natyashastra, Bharata Muni says, "Whatever I have said is not the final word on art forms. They must evolve, if they have to survive." And that is why we all are here in 21st century discussing, learning, practicing, teaching, celebrating dances which are centuries old.

I am going to analyze this topic by discussing various entities which come together to make a classical dance form.

Photo: Avinash Pasricha

Patra - The dancer: Four aspects which work together within a dancer are Angikam (the body language, technique, training and its execution), Vachikam (music text, word on which dance is performed, Aharya (Costume and Jewellery) and his/her Satva. All the first three have undergone various transformations in Bharatanatyam and are undergoing changes in Vilasini Natyam also. Angikam is not just the body but also the mind. They both give and take a lot from the immediate environment. Every classical dance form has come a long way from what was practiced in its nascent form. In the past few years, the technique has become very strong. Body kinetics has evolved a lot. Dancers are moving out of Banis and fusing their training under various gurus to find their own individual expression. They are experimenting with languages and expanding their understanding of how to adapt their idiom to various musical formats also. All this has been possible because the mental, spatial and societal horizons have widened. Costumes have changed a lot. Amongst the new trends some designs are very glamourous, some are very aesthetic yet contemporary. Within an evening the performer tries to give audience a visual treat by bringing in many colours of textiles and change in jewelry, to make the presentation more attractive and appealing.

Angika, Vachika and Aharya are important in creating a meaningful exterior but what holds them together prepares them, propels them into action, is the dancer's Satva. Satva - call it soul, conscience, guide or inner voice. It holds these three together with the only purpose of being truthful to one's art. The outer world undergoes many transformations but the sattva doesn't change.

- Shall I be one amongst all and ape them just to be in the collective memory and be popular or should I strive to find my own true expression?

- Shall I blindly follow the tradition in the name of sincerity and commitment or shall I question it, reinterpret it, engage with it, internalize it and bring it out from my deepest core in a new form?

- Shall I dance what people would like to see or can handle or will enjoy or shall I dance to evolve, as an artiste, thereby moving towards rasanishpatti which I find aesthetically beautiful.

These are the questions which a dancer's sattva asks her/him. I believe that every artiste is the ansha of Bharata Muni's children. We belong to that lineage. Our sattva is a part of that continuum. Because of our own thoughts, feelings, views and choices we move closer or away from our conscience. Whichever direction we take, reflects in our art.

Today's dancer is facing many challenges. With very little support from the electronic (television) and print media, she must try very hard that her work gets noticed. A whole lot of energy is spent on publicity and information dissemination. This sometimes takes a toll on the art and the artiste, as energies get scattered. Changing times have also brought technological development which is a big help in learning and teaching but again how far do we move away from the traditional methods of teaching is something that every dancer has to answer for oneself.

Another important change I am observing is the way body is trained. A lot of focus is on the energy component in dance form. And not to forget the speed. This is changing the dancing body. It is also changing the perception of how important technique is vis a vis abhinaya. Dance has become mathematically more complex and dancers are putting in lot of hard work to bring out the beauty of those multi layered cross patterns of rhythm sequences. What about abhinaya? Since the performance time is shrinking the dancer wants to showcase her talent in the best way hence the focus shifts to presenting pieces which are catchy, sharp like lightning, brisk. But there are artistes who feel very strongly about this and are working very intensely on the abhinaya aspect as well.

The potter's wheel -The teacher and the taught: We artistes keep travelling between different worlds. Of creativity and reality. Of materialism and spirituality. Of renunciation and possessiveness. These dynamics have affected the Guru-Shishya relationship very deeply. We are living in the age of Skype classes and workshops. I understand that each of us has our own journey to acquire knowledge and experience but whether our choices are helping us to serve the cause of art or our self agenda is something which we need to answer to ourselves as we are responsible towards the future generations. According to Natyashastra, Acharya and the student should have certain qualities inner and acquired - which help them to serve the dharma of natya. How close or how far we are to those parameters will help us understand the transformations we want to bring in our traditions.

Audience: Prof. Unni in his translation of Natyashastra says that according to Bharata, the ideal spectator moves with the actor and becomes one with him. The glistening of the eye with the flood of tears of joy in the sahradayas is referred as Purnasaraswati. And I feel that when an artiste truly surrenders herself to the art, her tears are the drops of atma ganga. The relationship between the artiste and the audience is very sacred. But we cannot deny the fact that society has changed, so has the audience -audience which is living with mobile phones, tablets, television, internet. As dance is coming together of music, architecture, movement, painting, literature, religion, psychology - all these also affect the minds of people who come to watch us. In Abhinaya Darpana, it says a sabha which has gathered to witness a dance performance is like a Kalpataru which satisfies everyone's wishes. Vedas are the branches, treatises on various arts are the flowers, and learned people are like the bees. The Sabha Lakshana enumerates various components of the sabha - the sole purpose of which is to fulfil the aesthetic and spiritual needs of the audience. But as the times have changed the needs have grown and become very varied, which puts the creative process on the measuring scale of what one wishes to perform and what one is expected to perform.

Space: Dancing spaces have undergone tremendous changes - from temples to auditoriums. From royal courts to innovative chamber spaces, shopping malls, fashion, and reality shows. From royal patronage to corporate and public funded programmes. Dance has been transported to a different era altogether. It is hard to imagine how a Devadasi took bath in a temple pond, walked to the Garbha Griha in wet clothes and gently woke up the Lord of the temple. Now we are living in the world of live streaming, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. Earlier the audience did not get much access to the artiste's creative world but now things have changed. People get to see the rehearsals. The work in progress is also shared. There are dance videos in beautiful landscapes which add a very different dimension to the choreography. Technology has created two kinds of audiences - which are present in the dancing space and those who are not present yet watching. It is one experience to watch a live performance but to see a dancer inside a screen is something different. We are living in the age of 'Likes', 'Views', 'Followers', 'Comments', 'Tweets', 'Updates', 'emoticons'. Watching dance in digital media has affected the audience sensibilities. Are these developments / exposures making us more competitive or more empathetic?

Society: I am deliberately discussing the two separate audience and society. It is a real challenge and a very conscious choice to live peacefully in today's world which is ripping itself apart every moment. India may be shining, we may be one amongst the top 5 richest countries but even after 71 years, we as a nation do not have safe drinking water, clothes to wear, houses to live in, jobs to sustain lives. Trust levels are low. Fear factors are high. Faith is put to test again and again. Struggles of aam aadmi and aurat have increased. Minds are being bombarded with all kinds of noises and visuals. The mental health of majority, especially the youth is stressful. It is more than ever that we need classical dances to heal people to give them peace. Are the transformations in the tradition doing that? We cannot answer in terms of a mega social change, but yes, every visual experience of watching classical dance affects the psyche of the viewer. The words, the music, the way a dancer moves her body, costumes. And most of the dance performances teach us something, elevate someone's consciousness a notch higher. There is a social need for these arts as an aesthetic experience, as popular entertainment, as spiritual involvement. Artistes, who are traditionalists, are going deep into the classical literature and music to bring out the spiritual and aesthetic interpretation be it a new composition or reinterpreting an old piece. Their sole purpose is to communicate with audience in an art space which heals, gives joy, calms both the performer and the viewer. At a contemporary level, there are classical dance artistes who are engaging with gender stereotypes, questioning the popular myths and giving a new perspective on an old story, character. They are weaving different textures of movements, music, lighting, stage craft, narratives to open the sensibilities of audience.

Presentation formats have undergone changes. Apart from the Margam, artistes and organizers are engaging with various ways of packaging a dance evening...
- one text, different dance styles
- a common subject - flower, vehicle, weapon, kshetra, mythological character, different dance styles
- dancer from one style working under a Guru of another style
- a dance drama of different styles
- bringing two art forms together - puppetry and dance, painting and dance
- dance and light - where light plays a role, a character and dance is composed around this character
List is endless. Artistes are trying their level best to reach out to audiences through multiple narratives, write ups, detailed programme notes, brochures, exquisite photography, videos, interviews, articles, blogs. The bridge between the artistes and the audience is getting smaller. But the dynamics around the artists and the audience is very complex and challenging.

Peripheries will keep changing but at a deeper spiritual aesthetic level, I feel classical dances will be the same. The intent of a true sadhaka will always be to raise oneself and the audience to higher levels of consciousness and discover depths of beauty and aesthetics within one's core.

'We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.' (T. S. Eliot)

Purvadhanashree is a Bharatanatyam and Vilasini Natyam dancer.

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