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Classical and contemporary conundrums

February 7, 2018

India has a treasure trove of scintillating myths that have endured for centuries. Laden with layers of meanings and interpretations, these myths have provided continuing sustenance to the intellectual and spiritual ethos of its simple folks as well as discerning individuals. Culled from the epics and puranas, and myriad folklores, they have been a fountainhead of inspiration for all the classical dances of the land. Contemporary dances too, though less frequently, have derived inspiration from these perpetual sources.

It has been a favourite thesis with this critic that in our exhilarating modern times when the role of fate in the human affairs has lost some of its sheen, science and its cohorts have unravelled much of the secrets of life, and technology has made severe inroads into all lifestyle activities - - our dances must try to re-imagine the myths and re-map them in their visualisatiion in the light of modern sensibilities. A good paradigm can be seen in the celluloid world where the simplistic storytelling, the life-size archetypal chacterisation and the narratives leading to easily surmised ends have yielded to far more nuanced treatments of theme and subtle depiction of psyche of the dramatis personae has become the order of the day. Could our dances follow suit?

Ekalavya's is a mythic legend from the Mahabharata that can be seen from this viewpoint. More than a grand metaphor - for an unjustly quashed lower-class aspiration and an unflinching trust even in a proxy guru - - the story can be looked at for the many conundrums it contains. First, it is the riddle of possibilities: how does the tribal boy make the best use of his god-given gift of superior talents in martial skills? Second is the conundrum of challenge: how does he overcome the challenge of rejection by the Kaurava guru Dronacharya, who refuses to take him as his disciple at par with the upper-class princes? Third is the hard question of opportunity: how can Ekalavya serendipitously turn this rejection into a paradigm of self-learning - facing a guru image? Overall, it is the final issue of empowerment (or its negation): how does a fully-groomed youth get thwarted on grounds of birth, by the superior vanity of the ruling clan, by making him sever the all-important right thumb?

Photos: Indranil & Nilargha - Dog Studio

Ekalavya, presented by Rhythmosaic and Open Door in Kolkata on January 16, 2018, made a valiant effort to go out of the way and make their well-trained bevy of sixteen male and female dancers tackle the traditional parable into an inquiry into its metaphorical dimensions. Conceived by Mitul Sengupta and directed by Ronnie Shambik Ghosh, what they did is summarized in their concept note, "Ekalavya is not the re-telling of an age-old story. It is a stark, crystal-clear statement about the philosophy and the ideals symbolized by Ekalavya. The work celebrates his dedication to discipline and perfection through repeated practice and his unvanquished thirst for success. There is an Ekalavya in each one of us, negotiating life's meandering twists and turns, in the face of all odds, through loneliness and otherwise."

In essence, the performance - clad in the bureaucratic shirt-and-tie apparel - used all the trappings of a well-synchronised contemporary choreography where they merely explored life's many challenges: of confrontation, of betrayal, of reconciliation, of defeats, and of the valiant effort in overcoming the obstacles. This critic would view it as a work-in-progress: yet to explore the many other dimensions of the Ekalavya myth, so rich in metaphors.

Credits: Soumen Chakraborty Photography

Ramayana Festival by ASEAN Countries presented by Brunei and Philippines at ICCR on January 26, 2018, was a rich harvesting of the classical legend, as recognition of its contemporaneity, with its many levels of inspiration and symbolism. While the ideas and ideals of the Ramayana are available in some three hundred variations in Asia - according to the scholarly reckoning of A.K. Ramanujan - the core conundrum is seen oscillating between the expansionist prowess of the Aryans from north India to the far south - - touching even the Sri Lankan shores - - and the divinity and piety ascribed to its principal proponents that endured in India over centuries. Re-interpreted ceaselessly by the creative genius and the storyteller, the Ramayana traversed across countries, cultures, languages and art forms, and has served as a potent symbol of integration through assimilation of the basic mythology (often without the aura of the divine) and commingling of folklore in each ASEAN land.

The National Troupe under the Ministry of Culture from the super-rich sheikhdom of Brunei - with its 200-year-old occupation of the Islamic faith - presented more the folkloric manifestations, emphasizing the lifestyle activities of weaving fabrics and catching fish. A charming depiction was the elaborate making of Dastar (headgear) of the male populace, starting from simple cloth pieces, news sheets and glue. Another episode was a rite of passage, Duang Duang (the baby-shower), given to the new-born with ample music and simple body swaying dance.

Credits: Soumen Chakraborty Photography

The Integrated Performing Arts Group from Philippines, on the contrary, encapsulated, in its colorful dance-drama, the latter part of the great epic: beginning from Sita's lamentation in the Ashoka forest, the bewitching dance of scantily clad female demons, amorous advances of Lavan (Ravana) to Sita and Hanumana's tail fire burning Lanka. In a flashback, the scene shifted to Panchavati, with Ravana (not Maricha) donning the role of golden deer, Rama's pursuit, Jatayu's fierce fight with Ravana, Rama's meeting with the monkey brigade and the powerful army of Sugriva and Hanumana aiding Rama to launch his fiery attack on Ravana and Lanka. This alternates with both Sita and Rama singing and dancing, remembering each other in absentia. Ravana is killed by Lakshmana (not Rama), the latter refuses to accept Sita back and a vivid Agni Pariksha ends the story, with a mystically clad Sita ascending to heaven (and not surviving the fire test).

The dances of Sita and Rama were remarkably laced with lasya and their abhinaya hastas were only a shade less elaborate than their Indonesian counterparts. Hanumana's vigorous leaps and monkey gestures are always most engaging all over the Asia-Pacific and his Philippine version was no exception. Yet, there were other variations in the epic story from the mainland Ramayana - except those mentioned above - mainly in Sita's overtures to both Ravana and Rama, and her sporadic efforts in stopping their fights in the middle, while Rama's soulful singing and dancing clearly mark him out as anything but a god. These mutations in the Ramayana narrative in the ASEAN and East Asian countries are worth a detailed study today, situating them in their own cultures.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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