Past, Present and Future scenario of Indian performing art forms
- Tapati Chowdurie
Photos courtesy: Sangeet Natak Akademi
August 6, 2018
Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, celebrated the first of its one-of-its-kind six festivals to be held in different corners of India, in the culturally rich holy city of Bhubaneswar from the 10th to the 14th of July at Bhanja Kala Mandap. It was a unique festival in which music, dance, drama, puppetry, folk and tribal arts and allied traditions were brought to Bhubaneswar to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of our performing arts. The very best in all genres of the performing arts and its scholars were invited to be a part of this endeavour. The mornings were devoted to seminars by stalwarts, who were scholars in their respective fields, while evenings were reserved for performance.
The festival started with the music seminar. After inaugurating the festival, Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Shekhar Sen said that it was the first time in the history of India that all the performing arts were presented under one roof. With a formal assent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shreshtha Bharat Sanskriti Samagam will be celebrated in Vadodara in Western India, Guwahati in the North East, Amritsar in the North, Tanjore or Chennai in the south and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. The journey he said had begun from Bhubaneswar.
The seminar was chaired by Ajoy Chakraborty of the Patiala Gharana of music. An outstanding vocalist, who has trained many and runs his institution Srutinandan in Kolkata, he is a firm believer in training the generation next to take up the mantle of their predecessors. The topic for discussion was a lofty one and each of the speakers had problems in conforming to the allotted time of ten minutes to put forth their ideas on the past, present and future of music. He invited vocalist Prabha Atre of the Kirana Gharana. Her institution Swarnamayee Gurukul nurtures talented students, who aspire to take up music as a career. Recipient of all the prestigious sammans, she said that both classical and light classical had their characteristic styles and threw light on dhrupad, dhamar, bandish and their likes. She rued the ill effects of modern technology and said among other things, that classical music must refrain from being static.
A disciple of Pandit D.V. Paluskar, vocalist Sharad Sathe was happy to have been given a platform to share his thoughts on music. He said that Hindustani vocal music has been his vehicle to bliss and peace. He realizes that he is a custodian of a legacy and therefore all his thoughts and perspectives revolve around it. Though he cannot predict the past, his experience is his great teacher. There were seven musical notes in the hoary past and till date the same truth holds good.
Gwalior Gharana vocalist Vidyadhar Vyas is a leading star in the firmament of Hindustani classical music. He has held many important positions and also been the Vice-Chancellor of Bhatkhande Music Institute Deemed University, Lucknow. He spoke about the differences between Dhrupad and Khayal. What he gave was like a learners guide in approaching these two genres - the former is a living art that exists from Vedic times and has always been in Sanskrit and thus it connects with our Sanskriti which is Bharat's strength, while the latter referred to as Khayal is more recent, flexible with a lot of scope for improvisation, in which the bandish though possessing the same text and the same raga, may lend itself to a different kind of rendition. "Music is a vast field", he said, and its history doesn't change, though the interpretation may be different. Parampara, he said, sometimes follows the same trend, while at other times new ones are inducted, according to the times.
Taught initially by her father, Shruti Sadolikar later honed her skills under Gulubhai Jasdanwallah and Azizuddin Khan. She is proficient in Haveli Sangeet and belongs to the Jaipur Atrauli School of Hindustani music. She is presently the Vice-Chancellor of Bhatkhande Music Institute. She mainly spoke about her taalim, which was very illuminating.
Violinist of Carnatic music, Mysore M. Manjunath took us down memory lane and told us how the violin with its bright dynamic music, a western instrument (Spanish to be precise) became a part and parcel of our musical concerts. With the coming of the British, violin also made its way to India. Almost 200 years ago, Baluswamy Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswamy Dikshitar of the Carnatic Trinity, had undergone training in playing western violin. He experimented with playing Indian Carnatic notes on it, which he found was much suited to it due to its tonal quality, because of its glides and oscillations through the notes. These were but the life of Carnatic music. The importance of the violin was further enhanced and established in the field of Carnatic music by Tanjavur Vadivelu in the court of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The potential of the violin led it to take centre stage too. However the playing postures and technique of the instrument in playing Carnatic ragas had to be changed too, to suit the Indian tradition of sitting and playing.
Ramhari Das is a leading singer and composer of Odissi music today. He said that the full potential of Odissi music is yet to be tapped. It is as rich as the Hindustani and Carnatic music. Odissi music is suffering for the lack of study and a revival instinct. Renowned percussionist Yogesh Shamsi, a player of great artistic beauty, both as an accompanist and soloist trained by his father Dinanath Kaikini, spoke about the importance of the guru-sishya parampara and said that young people should stay connected to their main focus of training. Music would be in the right hands if the student gets a good guru and that coupled with dedication away from limelight then the future of music would be in the right hands.
O.S. Thyagarajan who was the last speaker wanted to speak on the origin of Carnatic music, its past, present and future but due to time constraints, he stuck to a few basics only. He spoke of stalwarts like Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri, Narayana Tirtha etc and added that a concert was not an entertainment, but worship for enlightenment. In the beginning of the 19th century, eminent vidwans assembled and started singing at 5 in the evening. In between sunset they prayed, so concerts lasted for 5 hours. Gradually time constraints came in and concerts were shortened. However the basic structure remained the same. People of great intellectual capabilities also came round about the 60s.After that there was a drastic change. Today music is in the hands of young musicians. He is hopeful that the future is bright, because music is divine.
Ajoy Chakraborty rounded off the seminar on music. He spoke in detail about the points made by the speakers. He said that all gurus are great and one should also learn from their students. He said he cannot make a kalakar. One is born with the basic ingredients and then rises to great heights with his training. He emphasized the importance of the Sanskrit language. Sangeet Sadhana is a gift from god and needs to be nurtured carefully. He ended by singing "Dhanya dhanya Maha Prabhu, tumhari kripa se" in his sonorous voice.
Day two was dedicated to a seminar on dance chaired by scholar Dr. Sunil Kothari. The first speaker invited to speak on the past, present and future of his dance form was Guru Jatin Goswami, a distinguished performer and teacher of Sattriya dance. He said that Sattriya dance has a rich repertoire of both classical and folk dances. Natya Shastra, the treatise on music, dance and drama speaks of the existence of a dance form in Pragjyotisha known now as Guwahati. He spoke of the 15th century social reformer and bhakti saint Shankaradeva, who introduced a dance form in Assam. Sattriya dance derives its name from the Sattras that dot Assam. It is a daily offering in the sattras as monasteries are called. It was created by the saint-poet as an accompaniment of Ankiya Naat - Assamese one act plays. Guru Jatin Goswami also spoke of the huge corpus of musical form it has, which is different from Hindustani and Carnatic forms of music. Young vibrant monks perform this form. In 2000, Sattriya dance was rightfully incorporated as one among the classical dance forms of India. He feels the future of Sattriya dance is very bright as presently it has more than a thousand aspirants. He said that people have become more than aware of their potential art form and are working together for its growth. He ended with a song, "Hey Krishna Vasudeva Devaki Nandana Hari kripa taru pada" - I bow down at your feet.
Guru Ratikant Mohapatra, son and disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, spoke with all humility and said that his sole duty was not only to carry forward his father's legacy, but also to add something to it. He spoke of the stages that Odissi dance of Guru Kelucharan's style went through. Odissi dance traversed through many stages from the 70s, to the 80s, and the 90s and 2000 onwards. After Kelubabu had his bypass surgery in 1990, he introduced a scientific method of dancing to his style. Odissi dance has ardha chowka, chowka and mandala. After intense discussions with his cardiac surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty, the senior guru changed his huge chowkas to smaller ones. Along with it came other changes, which were scientific and took into consideration the anatomy of the dancer and devised steps, bends and positions as it would suit the performer. This required a great deal of expertise. Odissi had to remain true to the basics without compromising with the style, and at the same time take care of one's physique.
The third speaker Chhau guru Pt Gopal Prasad Dubey had been trained by many stalwart Chhau gurus and danced in many a prestigious festival. He touched upon the past history of Chhau dance before dwelling in the present scenario, and the future. The most important thing he said was that there was no syllabus which the students needed to follow. Teaching was through Guru-Sishya parampara. It also has a martial art bhaona.
Rajkumar Singhajit Singh comes from a distinguished family of traditional artists. He was trained in Manipuri dance by Guru Amubi Singh among others. He is an outstanding performer and choreographer in Manipuri dance. He is equally adept in Cholom, Jagoi and martial arts for an integrated artistic expression in the dance-drama form. Talking about the 10 minutes time allotted to speakers, he joked "brevity is very important." He spoke of the prevalent Lai Haraoba dance of Manipur being a part of worship since ancient times. And with the coming of Vaishnavism everything changed. Hindu gods found their pride of place. As is well known it is time that decides everything. With change came the great Raslila and the Nat Sankirtan tradition. He said he does not belong to the era when certificates were distributed; rather the system then was just Guru Sishya parampara. A big exposure for Manipuri dance came when Rabindranath Tagore had fallen in love with the dance form and requested for a Manipuri teacher to be sent to Santiniketan for the king of Tripura. The popularity of Manipuri dance spread to the world, when the great painter/dancer Uday Shankar set up an institution in Almora and employed Guru Amubi Singh to teach Manipuri. Overnight Manipuri dance became famous. India of 50s became conscious of the arts. Every city had schools of dance and music. To start with there were only four schools of classical dance forms, presently that has gone up to 8. Without changing their styles they came together working on a theme. Change was in the horizon, so change they had to. The greatest danger to classical dance is the power of electronics, which makes the dancer a mere acrobat. Singhajit Singh concluded saying, "I am not writing an obituary, but only ringing an alarm bell!"
Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran gave a general talk rather than read her paper, for shortage of time. However Sangeet Natak Akademi has in its agenda a publication containing the speakers' papers in it. Geeta Chandran spoke of the times when one dancer did multiple styles, but presently they are more focussed and do one single style. They have realized that one life is not enough to learn just one style. Dancers today, she said, have acquired great skill in their rendition. But very often the soul of the dance gets consumed by mere skill. One very important aspect of dance, she said, is that, one has to live dance and it should be visible in just the dancer's walk or a single shoulder movement, which she feels has been compromised with. The main aim should not be focussed on getting applause in the middle of the dance. Dance is not mere physical manifestation; one has to look to the soul too. Instant gratification is not possible. Dancers nowadays do not generally look for padams and javalis in Bharatanatyam and so these are on the wane. Many of the things are going to be lost along with Margam. Dance has lost its philanthropy, she rued. CSR must be for the arts. For the future of the arts, she said, there has to be an arts cadre, who can administer 'us' - meaning dancers. There is also no proper criticism on dance. There are, she said, only two critics who know anything on the arts. A very sad state of affairs indeed.
The last speaker Sohini Roychowdhury was born into a family of illustrious musicians in Kolkata. Sohini combines a classical conservative form (Bharatanatyam) and modern innovative outlook. Expressional dance being her forte, she gives greater importance to the aesthetics of dance and the clear interpretation of mythology. She said, "When I started working intensively in the West, it seemed that our classical arts were 'demoted' to the category of folk music and dance, akin to a cousin of the colourful and energetic African folk dances. Ballet and Opera were the Brahmins of the performing arts, and ours was a bit of tropical exotica, from the land of Bindis and Bollywood. The West, jaded, and deeply influenced by the "higher arts" of nations traditionally high placed on the world's socio-economic and political ladders, looked at all arts from lesser developed nations, ours included, as being "not so important" or even trivial and low-brow. This phenomenon of India Exotica and India Idiotica can be countered by promoting the depth of the Natya Shastra amongst western audiences.
Natya Shastra is a user's manual to love, life, all the arts and evolution in general. My way was to connect the Natya Shastra with Aristotle's theory of drama, to bring about familiarity that a Westerner could relate to and ignite a curiosity that would lead to an in-depth appreciation of our arts and the kernel of global harmony that it holds. Being an idealist, I dream of a European or American family choosing to send their child to a Bharatanatyam or Kathak class over a Ballet lesson. In my school in Madrid, there was a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, who had urged their parents to bring them to our classes of Bharatanatyam, instead of football and ballet respectively. When I work with marginalised children in Kolkata, making them perform Bharatanatyam to a Mozart tune, a five-year-old hummed it perfectly and asked me if I could replay 'the lovely English song', again. If only a lay Western audience had such a pure and intuitive reaction to our classical arts!
There are primarily two dramatic theories practiced the world over - Aristotelian and Indian. Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra and Aristotle's Poetics should not be seen as Eastern and Western productions alone. We need to understand them within the framework of Indo-European culture and the art of sacred drama or hieropraxis. When the Natya Shastra was composed (200 BCE), Alexander the Great was in India on his war campaigns. His retinue contained Greek artistes performing tragedies for the entertainment of the troops - Herman Reich's theory of Greco-Roman pantomime as a source of Natya and the influence of Plautus and Terence. Aristotle´s famous law of dramatic unity - time, place and action - is very much present in the Natya Shastra, and enacted in Kalidasa's 'Abhijnana Shakuntalam.' Bhasa's 'Swapnavasavdatta' was based on Euripides' play 'Alcestis.' Artistic goal in Greek tragedy is catharsis - which can be compared to Rasa in Natya (Indian theatre). The prologue in Greek tragedy corresponds to the function of "prastavana" in Natya. The Proagon was a preliminary ceremony where the poets appeared before their public with their choruses, and the actors presented the introductions to the plays. In Natya, the prastavana was a part of the text of the drama, usually based on epic literature.
One can compare Rhesus, the prose part of a tragedy, with the prose in Natya. In Natya, Sanskrit and Prakrit have been used. The role of Vidushaka in Natya can be compared with the humorous elements of the satire play. Similarity in structure - choral odes between episodes in Greek tragedy can be compared to the divisions of Avasthas and Sandhy Angas of Natya. Mimesis in Greek tragedy is compared with Anukarana in Natya. Messenger scenes in Greek tragedies is Praveshaka in Natya. In the 1970s French archaeologist Paul Bernard excavated a Greek amphitheatre in Ai Khanoum in Afghanistan that was an important centre of Hellenistic Bactria, originally founded by Alexander the Great as a military colony. This location is in and around the seat of Gandhara - Indo Grecian art - where Indian gods like Shiva had the Hellenistic features of Zeus.
It was through the dramatization of the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana that Indian classic dramatic theatre assumed the shape of Natya - it was the turning point from ritual theatre to dramatic classical theatre. Abhinaya was derived from Mimesis and Anukarana. Both classical Greek and Indian theatre traditions strove for sacred action (hieropraxis) - they both promulgated worship, philosophical understanding and theatrical representation at the same time. They pleased both gods and men and used semiotic gestures, music, dance and dialogue to create a highly ornate theatrical reality. Both promoted certain values among people.
In Greek theatre, they achieved this by acquainting people with the Olympian gods. In Indian theatre, they promoted Vedic values with the idea of making life better. So, in a sense, both were theatres of avatar or incarnation (avataram). Also, neither had puritanical views on art - all arts were instruments for higher ecstatic experiences. Unlike Greek drama, classical Indian theatre used performance as a close encounter with the audience. Indian theatre was secular, whereas Greeks were entirely subsumed by metaphysical and contemporary political concerns.
Another very interesting distinction was language - while Indian theatre was multi-lingual, using Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit dialects, Greek theatre was only in literary Greek and was not known to use prose at all. Greek theatre came to an end roughly in the 2nd century A.D., when with the advent of Christianity, worship of the Olympian gods was abandoned. Post-Renaissance European drama, which is what Western theatre essentially is, was secular in content and realistic in presentation. The primary goal of this European drama was social reformation, culminating in the works of writers with a clearly Leftist leaning, such as Dryden, Ibsen and Shaw. Around the 11th century A.D., with the coming of Islam, classical Indian drama ceased to be urban theatre.
It was banished to the countryside, where the worship of deities was not permitted, and remained there until the arrival of the British, who brought back theatre to the cities. But their tradition was Victorian in spirit and in technique. This, coupled with the national struggle for independence, gave birth to a socio-political theatre tradition, with very little concern for the metaphysical. Rural theatre meanwhile was still following the ancient traditions of performance - music, dance, costume, poetry, myths, incarnation, devotion - and was about the deep questions of life. There is a misplaced notion amongst many that tragedy is a play with an unhappy ending. Greek plays were typically written as trilogies and only the first of these plays ended unhappily, in death or decline. The second and the third parts often progressed towards reconciliation. Rasa and catharsis are not contradictory. A certain kind of purification is necessary for rasa to emerge. The Mahabharata can also be related to tragedy in some ways.
In conclusion, Sage Bharata brings out a deep spirituality in every nuance of Natya that is an intrinsic element of the Indian classical arts, whereas Aristotle's Poetics are more deeply entrenched in philosophy. And art lives, palpitates with humanism beyond frontiers, in the harmony of souls."
Tapati Chowdurie trained under Guru Gopinath in Madras and was briefly with International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi. Presently, she is a freelance writer on the performing arts.