by N Pattabhi Raman
Editor, Sruti

Jun 2001

In the course of the confest on Dance in India & Europe, I found that, inasmuch as its subtitle was New Directions, there had been an attempt by the Commissioner of the German Festival in India to restrict the perspective of the programme to whatever construction he put on the phrase. This came through in the conference sessions as well. In fact, at the beginning of the Summing Up session, Dr. Georg Lechner stated that, after Uday Shankar in the nineteen thirties, there had been no significant change in Indian dance until the advent of Chandralekha; and that dance in India should follow her lead since, in his view, the traditional dance-forms like Bharatanatyam could not convey contemporary ideas. Obviously, although he had lived in India some years, he was blind to what has been happening in Indian dance. This, and my conversations with some of the Indian participants, led me to conclude that I should place the matter of tradition and change in its true perspective; state that change should be seen as encompassing new dimensions as well as new directions, and make it clear that in India, which is heir to a multicultural legacy and multiple streams of cultural manifestation, there can be no room for anyone, least of all foreigners, to dictate what road dance should take in the future. Because of ‘time constraints', I had to compress the statement I made during the Summing Up session. The following is a fuller statement reconstructed from my notes. - N Pattabhi Raman

There has been - and still is - a general tendency to consider tradition and change as mutually opposed or antagonistic and hence the usual formulation that reads: tradition versus change. This formulation, in my view, distorts the perspective and has contributed to the friction in the encounter sessions.

On the first day, Chandralekha explained that, in her reconstruction and refinement of dance, she had given up tradition, mythology, the narrative form, ornamentation and similar features. Perhaps it was more a statement of intention than what she really has done, because her works suggest that, although she is described as one of the important voices of counter-culture, she has not wholly given up all these things. Be that as it may, I don't think that what works for Chandralekha will work for all others, given that various choreographers and dancers pursue different visions and strategies. For example, I don't think it worked for Daksha Sheth in her production Bhu-Kham, even though she seemed to have heeded Chandralekha's mantra-s. I say “seemed” because I am not sure whether Daksha was not parodying Chandralekha and sending a counter message. Perhaps Lechner came down so harshly on Daksha because he believed this was the case. (It is another matter whether Daksha's new production is artistically satisfactory).

Leela Venkataraman, in a brief statement, compared tradition to a flowing river, meaning that it represents a continuum in space and time. Indeed it does, but I would go further and state that this river is in some stretches and sometimes turbulent and in other stretches and at other times, placid; that this river may change course; that this river may accept tributaries; or that streams branching off from the river may flow as a life-giving force en route or end up in a stagnant pond. In other words, the allegory is not static one. The river is not a pond.

Linke and Hoffman spoke about the need for a dancer to ‘empty' herself in order to find new directions. Linke used unseemly language to underscore what she meant - although I have never heard Chandralekha, the voluble diva of ‘counterculture', use such expressions even in private. She said the creative artist should say F-k to everything she had inherited in order to be able to make something really new. Hoffman, on the other hand, said that, for her, emptying oneself did not mean this but only that the artist should place the inherited stuff on the back burner, in the subconscious, as it were.

I refer to these remarks because I am not sure that anything new can be created in a vacuum. Kumudini Lakhia, known for her innovative choreography, presented a traditional work in the confest. When I asked her why, she said that tradition is “a reference point.” I also heard Pandit Ravi Shankar say recently, in response to a question on the breaking of rules in the name of innovation, that rules could indeed be broken but one must know the rules before breaking them.

I come back to the point that tradition, at least in India, is like a river; that it is not a pond, a stagnant pond that must be abandoned.

In fact, India is undergoing rapid changes and this is impacting on Indian dance. All kinds of changes are being effected, by all and sundry, in the name of innovation. But harking back to what Kumidini said about the need for a reference point, I would like once again to state the need - I have done this before - for identifying the core or defining characteristics of each major dance-form. This identification should, in each case, be based on intensive consultations and a consensus among artists, scholars and others intimately concerned with the dance-form.

I say all this because I believe the formulation of the relationship between tradition and change should be tradition and change.

Viewing dance in light of this formulation and the perspective yielded by it, we will recognise that, although during the freedom struggle and in the immediate post-Independence period the preoccupation was with the restoration of classical forms, changes have been taking place in virtually all Indian dance-forms and that many of these have contributed to what I would call New Dimensions in different aspects of dance. We should not lose sight of this fact when a modern chorus, and a loud one at that, seeks to drown out everything linked to the past. We should not ignore the fact that, even in regard to the so-called New Directions, artists like Narendra Sharma have kept the flag raised by Uday Shankar flying. How can we accept as true the statement of Lechner that between Uday Shankar and Chandralekha, nothing really happened?

I have nothing against New Directions worldwide. I have nothing against New Directions even within the Indian dance panorama so long as it is not an import passed off as swadeshi. Let these also be staged and survive the Darwinian doctrine. But let not the messiahs of New Direction proclaim that theirs is the only true religion; that everything else needs to be abandoned. Has ballet been abandoned in the West because Modern dance has taken root? Don't the kinds of serious music generated in the West in earlier centuries - like baroque, classical or romantic - coexist with what was wrought later by the likes of Igor Stravinsky and Anton von Webern? Or, to put it more bluntly using a different analogy: should we starve and eliminate all people who don't look Modern?

These days we often hear condemnation of what is called cultural fascism clothed in saffron. I am a libertarian; I am for ‘free speech' in its widest connotation as elaborated by the Supreme Court in the United States; and I am also for unfettered access to ‘free speech'. Therefore I am opposed to any kind of fascism in the field of culture or in any other field. And I am opposed to it whatever its colour. Saffron, red, green or white.

Tradition may be viewed by some as tyranny from the grave - to use American revolutionary Tom Paine's construct but there is nothing in tradition which prevents a dancer or choreographer from ‘escaping' such ‘tyranny' perceived by him or her. I know dancers who don't any more take up the nayika - nayaka theme. But we should be careful about this other kind of tyranny, the ‘tyranny' of the cultural fascists who would have us follow a single path.

India is a country where Time has moved in different speeds for different groups of its people, resulting in different timescapes. India is also a mosaic of a country, a haven for multiculturalism, where the multiplicity of its dance forms can be traced to a variety of factors like geography, history, language and religion. We cannot ignore this reality even as we cannot ignore the impact of globalisation on our culture. But we cannot and should not accept the suggestion that there is only one direction Indian dance should take in the future. Diversity is our heritage; we should not only cherish it, we should also protect it.

The assault on tradition and diversity, as well as the observations addressed by some participants to the participating artists - prompts me to make another point. As the editor of a magazine concerned with the performing arts, I hold the view that the purpose of criticism should be to enlighten and educate the arts-loving public, that it is not to “educate” the artist or to tell him or her what he or she should or should not be doing. Even in encounters like this - or should I say, especially in encounters like this - we cannot put an artist on the dock and seek explanations - considering the artist's vision or imagination may be fired by intuition and instinct, not necessarily by intellectual perceptions. It would be like asking a great musician why he touched a particular note in the imagery of a raga that led to rasanubhava or aesthetic relish among listeners. Moreover, every artist has, in free countries at least, the freedom of thought and the freedom to translate thought into action. We must allow the artist his or her vision, even if we believe it is wrong or misguided and choose to tell each other and the public so. In regard to dance, we can decide whether we like a choreography or not; or whether, by the yardsticks we use, a performance is good or bad. We can even decide whether a presentation made by a dancer or choreographer is really dance; indeed I think we should attempt to do so considering we are offered all kinds of concoctions and decoctions in the name of innovation and, yes, New Directions as well. But as far as I am concerned, it is a no-no to tell a dancer what she should do if she had to gain the acceptance of a particular observer.

Ultimately it is we, the artists, the cognoscenti and other members of the arts-loving public of this country, who should judge what changes are acceptable to us. Not some bureaucrat; not an advocate of one ism or another who would use his freedom of speech to suppress the freedom of others; and certainly not a modern-day avatar of a global wolf or watchdog who still believes in the White Man's Burden.

One final point, rather an appeal. Let us learn from the Gita that there are myriad ways from which an artist -a dancer or a choreographer - may choose one to propitiate the Muse. Let us preserve and persevere with the principle of mutual tolerance - rather the principle of mutual acceptance - that has guided our nation for centuries.

(Courtesy: Sruti May 2001)