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Inclusivity as strong message in Spic Macay's international convention

May 24, 2016

Spic Macay's 4th International Convention (earlier termed the 'National Convention' annually held since 1986) was held at Guwahati, the capital of Assam, situated on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, attracting thousands of pilgrims to haloed Kamakhya temple, one of the Indian 'shaktipeethas.' The choice of venue for the week-long event, IIT Guwahati with its picturesque campus built round water bodies surrounded by verdant shrubs and blossoming trees, with kindly weather gods sending down intermittent showers keeping temperatures from rising to uncomfortable levels, could hardly have been bettered. Battling doomsday predictions with the slashed Central government funds for Spic Macay activities, this event was by far one of the best organised and attended, thanks to good Samaritans coming to the rescue along with the phenomenal efforts of a clutch of committed volunteers.

What came out as the strongest message of the week-long convention in an ashram like setting, with the spotlight on art forms of the North east, alongside the heavy calendar of events like folk and classical music and dance, theatre, yoga, intensives/workshops, film classics and appreciation and handicrafts, was that of inclusiveness. Delegates from many countries, faiths, professional disciplines interacted in the highest spirit of camaraderie and friendship. That the human spirit can glory in the cultural melting pot of India with its plural manifestations was evident right through. Setting the tone and spirit of oneness by giving an open invitation to all the foreign delegates (over forty of them were from Pakistan) to government house, for a cup of tea and interaction with the governor, was the Honourable Governor of Nagaland and Assam, Shri Padmanabha Acharya himself - who as Chairman of the Advisory Board of Spic Macay presided over the inaugural function. Stressing all mankind as part of the same humanity, he mentioned Spic Macay's efforts to strengthen the moral fibre of every child by opening its mind to the mystique of our arts, which enshrined the philosophy of compassion, of dedication, of humility and of selflessness. He concluded on the uniquely dramatic note of how the very word of greeting ''Namaste" said it all, mentioning N (Nagaland), A (Assam), M (Manipur, Mizoram, and Meghalaya), A (Arunachal Pradesh), S (Sikkim), T (Tripura) - all of which formed the seven sisters of E (the east)!

Sending a strong message for remaining rooted in what you are born to, was the lecture of Gyanpith awardee Bhalchandra Nemade on 'Nativism', focussing on how the third world in particular had been compelled to think of its native culture as a 'baggage and liability.' Most effective destruction of a people was making them forget their history. Remember it is because of the "diehard traditionalism" that custodians of Indian music and dance insisted on, that they have remained intact. It is the old, which absorbs contemporary sensibilities and becomes ever new and relevant, discarding what is useless. Why are the words of Gyaneswar, Tukaram, Namdev, Tulsidas and the oral poetry of Jana Bai still being quoted? Satyajit Ray made the old new - as did Karanth in Yakshagana, Arundale in Bharatanatyam, Habib Tanvir in Theatre and Gandhiji who stuck to Nativism. Our rangoli patterns are 5000 years old! The perversity of "universalism" has not made us one - but divided us - and made us do unindian things like having a cash crop of sugarcane creating hunger in Maharashtra! We have obliged Macaulay who wanted our perceptions, thinking and culture to become western while we remained in blood and colour Indian. Politically floated ideas like Maratha, Jat, Naga have created fissures in society. If each one stuck to his 'nativity,' the world would have had less of hardened borders.

The speaker's point was proved by Aruna Mohanty's Odissi recital where a traditional language of Odissi, expressed man's perennial problem of how in spite of realising the inevitability of birth, youth and old age, the finality of death remained unacceptable and feared. The self-centred 'me, I, mine, myself" prevent man's inner growth. Both music by Gopal Panda and libretto of strung verses from various texts provided a fine backdrop for Aruna's expressive dance.

It was again the spirit of oneness of all faiths emphasised in the one man theatre "Vivekananda" by Shekhar Sen, Chairman SNA. The famous Chicago speech of the master where he emphatically mentioned that all religions while taking different paths ultimately join the waters of the sea - aiming at the final realisation of the supreme truth or Godhead, said it all.

Ever inspired by the many moods of the gigantic Himalayas, and the winding Ganges taking off from its peaks, Malavika Sarukkai's Bharatanatyam was woven round Gangavataran with the river starting from Gomukh, its gushing force held in check in the matted locks of Shiva, to flow down to the plains, with both the stately Bhagirathi and the playful lilting Alakananda joining at Devaprayag. "Thumak chalat Ram Chandra" in Jaijaywanti, with Kaushalya delighting in watching the halting steps of child Rama has always evoked the best of vatsalya rasa in the dancer. The art of suggestion lay in the audience being able to see in the mind's eye the many different ways of the child learning to walk, through Kaushalya's response, to what is not visualised in the performance. And the evocative subtle rhythmic changing patterns in Nellai D. Balaji's mridangam, with the delightfully melodious violin interventions, not to speak of the vocal support of Parthasarathy - all as on the same journey with the dance made for great effect.

Rajendra Gangani's Kathak with the rich legacy from Guru Sunderprasad, Narayanprasad and father Kundanlal Gangani, made a deep impression in the compulsive nritta segment (with Fatehsingh Gangani on tabla support) with Thaat, Upaj, Uthan. 'Ghungat Ki Gat' and a short Doha before the lyric "Chhado chhado je Bihari, nari dekhi" and the way in which different manifestations of the elephant chal became an introduction to Ganesh Paran proved how the dancer is developing a feel for abhinaya and presentation. But cannot singer Vijay Parihar develop more respect for the Sanskrit verses of the Shiva Panchakshara Stotra, instead of mangling the words? As a good singer, surely quarter hour spent with a person who is familiar with Sanskrit, to go over the script would not be too much.

The north east had much to offer. Apart from the graceful Bihu performers, the Naga dancers in their striking black and red costume, the lithe Hojagiri performers balancing on the pot, the playful snowy white lions from Sikkim who became instant favourites, and above all the utterly masterful Mizo Choir, were the classical dances.

Raas Sankirtan by Tanil Singh and troupe in the light footed grace and perfection of the Cholom performers was followed by Manipuri Raas - with an excellent male dancer as Krishna in this generally all female tradition - with the Ashtapadis like "Yamihe kamiha sharanam" and "Priye charushile" with Krishna declaring his love for Radha, ending with the penitent "Dehi pada pallavamudaram" line, visualising an evocative and yet aesthetically underplayed sringar interaction.

Guru Ghanakanta Bora's group presented Raajgariya nritta, Sali Naach, Ramdhani and then Gitor Naach "Jaya jaya Yadukula nayaka…" built round the escapades of boy Krishna. While the disciples performed with correctness, one felt the absence of Guruji's prime disciple Anwesha Mahanta, who was away on work, and whose presence would have made a big difference to the entire presentation.

Koodiyatam by Margi Madhu had nail biting intensity in the scene from Kalyana Sowgandhikam, showing Bhima in the dense forests of Gandamadhana mountain - watching the scene of the elephant succumbing after being simultaneously attacked by a python and a lion. And that so many of the students watched in utter attention spoke a lot for the kind of attention span they have been trained to develop through Spic Macay's programmes.

Purulia Chhau by Tarapada Rajak and group seemed to practise a kind of needlessly lengthened proscenium presentation with too many repetitive movements - which only served to take away the freshness from the performance. With its limited movement vocabulary Purulia Chhau is very forceful, if the items are not prolonged just for effect. With the never ending roar of the lions and the loud laughter of the evil forces, the audience got somewhat distracted, after a while. Pity, since the dancers are well trained and agile in the constant somersaulting and ''phirkities'' of the form.

Visiting the Intensives was a joy in again witnessing that togetherness of all types. A lady from Pakistan singing Bor Geet with such involvement, or dancers from that country in the Odissi classes under Aruna, and the Kathak Intensives under Malabika Mitra, delighting in the 'ang sanchalan' and even use of the hands. From the youngest to the not so young participated with equal zeal in Wasifuddin's Dhrupad gayan. To experience the joy of singing Ashwini Bhide's own Tarana composition in Bhairavi, or watching a two year old attend the music intensives listening in total concentration for hours every day of the week, or listening to a song in Revati "Parvati Bhagavati....Parameswari" in R.K. Padmanabha's Carnatic vocal intensive - are all etched in memory. It was a treat to watch all ages and nationalities of delegates sitting together happily working, trying their hand at Sanjhi paper cutting, Handloom weaving, Warli painting, Pichhwa temple art and Pattachitra etc.

As for the feast of music, listening to the greats like venerated Girija Devi (who at 88 sings in a way that touches the innermost chord in the listener's heart), Ulhas Kashalkar, T.V. Shankaranarayanan singing the majestic Shankarabharanam alap, with the Tyagaraja Kriti "Yenduku peddala...", or "Sogasu jood tarama" in Kannada Gowla, cannot be forgotten. But ringing in memory is the extraordinary concert of Ashwini Bhide Deshpande singing Khyal in Jhinjhoti, which gave rise to goose pimples - so moving was it. And forever etched in mind will be the memory of the young student who sobbing at the end maintained that she had heard that music is said to make one realise God - "I don't not know what it was I experienced, but your music today has exposed me to those spaces I did not know exist." That one response for me is enough of a success for Spic-Macay's efforts.

But the sound balancing for the performances, with humming mikes and crackling sounds, was befuddling in an institution specialising in technology! The bitter fruit of an 80 plus Girija Devi being reduced to singing without any mike, thanks to the sound system being totally unpredictable, made for irony - a fly in the ointment - in an IIT campus, particularly since the rest of the festival was so beautifully organised!

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.


- Rajan Swaroop (May 29, 2016)

Even though I could not witness the convention, the article is written with such flair that one can easily reconstruct the beautiful performances. She has presented the finer details with depth and meaning. Especially the take on nativism and universalism, is a revelation. I feel like reading it over and over again. It presents an insight every time and leads us to appreciate with sound reason our beautiful culture and its nuances.
- Raveena Mathur (May 29, 2016)

Congratulations. Great report except for sound problem!
- Lalit Nirula (May 30, 2016)

Sitting in Shreveport, LA, USA, I was enthralled to read your report on the inclusivity at the IntCon held at IITG in the serene surroundings of Guwahati, Assam between May 9 and 15. I am an ordinary volunteer of SPIC MACAY since last 2+ years. And it is nice to see a vivid and detailed report on the elaborate programs during those 6/7 days. Dr Kiran Seth, my batch mate at Columbia Univ, NY, in the late 60's, and team should be credited for establishing such a vibrant organisation over the last 4 decades, despite funding challenges, to promote such an inclusive culture in its programs.

While being appreciative of the various speakers, artists, singers, organizers, you have also rightly pointed out deficiencies in 2 areas - in rendering Shiva Panchakshara Shlokams and the below par performing sound systems - which we should improve upon. After reading your writeup, I felt like I had attended the IntCon.
- Ram Athreya (June 2, 2016)

Beautifully written. I would also agree and add that Ashwini Bhide is having a time of her life these days. She has given 4 inspired performances in Delhi last year, one better than the other. She is a treat to listen to. Also, was beautiful the experience of the girl towards the end. I guess that's what SPIC MACAY lives for. Hope sound troubles will reduce in next gen of SPIC MACAY - sound can make/break the music.
- Prof. Mausam (June 3, 2016)

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