Effortless engagement with eternity
- Sujatha Maringati
e-mail: sujathamaringanti@gmail.com

June 24, 2015

Paiyada pai meede jeri........Pavvalinche naa saami…
Aruna Sairam's soulful rendition of the meditative and hypnotic padam is flowing mellifluously stoking my emotions in the soft-lit dance studio. The divine music is taking the youngsters in the room into a trance-like state. I watch them from an unobtrusive corner of the studio, for fear of disturbing their peaceful engagement. The dance instructor, a young computer engineer/dancer/choreographer is coaxing, cajoling and appears to be completely absorbed in “owning” the space around him with loving care while he is stretched out in full splits. I watch the students follow suit, with varied levels of control over their bodies, but the striking feature that is common among everyone in that room is the intense focus with which their bodies and minds worked. It is their effortless engagement with the eternity that caught my attention. It is this mental state that is the subject of many an article carried by both popular media and scientific studies. How did this soft-spoken Hyderabadi basthi kid, as he would love to introduce himself, all of 23 years, manage to unlock the potential in these youngsters to find their voice, their expression and their reality, particularly in the current scenario where most young adults of his age are preoccupied with their facebook status or the upgradation of their gadgets. The workshop is Tool Box of Contemporary Dance and the instructor is Shreenath Muthyala who returned to Hyderabad on a short vacation from New York. This energetic youngster is juggling, among other things, a Masters in computers, interning at Peridance Capezio Theater, Isadora Duncan Dance Company and working/studying with Anabella Lenzu. The workshop took place a few months ago but the experience of watching him at work lingered and moved certain chords within me and pushed me to highlight some seminal points about the core of performing arts in general within the framework of dance.

This techie-artist, as a three year old, gyrated gleefully to music magician A.R. Rahman’s carefree tune of “mustafaa mustafaa, don’t worry mustafaa…” His gradual progression into a zen master who weaves his magic spell on the youngsters and carefully elicits the “performers” out of them is a beautiful curve in learning and is filled with extreme dedication and intense hard work.  The students of this workshop, the youngest being a nine year old, find themselves in a zone that only seasoned and mature artists can attain and perceive. The three day workshop covered both theoretical and practical aspects of Contemporary dance, its origin and roots in Ballet, technique and sensible ways of warming up (both physical and mental) and finally touched upon the ultimate purpose of dance in the most elegant way. This last element is going to be the focal point of this review along with the mental state of the dancer and the concept of “flow” or “zone” within the context of dance culture, classical or contemporary.

As a concept, “flow” or “zone” or Mushin as the Japanese martial artists call it, existed as a key element in spiritual practices for several thousands of years in various religions of the East.  In the contemporary world, the same concept was approached with scientific rigour by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term “Flow” to describe an intense psychological absorption in a chosen activity. Flow is a beautiful concept that spans the space of sports, science, art and spirituality. I tread very carefully when I deal with the term “spirituality,” which is perhaps the most overused, abused and commercialized word world over, particularly within our contemporary culture. I would rather work with the basic premise that all of us, old and young and even infants come wired to be spiritual in the simplest form of its meaning. It is an everyday experience to see babies calming down to a simple tune of lullaby or even simpler rocking movement of the mother. A state of mind where the mundane problems, cares and worries go into an ‘off mode’ for a temporary period of time, where the mind and the body simultaneously indulge in an activity. It is the complete immersion, psychological absorption, and attaining a state of ecstasy in the process of the activity. This experience of ecstasy is described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as achieving an “alternative reality” wherein the mind suspends the existence of the body temporarily and completely immerses in a creative activity.

As a scientist, lawyer, teacher and a practicing Bharatanatyam dancer, I have come across various styles of teaching in India and the United States. Teaching in any discipline requires a certain amount of fragmented approach, mainly for keeping the task simple.  Therefore, often bite size approach is practiced in sciences and other disciplines.  The factual learning is gradual and it builds upon the pieces of information to get a big picture eventually. In arts, particularly performing arts, this approach, while it is acceptable and is practiced widely, needs to be modulated such that the core connection is always ON and the role of the teacher is to facilitate that. It is in this very connection that I would like to bring around the above topic of “flow.” What is impressive about Shreenath’s workshop is his ability to make that connection come alive, even if for a short period of time, tuning and training the students to step into an “alternative reality”. Every single day of the workshop, as the students walk into the dance studio, he takes them with him into a realm of dance and performance where he gives significant importance to warming up of bodies and minds by stretching, yoga and meditation, teaches them a few techniques and as a grand finale, he gently pushes them off to peak into their alternative reality to “perform” for a few minutes with a tiny plot or theme. Also, he is a master at picking the right kind of music to make sure that the entire experience remains out-of-the world and nourishes the souls of the students in preparation for their experience. The students walk out each day with a wholesome experience and a positive feeling filled with confidence in their abilities and skills, which in turn, pushes them to strive for excellence in their craft.  What a therapeutic, productive and positive approach to teaching!  He is an upcoming and extremely creative artist/choreographer and a budding philosopher with the right kind of attitude and dedication. There are some very interesting productions in his basket which are going to reveal themselves shortly and no doubt his growth as an artist is sure to be a success.

It is undeniable that there is a process, a graph, if you will, involved in teaching these artistic aspects, be it in theater or dance, where the ultimate goal is to touch that spirituality or awaken it at a level where the connection comes alive. This requires a certain kind of sensitivity from the teacher where the physical and mental abilities of individual students are taken into consideration and that collective assessment is used to hone their skills to attain the ultimate goal of the art. Just as most of the concepts, artistic or psychological, are not alien to Indian culture and way of living, this sensitivity is definitely not alien to us. The unassuming and marvelous teachers of yesteryears from South India such as Vadyar, Guru Swamimalai  Rajarathnam Pillai and many more teachers firmly believed and worked with the premise that dance sits differently on different people.  They choreographed and worked with the students based on their abilities, rather than trying to fit them into “one size fits all.” They used the stories and the music as the tools and the myth and grand imagery that are handed down through generations from our mythological treasure boxes to create spaces in which the students explored themselves.  They worked by breaking down the pieces with a proper engagement with the final goal. For them, it was a simple task of aligning a student into the right track and enabling the innate need and the ability of that student to connect to the ultimate.  Scores of such teachers worked and weaved the wonderful artistic network all over India, with no regional or language differences, until the recent onslaught of “instant culture.” 

Hyderabad, for example, was raining summer camps until schools started recently.  There were several workshops and sessions on art and culture. In fact, it is not a summer thing anymore. All through the year, several workshops on dance and music are being held in the city with a rather pricy fee structure. Friday reviews in Hyderabad are now able to compete with Chennai in volume and are filled with scores of concerts and workshops. Events like this highlight and serve as chronicles of the cultural milieu of the present time and act as mirrors for our cultural evolution or devolution. Regular classes are dime a dozen with promises ranging anywhere from teaching a classical art form in a matter of few days to few months and some with fixed prices to make the child perform an arangetram ASAP! The kind of dance forms that are on offer range from Indian classical dances such as Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam to Western Classical and Contemporary dances. Overenthusiastic parents whizz around the town with their children after school hours to impart culture to them and some with the hopes of “launching” their wards onto a reality show or two. I watch these parents waiting outside dance classes with Horlicks and juices and to make sure that they are getting their buck’s worth out of these classes. Some of the tech savvy parents of current generation even wonder if they should make their child learn dance through online courses.  

In a recent Literary Festival in Hyderabad, the former director of Kalakshetra, Leela Samson was questioned as to why online coaching could not be taken as a serious avenue for learning dance. Ever so patient, she responded or attempted to respond to it with reasoning. The teachers, on the other hand, have very little time to build a creative space for the students.  Their engagement is mostly with the progression from one technical aspect to the other.  A matter of more concern is that there is a serious dumbing down with respect to the creative abilities of the students. It is baseless to assume that the current generation cannot relate to our mythology or our cultural imagery. Presented in the right context and the contemporary sense, they will not only understand but can connect at a deeper level.  It is our own failure as teachers if we do not recognize this ability of the students.  I watched once in horror when one of the young dance teachers started narrating the epic love of Parvathi for Shiva, by invoking the Bollywood romance between Hrithik Roshan and some other actress!

While it is encouraging that so many people are ready to impart and many more to imbibe culture by teaching/learning dance and musical forms, the quality of this “instant culture” workshops and classes is something that we need to take a serious look at. The output of most of the workshops and classes of this nature, I am afraid, is bodies which mimic their masters with no spirit, and minds with unconnected and dried up core. They are mere puppets dancing/acting on the stage and that definitely is not a sign of a healthy culture. The fragmented approach with no engagement with the ultimate goal of the art will not serve either the teacher or the pupil. On the other hand, a purposeful and mindful approach to dance will not only enlighten and add fire to the soul of the student but also enrich the teachers and place them on a wonderful path where they habitually step into the alternative reality effortlessly creating endless joy for themselves and their audience.

Dr. Sujatha Maringati is a scientist and a lawyer based in Hyderabad. She has a certificate in Bharatanatyam from Bhaktha Ramadas College for Music and Dance in Hyderabad, and is a student of Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant.  She runs a voluntary organization called Art Can Happen Anywhere (ACHA) along with Dr. Srinivas Chilakamarri, a Reader in theater from Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.  They organize sessions on theater and art in general and work with school children to connect with the youngsters.