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Samabhavana churns out myriad starry thoughts on new directions in Indian dance
Photos courtesy: Sapphire Creations

March 18, 2018

Indian Contemporary dancers, a vibrant presence but without the kind of establishment support their colleagues representing other dance categories seem to command, have over almost a century functioned as an isolated group comprising diverse individualistic movement expressions. The odd stock taking events looking at this side of Dance Exploration were The East-West Dance Encounter in 1984 and later in 1993, and new explorations featured in Sangeet Natak Akademi's 'Nava Nritya Samaroh' in 1989. Now, in Kolkata comes the latest effort at bringing dancers, scholars and writers to interact on the nature of Contemporary Dance in India, and its future prospects.

Curated with great care by Sudarshan Chakravorty and Paramita Saha of Sapphire Dance Creations of Kolkata, the two day SAMABHAVANA effort on new directions in Indian dance, churned out varied thinking on the dancing body, which, through history, has had to deal with institutions of power controlling culture – whether temple, court or an elected government. The entire history of dance in India at one time was written on the body of the Devadasi, resulting in this traditional group of professional entertainers being crushed.

Who better than Sadanand Menon to break ice on this subject with his known perspective, provoking a lively interaction on Contemporary Dance? Decrying the love for spectacle in the prevailing culture industry, Sadanand touched on how to deal with memory, so as to create meaningful dance, without the general reticence in the Indian mind, to engage with the body. Trying to reclaim the nation with a throwback to tradition in the 1930's saw Kalakshetra create the 'Idealised body'. Delving into the past history through classical literature (in the effort to discover the true Indian identity mired in layers erected by foreign rule), according to him, ultimately saw dance getting 'mummified', whereas in theatre, the shackles with the past were broken with contemporary issues being addressed. Learnt questions need to be reworked he stated - for by just looking at forms and playing safe, one cannot arrive at anything relevant to the times we live in. Along with Rukmini Devi's journey in classical dance, cultural memory also throws up the name of that great pioneer Uday Shankar who along with his exotic India created for western audiences, had an international perspective - his dance creativity being inspired as much by bodies in classical dances as by tribal, folk and working bodies.

This is evident from the film Kalpana (shot when Shankar's Almora experiment was collapsing with lack of funds and he was also getting older). Excerpts from the film were screened to show how (what foreign critics had exclaimed as 'post Modern') Shankar had choreographed dance tackling themes like conflict of power, body aesthetic, mechanised body of the Industrial age, education, need for activist and politician to work together etc. Forgotten by the Indian art world, the film when finally restored by foreign art activists with 5000 hours of dirt and scratch removed to restore the film - losing in the process one hour of filming out of the original 3 1/2 hours. After restoration, the film had the distinction of being screened at Cannes Festival with Amala Shankar in the audience. Snippets of the 'Drum Dance' in film Chandralekha were screened to show how the film world, even while the dance world forgot, had got inspired by Shankar's work and Kalpana.

It was difficult to fathom how much was communicated to the gathering through the demonstrations designed by Krishna Devanandan with Vikram Iyengar as guide, to bring home the dance/space relationship with dancers just walking on four sides of the performance space, or bisecting it diagonally. The exercise became too long.

The discussion on Form in Contemporary Dance had predictably, individualistic perspectives. Dr. Mitul Sengupta with Dr. Sunil Kothari talking to her, showed how while working with Kathak under a traditional teacher for years, and later with Classical Jazz, she began to explore both forms in the same item but in interaction with each other, till she and her husband began to realise that the different approaches in spine, muscles (stretched in one and lengthened in the other) and anatomy in each could be melded to create a contemporary and charged body language. While doing Swan Lake and showing Odele in one form and Odette in another, the differences as contrasts worked. But with the Kathak/Jazz hybrid, she and her partner had created other work. One had to admit from the excerpts screened later (thanks to Sunil Kothari's insistence) the effort has produced some impactful dance. Geeta Chandran wanted to know how the process worked - if one found the form and later made it fit a theme, or while trying to physicalize a theme, one created the form.

Bharat Sharma spoke of how his father evolved his own form and always talked of multiple centres in the body. He worked on the curved body, with the curves emerging from the joints. He was influenced by German Expressionism as could be seen in his production 'Conference 79' which was a political satire. Talking of the hardships his father had gone through, travelling from Karachi to Calcutta to get money owing to him, only to find impresario Haren Ghosh murdered, he remembered how Narendra Sharma spoke of how Uday Shankar in 1938, observing that Narendra Sharma had a sense of humour also said that he needed to find his own language. 'Don't copy me' he said. Dr.Urmimala Sarkar touched on how Amala was an excellent teacher, though not one to create new form. She actually processed what Uday Shankar produced, and was great at evoking body awareness leading to kinetics in the student and she also worked on what the concept of touch could lead to.

Dr. Aishika Chakraborty, Bharat Sharma, Urmimala Sarkar

Dr. Aishika Chakraborty, Associate Professor and Director of the School of Women's Studies, who has worked closely with Dancers' Guild, spoke of late Manjusri Chaki Sircar's approach to movement. Manjusri was a Martha Graham fan and deeply moved by tragedies like Roop Kanwar committing Sati and a sweeper woman in Mathura being raped, she raised her voice for Women's Liberation. She had worked, living in Manipur, on Lai Haraoba and the independent women in Manipur (the only serious scholar on this topic as many admit in Manipur even today). As a person against gender politics she criticised even Santiniketan and her creation of 'Naba Nritya' was more a psycho-physical exercise, not meant to be a gharana of dance. John Martin at that time had mentioned about the decadence of dance in Calcutta of those days with its confused heterogeneous mix of Mehfil and Ghazal culture where Bais, Vishwa Bharati and much else coexisted, with Uday Shankar in 1933 also opening up a new performative space.

Participating in a panel discussion, I mentioned that Contemporary Dance, to quote Sadanand Menon, was really that which stood in critical position to established practice, characterised by an approach rather than form. Kumudini Lakhia dealt with the here and now in themes through her language of Kathak. And her dancers in the proud way their bodies were held were not submissive to the art form as in classical dance. Nor did she find the need to transcend the body to a space of pure spirit. For that matter Chandralekha who led the movement for contemporaneity used traditional techniques like Bharatanatyam, along with Kalaripayattu and Yoga, and only towards the end of her career in 'Sharira' did she start finding the improvised language evolving out of these traditional disciplines. But in her complete disapproval of the Margam, and all the attendant 'spirituality' arguments, she advocated the need for strengthening the weakened spine made into a submissive tool for spirituality. She used Bharatanatyam movement sans all the traditional approach, to express total resistance to the establishment.

Terence Lewis

Much acclaimed and awarded Bollywood dance choreographer and TV judge, Terence Lewis is a speaker who can numb the listener, with his unstoppable narrative articulating aspects of his journey in finding a full 'Indo-Contemporary Language', in place of his earlier western technique inspired forms. Using examples from his very unconventional Kamshet Project, he spoke of how he worked in an unusual way with dancers through 'external stimuli and internal impulses' to device a dance language. He himself was thrown into dance, watching others. The American dancer conducting the course he went to enrol in, took him in as the 'best of the worst'. Spunk and confidence filled up the empty space of zero technique. Teaching in a lot of places in the States, and challenged by obstacles he saw Alwin Nikolais, Jonathan Burrows, Akram Khan, all of who provoked and disturbed him – for they were all so different. Then back in India, he found a niche after fifteen years in the Kamshet Project. He engaged a dramaturg and evolved a way of making the dancers reveal their innermost perceptions in a form. Tapping the baser animal self hidden in the sub conscious, 'revealing what we were in the past' he thought out an entire process of constructing/deconstructing and reconstructing. The entire talk leading listeners through the process with occasional snatches of his student demonstrating by hopping around the performance space in gorilla leaps and sounds, made altogether for a very unusual experience.

The whole process of where we place our dance in the global space evoked animated discussion. Do we perceive ourselves as Contemporary dancers of India or as Indian Contemporary dancers? How does one measure or define 'Indianness'? and who decides on the parameters were the queries. In today's scenario with cultural borders getting obliterated in the kind of international interactions taking place, where one places oneself is difficult to pinpoint. Chandralekha with all her contacts with the west, worked with what was instantly recognised as the Indian aesthetic in form, theme, and philosophy. So did Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kumudini Lakhia who dealt with contemporary concerns, expressed through Indian body languages and thought processes (their work while not loudly anti-establishment certainly gave a start to individual thinking in dance beyond the conventional concert format.) A dancer like Astad Deboo for instance, with his Parsee upbringing, accommodated both Indian and western cultural strains. Though he learnt Kathak and later on Kathakali, in his western travels he trained in different techniques like the Jose Limon and what he finally arrived at was a very personal dance idiom which has emerged out of all the dance disciplines he acquired during his training years.

Government thinking on grants and pressures of funding and sustainability often compel youngsters, not normally bothered by identity categorisation, to think in terms of neo-orientalist constructions of identity. Vanessa Maria Mirza in the panel discussion steered by Ranjana Dave mentioned how as an Indian living abroad, she had to keep negotiating between identities of being an Indian Contemporary dancer and an Indian doing Contemporary dance. Examples like an "Akram Khan or a Mavin Khoo living abroad who have absorbed Kathak or Bharatanatyam and Ballet and Modern Dance in the West will not be asked about identities. Ultimately for me it is a question of how much one has invested in the form (forms) through practice and hard work, so that the other does not stick out like a sore thumb." Predictable mention was made of how little performance space is available for the Contemporary dancer.

The crisis of identity for a classical dancer seeking to go beyond the conventional practices, was seen when Aditi Mangaldas refused to accept the SNA award because it categorised her work as 'innovative choreography' and not Kathak. She felt that her years of hard work in Kathak had been ignored. Yet today, seeking to go beyond the form, while acknowledging that hers is a Kathak body, working with art directors from England and doing creative work, in what she calls a 'conservation and exploration' simultaneity, one wonders, where exactly she places herself in the Contemporary dance arena. Ill health having prevented her live appearance during the Samabhavana endeavour, video conferencing saw her talk about her approach of taking the seed of Kathak and watering it with contemporary possibilities. For instance when she wanted to express Claustrophobia, she found her Kathak vocabulary inadequate and through her work with Yoga and foreign directors, she is discovering the process of how to move forward, using techniques which belong to Modern Dance in the west. Her students Minaz and Manoj gave a live demonstration of 'Interrupted' which looks at the inevitable aging process in the body slowing it down. The two dancers were impressive. Aditi's choreography on how to use the Kathak body trained for frenzied speed of 'chakkars' and footwork, while trying to show age, results in a language which while derived mainly from Kathak, has elements from Contemporary Dance.

Mandeep Raikhy, a Delhi based Contemporary dancer trained at Trinity Laban, and who worked with Shobana Jeysingh, threw a slew of questions at panellists on where one located resistance in a performing body. How do the political and the aesthetic combine in performance making if resistance is at the core of all Contemporary dance? Daminee Basu, a trained singer-actor working on experimenting with different techniques and schools of new age acting, spoke of how as a child, she developed a deep seated aversion to everything that was part of her upbringing. She would be the one youngster sitting while the National Anthem was played - though she wanted to sing the charged national anthem. But forcing her to show her patriotism only built up resistance. 'I started unfriending people…. I hated and questioned everything'.

Daminee Basu, Maya K Rao

Maya K Rao whose solo creations have given a new dimension to Contemporary Theatre spoke of Nationalism and Resistance as forces which cannot live without each other, (they are like oil and water but a drop of oil on water can look at itself). Her desire to be on stage was as an actor and not to show nationalism. Having absorbed strains from different places, including Uday Shankar trained Narendra Sharma's dance, and Kathakali and Carnatic singing, she was least bothered about identities like Indian or non-Indian. Kathakali had given her the 'gaze' and to judge by her work one has seen, the gender question too does not seem to trouble her for in provocative works like 'Khol do' (inspired by Hassan Manto's writings), where a man is searching for his daughter caught in the Hindu/Muslim riots, or even in her 'Ravanama' she works on a character (even this does not seem the right word for what comes out as an experience) and the viewer gets the feeling that gender is not the issue while physicalizing the role. Maya spoke of 'tension' and perhaps also a kind of nervousness which goes with the creative activity and for her it was working hard at discovering the slippages between dance and theatre. She arrived at bits of a language which she puts together. She also mentioned the other 'presence' that is already there while creating. Maya firmly felt that after a hundred years, criticism could not cite the excuse of not understanding Contemporary dance. (I had mentioned that more dancer/writer interaction was necessary to which her reply was that there is plenty going on and it is high time that dance writing came out with theories on what is happening in the Contemporary dance world). She roundly criticised lack of in depth in scholarship in writings on Contemporary dance.

I also mentioned (and do feel) that there is a crisis today in the field of criticism and critical writing in dance particularly needs to be sharpened. Younger writers who seem to be on the same wavelength with Contemporary dancers should begin to write criticism. I daresay that Contemporary dancers, not spoilt by government patronage, and generally nursing an angst are better equipped to take criticism, even when unflattering. This is unlike classical dancers (who often come out with a diatribe at the least critical writing, which young writers find difficult to stand up to).

Utpal Banerjee, speaking on the important aspect of archiving mentioned his role in the Rajeev Gandhi Institute and even in IGNCA and mentioned the fact that today all the latest techniques were available. He mentioned various places where archival material for research in dance is available. As a people, we have not been very good at preserving material from the past, with care. Sadanand had mentioned how Indian material has been preserved in archival centres abroad. Today Indian dancers have become wise about preserving their work, and are developing their own personal archives.

Sunil Kothari screened film passages where Chandralekha expresses herself, and he mentioned how what some great dancers like her have said should never be forgotten, and there was a need to take these words to the younger generation of dancers.

Daksha Sheth, Nandita Palchoudhuri, Tao Issaro

Daksha Sheth and son Tao Issaro being interviewed by Nandita Palchoudhuri, a social entrepreneur curating and consulting internationally in the field of Folk art craft and performance practices, provided most interesting insights into the myriad adventures of this modern 'pariwar parampara' who have lived life on their own terms and have succeeded. Living close to Nature (in Thiruvananthapuram), allowing children to live in a free atmosphere where they followed their instincts in a most natural fashion, both growing up to be fine artists in their own right, Daksha's very personal expression of art, while being inspired by connectivity with many Indian art forms, has also had deep associations with different western genres of music, thanks to her Australian musician husband Devissaro who is very close to Hindustani music too. How many families can one think of, in today's world, living in Brindavan, riding in rickshaws with a growing child and an infant in arms in tow, living a life of performing in temples to live music at any time of the day? The only aspect which strangely got left out, unintentionally, by both interviewer and dancer, was the fact that the seeds of questioning and resisting established performative practices in classical dance, were sown in the dancer during her training itself under Kumudini Lakhia. The fact that she moved away from the Guru to engage in her own search had its birth in this attitude of questioning everything.


Surjit Nongmeikapam

In the performances featuring a wide range of innovative work, Surjit Nongmeikapam's To was inspired by how civilizations carried on year after year through periods of turmoil and placidity. A mixed media performance, To emerged from old stories told to the dancer by his grandmother about the past of Manipur –the years of hardship from 1819-1826 when Manipur was annexed by Burma, the Battle of Imphal, the unsuccessful Japanese invasion of 1944 when lives were lost and letters mentioned 'Goodbye for this life' with promises of getting together in the next. With about twenty small pieces of rock placed on all parts of the floor with long strings woven round them, persons from the audience were asked to choose any stone and attach the string round it to some point of the dancer's hand. The dancer carefully moving with all this weight finally bunched all the stones together – the dance concluding on a note of obeisance. To me, it was like a human being carrying cultural memories of the past moving ahead cautiously, carrying with him the burden of history. It showed something of the fragility and also sensitivity of the human condition.

Geeta Chandran

A known margam trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Geeta Chandran's Unurth done as far back as in 2002 surprised one with its movement and the music track created by Aneesh Pradhan and Shubha Mudgal with electronic music V/VM. This piece was produced by Dr. Drew Hemmet of Future Sonic. Instead of getting away from Bharatanatyam, Geeta in this work looks deeper at each part of a whole movement in isolation. When you see just eye movements, or feet moving in peculiar ways, or hands in gestures robbed of the totality of emotional reactions, of codified movement expressed in conventional modes, one realises how much one depends on the wholeness of a set process in classical dance. Here a range of emotions like violence, fear, disgust, poverty, want, appear and disappear in quick succession. Lighting up just the part of the body in question is essential for this work.

Sharmila's Evoking Radha based on Jayadeva's ashtapadi Keshi mathanamudaram visualising Radha in every day terms, is a work which makes one experience the common man's Radha, to draw out of a very performance oriented classical piece, a different kind of subtext, with music specially designed to go with the dance. Accompanied by Srjan Chatterjee's excellently composed singing for this work, Sharmila evokes a whole new world of an informal Radha, who after all the flights of imagination of dalliance with Krishna, rushes back to her housework. Very expressive!

Astad Deboo

Evoking the dark moods of disparity, depression, unfairness, anxiety, Astad Deboo's Below the Edge had a minimalism with just gnarled fingers of the hands conveying so much. Along with the bending backwards at an angle with energy centering quite different from the usual, the astounding ability for balance in the dancer's body shown at his age could not but be admired. Above all was the ability to communicate. For this critic, this work was one of the highlights of the evening.

Hemabharathy Palani

Yashti by Hemabharathy Palani, collaborating with internationally acclaimed Spanish composer Miguel Marin is inspired by the raw, honest voices of two female saints Andal and Akka Mahadevi, strong female examples of resistance, their poetry full of passionate desire expressed through body metaphors. The traditional holy Basil plant inspires Hemabharathy to a greater calling than just bearing offspring. The dancer moved with tremendous smoothness and grace though for this critic, what is mentioned as 'new poetics of tradition and an invented vocabulary' appeared like a long stream of consciousness in very repetitive language needing editing.

Watching Padmini Chettur's Beautiful Thing 2 with the large serrated performance floor with just one dancer, one was astonished at how the one dancer drawing lines, in oh so slow movement, which did not appear in the least performative, the whole of the space gets filled with a kind of energy. While astonished by the herculean body control while diagonally drawing a whole line moving slowly in a camel walk, I wondered at what defined dance movement. Does the dancer dissolve in the space or does space dissolve in the dance? There is about the very slow process of movement in its concentrated intensity a quality of deep meditation. But one needs more knowhow to fully grasp the thinking behind such a work.

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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