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CHITRA SUNDARAM


Aug 2002

Chitra Sundaram trained in Bharatanatyam with illustrious teachers of the art in Bombay and Madras: Venugopal Pillai, Kalyanasundaram Pillai, Nana Kasar, Kittappa Pillai and Kalanidhi Narayanan. A captivating and intelligent interpreter of the form, she has performed extensively in the UK, India and Europe and was an early contributor to success of South Asian dance in Britain. Her work has been supported by the Arts Council of England and other London-based official organizations. A choreographer, performer and commentator, Chitra also serves on private and public organisations in advisory and trustee capacities. Her latest production Moham - A Magnificent Obsession is an unconventional work in the idiom of Bharatanatyam inspired by a medieval Shaivite Thevaram poem about a young woman who abandons everything for love.

When Chitra visited Chennai, she spoke to Narthaki Online.
Photo: Satyajit
Photo: Nick Gurney
Photo: Abel Lagos
In December, you will be presenting 'Moham' in Chennai. Are you excited about that?
Very, because it's been a labour of love and we did some different things. It was a sparse poem, a thevaram that really inspired it. I know I have not achieved the abstract or sparse effect I initially wanted to achieve (for a western audience) because the music is too complete, the singers too beautiful and text too imposing. I think it is better suited for an initiated audience in some ways. Shiva usually inspires a spartan ascetic kind of sensation in me, except that this thevaram is about Thyagesha, where he's almost like Sundaramoorthy, fully resplendent.
Photo: Simon Richardson
The technical question was how do you stage the poem without a linear narrative? I like the tension of taking a revered varnam and splitting it asunder to show the fragmentation of a woman as the obsession takes hold. It has to be symbolic in several levels. Fans of the varnam may split me asunder but, in a way, I have been already torn apart and put back together by the experience!

Still, it's a very wonderfully romantic bitter-sweet theme, so I just wanted to share it and bring it to Chennai. It's very odd, because some years ago I wanted to perform in Chennai and went with Nandini Ramani to meet Shri Yagnaraman…but I never did dance here in the 80's. I danced in Chennai last in 1973 I think!

I think I want to do different work now. Probably create work for others to perform. I want to do this performance as an offering so I can move on. My next idea I am thinking on is how to locate it in a context such that it doesn't become issue-based but reveals the issues one has to deal with in the choreographic processes, as a contemporary woman performing.

There are so many complex things happening around me that I have to think them through. This does not mean I have to dance about women's or other issues. But I'd like to frame a context; I will have to resort to theatre I think.
Having worked and performed extensively out of India, what aspect of a dance presentation do you think needs to be given more attention?
Lighting! However, rather than saying it needs more attention, (which it surely does… because good lighting facility is the one thing that venues in India generally find too expensive to provide for…) I'd rather put it thus: lighting is one exciting, though expensive design element that is and can be used differently in staging dance. When presenting (especially solo) Bharatanatyam, whether in India or abroad, we conventionally use light only to clearly illuminate the face and body, and perhaps, very basically, to add colour to the stage and the dancer, or to create silhouettes and “atmosphere”.

However, it is also quite exciting to see the beams of light coming on to the stage, creating patterns on the floor or crisscrossing in the air. Just like, sometimes, when the sun breaks through the clouds, we see the beams: “Godlight”, as a nature photographer (was it Ansel Adams?) once called it! Surely we all remember being excited as children to see this. On stage, it is similarly exciting for the audience to see not just that we are illuminated but what it is that is illuminating us. In Pulse of Tala, the London-based dance-duo, Angika (most likely heirs to Shobana Jeyasingh and whose take-off point is also Bharatanatyam), have created a work around two square columns of light.

There are other instances when the choreography moves dancers around, consciously playing with shifting beams and floor patterns. Light becomes another performer. As a critic wrote of Russell Maliphant, “a solo became a duet with lighting”. Granted, for light beams to be seen, the face cannot be lit brightly and that is a shift in the aesthetic which is unusual for Bharatanatyam—we want to, or believe we have to, see the face fully, even in nrtta sections.

But doesn't the face have to be seen for the dance to be understood?
Yes, in abhinaya that is conventionally, mukhaja-driven. But, interestingly, when you can't really see the face, you concentrate a lot more on the body and the body starts to speak. Not that the body did not speak before, but you probably never paid attention. Perhaps because you could see the face clearly, you only watched the face. I think watching the face is perhaps also cultural for us.

You think by seeing more of the face, you understand more. Sometimes, in theatre as in life, the opposite is true. The moment someone wears a mask, you find yourself watching every movement, gesture, posture intently, waiting for a cue, looking for a code. It also means being more aware of the body in choreography. True it is that working with Western lighting designers one gets less than required lighting intensity on the face even for conventional staging. You know, dancers grumble about inadequate lighting…outlining our eyes hugely, for reach!

But let me share this with you. Many years ago in Bombay, I went a bit late for a performance by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Saheb. There was a big crowd and I was way at the back of the hall. Yet, I could see every glint of the smile in his eye. Years later, in London, I asked Pandit Ravi Shankarji how that was possible. “That is called yogadrishti,” he replied with a beatific smile. If a performer can captivate your attention, or if you care to pay attention, you can enjoy it in the minutest detail….but I think that was a unique phenomenon and I'd still rather be in the front where I can see the sweat on the brow. And yet, in dance where lighting design is a prominent spatial feature, it is all better seen from a little distance away!

So, how do we create different spaces on the stage?
In the conventional arrangement, the side-seating or rostra-seating for musicians creates a separate space for them, demarcating the physical space available for the dancer(s). Beyond this, lighting is a very flexible, non-physical way of demarcating, coding and shaping of the physical dancing space from one dance to the next and even within the same piece. Even more acutely than our responses to cultural and 'universal' codes embodied by colour, we respond as spatial beings, territorial beings; we quickly recognise that the space inside a spotlight is different from the space outside it, just as children know the space on the bed is safe and different from the dangerous space under it!

Even for an actor or dancer already performing on stage, when he or she steps into that beam of light there's a further transformation, something happens, as if outside the beam is 'normal' space and inside the beam… they start performing within the spotlight. I wonder if it is a comment on the fact that the moment we are in the spotlight, we start performing, otherwise we sport slightly different persona. Even a conventional padam, performed in a spotlight, makes for a different tension for both dancer and audience.

What according to you is a captivating performance? How do you reach out to the audience?
Let me answer this in an inter-cultural context because it is more than the pat answer of if-you-are-good-you-will-reach. “Reaching out” to the audience has become an issue or a challenge because performances are increasingly “inter-cultural”; audiences are not and cannot be made up of sahridaya-s or soul-mates of the kind that the early texts prescribed! Not just because they are from a country or culture different from the artist's heritage; it is also because there are several cultures contemporaneously co-existing in the same place and because artists have begun to express individual viewpoints and, for various reasons, they are charged with attracting non-traditional audiences or taking their art to unconventional spaces.

In the traditional and classical aesthetic, we work with archetypes; we go from the universal to the individual. The individual artist says, “What I'm experiencing is a universal feeling…same as every one of you is experiencing it”. Therefore, even though each artist's expression is somewhat different, the expression is in a shared, recognized grammar and the aesthetic path and goal are familiar. There are allusions, references to particular stories and myths, we can talk of symbols and people generally feel that they know what it is about. They also enjoy the art in a participatory way because they can fill in so much from their own experience or knowledge. It is something familiar, something good.

When we come to the modern/contemporary/post-modern aesthetic, it is about little stories, “my individual experience” and “this is my particular way of seeing it”. After much personal experience of giving and receiving performance, I believe most artists create work to reach someone else besides themselves… especially if it is to be subversive! In some immediate sense then, even the post-post-modern artist has to reach something shared, something “universal”, no matter how small that particular universe is….thus you have “cult” performers… or you get self-indulgent work that speaks to no one! It is also not enough to reach this 'universal' only through the intellect in the highest sense, for in the essence it is all the same and everyone “understands”: but art is not about essence, art is about form and expression and expression is individual and about sensory perception first.

Can you elaborate on that?
Take love for example. Why has so much poetry been written about love? Each one thinks he or she has experienced it differently and the poetry comes out refracted by that individual experience. Differences are important. Art is about difference, not about sameness. Sometimes the weight of individual experience and force of individual expression breaks the form! But if you don't know the rules, how do you tell they've been broken?! The traditional mode of classical dance fails to engage audiences that ask of artists “what is your take on this?” Should we engage audiences of aesthetically opposed purposes? This is the real intercultural challenge, working with and keeping the difference.
On the same note but on a different scale… our familiar similarities mask more important and more significant differences. If this notion of everyone getting along with everyone and everything is good, after all we are all the same, means we are going to lose sight of the most important thing… I prefer to have cultural differences. I want someone to say, “Yes, I'm culturally different from you”, then I'll make the effort to understand. If I say you and I are the same, actually I think I'm being disrespectful and I'm losing an opportunity to learn.

Talking of cultural differences, Indian dancers in the US object to being referred to as NRI dancers. What about the Indian dancers in the UK? Are they also referred to as NRI dancers?
No. I haven't heard any discussion of the term in Britain. Nor is someone “from India” extra special any more really just because they have arrived from India; it is because they are good or well-known or well-promoted that they draw an audience. Anyway, who calls whom NRI dancers?!

We are told it is people connected with Indian dance in India. India based dancers are called Indian dancers, but….
…but when we come from abroad to perform here, we are all NRI dancers? I get it! Well, is it is the prerogative of artists who practice their art in India to call dancers who come from abroad what they will… to distinguish themselves as the authentic, organic variety! But the term “NRI” is probably a very demeaning way of making the distinction. Guess it can't be helped. I think there are factors besides being geographically “non-resident” that makes for the pejorative, money being the most important of them! There is this notion that people who live abroad have a lot of money, which is not really the case. Don't know about the other countries but I am not sure you generally see Indian dancers from the UK throwing money around to get performances!

Wherever you live, you have the usual expenses to contend with on the same scale! If you think of how much studio spaces cost, the expenses involved in doing a performance, both in the US and UK, the money, if anyone gets it, goes towards paying everyone else and the dancers get paid the least out of all the production costs. Some dancers teach to subsidise their performance work.

We read about South Asian dance enjoying a good reputation in the UK.
Yes, it does. However, I am beginning to have problems with the classical dances of India being called South Asian dance. The countries of South Asia have really no other performance dance than what spread from India, except Kandyan, which never took off in Britain as the one artist capable of rooting it left. We do use the term “South Asian Dance” a lot in Britain to cover all from Bhangra to Bharatanatayam to Bollywood! But what joy when the South Bank's PR for Akram Khan's Kaash referred to the “classical Indian dance, Kathak”; similarly for a summer event by Sonia Sabri.

The ordinary wo/man on the street knows “Indian dance”; I think the term, South Asian dance is academically convenient and cultural policy czars in Britain have adopted it as a more inclusive term. I guess as a group term it is fine but I'd like to revert to the “Indian” label when talking of individual forms/styles… not from any patriotic sense but for reasons of specificity in a far too generalised, globalised world.

Why should Bharatanatyam be called anything other than Indian dance especially when it is not politically onerous to do so? I haven't asked Nahid (Siddiqui) if calling Kathak “Indian” would make it difficult for her. The reasoning is that it has been transplanted and has taken root in other countries of South Asia… but so has it taken root in Britain, South Africa, the US and other countries of the world. Why not call it a global classical dance?! I'm also at fault because I have referred to it as South Asian dance when I did the brochure for the British premiere of Moham. At that time, I was not thinking straight! London-based Kathakali and Bharatanatyam teacher/performer Unnikrishnan has consistently opposed the term: South Asian dance, SAD, is sad dance he quips!

What sort of encouragement and support do artists receive there?
The biggest private supporters of dance are the Indian and Srilankan communities. But such performances are not included in the track record considered for funding. Logan Hall in central London it is not considered a mainstream venue because a professional group does not run it. Yet, performances organised there by Pushkala Gopal and Unnikrishnan or other Indian/Srilankan group can gather a 2000-strong audience. While there are large professional venues in London like Sadler's Wells and Royal Festival Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall, most 'professional' venues expect to get only 50, 60 or 100, 200 people. They are small venues. But if you don't do that, they don't consider you mainstream. It's a bit whacky but that's what it is.

When I danced at Purcell room, I was invited by the South Bank Centre to perform. You can also privately book the hall. It's like booking Narada Gana Sabha or performing for Narada Gana Sabha. Now, I performed to a packed hall both the days, but it is still considered only 2 performances. Whereas sometimes, you go on a tour and do maybe 6 venues and you may have 50 in the audience in each show… which counts for more as several venue managers have selected you to perform for their audience, no matter how small. That's a critical difference.

In terms of finance, it can be seasonal depending on competition for funds. India is really hot now. Nina Rajarani and Pali Chandra are doing a Bharatanatyam / Kathak major tour with sizeable Arts Council funding. For that kind of money, you'd say you could do a world tour from India. But such are professional production costs there.

But there's more to support and encouragement than just money. Information is a big thing. There are several organisations that channel opportunities to a roster of performers or artists as appropriate, such as Akademi in London. Interestingly, the largest number of “jobs' that have come up recently is for Bollywood dance! They also raise funds and commission work, organise sharings after a research and development period etc. But the one thing that there isn't money available for is non-project related studio time to practice regularly or for performers to take professional classes even with one another….

Is it feasible to take up dance as a profession in the UK?
Yes, and many do take up dance as a profession, as dance-administrators, dance-teachers, dance-writers, dance-animateurs etc. Because you can train for it at University level. But if it is 'dancing' as a profession, you mean, you can make a living of performing if 'going professional' includes teaching traditional classes within the Indian/Srilankan community or getting associated with an organisation like the Bhavan; as independent artists you have to love performing to death to face the struggle otherwise…. unless you have a working partner subsidising it! The ones who are established, individuals and companies have been at it for a very long and hard time.

In Britain, there is a divide between what is called community and mainstream/professional; in other words, there is the private-funded sector, equivalent of our Sabhas and such organisations, and, the public-funded sector, equivalent of, well is there an equivalent really? Within public funds, there are Lottery Funds, which are channelled directly to arts and other quality-of-life projects that can benefit the community. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for example, has recently received substantial amounts for capital expenditure project. If the Bhavan Centre were to be recognised as a “professional” venue that would be a good thing for classical Indian dance and music performance.

How easy or difficult was it for you to get into the dance circuit?
I've been in the UK three years now and yes, I am in the “dance circuit” so to speak but I also do other dance-related things besides perform such as teaching a module at Goldsmith College last year or writing or speaking engagements. When I returned to the UK after 16 years, I was recruited by the unstoppable dynamic Director of Akademi, the leading South Asian Dance organisation in Britain even before I had decided what I wanted to do with dance. I had been very much a part of the Indian classical dance scene in Britain way back in the early eighties and thankfully memories have been long and in my favour! A lot of people I knew and who remembered me were still around. In fact, some were a little upset with me that I had left when I did. But a fresh, Britain-based track record is still required to really start getting meaningful subsidy and performance opportunity. In fact for anyone good and starting out, the existence and influence of organisations like Sampad and Akademi can be very useful.

In your long journey, your dance has also evolved. How has your thinking changed?
After the first 3 years in UK, I went to all kinds of places from Taiwan at one end to the US at the other. It's been a long journey.

My thinking certainly has evolved, thankfully! Has my dance changed? In the 70's the Hindu's dance critic wrote that my dancing had “just that gentle touch of personality that kept the traditional aura flourishing”; in the 80's, the Bombay-based dance critic SG Vasudev wrote there was something 'foreign' in the way I threw up my hands! Now everyone does it! In the early '90's I didn't dance much at all. While the perfection and energy of Bharatanatyam excite me, I cannot watch mediocre dancing anymore and the work of artists who have not been thinking and challenging themselves bores me. I have had time to look at the art through different eyes… I have become more interested in the nature of performance and theatre, I see Bharatanatyam as performance art, I see the need to keep to formalistic limits, to explore consciously, technically, not just organically as is the fashion, I am interested in what it contains, says, its motivations and how it is framed. I have little patience for generalisations in art or philosophy or platitudes (e.g. “I can say anything through the gestural language of Bharatanatyam”) that don't materialize on stage without the aid of other media. I prefer to recognise limitations.

At a point I asked myself are you a dancer if you cannot do but only one kind of dance? Yes, I am… if dance is really a language and language embodies culture, our bodies will be accented by studying that particular language and the articulation of the language will be accented by the body, accented by the kind of lifestyle we live, by our thoughts. I'm sure when you talk to me, you can definitely say, “You don't live in India anymore”. My body language will be different, the way I use my head will probably be different. No matter what, certain things will show that there have been other influences. Just like voice inflections, the body gets physical inflections.

You have broken out of your basic Bharatanatyam training. So, what do you call it?
No, I have not broken out the form of Bharatanatyam in the work I will be presenting this December in Madras although I have broken some taboos and several technical rules so the structure reflects the content. So there is no need to invent a name for it. I did crossover work nearly two decades ago with Union Dance Company. I had severe problems breaking out of adavu-s as I didn't understand my own motivation and physical impulse for movement. Shobana Jeyasingh used to think and work like this even in those days 16 or 17 years ago, it's just come to fruition. While Shobana and Akram have put South Asian work on the dance map of Britain as it were, the fallout of their success is that many among the contemporary, young dance crowd think that their work is respectively Bharatanatyam and Kathak.

Neither of them claims to represent the classical styles. Yet, the reference in their PR material to these starting points is nevertheless picked up by writers who redefine the established styles as 'traditional' and the other work as contemporary. To clarify the situation there is a discourse that has been engaged by the likes of Mavin Khoo (who does crossover work with classical/contemporary ballet), Vena Ramphal, Sankalpam, Magdalen Gorringe, who also writes a lot, myself and others as about the classical and contemporary aesthetic as different from the traditional.

Otherwise you have the problem of familiarity: in Britain, people are so familiar now that they just see one movement and say, “Yes, I know Bharatanatyam. That's what Shobana's company or Angika does!” What do you do? Yes, but Bharatanatyam is not what Angika performs. The problem is they have reinvented Bharatanatyam but we have no name for it yet. This is an issue. At least Shobana has made it known she would rather be called as a contemporary British choreographer than a South Asian one; and she is.

When “Sruti” Pattabhiraman wrote about defining what Bharatanatyam is, I completely agreed with him and I was very disappointed in myself for not writing and saying, “Yes, I agree with you. Let's do something about it”. Although there is politics with regard to a definition of a form, I think it is very important to know that a form is a form because it has limits. And when you start changing it, you give it a different name; perhaps BN-based contemporary dance/work?

More than the audiences, if the dance establishments consider the deconstructed contemporary idiom the standard for Bharatanatyam or Kathak, it becomes a little bit of an issue because the classical and traditional aesthetics are different.

People are afraid they won't have a market if they call their form contemporary. Maybe, that's why they do not let go of the tag of classical dance.
I think you may have hit a point there. I don't know if it's just the artists calling it so, or their western advisors suggesting that they stick to the classical label, so they don't lose their audience, since people have seen that form and that will take them gradually along the evolution path.

You spoke about community work. What exactly do you mean by it?
Outreach is another word for it. Britain is huge in terms of art and education. Art is part of the school curriculum. So, they have dance and music as part of their 10th syllabus, you can even write your board exams in dance.

Britain is a small country but has a parade of citizens from all its erstwhile colonies. In recent years, art has been used to acknowledge different histories and cultures but in a way as to create a modern British history for all to share. Not just minority arts companies but all dance, theatre and other arts companies that receive public funding of any kind are expected to participate in outreach according to their size and capacity to do work in schools, to run workshops and do residencies. So when you say South Asian dance is thriving in Britain, that's where most of the work happens. That's the bread and butter for many, doing these residencies.

I believe every school has to offer arts classes. Almost every dance company has an education officer whose job is create residency and workshop opportunities for the company. If you apply for public funds, you have to specify how many workshops you are going to do and where. Once in a while you find people asking questions about the value or result of all this. The usual answer is how you quantify social effects and benefits. But what is closely tabulated is how many schools and how many children were reached as well as of participation of the community, seniors, refugee groups etc. in workshops and performances. Community organisations and support groups that are also chief targets.

Basically, the question is, if they won't come to see dance in a theatre, how do we take dance, music and theatre to them? Hence these performances in the malls and other places. Bharatanatyam, Kathak and other classical dancers had a little bit of issue about performing in public places. When you take it unaltered, it feels a little out of place to me. But there have been some marvellous site-specific and theatre-based work using community or amateur performers. So that's where a lot of the dance is, unfortunately not enough in theatres!

Are you working on any collaboration for your next project?
Yes. I cannot announce them yet, but there are a couple of things brewing. I am really excited about this project. I'll be working with some people in Wales and in the US; we will create it on a solo basis as well as with many people participating. Music will be very important in it. I've got it in my head already, but I don't know what shape or form it will take. The production should be ready by Fall 2003 or Spring 2004.
(As told to Lalitha Venkat)

Chitra Sundaram will present “Moham - A Magnificent Obsession” at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai, India, on December 18, 2002 at 7pm.

Chitra Sundaram
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