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Performing Arts and Yoga

July 5, 2017

Yoga as a means of stilling the mind and bringing about unity of mind and body is no doubt an invaluable discipline. While one can rejoice in its spread to several corners of the globe today, one wonders if the hype being associated with Yoga is not sometimes erring by losing sight of its real merits in the glamorising. With the top political dispensation having such faith in Yoga, the way artistes hailing from different art forms, are passionately trying to display the closeness of their art to Yoga, is a kind of politicisation of both Yoga and art that one needs to be wary of. A Yoga spirit accommodating undiluted concentration of mind /body in the search for one's self through whatever discipline one is seeking is what is recommended in our performing arts - which are also different pathways to self realisation. Art disciplines need to be pursued with a yogic spirit for Arts as 'sadhana' in the ultimate state can achieve that complete harmony (samarasya) and sense of total release resulting in ananda - a state of oneness abolishing all forms of duality. This karmasu kaus'alam as the Gita says of concentrating all energy in pursuit of the journey one embarks on demanding the offering of the best one has to the best one seeks, is a yagna or sacrifice demanded of the seeker. What is implied in the Indian context of inter relatedness amongst disciplines, is not being sought to be articulated in peculiar ways.

After the Yoga festival extravaganza a year ago, the SNA now had, without any fanfare, a two day event bringing out the Yoga Dance connections. The science of Yoga and the performing arts share the ancient Indian world view, both helping find interconnections in the body. If Yoga does it through the medium of asanas, dance does it through a language of movement incorporating hand symbols or mudras. These symbols, a form of expression in the dance, are prescribed in Yogic postures too, each mudra apart from its visual aesthetics, associated with organic functions influencing physical and mental states. That Yoga which helps body balance, flexibility, neuromuscular coordination, sharpness of memory, agility can be a fine way of preparing the body for dance is known. Kathak dancer Nalini spoke on the Yoga Dance inter-relationships and touched on various points like navarasa-s and how a state of being can be evoked through dance - which even in the sombre mood of karunya or compassion, can create bliss or ananda - this enacted state of being enabling the experience of a life emotion while not being real. The physical advantages of activating the thyroid and pituitary gland, and the stamping of the feet which act as a form of acupressure, are all beneficial for the body, the speaker pointed out. The brief demonstration part comprised footwork based on rhythmic syllables with foot contact through full feet, heels, toes and sides of the foot, highlighting tonal shifts in sound and rhythmic accenting.

Saroja Vaidyanathan through her group visualisation of Pancha Bhoot, a ragamalika and talamalika, had a well trained and rehearsed bunch of disciples performing at floor level against a backdrop on a raised platform with Yoga practitioners from Sarangpur's Yoga Sansthan freezing in one asana after another. The levels arbitrarily fixed found the boys hidden by the dancing figures in front very often - a pity for they were well trained. The dance performance traced a hasta nritta karana link which, apart from being visually decorative is very close to Yogasanas. The karanas in order as given in the Natya Sastra, starting with Talapushpaputam, Vartitam, Valotorukam, Apavidhham, Samanakham, Linam, Svastika-recitam, Mandala-swastikam, Nikuttakam, Ardha-nikuttakam, Katicchinnam - and so on up to the 20th karana Akshipta-recitam, were visualised through frozen attitudes. While the various sequences to elements like Fire, Water, Sky, Earth and Wind were effectively communicated, one was wondering if purely floor level movements showing Prithvi and Akashikacharis representing Akash, marrying body movements symbolically with elements, at various levels could have been tried in a kind of symbolism. The nritta very well coordinated and efficiently performed however went on at the same clip without tonal changes. An occasional quieter moment for contrast would have made for greater impact one felt. Perhaps, the asanas being demonstrated in the rear was considered as sufficient - though to fit in visually into one frame with the dance, perhaps some more working together was called for. Actually having the dance separately would have been a wiser choice.

There was a great deal of variety to the evening with martial art groups performing on the lawns. Punjab's Gatka, the Mallakhamb group led by S.V. Gireesh, with youngsters balancing on the pole, Silambattam led by Hasan Guru, Pooja Kunita and Veergase from Karnataka were all demonstrated - the physicality of all these forms working towards the same end as Yoga in harmonising body/mind energies.

Spreading the religious message of Sankardeva's (1449-1568) Vaishnavism , Sattriya of Assam for five centuries was nurtured in the monasteries called Sattras where it was a part of ritual performance. Only in the mid fifties did the dance emerge from the inside of the Sattras to acquire another manifestation as a proscenium art. The Mati Akharas which are a set of exercises for preparing the body for the art form are closest to Yogic asanas. Mallika Kandali who combines scholarship in Sattriya, with teaching at the Performing Arts Department of Sankardev University, is also a performer and she presented two of her own choreographies. The start was with Shlokor Nach which like the kavutvam in Bharatanatyam or Kavit in Kathak combines words with rhythmic mnemonics in an invocatory verse. With music composed by Murari Sharma, the verse began with recitation of names of the God in a Haribol incantatory - Vishnu, Achhuta, Krishna, Namo Brahma murte, with play on sounds like Tripurari, Murari, Mukunda Raje, which mixed with rhythmic bols like upanga from the Sattriya vocabulary blend to create a very peppy combination of sound and rhythmic accenting. The dancer's visualisation included the cross-footed scissor like movement, which is very typical of this dance. And what a sonorous voice in the singer Bhupen Nath with Giren Kalita on khol, Prasanna Barua on flute and Doyaram Bora on taal! The second Item Bongshi Samvad based on a composition of Sankardev, included a verse by the dancer herself. The Gopis here , in a common attitude shared in a lot of Vaishnavite lyrics, express their jealousy aimed at Krishna's flute - which has the inordinate good fortune of being held close to his body all the time and what is more experiences the touch of Krishna's lips . What sacred deed had the flute done to merit such closeness, which is our prerogative, wonder the Gopis. Just holding the flute to his lips seems to send Krishna into a different world where he forgets everything barring the music emerging from his wielding the flute. After the expression of such anger at the good fortune of the flute, comes the explanation in the concluding verse that the Lord seeks total selflessness in the devotee - and the flute serves him, expecting nothing in return - which is why it merits such attention from the Lord. Mallika's interpretative dance was highly communicative.

In memory of a defiant pioneer - Manjusri Chaki Sircar
Impresario India decided to throw its sponsorship weight round two Contemporary Dancers on a special evening, mounted at the Habitat , in memory of a dancer who left our midst over 17 years ago - namely Manjusri Chaki Sircar of Kolkata, whose institution Dancers' Guild specialises in Nabanritya, the Contemporary form which was her brainchild. The other part of the evening featured Delhi's Sadhya run by Contemporary dancer Santosh Nair.

Contemporary Dance is more an approach to the art form than a form of movement. Unlike classical dance, Contemporary Dance has no stylised vocabulary of movement or technique. It is predominantly individualistic, where the thinking mind and moving body create a psycho-physical expression, which more often than not is subversive in intent, prodded by anger and disapproval of an established order and reflects strongly independent thinking. Taking as many forms of expression as the dancers who practise it, Contemporary Dance is not a style or technique like Modern Dance forms in the west by Martha Graham and others. There are layers of radical thinking colouring dance work - some like Kumudini Lakhia and Chandralekha who have retained the technique of the classical form each represented, harnessing the form differently with varying degrees of change - Chandralekha's approach far more radical than Kumudini's.

Manjusri Chaki Sircar and her phenomenally talented brilliant daughter Ranjabati Sircar whose tragic death when so young, shocked the world of dance, performed and worked together to create Nabanritya. Educated abroad and having spent time in countries like Africa, Manjusri, an anthropologist, was strongly feminist - a complete believer in cultural pluralism- abhorring the Hindu, brahmanical, patriarchal culture. A student of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Odissi, she drew on the vocabulary of all these forms apart from several martial art traditions and scoffed at classifications like classical, folk, tribal etc. Her Nabanritya created out of this eclectic approach rejected existing forms - of not just the classical but also of the dance created by the Tagore school in Santiniketan and even Uday Shankar's creation. But with all her intellectual strength and ability to use movement vocabularies in her own blends, she made the dance world sit up with her choreographic attempts in productions like Tomar Matir Kanya which created waves in the 80's. Nabanritya has a fully codified theoretical base elaborately worked out by Manjusri and her very radical daughter. With Majusri having passed away 17 years ago, and Ranjabati even earlier, the Dancer's Guild has managed, amidst this tragedy, to continue from where the pioneers left off. Jugosandhi presented by the artists from Dancer's Guild was a series of lively fleeting scenes from various works - a collage which contained action evoking different moods. From the starting with a prayer to the Sun God and the elements, to a tender sringar duet; celebrating Harvest; persecution leading to naked fear with violence in pursuit; a Santal like delightful celebration of motherhood with the new born child; agonised humanity, terror driven and fleeing creating an architectonic mound of sorrow; ending in the hope of a new dawn and a new spring arising out of the shattered old. Group discipline could not be faulted and it was a pleasure to see how despite the absence of the main architect, Dancer's Guild was still retaining standards so meticulously set by Manjusri. Impresario India did well in recalling a period, presenting a group who for several years now have not been seen in the capital.

Santosh Nair's group Sadhya in Delhi presented Chaitanya, an abstract work on consciousness and energy. One lives surrounded by energy which can be experienced by the sensitivity of consciousness. The interplay of energy flows is what the dance was about. Santosh's choreographic skills apart, his disciples male and female, exhibit excellent training and the expertise showed in the moves of every member of the group in the admirable poise, balance and precision of lifts and falls makes for a visual treat. Santosh comes from a Kathakali background, his father having been a Kathakali actor. Santosh himself has mastered Mayurbhanj Chhau and the leaps and leg swirls in the air balanced on one foot, which characterise this dance form, forms the pivot of his movement vocabulary, to which he has added martial art techniques like Kalari. This vocabulary operated by applying the principles of weight distribution, lifts, balancing etc. required in Modern Dance technique in the west, creates a form which he defines as a bridge between tradition and modernity. Rendered to Upamanyu Bhanot's music, the quick tonal shifts, the many entrances and exits, the superbly coordinated pas de deux sequence calling for incredible balance in the two bodies, were all of a piece and it was as if energy drawn from the cosmos flowed back to it - in a theme of this abstract nature, the audience draws varied inferences from what it sees - which was altogether a very finished performance.

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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