Dance as a Metaphor for Life - Reflections on a River!
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

March 31, 2016

A note to the readers …
I had been asked by the editor of Narthaki to write a report about choreographer Astad Deboo’s production ‘Rhythm Divine II: River Runs Deep’ a month ago, but could not get to it for personal reasons. As I sit now to write this, so far away from the event, I am thrilled for this lapse of time because no more do the scene-by-scene details beam their immediate smile. Like the enchantment of youth, beauty, glamour and glories of Life, those details have all waned! What is left however is the soul of the choreography that continues to provoke, permeate and haunt thus transforming what should have been a ‘report’ into a ‘reflection’! Hope both those who have seen the work and those who wish to see it will find it interesting. – Ramaa Bharadvaj

Water has often been used in poetry and literature as a metaphor for Life and its quest for freedom and spiritual revelations. But when dancer Astad Deboo invites water into his choreographic portal, it does more than flow out as a metaphoric stream; it cascades in torrents of imaginative visual imagery transforming his dance itself into a metaphor for Life - and he calls it ‘Rhythm Divine II: River Runs Deep.’

Both the venue (the hallowed Kalakshetra theater) and the occasion (Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival) turn out to be most appropriate for its staging, for they provide the ideal challenge to Astad – to keep this audience consisting largely of Bharatanatyam dancers and Cutcheri-cherishing Chennai viewers engaged through his own contemporary style, which is a unique amalgam of his Kathak, Kathakali and western modern dance trainings. I had travelled from Bangalore to Chennai especially to see his work, and that evening, at the end of the 90-minute cruise along his “River”, one thing becomes apparent. A clear choreographic vision can get the essence of a dance to transcend the style/genre barrier and penetrate the heart and stir the psyche.

Concept ...
The intriguing two-part title (‘Rhythm Divine II: River Runs Deep’) seems to accurately hint at the nature of the work that is about to unfold on stage. Astad draws once again from his long time association with Guru Seityaban Singh and his pung cholom drummers of the Shri Shri Govindji Nat Sankirtan group from Imphal, Manipur. As in the title, he juxtaposes two distinct and divergent sets of concepts, movement patterns and energetic variations, and throughout the work they run parallel with an apparent rhythm – quite like the rhythm of Life itself! Like a train that straddles dual tracks, it carries us the ‘travelers’ through contrasting dance-landscapes:
- one accelerating to a frenzy and the other decelerating almost to a deliberate pause;
- one in vigorously large whirls and the other in minutest shivers;
- one in thunderous excitement and the other in gentle serenity.

The two performance styles – the traditional grandeur of the drummers and Astad’s sheer minimalism - seem to both collide as well as complement, follow each other as well as co-exist, merge as well as diverge. And holding all these extremes together is Astad’s clear conceptual inspiration – the socio-political condition of North-eastern India, which he describes as:
... a heartbreaking amalgam of natural beauty and militant aggression, of lightning moves and glacial response, the turbulence of politics and the calm pace of tradition, flowing one below the other like twin rivers.

It is Astad’s skill in being able to ‘graph’ or write the scene through dance that captures the imagination. There is none of that comfortable familiarity of sitting through a classical dance work, which is supported by a familiar story source, characterizations and a conventional gestural idiom. Instead, the first thing that happens is the stripping of any superficial satisfaction of having fully ‘understood’ the work. Astad does this by slowly pulling the viewer away from the intellectual obsession of wanting to know the meaning of every gesture. The mind however does not leave so easily. It resists, screams silently, wanders, turns itself off, attempts to sneak its way into crevices in search of ‘meaning’ and then finally gives up! And that is when it happens! Layers of interpretations begin to organically unfold within, and we find that we are no longer a passive (even lackadaisical) receiver but have become an involved co-creator.

Astad once said in a TEDx talk, “You (viewers) take back what you would like to take back even though there is an explanation,” and in ‘River Runs Deep,’ the ‘explanation’ is the spine of his story - of political strife and volatility of life. However, this is not a story of despair and gloom, but one of hope about the endurance of beauty and art, a story with a strong biographical touch.

Slide show
Photos: Amit Kumar

Reflections on Highlights...
1.    If ‘Dance’ as a total experience is like a temple, its four pillars are Technique, Music, Costumes and Stage-ambience. Even if one of these pillars is weak, the structure as a whole suffers. Fortunately for ‘River Runs Deep,’ it is supported by four equally strong pillars. Let’s take lighting for example. Viewers are not tormented with the cartoonish “blue-for-aqua, green-for-garden, red-for-fire” saturation-torture technique. Instead, we are treated to plenty of quiet spaces – the space that is treasured in graphic design as white space, in music as silence, in dance as stillness and in lighting as dark zones. Watching the dancers appear and disappear through these zones is as enchanting as viewing comets zoom by in the majestic darkness of Space.

2.    The work opens to a curious mix of the echoing of intermittent chimes and what sounds like distant explosives. With agonizing slowness, the drummers indulge in stretching and expanding each step and movement as if it were taffy. The quotidianity of life thus begins to unfold in a deliberately leisurely pace very much like the blandness of habitual routine. Amidst them Astad in a flowing golden-yellow robe stands like a beam of golden sun, as if in solidarity with the drummers (and with the viewers whose minds by now have begun to rebel demanding immediate gratification). The dancers suddenly recoil as if in fear, crouch towards him and then gravitate away.  It is here that the work seems to take on a biographical flavor - Astad’s entry into the strict and rigid world of Manipuri gurus and artists, and seeking to bring them out, away from their atmosphere of artistic idling and political discord, and towards the embrace of a global arena.

3.    In a striking solo, attired in a silver-blue-black frock, Astad looks like a meandering stream that traces its own journey from a slow trickle to an expanding river. His body, supple yet surging like the surf, and his fingers quivering infinitesimally like ripples, he descends like a brook with a purpose. When the drummers enter next, first crawling on the floor as if desperately struggling to climb a horizontal wall, what comes to mind is a statement by Guru Seityaban Singh that I had read somewhere about why he chose to accept Astad’s persistent invitations for collaboration. In it, he had bemoaned the fate of his Pung drummers as having been reduced to playing in family courtyards for funerals and marriages for meager earnings and having to work as laborers in construction sites at other times. Astad offered them a new growth and crossover challenge, and their art a renewed awareness in international platforms in five countries. In ‘River Runs Deep’ these drummers do not stay down for long. They slowly arise as if floating upwards on undulating waves. Here, I immediately noticed a striking parallel to another story about another man who too, a long time ago, relentlessly persevered to bring down another famous river from heaven to redeem the lost souls of his ancestors – the story of river Ganga and king Bhageerata.    
4.    The most memorable moment in ‘River Runs Deep’ comes in the end when we witness the vortex. Clad in an exquisitely elegant black billowing skirt with a gold fringe and touch of gold embroidery, Astad whirls with his hands and fingers continuing to form gestures in space, extending, contracting, twirling and snaking. The uninterrupted spins lasting for more than ten minutes, seem to inhale the drummers into their energy, like a whirlpool sucking drifting flower petals into its center. Resembling tumbling drops of water that get tossed into the air, the drummers leap and swirl in the air around him and circle him on their knees, sometimes along the current of his spiral and sometimes against it. When he finishes, we are reminded of a tornado’s water-spout that scoops everything from earth and tosses it towards heaven. As the dancers disperse into the wings Astad stops, throws his hands up in the air and calls out “Ning Tambe” (Freedom) and the audience responds with thunderous ovation.

‘River Runs Deep’ could have ended right here, but Astad does a conscientious thing – he sends the drummers back for a spirited finale with their drums and what follows is an athletic display, a call and response with the audience and that final air-toss of the turbans. By giving them that closing limelight, he honors the trust that the gurus have placed in him and the tradition that he had promised to highlight, and the auditorium once again erupts in applause.

I turn and look at my next-seat neighbor – a woman traveler vacationing in India with no particular affinity to any dance style or dancer – and she utters a loud ‘WOW’! I nod in agreement because there was something special about this work and about this choreographer.

The world is full of causes from social to environmental, and picking one of them for a performance theme has become a trendy thing to do, almost to the point of exploitation. A story is fashioned about the chosen cause, music composed, and the whole thing is ‘acted’ by those whose firsthand experience about the cause itself might only go as far as Google or Wikipedia. But in ‘River Runs Deep’, the telling of the painful political strife was done by those engaged in the struggle, and the man who brought them together for this telling was their real life ally. And what we audience got in the process was the privilege to watch dance as a metaphor for real life. WOW indeed!

Technical team credits: Milind Shrivastav – Lighting; Takashi Kako, Keith Jarett & Nik Bartsch – Music; Archana Shah, JADE & Krishna Mehta - Costumes

Ramaa Bharadvaj is a celebrated dancer, author, arts commentator and choreographer who lived and worked in the United States for 32 years. A recipient of multiple honors and awards for her choreographies and performances, she received her dance training from legendary teachers –Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai & Kamala (Bharatanatyam), Vempatti Chinna Sathyam (Kuchipudi) and Dr. T.N.Ramachandran (dance theory). Ramaa returned to India in 2009 and currently lives in Bangalore. She mentors, writes, travels, and speaks on the arts and dance for diverse groups from dance students to business graduates.