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Dance is a part of who they are not

July 6, 2019

In my last column, I talked about when dance is unsafe. In this one, I would like to carry forward the same thread of argument and talk about some of the cruelty around dance. This is about animals that are made to dance for human sustenance. And we have seen plenty of them on the streets and fairs of India - dancing bears, monkeys and snakes to name a few obvious ones.

Any animal biologist or vet will tell you that animals do not enjoy acting like humans—that, in fact, they have to be forced to do so, usually through cruel means. Yet, animal performances have a long history stretching back to ancient times. Today, animal performances are banned or happen under strict regulation and rules.

Few animals other than humans can move in a synchronised fashion to movement. Yet YouTube is flooded with videos of animals moving rhythmically. They include dogs, bears, cats, ferrets, horses, pigeons, squirrels, dolphins, parrots and even fish. From fish experts however, I have heard that when fish appear to be dancing in home tanks, they may in effect be ill! So, the question I ask is whether the stomping, bobbing, wagging, nodding, swaying and jerking that these animals do, is it truly dancing?

Dr. Aniruddh (Ani) Patel is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Tufts University. His interests include the neural bases of rhythmic processing, and it was his theory that few animals can move to music like humans can, although given the fact that the universe of biology is marked by rhythms and "so it is a reasonable intuition that they would be deeply ingrained in behaviour". Thus a rhythmic pulse is felt in the croaking of frogs, in the flashing of fireflies, in the beating of a hummingbird's wings, in the jumping display of the Bengal Florican. Many animals use rhythmic patterns to frighten predators, to attract mates or mark territory.

Patel was not alone in thinking like this. Over a century earlier, that is what English naturalist Charles Darwin had written about in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, a book first published in 1871. It applies evolutionary theory to human evolution. Referring to the evolution of music he speculated that music by man taps into brain circuits deeply rooted in evolution and widely spread across the animal kingdom as well. Patel's subsequent research showed that the ability to move in synchrony with a beat was extremely rare and that representatives of the animal kingdom had an extremely limited range of tempos, unlike humans.

This holds true equally for animals that are close to us, even on the evolutionary ladder. For instance, even a trained rhesus monkey can only follow or respond to the beat, rather than anticipate it. This was till he encountered a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Snowball. On Youtube, Dr. Patel watched with shock and surprise, a clip of Snowball dancing, or what appeared as dancing, perfectly in sync, to the pop song "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys. Almost not believing what he saw, with the permission of Snowball's owner, who also turned out to be a scientist, Patel carried out a series of experiments with Snowball. In these experiments, Snowball was put through a series of dance routines, as he slowed or upped the speed of the song. When in 9 out of 11 cases the bird matched the beat, Dr. Patel was forced to admit that "it turned out to be the first demonstration that another animal could feel the beat of the music and move its body to it". But he was equally quick to admit that this was a case of the exception proving the rule, for he reiterated that the vast majority of animals just don't have the capacity to anticipate a beat and move to it.

So how do the more commonly found snakes and monkeys dance? Snakes dance not to the music of the 'pungi,' the wind instrument that snake charmers are associated with, but to the waving of the pungi before it. Although snakes are able to sense sound, they lack the outer ear that would enable them to hear the music. They follow the pungi that the 'snake charmer' holds with his hands and the snake considers both the person and pungi a threat and responds to it as if it were a predator.

Before the dance, the snake charmer has to take many precautions. The charmer typically sits out of biting range and works towards keeping the snake sluggish and reluctant to attack anyway. More drastic means of protection include de-fanging and de-glanding, and even sewing the snake's mouth shut. India is most likely the home of the practice as it exists today. It eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Snake charming is today slowly dying out, due to a variety of factors, chief among them the recent enforcement of a 1972 law in India banning ownership of snakes. It resulted in recent protests by snake charmers, some rather innovative as in the case of the snake charmers who entered the Odisha legislature carrying their reptiles.

In Rajasthan, the Sapera or Kalbeliya tribe dances a dance of great agility and sensuousness. The nomadic Kalbeliyas are basically snake charmers who travel from one place to another. Their income is mainly sourced from the prayer offered to snakes and also from Ayurvedic medicines dealings. Their icon is Gulabo Sapera who became quite a sensation when she went as part of the Festival of India team to several countries and was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2016. Quite a feat for someone who was nearly killed within an hour of her birth for being born a girl child! Coincidentally, the rise of the dancing skills of the Kalbeliya tribe made the transition of livelihoods easy post the 1972 wildlife act. Interestingly, the term snake dance is also used in the United States of America, to refer to a parade before or during sporting or school events, and we find references to the term in news despatches as early as in 1911.

Monkey dancing has a sad and painful training behind the act that has mercifully reduced though sadly not ended despite stringent laws being in place due to ineffective application of the laws. Baby monkeys are forcibly taken away from their mothers who may be killed for this to happen, otherwise monkeys are known to fiercely protect their children. The hapless primates are sold to trainers who "train" the monkey through beatings and food starvations. The teeth of the monkey may also be pulled out. More specific but equally cruel ways are used to teach it to stand on two legs. A tight collar around its neck, approximating a choke hold, hands tied at the back and hung from ropes at a height that does not allow them to sit, forces the monkey to walk on its hind legs. Making it move around, as if in step to the 'dugdugi' that the trainer, known as a 'madari' plays, is ensured through appropriately timed yanks on the rope. Starved and thirsty, they perform through fear as life is beaten out of them.

This is a strange dichotomy since Lord Hanuman is regarded as a monkey and while no one is willing to address monkey infestations in urban cities citing divine retribution, there is no compunction in ill treating monkeys, best in the wilds, for domesticated animal slavery. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 declares that all Indian wildlife is government property and prohibits the capture and possession of monkeys. Because of a lack of enforcement of the law, however, madaris across India brazenly use monkeys to beg for money. At the same time, there are not enough rescue facilities where monkeys can be rehabilitated before they are released back into the wild.

But just as the snake inspires humans to dance, the monkey does too. We know that the character of Hanuman is a unique one in Kathakali and plays a very significant role in well loved stories like 'Kalyana Sougandhikam,' in which the son of the wind god Vayu, namely Hanuman, depicted wearing a peculiar hat that may have been inspired by the headgear of the Portuguese who visited Kerala, and Bhima meet and have an interesting interaction, that is more abhinaya than kinetic. Bali and Sugriva too form part of the telling of the epic story, and Ammanur Madhava Chakyar's depiction of Bali's death is unforgettable, with the master's command on breath control.

Kechak performance as part of Ramayana at Uluwatu temple, Bali
Photo: Wiki commons

But in distant Bali, there is an old practice of performing themes from the Hindu epic Ramayana. A well known dance called Kechak, inspired by Hanuman is performed. The word Kechak comes from the chant that the performers do, "chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak" starting in slow rhythm and gradually speeding up the rhythm till it acquires a trance like effect. Normally the performance is by a male only group, although in 2006, the first female Kechak group was set up. The group can be as large as of a hundred men wearing only black and white chequered waistcloths, with bare upper bodies. They form concentric circles, in the middle of which is a traditional Balinese coconut oil lamp. They perform all through the enactment of the Ramayana story, moving their bodies to the left and right, chanting and lifting their hands up into the air in a trembling movement.

The Kechak dancer-chanters do not play homogenised roles in the performance. Even within the group of hundred are some who have additional responsibilities. One amongst them is responsible for maintaining the beat of the chant by chanting "po-po-po-po". Another man serves as the leader of the chorus, instructing them to stop or start the chanting by yelling commands. The men chosen for these tasks are usually the senior male dancers. The remaining chanters chant "chak-chak-chak" continuously and simultaneously with harmony, suggesting the chattering of the monkeys and certainly suggesting as if they are witness to the entire hour long telling. These performances are usually in the evening, after most of the dancers complete their day jobs, and are held in the Hindu temples of Uluwatu and Tana Lot.

Since I am referring to the Kechak dancers, let me use this opportunity to talk about some of the issues of authenticity and interventions in the performance of Kechak. In 1927, the German artiste and musicologist, Walter Spies made Bali his home and became interested in the original trance ritual that Kechak was and adapted it into the drama dance based on the Ramayana.

Kechak was originally a trance ritual, a ritual for exorcism, performed by a male chorus. In the 1930s, Walter Spies, a German painter and musician, became deeply interested in the ritual while living in Bali. He adapted it as a Hindu Ramayana including dance, intended for performance before Western tourist audiences. Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Emeritus Professor in the History of Consciousness Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, a Guggenheim fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, James Clifford has called, in his 1988 book The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art as the "modern art-culture system" in which "the West or the central power adopts, transforms, and consumes non-Western or peripheral cultural elements, while making 'art,' which was once embedded in the culture as a whole, into a separate entity."

However, I. Wayan Dibia, a performer, choreographer and scholar of Balinese arts, presently a senior honorary fellow in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music and professor of the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI) in Denpasar, suggests, that the Balinese were already developing this form when Spies arrived on the island, and cites the fact that during the 1920s,Walter Spies' collaborator, Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak, who incidentally lived up to the age of 106 years and passed on only in 2003, had already augmented the movements of Kechak by incorporating in it kinetic elements of the martial dance called 'baris', especially into the role of the group's leader. Spies liked this innovation and encouraged Limbak to rework the production of the Ramayana replacing the musical accompaniment of the gamelan by the dramatic possibilities of the Kechak chorus. Later, Walter Spies worked along with Wayan Limbak in the 1930s, arranging international touring performances by Balinese groups, which helped make the Kechak internationally known.

Today, when scholars like Clifford question the interpretative roles played by white, non native scholars, even like Margret Mead, Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner, can Spies escape this lens of intellectual scrutiny? However we may do it, for us dance is a part of being who we are, but for the dancing animals, dance is being a part of who they are not!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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