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Fusion or Confusion?

April 4, 2017

With all the buzz about rightists and leftists, about fundamentalists versus the liberal minded, about secularism against 'majoritarianism,' it seems to me that somewhere people are losing a sense of proportion on what represents plain good taste against what goes for ugliness of mind and thinking. In an age when the ad world has never had it so good, and the media works overtime capturing politicians and important figures from all disciplines mouthing opinions and statements of every hue, we have the confused situation of demanding freedom and equal rights for the woman while trying to commission anti-Romeo squads to keep them safe from molestation!

In a global world, Contemporary art has gone viral with its fusion ventures and over the years one has witnessed the strangest cultural interactions of Kathak with Jazz, Bharatanatyam with western Contemporary Dance, Swan Lake in Mohiniattam done to Tchaikovsky's music, Kathak and Hip Hop dance and much more. We have also had famous Odissi artists performing to film music. But now comes a strange 4.25 minute long video of five freelancing Odissi dancers performing movements of a Pallavi, to Ed Sheeran's English number "The shape of you" as a promotional venture by 'Detour Odisha.'

The language of the lyric apart, the text used in this context with Odissi dancers performing to it makes a mockery of the entire exercise - negating what the dance and the music should be. The singer of whom I know little, may be very famous though the composition with sentences like "your love was handmade for somebody like me" and "being in love with the shape of you," sentences of "Push and pull like a magnet" and even mention of the bedsheet with lingering smells and much else make it plain that what fits into nightclub singing or perhaps even a pop show with its catchy tune and beat, sounds ridiculous as the musical backdrop for the stylised idiom of Odissi. The five dancing participants, who obviously thought of an easy way to film fame, and faithfully rendered movements of a Pallavi to this love song, explained their act as "just for fun" when approached by the not surprisingly miffed and horrified Odissi establishment comprising critics and writers like Kedar Mishra, and established artists like Aruna Mohanty, Ratikant Mohapatra and Ileana Citaristi - who also approached government authorities, looking after tourism promotion to register their protest at what they felt was a devaluing of Odissi. While the producer of Detour Odisha stoutly defended both tenor and language as absolutely communicative about Orissan tourism to the cosmopolitan public, Kartik Aruda, a member of the group, lightly dismissed it as just a fusion experiment to portray the rich heritage of the state of Odisha.

The tourism department of Odisha, one understands, cites helplessness, for this is a free country and the creative efforts, whatever the nature, of a person who has not been approached by the State machinery in any way, cannot concern them. Meanwhile on You Tube, the video has gone viral. The protests of the classical Odissi establishment have earned these dancers the name of being fundamentalists. The further argument is offered that the stuffy performing dancers apart, nobody else has objected to the video - which, according to an artist like Ileana too, is well produced, though she has grave misgivings about the content.

One presumes that when tourism tries to sell the idea of a tour to Odisha, the purpose is to acquaint the tourist with the cultural identity of a place, which is what sets it apart from other places. Culture does not come from an isolated event. It represents the totality of a way of life from language, literature, fine arts including performing arts and sculpture to even the physical terrain of a region which together play a part in shaping a culture, giving it a definitive quality. Odissi as a dance has been shaped by all these aspects (and the textual format to which the dance is rendered is important) - and while the artistic freedom to innovate is always understood, like everything else, it cannot distort the original identity of what is being presented. The usual arguments about why the conservative group cavils at eroticism when the profusion of sculpted figures on temple walls, and texts like Jayadeva's Gita Govindam clearly point to a people who freely accepted the place of eroticism in life, are speaking without fully understanding the world view from which these exquisite examples of classical art sprang. And to compare this crooner's effort with such examples is comparing two incomparables.

To add insult to injury, this film is shot in venues like Dhauli, Mukteshwar and Shishupalgarh - showing a total absence of feeling for the sacredness and sanctity of certain aspects of a culture. Everything cannot be brought down to the lowest denominator. And when I recollect how a certain famous Odissi dancer from abroad earned loud opprobrium with invectives being hurled at him for doing away with the top veil for his female dancers - all very slim and well trained in well-tailored costumes with no part of the body exposed in vulgar fashion, one wonders how one should react to Odissi being performed to "The shape of you." The unambiguous answer of the test which determines the rightness or otherwise of fusing forms or ideas, is of "auchitya" or appropriateness or suitability, as the real criterion for judging innovative work. Ultimately when one judges it, it is enlightened taste which makes the difference.

In such efforts the power of suggestion is always strong. And the performers in this video, who perhaps unwittingly got involved, should realise that this kind of fusion attempt is the worst in terms of the message conveyed to those who see the video. McDonald's sizzling burgers cannot be a means to invite people to Odisha - though you may well have their restaurants serving this dish.

And would it be interfering with freedom of expression for the Cultural Affairs and Tourism wing of the government to lay down guidelines for the kind of message publicity material can deal with? When so much in the world today is up for grabs, please let us cling on to some aspects of our culture we are proud of. In an interactive world, fusion cannot become confusion.

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.

Glad you have exposed the hypocrisy in name of promoting tourism, culture of Odisha, etc. Glad artists like Aruna Mohanty, Ratikant Mohapatra, Ileana Citaristi and critics like Kedar Mishra have protested. This is blasphemous and must be discouraged. In name of freedom of expression, the dancers cannot make a travesty of classical arts. The words of the song border on vulgarity. Am sure and hope good sense will prevail and artists would refrain from devaluing our classical arts. Since we have means to express and protest, we must.

Congrats for exposing this venture- fusion? My foot! Sheer stupidity.
- Dr. Sunil Kothari, New Delhi (April 6, 2017)

I entirely agree with your sentiments and your comments!
- Gita Umesh, Nairobi (April 6, 2017)

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