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Arguing for a humanised rather than an idealised body

November 22, 2019

At Habitat's Gulmohar, the fourth lecture of the Kelucharan Mohapatra series organized by Art Matters, saw Sadanand Menon, Art commentator, (according to chairman Ashok Vajpeyi, one of the few really informed speakers on art) speak on Dancing Democracy.

In a hard hitting talk, Sadanand first put the search light on the opinion of a top bureaucrat who happened to be the Indian ambassador in the then Soviet Union of the eighties, when the Festival of India was held in that country. A wonderfully made documentary Sahaja by a top Kerala film maker (which in a later film festival in Japan won the award as the best documentary) on the Ardhanariswara concept, with clips by male dancers in stree vesha, or interpreting poetry defining a nayika like Radha, for example - slated to be screened during the opening of the exhibition in Moscow, was banned by the ambassador as an oddity presenting an unnatural and grossly lop-sided picture of India! The resulting fracas had the Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi lightly making a point during the inauguration later that the ambassador was perhaps thinking of a 'Poora Mard' whereas we know that it is only one particular set of chromosomes which differentiates the male from the female. Actually femininity exists in every male just as there is masculinity in every female. Sadanand's story was to prove that the watchword for the State in a democracy should be accountability, and not arrogance of power. And the worse sin is when authoritarian negativism stems from a lack of knowledge on the subject concerned.

The speaker mentioned that classical dance forms built round the idealized body tend to be exclusionary. But folk forms like Nacha, Kaikottukali, Ghoomar etc, and adivasi forms of dance are more individualistic and accommodating of structural asymmetry. When dissenters do not find sufficient space for expressing themselves - with even a Republican Day parade with its tableaux becoming propagandist events, with mass group dances becoming special and spectacular events representing nationhood, what is set in motion is a process of colonization of individual bodies. It is the extreme sanitizing of the body, which may be resented and can create, in the case of tribals for instance, a reaction of militancy, which ultimately leads to a kind of brutalization of the body. Which explains why all societies generally have some kind of carnivalesque atmosphere built round 'tamashas' and fairs - encouraging amusement and revelry breaking away from the monotony to accommodate negativity and otherness - with such events becoming a meeting point "for the marginalized people, mendicants, soothsayers, prostitutes, even craftsman - with the kind of uninhibited activities and behavior seen in some of these events providing an image of society's underside." These are the safety valves for society which in its normal day to day activity is not providing enough space for those who are not willing to be part of what they feel is regimented majority.

Speaking of late Chandralekha, the dancer, who by finding connectives to Bharatanatyam in martial arts and Yoga changed the dancer's physicality, Sadanand spoke of the 'humanized' body which dance should lead to. He regretted that a dancer like Uday Shankar who believed in a liberated body and who created such a creative film as Kalpana, when made the Secretary of the SNA for a short while, instead of trying to give otherness too some space in the scheme of things, seemed to be rather disinterested. Classical dance with its fixed vocabulary of movements remained the norm. And today this has degenerated to a sycophantic repetition where creativity, if it does not stick to an accepted pattern, lacks room for exploring movement ideas which would make the art more relevant to the times.

The speaker's disapproval of 'religiosity' in dance, of peddling of virtuosity and of turning dance into a spectacle, are known and as an independent thinker he is fully entitled to his ideas. Keeping in mind past history, the abolition of the devadasi and what is referred to as the 'Brahmanisation' of the dance, where new entrants to the dance took over what came naturally to the Devadasi from a way of life, one always feels the speaker's special ire against Bharatanatyam, wherein the opposition to the devadasi became very vocal.

While agreeing that the other in classical dance requires encouragement and space, the classical dance legacy in our country spread through the Guru/Shishya method, with its contribution down the ages cannot be faulted for the present mediocrity which Sadanand decries with mechanistic repetition replacing creativity. Rigorous training in classical dance was meant to equip the learner with a strong language with which to explore ways of conveying his thoughts. Experimenting with new ideas started after mastery over technique and language of movement. Unfortunately in India, the performance desire having taken precedence over all else, exploring the depths of a form with newer layers being discovered or revealed is not taking place the way it should.

Chandralekha vetoed all dance hierarchy and while she was an ardent feminist, she did not believe in gender distinctions. Gender for her had no preset qualities and with the centrality of the body in her thinking, dance was an enjoyment and not worship. Classical dance on the other hand believes that the body is a vehicle for a higher experience.

The talk coming after a video by Avinash Pasricha, the ace photographer, of delightful photographs of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, and of the speaker too referring to what he had seen of Kutiyattam Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar seemed ironical. And who can forget Kelucharan's interpretation of the Jayadeva ashtapadi "Kuru Yadunandana" with the near bald, elderly dancer with his paan stained teeth and male body ceasing to exist as the audience saw in the mind's eye lustrous haired Radha in after-love languor, asking Krishna to smear cool sandal paste on her breasts. One was reminded of Rukmini Devi who said, "Learn the dance to such an extent that it becomes the body's natural language. Only then can one transcend the body. It is when one goes beyond the body that the dance happens."

After listening to Sadanand's excellently argued talk, I pondered. Down the ages, faith and religiosity have spurred man to the best of art in sculpture, in painting, in handicrafts, in music - providing precious moments, where one experiences spaces in the consciousness, which mundane life does not touch. While agreeing that it is not the supine spineless body but the strong body dance needs, and that space for all kinds of creative urges must be provided in a society, movement whether for a cause or for itself should be a matter of personal choice. And no dancer should dance the way one does only because of being told, but because one believes in what one is doing. And in an age where so much of strife is seen, if dance is an enjoyment in itself, is that self- indulgence?

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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