by Tripura Kashyap (Bangalore)
Coincidences have shaped my life. One such occasion was when I traveled to USA in late eighties to train as a dance therapist. This experience dramatically altered my perception of dance. I learnt how informal, non-traditional approaches in dance could help disabled people evolve individualized styles of communication.
Back in Bangalore, I became aware that Indian physical traditions and movement practices offered a larger canvas for dance as therapy. I began extrapolating elements from Indian folk, social and classical dances into mainstream dance therapy for people with mental, emotional or physical handicaps. Modification of music, movements and props to suit Indian needs and problems of specific disabilities were developed simultaneously.
For instance, with an autistic child, footwork for evolving structures of rhythm patterns, as used in Kathak, enhanced attention span. Initially she had exhibited self-stimulatory behaviors like pinching or scratching herself. As rhythms were repeated several times, her focus shifted to mastering movements. Contact of feet with the floor in defined patterns also provided positive stimulation and grounding.
With hearing impaired children, modified movements from the technique of Chhau improved balance and concentration. Exploring stylized walks with partners, balancing on each leg, they were less hyperactive and more aware of their bodies in motion. As their range of movement increased, there was marked reduction in stereotypical movement patterns.
Hand gestures from classical dances (similar to sign language for the hearing impaired) were used to create movement poems or stories. Gradually they were sensitized to each other's communication skills in more ways than
they had experienced earlier. Various finger and wrist exercises with gestures were designed to improve their fine motor coordination. Facial expressions were also modified to reflect certain moods and feelings from their classroom situations.
A variety of movement props from Indian folk dances like sticks, cymbals, scarves and bamboo poles etc were used with mentally challenged children. These were integrated in a variety of ways to solve movement puzzles, improve group coordination and enhance memory for movement. Individually, children improved their eye-hand coordination and imitation skills with pre-determined movements of the props.
With visually impaired adults, the Karma tribal dance form of Madhya Pradesh was used. It acted as contact dance, with participants holding hands in a line. They were given challenging tasks like moving backwards, making a circle and other geometric designs. This helped to heighten their spatial awareness hence reducing fear for space around them. Through other group dances they gained confidence to deal with their bodies in a more relaxed manner.
These experiences of working with therapeutics in dance and exploring its relationship with disabled people took me back to the basics of movement. I began to gather fresh inputs in terms of movement construction, composition, improvisation, and group dynamics which later fed into my personal creative work.
Apoorva Dance theatre founded in 1994 was another coincidence. Three of us spontaneously got together to experiment and choreograph works that were different from what we had seen or learnt. The group gradually evolved with an urge to go off the beaten track and find an unorthodox performance repertoire. The labels 'contemporary' and 'modern' came much later.
As time went by, notions of working with trained dancers disappeared. This happened as I watched two visual artistes in Apoorva with no prior dance training create unique pieces close to abstract expressionism. In fact classical dancers in the group got stuck with clichéd movements, styles and themes. I felt, here is a dance that is not necessarily technique bound, one has the freedom to adapt movements to suit one's body and thinking.
In 'Chayaangika' our first production, shadows of different shapes and sizes were the medium of expression. There was no story, message or feeling to communicate. Explorations focused on translating body movements on to the
two-dimensional frame. A multiplicity of shadow images merged with geometry of body contours on a white screen.
Shadows became instrumental in dictating form and content of the dance. Perhaps they were mirrors that awakened our latent impulses. It was an exciting journey into magical qualities of what shadows could hide and surprisingly reveal.
In 'Territory', an art event conceived by a group of visual artists, installations were extended as artscapes opposite an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Bangalore. The artistes juxtaposed natural sites with a range of scrap and conventional materials including wooden planks, corrugated metal sheets, gunny cloth, chicken wire mesh and rolls of barbed wire. The event was symbolic of the redundancy of man-made boundaries.
Emerging from a deep pit, I performed movement scores incorporating elements specific to the site. Movement designs were choreographed with materials like stones, sand, cloth, dry leaves and a hay stick fourteen feet
long. Certain movement phrases conceived around a huge, lone tree were limited by its peculiar snake like branches, yet the experience enlarged the boundaries of dance.
Moving or being still with each site, challenged me to peel the decorative layers off dance. The narrow role of a dancer was broken down while interfacing dance with ambience of the architecture. In making dance an extension of the landscape, what emerged was the body of a child discovering movement.
"Neha", an autobiographical piece, described an encounter with 20 army men on a Sunday evening near a lake in Bangalore. Escape from this near rape situation was a miracle. Based on the incident, the dance was constructed through word and movement, in the manner Bharatanatyam is presented today. Instead of using the mike on stage to talk about beauty, waiting for the lover god, moonlit nights and pangs of separation, I recollected the nightmare, elucidating the fragmented lives, ugly emotions, absurdity and paradox surrounding uniformed men.
After many years of rejecting facial expressions, I decided to consciously use the face in this piece. In Austria where it was choreographed I was told to keep the face dead pan. In India audiences constantly asked why the face did not emote. The point was to avoid making faces like it normally happens these days in Bharatanatyam. Through this work I attempted to understand the borderline of expressive and dead faces, stylistic and natural expressions. I brought
to surface textures of inner emotional landscapes breaking barriers between the artist and person.
A recent dance, 'Short Story' was inspired by an anonymous Kannada folk poem 'Jaadara Muduki' about an old woman who eternally weaves threads that reach the edges of universe. The image of a giant web got etched in my mind. I designed a multi-layered cobweb using ropes, threads and elastic as an exploratory space. As I improvised under it, strong images of late Ranjabati Sircar came alive. She was a contemporary choreographer who committed suicide last year. She died at the age of 36. Her life too was a short story.
The person inside the web symbolized the conflict of a contemporary, urban woman, her lonesomeness and the urge to reach outside. The web was her refuge as well as prison. Initially, societal walls around her were friendly and protective, later they became oppressive and hostile. The dance in three sections explored varied emotions of a woman who battled with dark spaces within herself. Eventually frustrated she destroyed herself using part of the web she loved the most.
A basic way of evolving new works is to create an eclectic movement base that is an essence of what one has learnt or not learnt. This is possible through improvisation that I consider as movement meditation. The body dances in an altered state having absorbed images of one's travels, relationships, meetings and cityscapes. Seemingly lost in movement, it reveals one's personality, politics and interaction with the environment. Seeped in perspiration and exhaustion the body becomes a fertile ground for fresh ideas, thoughts and forms. Gradually a personal movement language not defined or limited by codified forms or styles emerges.
I am curious about dances that are formless. It is interesting to watch work that has been created with the premise "the body comes from everywhere". As a viewer I want to be challenged to guess which culture or era the dance has
grown from. As multicultural textures, motifs, colors and gestures flow in to enrich a work, it looks as though it belongs to every culture on earth. Personally, I feel universalizing dances rather than limiting them with a particular cultural specificity pushes the boundaries of creativity further.
In recent years, I had opportunities to interview other Indian modern dancers like, Jayachandran, Astad Deboo, Bharat Sharma, Ranjabati Sircar and Shobana Jeysingh etc. I understood better their journeys in terms of artistic beginnings, creative impulses, choreographic processes, training methods, artistic intentions and struggles. There has been a growing body of work dealing with contemporary themes in a fresh language that is as Indian as any classical or folk form.
The world over modern dance has taken root in diverse ways in different countries. It has relentlessly asserted itself as celebration of rebellion. In India, new styles of expression have emerged despite non-existent schools or support systems. There seems to be an ongoing battle for co-existence of contemporary expressions and traditional forms. Despite odds, modern / contemporary dance movement in India continues its search ..
Tripura Kashyap is a dance/movement therapist/contemporary choreographer and director of Apoorva dance theatre based in Bangalore.