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Indian Dance through the eyes of a Yogini - Kapila Vatsyayan
- Dr. Navina Jafa
Photo courtesy: Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi

April 18, 2019

The Indian classical dancer today is challenged to constantly reinvent themselves to survive the contemporary socio-economic space defined by capitalist economy, technology, social media and synergies of complex patronage systems. The market demands recorded music, fast pace padded with technical productions that can grip the audience. The Indian classical dancer exists in a swirl of a dizzy environment constantly negotiating the manner, the content and the aesthetics can be innovatively presented to sustain the central place in organizer's lists. This article refers to Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, her views on innovations in Indian classical dance.

The reality today is - parameters of patronage for dance in India is witnessing the shift from largely government to private sphere, significant presence of the diaspora asserting identities through dance has morphed in intriguing configurations of the styles, colossal growth of technology has impacted aesthetics, presentations, transmission techniques, audience outreach, creation of individual brands and organization of dance networks.

The work, ideas, and thoughts of Dr. Kapila Vastyayan, especially on the occasion of the International Dance Day, provides a measure to assess frameworks of dance traditions. Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, the AdiShakti of Indian dance, culture, and civilization has a background of a performer, an academician, institution creator and a cultural administrator where she was able to engineer significant policies that impacted all aspects of Indian dance. Today, she is a living record on Indian dance from the 1930-40s which was the watershed decade of the creation of Dance Institutions, she represents canons of past-present and stands witness to neoclassical paradigms of dance. But for her efforts we would not have seen the likes of Balasaraswati, Pandit Birju Maharaj, and Yamini Krishnamurti assume the status they did or the benefits that many have reaped (which include the likes of Sonal Mansingh) from her efforts to introduce, for example, schemes like the Government of India scholarship for young dancers. This critique is based on my journey with her for more than four decades.

Journey in dance
Kapila Vatsyayan's layered learning of traditions of dance started with oriental dancing, a category of dance which like the modern painting movement in 19th c was nurtured in Shantiniketan (early 20th c), patronized by Tagore, amalgamating Manipuri, Kathakali, Jari, Garbha, Ceylonese and Indonesian dances. She learned Kathak from Achhan Maharaj (father of Birju Maharaj), Manipuri from Amobi Singh, Mahabir Singh, Odissi from Surendranath Jena, Bharatanatyam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and later from Rukmini Devi's disciple Lalitha. Her performances included participating in the first Dance Festival (1945) organized by Nirmala Joshi (Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi) in the Feroz Shah Kotla Grounds, on dance dramas - Kalidas' Kumar Sambhav and Braj Lila choreographed by Achhan Maharaj and she performed in the Regal Cinema (Delhi) where the most common performances were by Prithvi Theatre.

Expanding her practical and theoretical knowledge base she engaged with Western Modern Dance through the Laban and Hanya Holm tools of movement analytical systems and on the international setting Vatsyayan created a distinct place for herself as a dance scholar by participating in and awarded by the Congress on Research on Dance (CORD) and World Dance Alliance conferences.

In her view, the basic difference between Indian dance and Western dance lies in the manner how each tradition deals with the earth and in the manner, the performers employ the body and feet weight in the interface with the earth. The Indian tradition is all about being in dialogue with the earth represented in a wide range of seminal foot movements, for example, "in Manipuri and Odissi there is the toe-heel, and such is the dictate of gentleness in Manipuri that my guru maestro Amobi Singh said 'Dharti ko aaghaat deeyon na' - don't hurt the earth..." The West, on the other hand, aspires to be free from the earth but never does get free. Her insights decode the varied and distinct grammar and intrinsic language that defines each Indian dance tradition which is made of a distinctive fusion of feet and body movements, diverse geometrical body stances, complex rhythmic patterns that illustrate mathematical ingenuity. "In Bharatanatyam there is the overwhelming presence of triangle formations, in Kathakali dominance of the square and the rectangle, and Manipuri is marked by flow where vertical line of the body is never broken and the body curves in the figure of 8."

Secondly, each dance tradition has trademark central body position from where emerge and align journey of movements; each tradition has distinct tenets and when performed project an explicit patterned internal map of rhythm and sound within which are created dynamic painted and sculptured forms using the human body.

Innovations or distortions
"To be innovative is imperative for traditions to renew, but inventiveness needs to happen within the framework of basic principles defining each dance. An outstanding example of successful innovation among nontraditional performers is Protima Bedi who was able to open and create body extensions without distorting the fundamental positions of the chowk and the tribhang in Odissi."

Nonetheless, presently, the pressure to sustain programmes, markets and to have pre-eminent visibility has witnessed compromising fundamentals of dance traditions. The aspiration to create performances as a phenomenon of scintillating spectacles like Power Yoga is characterized by well-practiced tailored robotic presentations with little space for upaj; displays which are defined by athletic-acrobatic movement dynamics, padded with the sophisticated technological production (sound/light/sets), and superimposition of esoteric themes.

For example, one can apply Vatsyayan's thoughts to the reduction of Kathak to the visual domination of chakkars and robotic fixed dance. "Kathak with its erect body, creates a two-dimensional effect. The signature dynamics is about the contrasting principle of Stillness-Movement-Stillness. Chakkars function to represent circular movement, the dominance of pirouettes present only circular graphics. Distortion happens on two levels; one - there is reduction of geometrical patterns in different lined directions but more importantly, the blur produced by the body in chakkars removes the quotient of Stillness. Lastly, both in abhinaya and layakaari so seminal to Kathak has to have openness in the performance. If this is all fixed to the T then there is no Kathak dance."

Correspondingly, is the case with Bharatanatyam, where the ardhamandali as the central anchoring position is from where patterns evolve creating impressions of geometry of triangles and movement conceived is in relation to the ground and vertical median. "If the body performed is reducing the ardhamandali to be replaced by frequent use of a straight body, or if there is introduction of flying, jumps, and athletics which will result in constantly doing away with the axis position, then the dance is gone and the same is true of Odissi."

Branding-Technology & Transmission
Presently, innovations are happening to repackage styles of Indian classical dance and one way is the re-creation of the dance traditions with snazzy copyright names such as Bharatanatyam Fusion - Bfusion, Sufi Kathak, Amazia Odissi. These function to generate a WOW factor that serves to capture markets and bulldoze critical frameworks.

Secondly, competitive forces and technology have adversely affected transmission systems. Dance is an art that involves actual physical learning. Increasingly, virtual means - Skype, television, Youtube are adopted for imparting complex knowledge systems that need to be slowly nurtured and is about human relationships of guru-shishya. Lastly, compelled to sustain markets have several dancers opt to dilute transmission by adapting to short-term workshop modules, and the component of mentorship.

On hearing about these occurrences, the yogini says, "Deviations such as these are challenging; dancers need to ask, will these choices made by them in terms of transmissions and presentations result in renewal so as to maintain the principle of chira nutan, chira puratan (where the old becomes constantly new and the new is in the process of becoming constantly old) without destroying the seminal framework or these choices if honestly reviewed will actually endanger the Indian dance traditions, and what role are they playing in this distortion?"

I sat in front of her, and thought, there has to be a midway, where the sacred core of these traditions, the basic essence of the contradiction of movement-stillness, of creation-dissolution is retained, where the flight of talent experiments but within frames and efforts that result to augment not to detract the saundariya (sublime beauty) so cardinally innate to each style of Indian classical dance.

Navina Jafa did her Phd on socio-economics, and aesthetics in the world of Kathak Dance in 6 urban towns of North India under Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and urban historian Prof. Narayani Gupta. She learned Kathak from Gurus Pt. Birju Maharaj, Munna Shukla and Reba Vidyarthi. A Fulbright scholar at the Smithsonian Museum, she worked on cultural management and diplomacy. She runs a business on Academic Tourism and is vice president of Centre for New Perspectives presently working to create sustainable livelihoods for marginalized street-folk performers.

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