Of Butoh and Japanese aesthetics
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com

February 1, 2010

Adaptations, revisitings, improvisations, folk inspired theatre, language theatre...64 productions from all over India that brought the seniors and the youngsters, the emerging, the aspiring, the type who eat, drink, sleep theatre, not to forget 13 variations on that theme from foreign lands, all part of the 12th annual international festival of the National School of Drama. In and around Mandi House, metaphorically, all under one roof.  Often, literally, without a roof, too.Like Japanese legendary performer, Min Tanaka’s solo performance around the peepul tree in the NSD courtyard, under the night sky, attracting a big audience.  It was part Butoh, part theatre of existentialism and part plain and simple pain, for him as well as for the viewer.

Besides the Min Tanaka solo, which is what this edition of Base Notes is about, I saw four performances (to which I would like to return) besides the opening night focus on Natya Naad, (a boring) homage to music for theatre.  Each evening this segmenttook up the music composed for all varieties of dramatic work, of regional theatre as well as of well known directors like Habib Tanvir, Mohan Upreti, Bhaskar Chandravarkar, Kavalam Pannikkar and others.  It showcasedtheir work against a multi-media backdrop and live musical selections, directed by Bansi Kaul. I found the stage scenery and design too fussy and would have preferred a more direct and sustained spotlight on just the music.

But to come back to the plays, I caught up with Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation in Manipuri of Ibsen’s “When the Dead Awaken,” Alque Padamsee’s "Broken Images," written by Girish Karnad and enacted by Shabana Azmi, Asgar Wajahat’s "Jinhe Lahore Nahin Dekheya Oh Jamaya Hi Nahin" (If you hav’nt seen Lahore, you hav’nt been born!) and "Shakuntala," an adaptation of Kalidasa by the National Academy of Performing Arts of Karachi. On second thoughts, I will only come back to the first three plays. The Pakistani play was a disaster, in its sound, visual and thought content and is best overlooked.

Common to the entire festival was the cold January winter sky, often turned into a part of the stage design, but equally a part of the informal happenings circling the different theatres around Mandi House.  As hundreds of theatre enthusiasts milled around different venues, made a bee-line for ticket counters and created drama in places like the crowded food court set up, quite imaginatively, in the campus foreground,  a common scene was the faces, all wrapped up in shawls and mufflers. And the bodies, in long boots and overcoats, braving the unusual cold and the very normal Delhi winter fog.  

It was young Kapila Venu, who has been conducting a month long course on Kudiyattam with father G Venu at the NSD, who alerted me to Tanaka’s presence at the Festival.  Kapila, incidentally, is the only female Kudiyattam dancer-trainee of the legendary Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakiyar.  She is also training with Min Tanaka, considered a father figure of Butoh, the quintessentially Japanese movement style. Butoh is more a philosophy of life, less a style of movement and even less a dance.  It is described as the  Revolt of the Flesh and a Surrealist Way to Move.  It is a part of that core of cruelty, in its aesthetics and value system, that I find in Japanese sensibility. I have noticed it in  areas as far apart as its signature arts of cinema and literature, gardening and cuisine.  No one has the skill and panache, quite like the Japanese, of turning ordinary activities, like the eating of raw fish or suppressing a giant tree such as a banyan into a midget, into the high arts of sushi or Ikebana.

The evening with Min Tanaka was an experience alright.  It was a performance of what one can best describe as an aghorpanthi tantric approach to life and art.  Tanaka’s aged, spindly form, encased in a thin kimono, hardly a covering in any weather, let alone the Delhi chill of 5 degrees above freezing, pursued an hour long solo performance that consisted of walking around the peepul tree, very, very slowly, picking up one bucket at a time from a set of buckets filled with water placed around the quadrangle, and then, one by one, using it to water the tree and all other plants and shrubs arranged around it.Towards the end, our existentialist gardener was soaked through and through and his wet, wrinkled flesh peeped out unabashedly from the thin covering. In a final ritual of yogic indifference, he rubbed his emaciated frame with wet sand and mud, and then crawled to the centre of the performance area, draping himself around a stone sculpture placed  there that looked like Rodin’s ‘Thinker.’

"I was born from the mud and sod," wrote Hijikata, a Butoh expert, explaining the need to rediscover childhood memory, the movements of children, the life in the womb, the dead that live within the living, the pre-history of man, and "non-human" animal or vegetable origins. "He used the metaphor of a meal for dancers served on a plate, on which were placed the dancer's liver, lungs, and heart. The plate was wide and shallow, and the dancer was encouraged to play with the organs and examine them. This is something that children do unconsciously." (Yoko Ashikawa)

Butoh aspires for the wholeness of the human spirit, emerging from a visceral thinking that comes closest to primitive ways. It seeks a complete involvement in the enacted event, to a point that makes the artistic performance akin to a ritual where dream and utopia appear as real. It clearly goes closer to magic rituals than any avante garde modern dance. The eyes remain almost closed and the common white make-up - Tanaka had white cotton stuffed in his nostrils and his mouth - contribute to the objectivity, the "impersonality" that is necessary to make the body a medium for hidden or dark forces. At times, like the yogis of particular sects, shaving of the head is also done.

Butoh uses bent knees, sometimes totally bandy legs. Hijikata tells us about the children of poor peasants in northern Japan.  As with all the poor the world over, they had to be crammed in with each other in baskets on the fields, crying alone till they passed out.   His student, Ashikawa, talks about the moment when, after two years of training, crawling on the floor, she had to stand up and Hijikata made her wear high clogs and forced her to run. In this way, the "bandy legs" appeared. To balance the bandy legs of the Japanese farmer with weight on the outer sides of the feet, itself an act of extreme tension, would open the body to accept the wind, and in that open posture the dancer, the Butoh performer believed, the body could be transformed into any elemental form. "Straight legs are engendered by a world dominated by reason. Arched legs are born of a world which cannot be expressed in words." (Hijikata)

Min Tanaka is quoted as saying: "The more people try to understand Butoh, the less they understand. But that doesn't matter. There are things like the stars, the moon, which you can't reach. Nothing is so beautiful, so marvellous, as the intangible, the incomprehensible."

Lest you think I exaggerate the cruelty part in Japanese aesthetics, consider the practice which is known as tsubushi and which survived until quite recently. A married woman who didn't want any more children would close her thighs almost unconsciously while giving birth. Thus the baby who would have just put his head out into the world would be promptly strangled.  Since every second of Butoh is supposed to be a continuous birth and death, it is also considered symbolic of both the mother and the baby and points to the primeval instincts of man.Tanaka and his school of thinkers believe that Butoh has always existed. The dancer takes form from the environment. The stone and the wind are the teachers, the birds and the birch tree are the dance partners, the grove and the dunghill the dance floor, the autumn leaves and the cows are the audience.

I came home that night doubting my own existence but very sure, as the Butoh master would say, about the existence of the stone.  Forever...and ever...


Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.