Crisis of critical analysis in music and dance
Photos courtesy: The Indian Institute of Advanced Study
September 16, 2017
Even as our traditions of music and dance have survived thanks to an inbuilt dynamics of preservation of eternal verities of tradition while accommodating individual creative innovations, a large repertoire of critical writing articulating new concepts and analysing the changes, subversions, innovations over the last half a century is missing. From the marginalised Devadasi to the elitist Diva of today, the nationalist framework in which so many changes took place in what has been singled out as classical (wherein resistance to the colonial was not a factor) to the folk, continuity has been stressed above deviations and innovations, and what with altered notions and dynamics of orality of the changing nature of audiences, the proscenium space and the fact of the utter perishability of music and dance at the point of creation itself, it is surprising that a more dynamic body of critical work has not emerged. Supporting a greatly felt need for interaction on this aspect, The Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla, under Ashok Vajpeyi as convenor, organised a National Seminar from September 4 - 6, 2017 to deliberate on Music and Dance: The Absence of Critical Attention and Analysis - with the historic Viceregal Lodge at Shimla as venue for a gathering of musicians, young dancer scholars, music and dance critics and thinkers.
Sadanand Menon was bitingly critical about what he termed as an area of darkness, which in the last half a century excepting for embarrassingly opinionated and for the most part illiterate and impressionistic reviews in the press, has produced little that is worthy of notice. The redeeming feature for him remained dancers like Uday Shankar, Chandralekha, Kumudini Lakhia, whose courage to talk to power, has pushed the envelope of the 'acceptable'. The scholars abroad provided more analytical writing. The only film on the decried professional dancing women of India was in the States, in the Jacob's Pillow archives thanks to what Ted Shawn with his hand crank camera had filmed years ago. Sadanand's subject of Alternate critiques—From framing the moves to moving the frame concerned reinvention of dance in India through the cinema. Right from Uday Shankar's film Kalpana which bombed in the box office but where a dance like Labour and Machine created waves with its almost post modern approach to movement, Sadanand's talk substantiated by screened film snippets, highlighted cinema's enterprising dance endeavours in its robust mix of classical, folk, tribal, improvised and what have you - getting away from the bowdlerised and sanitised frontal form of reinvented traditional forms. Kamala Laxman (in Naam Iruvar), Geeta Bali in a scene shot by Guru Dutt, the famous Drum dance in Chandralekha, Dandayudapani Pillai's choreography, the dance with doll like movements choreographed by Shanti Bardhan and Gul Bardhan, the Cha Cha Cha dance of Helen in a night club setting in the film Howrah Bridge (1957), and dancer Chandralekha choreographing on the Dialectics of Kali for Maya Darpan experimenting with Chhau dancers, in costume colours of black, red and white symbolising the Devi, were all screened with critical comments. How the camera played with darkness and light, with angles, when dancing figures were just dark silhouettes, how subtly caste based respectable dance shared screen space with typical mujra settings and how the camera moved with the dancer through different spaces - made for an informative session.
This critic's argument about the dancer becoming larger than the dance in Wrapped in gilded cage of Nationalism, Spirituality and Cultural Ambassador pointed how in a cruel twist of fate, even as the Devadasi was mercilessly chastised and abolished, the revival of dance traditions and music became part of the search for the lost Indian identity thanks to British rule. The revivalists as Cultural Ambassadors and part of the Nationalist agenda, decorated with State and National awards like the Padma awards (bandied about, contrary to government rules, as titles decorating persona) are out of the reach of criticism. Serious analysis and in depth critiquing on aspects of their art form become casualties, the scene being taken over by the generalist whose fulsome praises are non-controversial . There is nobody to comment even when the Emperor has no clothes.
To show or to reflect: the impossibility of Indian Dance is how Navtej Singh Johar titled his paper. As a part of the larger Nationalist project which he called 'conformist, exhibitionist and uncritical' Indian dance had killed critiquing which thrives on autonomy and the ability for self-reflection. Added to this, the valorising of the erasure of the individual from the centre of his initiative made one wonder where dance fits in the creating of art. A trifle too elaborate in quotes from philosophical texts like the Sakhya, Navtej's paper brought out the long lasting conformance/resistance tussle in defining purpose and import of dance as an artistic performance.
In total variance with all this negativity, Dr. Sunil Kothari argued how from the time of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's work in Viswa Bharati University (1920), introspecting on the art forms had been a feature. Dancers like Uday Shankar, Rukmini Devi, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, Madame Menaka, Amubi Singh and gurus like Kandappa Pillai in Bharatanatyam and Bipin Singh in Manipuri and Ustad Allauddin Khan in music had all been researching deeply in their respective art forms, trying out how the best of tradition could be retained for a cosmopolitan audience in a proscenium situation. Uday Shankar's film Kalpana had dance expressing societal concerns too like labour exploitation, pitfalls of British education, marriage and social evils. Sunil mentioned several scholars between 1960-1980, like the tall figure of Kapila Vatsyayan who authored several books on Indian dance, literature and painting - and importantly brought out the connections among Indian art forms and disciplines like literature and others, scholars like Dr. V Raghavan (scholar, Sanskritologist and dance activist), Vissa Appa Rao (Kuchipudi), Kalicharan Pattanaik (Odissi), Maheswar Neog. Dancers like Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kumudini Lakhia, and lately Chandralekha who perhaps inspired Max Mueller Bhavan's George Lechner's East-West Encounter in 1984, with interactions with Germany's Susanne Linke and Gerhard Bohner.
While agreeing with the period that Sunil Kothari mentioned, it stands out that after 2000 the field of critical analysis is less fertile. Amidst a sea of mediocrity, exceptional dancers have provided islands of excellence and thinking. Even so when compared with the large number of dancers and commentators, a corpus of work showing in depth analysis on aspects of the art form, is still very small.
Rose Merin, a Ph.D scholar from the JNU School of Arts and Aesthetics, made an interesting analysis about the expansion in Nangiarkoothu, through two exponents - Usha Nangiar who belongs to the tradition, and Kapila Venu, a non-traditional caste performer. Without appearing to dismantle either hierarchy or structure of tradition, Usha Nangiar pushes the tradition through her performance creating a new text and offering new interpretations, which while not being feminist, are relevant for discussions on feminist philosophy. Kapila Venu on the other hand with her long association with Japanese former dancer Min Tanaka, and participation in World Theatre Projects is a self-proclaimed feminist. Through her treatment of female oriented themes and content of her innovative performances, she makes a strong feminist statement.
Stepping into phenomenology, Bharatanatyam dancer Sonal Nimbalkar speaking on atman, manas and sarira, talked of movement as inspired by body and mind. The accent in her ontological study was on the Bharatanatyam jump. While appreciative of her efforts, one hopes youngsters like this are aware that much work has already been done on this subject.
Trying to analyse abhinaya in its mix of the structured and the spontaneous, Dr. Mythili Anoop quoted too many Western scholars like Suzanne Langer for whom spontaneity in dance is a created illusion and Stephane Mallame who believes that the dancer creates in an animal and instinctive fashion and Susan Foster who maintains that improvisation and spontaneity in the classical forms is a result of tireless labour.
Ph.D. scholar of JNU, Kanav Gupta's very unique paper on English evolving as a musicological language in independent India would apply to dance too. Newsprint, radio, music reviews, memoirs show how English has grown as a comfortable language medium for analysing our art forms. To quote him, "In this clock-timed urban music-scape revision is not simply enunciated in but perhaps also enabled by English .... for it fulfils affective demands of modernity of both cognoscenti and laity- providing a vocabulary of interiority when describing ragas or slowly delineating the artist as an individual genius whose pre-eminence lies in making new the traditional - all momentous changes."
Using the Dance of the Lamas of Tibet, J. Shashi Kiran Reddy spoke of Dance as a Movement of Meditation in Space and Time.
The state of affairs in music as a discipline so interwoven with dance is not different. Dilating on the critical music eco system, Deepak S. Raja looked at the critic as the interface between artists and the audience. The humanities and arts became a miniscule portion of the nation's agenda when music was transplanted from the feudal-agrarian economy to an urban-scientific-technological-commercial economy. The new audiences for music thus brought in, were more into the enjoyment of music than its discernment. Amplification is changing the voice quality as also the instrumental tone. While the public broadcasting system was 40 percent classical at one time, Hindustani music's shrunken presence is now about 4 percent, with the onslaught of film music taking over the music eco-system. The institutions teaching Hindustani classical have failed to turn out talented artistes. Unable to cope with competing and profitable demands for space, periodicals compromise on the integrity of arts coverage. Critical endeavours whether personality, events, trends, ideas oriented are unexciting - when compared to the past, with critics like Batuk Diwanji, Prakash Wadhera, Mohan Nadkarni and others. While the online/social media holds out possibilities, its content cannot ensure uniformity of discernment and impartiality. Good criticism can enhance love for music. But on both counts of supply and demand, we have failed.
Dr. Mukesh Garg maintained that music with its abstract presence is totally the creation of the solo artist, whose aids in a concert are no more than accompanists. Classical raga music does not allow for any notation, for its on-the-spot creation, has no structured compositional base. That great music thinkers like Vishnu Digambar Bhatkhande and Acharya Brihaspati wrote texts out of an art form that has no pre-set pattern goes to the credit and genius of these men. Such music analysis is absent today.
For Pt. Satyasheel Deshpande, causes for and solution to lack of analytical activity in music lay in the way Khayal music is taught and perceived today. For him critical analysis is carried out, publicly expressed and accepted in the form of the performance itself. The various gharanas are identified by preferences of raga and specificity of treatment of tala structures. Pedagogy must inculcate in the student a spirit of inquiry and questioning, which the rigid classroom teaching of today with rigid views of correctness and tradition has stifled, leading to poor critical analysis. Saying everything through performance, all that Pandit Satyasheel Deshpande needed was his harmonium - whether in the room of the guest house he stayed in, or during the seminar participation or for his special evening performance. He embellished the proceedings with pure joy of music rendition - through excerpts of compositions in different talas, showing little twists and turns in how a line of a bandish (his own compositions and other well known ones from the traditional repertoire) is sung with word/sound /tala distribution, accent, and emphasis on treatment of the mukhda. He in short displayed how pedagogy combined with archival resources can enrich both musician and critic with the jewelled values music is invested with. My only regret was that his impromptu sessions in the privacy of the guest house where seniors were housed, lacked more of the young participants in the seminar.
Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, the Rudraveena musician, fondly recollected the days till 1989, when the likes of Mohan Nadkarni and Batuk Diwanji in Mumbai wrote and discussed Hindustani music with such authority. He also mentioned the transparency of healthy interactions between critic and musicians, missing today with performance coverage having little space with editors opting for more Page 3 type of news.
Music critic Manjari Sinha speaking on Tradition and Change in Music which alone had kept the art alive, briefly touched upon the trends visible today and stressed the need for intelligent, unbiased approach to critiquing.
Dr. Avishek Ray from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences from the Institute of Technology, Silchar, questioned the hierarchical and arbitrary categorisation in music and dance of classical and folk, for Dhrupad once considered as part of the Gwalior folk tradition is now unanimously considered classical. Interestingly, Abu'l Fazl disapproved of Akbar's inclusion of Dhrupad as part of court music for its lack of classicism! While camel riders sang tappa, Kawals sang Kheyal. Thumri was a part of the Lucknow household folk tradition. Why cannot Bengal's Kirtan come under classical music? While music composers like S.D. Burman have delighted in the classical/folk hybrid juxtaposing, gharana singularity applied to so called folk too. Confused arguments abounded like the Rig Veda predating Sama Veda, along with spiritual insinuations, and confusing the incremental process for betterment and progress.
Which is where Professor Sameer Dublay's paper assumed particular significance, drawing attention to late Dr. Ashok Ranade's classification, which contextualized Art Music tradition within the total musical reality of India - as one of the categories Primitive, Folk, Religious, Popular, Art, Confluence. Folk traditions which are so deeply connected with life cycles when presented as entertainment become folkish. Dr. Ranade avoided the word classical.
Co-convenor of the Seminar Dr. Jyoti Sinha, fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study spoke of her dilemma in getting authentic archival or other information for her research on the Thumri and the journey from Kothas, to courts to proscenium of its great singers from the Baiji Parampara like Huseni Bai, Malka Jan, Janaki Bai (who was nicknamed chappa choori), Badi Moti Bai, Rasoolan Bai, Sidheswari Devi and a host of others. Collecting information was like looking for a needle in a haystack despite cinema and gramophone being there. False ideas of morality had prevented analysis of the history, and music of these artists.
Professor Lawanya Kriti Singh from the faculty of Music and Drama, Lalit Narain Mithila University, Darbhanga, spoke of the deplorable standards of music education which from the time of great minds like Thakur Jaidev Singh, Vasudeo Shastri, Acharya Brihaspati, V.C. Dev, Dr. Premlata Sharma, had now come down to music education for a livelihood or for stage performances.
Some of the young scholars spoke on their areas of research. Shawar Kibria, supporting her talk with film scripts, in an interesting session referred to how Qawwals of Pakistan like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, while not sacrificing the spirituality, ecstasy and affect of Sufi Qawwali, have reinvented the sound of Chistiya Khanqahs Sufi Qawwali in live digital music recording set up at Coke Studio, Pakistan, where Raag Kalyan finds comradeship with Bangla Desher Gaan. She concluded that insensitive cultural policies and bizarre extremist ideologies notwithstanding, the studio set-up can explore and become an archive of evolving aesthetics of Sufi Qawwali, conditioned by international and digital musicality.
Another regaling session by a young JNU scholar Sana Khan was on Understanding Cultural Politics: An interpretative Study of Sambhaji Bhagat's Protest Music. The strong voice singing in full sur control raaga Jog, provided an interesting study.
Altogether, it was a very animated seminar, with strong views expressed. Attitudes across the board will have to change though for Critical Attention and Analysis to become a live force in Indian music and dance.
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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