The classical and the contemporary: a comparative analysis
- Shveta Arora
May 14, 2014
At a fusion dance event in Delhi that I attended some time ago, western contemporary dancers danced a segment with an Indian Kathak dancer. The contemporary girls had danced a few segments earlier, impressing the audience with their strength and conceptual robustness. But when the two dance forms were presented together on the same stage, it seemed to me that they had clear areas of strengths and weaknesses. While the Indian classical form relied heavily on grace, form and direct expression, the contemporary style was all about strength, athleticism and agility, presenting abstract concepts.
Classical dances of most kinds are bound in centuries of tradition and ages of evolving style and technique. The Indian classical dances follow a certain code or paradigm and have been handed down from gurus to shishyas through many generations. The dance is usually based on a mythological tale or a love lore. But to suit modern times, contemporary dance evolved probably from a classical form but defied any kind of structure. It does not follow any code, and usually depicts an abstract theme, emotion or idea. Many classical dancers too have experimented with contemporary in order to do something novel. The dance is usually based on some individualistic topic.
With World Dance Day having gone by recently, the focus of this article is to explore the physical and thematic aspects of the two dance forms, through conversations with a few well-known Indian classical dancers from various traditions who have some experience in, or exposure to, contemporary dance. Here, to a set of common questions, are the answers of Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, Odissi dancer Reela Hota and Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran.
Is Indian classical dance adequate for holistic fitness? Are Indian dancers as fit as they need to be?
Aditi Mangaldas: Holistic fitness is something that not one genre of exercise can achieve. It is to do with an entire lifestyle dedication. That means not only an exercise schedule but also lifestyle, diet - everything goes into it. And no, I do not think that Indian classical dancers are as fit as they should be. I think they should be far, far fitter, and we need to really do something about it. Not only in classical – look at sports. One of the main things is that even sportspersons are not as fit as sportspeople from other parts of the world. After all, you’re using your body. So you need to really look after it.
Reela Hota: Yes, Indian classical dance is quite adequate for holistic fitness in its essence, in the way it was meant to be, in the way it was devised in ancient scriptures. But in today’s world, due to lack of time or importance given to this aspect of dance, people are not following the preparatory dance exercises the way they were meant to be, especially in cities like Delhi. When I started with Guru Gangadhar Pradhan – at that time I was very, very young, pre-teen – I still remember how rigorous those exercises used to be. We used to start with stretching exercises – they were all silent exercises, then sound exercises, then we would go through chauka, and then we would go through tribhanga, and then the technique of Odissi. And then only we would do items.
Then I came to Delhi and I joined Vidyadhar, and I have been to other institutions as well – I can safely say that not a single institution goes through the preparatory exercises. They start straight from chauka. I cannot say all – maybe some of the institutions in Orissa don’t – but certainly a lot of the top institutions in Orissa do this preparatory practice. And you can see the effect it has on the flexibility of dancers that come from Orissa vis-à-vis dancers that are trained in Delhi. After I came to Delhi, I trained here for 10 years. Training under Madhavi Mudgal was strenuous in different aspects – she was perfect in presentation, in costume, in makeup, and she taught me perfect rhythm. I’m not undermining her way of training her students – I got some of the best training from her – but particularly in answer to this question, this is what I have to say.
In terms of how it works – in terms of holistic fitness – these preparatory exercises are extremely important for the health of the body. It’s not just for aesthetic purposes only, because it doesn’t matter whether you use some of these positions. They’re called bhandas. If you’ve seen Gotipua dance, the dancers use these extreme flexible movements in their dance. But if the aesthetics of those positions or postures don’t please the modern sensibilities of a dancer or the audience, then you may not use it in a performance itself. But the dancers must be trained in it and they must continue to practice it because it has direct repercussion on the health and the body of a dancer.
Indian classical dancers are quite fit, but those based in Delhi may not be, the ones based in Orissa or Chennai are extremely fit. In fact, if you go to this particular organisation in Chennai, all the dancers are so fit. They have very flexible postures which are no less than ballet. I cannot say that Indian classical dancers are not fit, that would be incorrect.
Geeta Chandran: The traditional way – the way it was taught by my teachers – things have changed from what was. That used to be very slow jatis, very reposeful, over three hours, very relaxed, much more of abhinaya and less of pure dance, and pure dance not so hectic, at breakneck speed. There was no frantic activity in the dance – it was more of an aesthetic, slow experience. The whole thing has changed – there’s a lot more activity in the dance now, a lot more running around. The stage used to be a small space because this dance was performed in the small courtyards of temples. We have moved now to very large spaces, so people feel they need to cover the space, run around, need to have much more movement, and so the distribution of energies has become very different. And those people never performed so often. Nowadays, you see dancers performing once or twice a week or even more. Earlier, it used to be spaced out. So the fitness levels required were different, and the emphasis was more on the musicality, the lyricism, the grace, the expression part, and from that we have shifted to physical fitness, how the dancer looks, what should be the zero size of the dancer and how she should be able to sustain a jati that could be 10 minutes long, whatever the jati might be doesn’t matter.
Things have changed so much because the fitness levels and what is required from the body is different from what it was. Because of that, we have to be much more aware of our bodies – what we do in our 20s is reflected in the 30s, and what we do in our 30s in our 40s, what your discipline is, what your lifestyle is. That needs to be really taken into account – what you eat, how to proceed, and what warm-up exercises you do before your class, after your class how you cool down – this is what we have researched in our time. Our teachers of course never taught us warm-up, they were from the tradition, there was no such thing – we’d just go to the class and start dancing. But since I started teaching, I’ve had a 20-minute warm-up and at least a 10-minute cool-down after the class. We built that into the teaching process, and of course that involves some amount of yoga, some amount of stretches, some specific exercises that we have to do for Bharatanatyam which has its own technical postures and its own wear and tear, which is a particular kind in our style. I guess it’s a very personal take and understanding because there’s nothing standardized – each dancer has his or her own way of approaching it.
Do you think the classical dancers miss out on strength and balance that western contemporary dancers have due to their focus on athleticism?
Aditi Mangaldas: Well, I think that athleticism is not the only criteria of Indian classical dance, but dynamism is certainly inherent in all our classical traditions. Physicality is a part of it. There is also a sense of spirituality, emotional content, a sense of literary content - everything together has to have a proper balance. And I definitely feel that if the body is not tuned, what you would like to explore through that tangible body, even an intangible thing like spirituality… We have to express it through the tangible body, and (for that) the tangible body has to be fit, absolutely. Take any dance form – whether western, eastern, Indian - if the dancers are not physically fit and do not do yoga, practice no breathing techniques, then they are missing out on something at some level, definitely.
Reela Hota: Yes, definitely, in fitness, balance, stamina – if the preparatory exercises are not done. See, the body has to be prepared – if preparation is not sound or not complete, there are direct consequences on the dancer in all these three aspects.
Geeta Chandran: No, I don’t think so. We have lots of postures that require balancing, the requirements are different, the genres are different... it’s like comparing French and Chinese. We don’t have floor movements to the extent they have – rolls and skips etc – so it’s a whole different approach. We have a sense of balance which is totally grounded and which is towards gravity. They have a sense of balance against gravity and they tend to move up. I think the two are very different, you can’t really compare like that.
Does the Indian tradition contain a solution in any form?
Aditi Mangaldas: There are lots of things… in Kathak, I can say there are. When you are presenting Kathak, there are a series of warm-ups. When you say vandana, it is an attempt to still the mind. Then there is the ‘pair ki uthan’, which is to bring a sense of rhythm into your musicians, yourself and the audience. That’s a kind of weaving into the same universal rhythm. Then comes thaat, which is stilling the body. Then after thaat, you do uthan, which is like revving the body. Then you do aamad. Aamad is inviting the dance to enter the body. So there were already these steps. These days, the presentation of dance is not necessarily like this. And therefore, warm-up is a very essential part. If you don’t get it on stage, you have to do it off-stage. Then also, we have our own traditions of martial arts, of yoga. Why is it that certain martial artists are so fit? I think it’s something we need to seriously look at.
Reela Hota: No, because that is up to you – you can practice it, but you don’t need to practice it to be a good classical dancer because classical dance itself has all of it. In the preparatory exercises, if you follow the traditional practice, it has everything – all flexibility and strength-giving, everything. You need not go to another system to get its benefits; it’s there within your own system itself.
Geeta Chandran: We have our in-built tradition of our teaching methodologies which gives that sense of balance. We have adavus, structures, the whole teaching method which strengthens every part of the body specifically. I think it’s all in-built in the teaching techniques.
What are the relative physical strengths and weaknesses of Indian and western dancers which are directly attributable to their dance forms?
Aditi: I can’t comment on western dancers because I don’t know them, West or East. But I can comment on our own dancers. I think when you are doing a particular kind of style – and I also believed this 15-20 years ago, that I’m dancing so much, I don’t need to really… we don’t take care of our diet at all. We are training physically, in a way, like athletes. And therefore, high protein content is very important in our diet. And also, we dance on hard floors, so it is very necessary to have a sprung floor. Because originally, a) the dance is not this dynamic, b) the older forms of doing this are already on that little lepela kind of grounds, like mud. And even in the temples etc, it must have been stone floors. Also, one has added a whole lot of stimulus to the dance. See the way it has changed. Plus, there has to be some gym training, because weight training really strengthens the bones. It gives you a centre, the breathing, and it extends your muscle. So this is an absolute must, I feel.
Reela: I have not studied western contemporary form that much, but I’m a bit against anything which is very contemporary. I don’t believe in contemporary art. I believe very much in classical and traditional and ancient arts because they were made out of natural sounds and are natural – they were devised to flow with nature, with subtle sounds and vibrations, by people who were high on intuition; they were realized souls and they awakened whatever you can call it. They were devised by institutions. But an ordinary person with ordinary emotions – suppose you create contemporary art which shows a lot of violence or angst, it’s very realistic but reinforces the negative in the people seeing it. So I am against anything that is contemporary anyway.
Geeta: No, I don’t think you can compare, it’s so culturally different – the people who are dancing it are different, the ethos is different, training methodologies are different. Both are different forms of expression. You can’t really say that one is stronger than the other or weaker – you can’t really compare.
What is integral to dance – its expressive nature or physical strength?
Aditi: I think every performance has to be a proper balance. Balance is something that one needs to strive for, not one or two things.
Reela: That’s a one-sided aspect - abhinaya or expression is just one aspect. If you’re not doing the physical art, it’s incomplete. You have to do both. Without one or the other, you’re giving an incomplete presentation. It has an incomplete effect on your body and mind also. I’m not a scholar or researcher on western dance, but I have been exposed to western dance, even ballet. Although it is not an ancient art form, I must say, it has a lot of depth. I don’t know what kind of effect balancing on your toes has on the body, but they’re flexible, expressive, the music affects the mind in a very positive way. I find a lot of depth in the western ballet form. It depends on the institution or guru or teacher - how true they are to the form, whether they’re following all the preparatory exercises, pushing their students, whether they’re that dedicated.
They don’t have the kind of abhinaya that we do. In the Greek plays, there are lots of things about gods and goddesses. I don’t know if classical ballet uses classical stories, not divine stories, normal stories. They do have expression, they tell stories, but they don’t tell stories of the divine. It’s the lower emotions they are appealing to. We also tell stories, but we tell stories of the love between gods and goddesses. We are focusing on the divine. Theirs is also rich; ours is saatvik, theirs is more rajasik. Ours are about gods and goddesses, and theirs are about people. They’re rich but different.
Geeta: It’s a delicate balance – we try and keep the balance and give equal importance to both abhinaya and pure dance. In a piece like a varnam, the balance is already there in the tradition, and it needs to be brought out beautifully, or the varnam is not up to the mark. It’s a test for any dancer, where both aspects come into play, and it’s a beautiful format where you really judge her for how she’s trained; both elements have to be balanced very carefully. While teaching, abhinaya is more difficult to teach – pure dance is more mechanical in terms of a definite count, laya, and you just keep at it. Abhinaya comes out of experience, out of what you have learnt, it’s a longer process.
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