From ridiculous to sublime 
by Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
February 15, 2004   

The Attakalari Bangalore Biennial 2004 from Feb 10th to 17th celebrates the coming of age of contemporary dance in India. Spaced out during the evening, a series of performances take place at Alliance Francaise, ADA Rangamandira and St. Johns Auditorium. 

On 12th Feb, the 3rd day of the festival, Ein Lall and Anusha Lall presented their installation performance at Alliance Francaise at 6pm. The evening continued at ADA Rangamandira at 8pm. N Abhilash and KS Deepak presented an 8-minute duet titled ‘No way out,’ followed by ‘Sheer Fall,’ a solo item choreographed and performed by Navtej Singh Johar. Like the different types of music were strung together, Navtej blended contemporary movements with occasional Bharatanatyam mudras and movements, ending with an abhinaya piece of the entire body. He termed it, “expression of abhinaya with a contemporary resonance to it.’ 

There was a post performance audience-artistes interface where the artistes spoke about their work process. 

Ein Lall said her presentation had a political twinge to it, as the idea portrayed is rage against the American presence in Iraq. That’s why she titled it, Scherezade in the White House; the dancer is a modern day Scherezade. Though the dance was made for the film, it needed to be integrated more with the film, something that Ein said she would do in the next 2 months. During the development of the choreographic process, dancer Anusha Lall did not think of any particular form to start with. “I am trying to negate the idea of a specific form right now. It’s just the sum total of the memories of movement in my body.”  

Choreographer N Abhilash started the choreography process by improvising some of the interesting material and made them fit into a coherent piece.  Though the concept is something about people who are dissatisfied with life today, they started enjoying themselves as the work progressed! There were no traces of any classical dance movement, so where did his inspiration come from? He is trained in kalari, karate and yoga, so “since it is ingrained in my body, it creeps into my movements.”  

Though the questions were directed to all the artistes, Navetj created the most waves by his answers. In the Natya Kala Conference 2001 at Chennai where he presented a paper on choreography, he outraged some members of the audience when he said that lying down on stage and screaming was also Bharatanatyam to him.  

Here, his journey in the evolution of his choreography took him through the ridiculous to the sublime! 
What was the starting point? How did you go about developing the piece? 
It’s a very subjective piece. About being a Bharatanatyam dancer, loving the form, yet feeling uncomfortable with it. What I am trying to get across is, about loving something, which has a deep meaning, but yet makes me uncomfortable – like Bharatanatyam, and I am trying to take it from the ridiculous to the sublime. 

For one minute a day I made a series of movements, for over a period of two months. Then I strung the one-minute pieces together into different combinations. 

By ridiculous, do you mean something like self-mockery? 
Self-mockery and making fun was a way to express myself earlier, but now I have divorced myself from it and don’t do it any more. 
So what is ridiculous about Bharatanatyam?  
It’s not the form itself, it is beautiful, but it’s the way it is viewed, the way it is presented, the way it is marketed and projected as a cultural ambassador. I hold the form very dear, but somehow the feel is not right. It’s also the dancers themselves who sometimes make a caricature of the form when they make extra grimaces.  

An audience member felt that if a100 dancers do Bharatanatyam, each dancer’s presentation is different. No two presentations are alike. So, it’s a positive thing to view Bharatanatyam as a ‘cultural ambassador.’ Illustrating with some hand gestures, dance therapist A V Sathya jumped to defend the dance form, “Bharatanatyam is geometric – it has angles, it has grammar, it has science - physics and chemistry. When you say Bharatanatyam is ridiculous, please substantiate by demonstrating why instead of just making the statement.” 

With Navtej not able to express anything extra other than what he had said earlier, Jayachandran had to intervene with, “Artistes have a right to say or express what they feel about any form. It’s up to us to infer what he meant from his performance.” That effectively closed any more debate on that point. 

What about the abhinaya segment at the end? 
One of the things I love most is the abhinaya part. At the same time, abhinaya can be most ridiculous (that word again!). I am trying to claim it in my own way because the sublimity I talk about comes only through abhinaya. It’s extremely visceral to me. I kind of stumbled upon it in this piece. I have used this piece of music in nearly 6 of my works. I put my body through a routine, which is totally unbharatanatyam and release it into the abhinaya piece. I still don’t know the meaning of the piece and I don’t want to know. It’s the musicality that appeals to me. 

What happened to the video projection that was to accompany the dance?  
I have worked out the whole imagery, the color, the tone. It’s all in my mind, to the last detail. But we could not make it because we did not get the money for it. The theme is abstract, I can’t reveal more than that. 

As the mediator put it aptly, “Dissatisfaction seems to be the common theme to have started the creative process for all the artistes of the evening”!  
A fairly good crowd attended the ticketed performance at Rangamandira. Nominally priced at just Rs.50 per person, one can sit anywhere in the auditorium. Including the first row. Very relaxed after the show, Jayachandran Palazhy, the artistic director of Attakalari was ready to answer my questions about the festival. “The festival is proud to present fresh works of emerging artists, expressing the multiple facets of contemporary Indian dance from the position of honesty, not stifled by dogma.“ 

What about sponsorship? Do you have enough for mounting such a huge festival?  
More sponsorship is needed but I am not unduly perturbed by it.  

What about the publicity? Apart from a general preview of the festival on 10th morning, there has been no daily announcement of program in the main papers The Hindu or Times of India. The Bangalore Radio FM only mentions the venues and a phone number to contact for details.  Earlier in the evening, one of the volunteers at the ticket counter opined that despite a big press conference, media response has been poor and maybe they are not very encouraging because this is a contemporary dance festival.  
Jayachandran’s response to the same question, “I am more involved in the artistic aspect of the festival while my colleagues take care of the media. Brochures are available at certain venues and if anyone were really interested to attend the shows, they would find the information anyway. I expect most of the press coverage after the festival is over.”  

Are you happy with the way the festival is going and the audience turnout?  
 “There have been a series of festivals happening in Bangalore recently – the Bangalore Habba, Vasantahabba, East West Encounter and now this. A lot of contemporary work is being performed. I feel the Attakalari festival links Bangalore globally since apart from the Bangaloreans, many foreigners come from all over the world to attend the performances. I am very happy with the way the festival is going. The audience response is not bad. Even if there are 10 connoisseurs of dance, it’s good. Of course, I would like to see a full house.”