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A good start on discussions on Dance Issues by Academy

February 11, 2019

Unlike the past when dance was only to be practiced and seen, today there is a willingness to discuss issues in the world of dance and it is encouraging that a body like the Music Academy has taken the step of organizing Dance Discussions coinciding with its annual festival of dance. Still in its nascent stages, this small beginning can lead to more ambitious interactions. Conceptualised by Kami Vishwanathan and Sujata Vijayaraghavan, the first discussion on 'Teaching 21st century skills through classical dance' (which is another way of looking at what classical dance offers for the world and concerns of today), had Rajika Puri now settled in the USA as Moderator. Nalini Prakash, a board-certified dance/movement therapist and co-director of Spilling Ink, a multi arts organization in Washington D.C, spoke about the collective empathy and multi sensory expression derived out of learning not just Bharatanatyam but other art expressions (from puppetry to pottery, she became more exposed to in Spilling Ink) , which she as a certified movement therapist draws on to help set right the disconnect in body, mind and spirit in her clients. She finds the non threatening language flowing from these arts most suitable vocabulary for a movement therapist.

Dancer Mythili Prakash believed that in a world of instant gratification, Bharatanatyam training instills in one the virtues of patience, of hard work and concentration in preparing for one's arangetram. It teaches one trust and faith in the teacher and grit in negotiating performance hurdles on the way. The visceral involvement required, taps into a selflessness within, making what is a personal journey a search which is non competitive.

Sangeeta, an Odissi dancer now working with Arts Quotient, a company, maintained that while a lot of learning is seen as a linear process, dance is something which energizes learning. Working with college teachers and business colleagues and dealing with power dynamics in the corporate sector, she has found dance a way of using body to sensitize and change conventional corporate behaviour. Her research into power dynamics with union leaders showed how the conversation became different through using dance. Teachers and mothers dealing with toddler children too had found a change. Body awareness brings about an understanding about the physiology of emotions like anger, fear and confidence - all very prevalent in the work atmosphere.

For senior guru V.P.Dhananjayan, natya helped in instilling in the student qualities of discipline and dedication. 'Natya is a sampoorna Yoga,' he said, helping enrich mental, physical, spiritual education. It is unique. Parents say, "My child is not intelligent." In one 'Tha' in dance, body, mind, posture, hands, stance, tala are combined and learning natya teaches you how to connect various aspects of the body with mind and spirit.

All the participants stressed how group learning makes for feeding off each other's energy and it was a wonderful way of connecting. Celebrating the centenary of Balasaraswati, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Petipa now, one sees in dance connections which help one 'to analyse rather than narrate stories'. Creativity if nurtured becomes a lifelong treasure enriching one.

'Tradition and innovation in classical dance,' the next topic, featured Bharatanatyam exponent Chitra Dasarathy, Mohiniattam dancer Neena Prasad, Odissi dancer Sujata Mohapatra , Aditi Mangaldas so well established in the Kathak world, and Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari on the panel, with London-based Chitra Sundaram as Moderator. Chitra began with her own experience of looking for permissions with different Gurus prescribing limits before realizing that the Natya Sastra is not etched in stone. It prescribes without proscribing. Not able to get away from her teaching attitude, she asked each panelist to think of another word for tradition and River, Floor, Root, Roof, A Path, Custom, Ritual, Convention were the terms mentioned, with the one word for Innovation emerging as Explore, Extension, Creation, Different, Individuality, Unknown search, Experiment, newness. Chitra called it seeking new answers to old questions. Is there something elemental? Rivers gather tributaries and some just dry and are left behind. Artists on the other hand want to gather an audience and accolades. While very well argued out, Chitra's slated five minute introduction, took too long, thereby cutting into time which should have gone to the panelists, each of who had given some thought to the topic of discussion, to elaborate on.

Aditi Mangaldas talked of 'innovation from tradition'. History, geography and culture determine how stories are told in a dance tradition. If an idea crying out for expression does not fall within the DNA of the particular dance form, why not try non conventional means, was her approach. After reading a poem of Ageya, fired by the desire to explore the theme of claustrophobia for which she could find no satisfactory Kathak language, her dance search had taken her beyond conditioned Kathak boundaries while exploring themes like Footprints in Water, Seasons, Winter (hibernation), Joy (based on Shubha Mudgal's music in teental).

Neena Prasad talked of Mohiniattam moving between two paddhatis of Kalamandalam and Kalyani Kutty Amma, needing a new geometrical sensibility and understanding of its circular kinesphere, its organic innovation being in layers while keeping core tradition timeless. She mentioned six dancers doing a Parasu tillana. With the curvilinear movement, what is the kinesphere for the individual dancer? Innovation she maintained comes in when something in history is not available as a reference point and it involves more heart than mind, was her feeling.

From solo to group and vice versa also is a kind of innovation. Vasanthalakshmi Narasimhachari speaking of the Kuchipudi experience said that moving from the Yakshaganas to the solo form had itself been an innovation. And while working on themes, as she had done with her late husband, at each point the needs of the situation in the work resulted in thinking out-of-the-box and innovating while keeping traditional boundaries in mind. The identity of a tradition (even rhythmic syllable vocabulary is typical for each dance form) should not be tampered with and every departure from the known repertoire should 'stand test of time and be meaningful.' She stressed on 'auchitya' as the best test for any departure from tradition. She also gave the example of Pallaki Seva Prabandham with Shiva in palanquin taken to consort Parvati - in which she and her husband had used the regional leather puppetry visualising palanquin and two bearers in puppet form in shadow, along with Shiva and two other live dancers also in the scene. Ultimately one needs to remember that 'auchitya' too cannot be a fixed standard for it differs not just from person to person but also from culture to culture.

Chitra Dasarathy, a Bharatanatyam dancer, said that her need for telling a story came from her innate love for poetry and reading. She narrated beautiful instances from literature, like what she got from Nazrul Islam's earnest request, "Give me the granite, mother, and I will carve out my own God- but with no feet for with feet he will run away. If he runs away he will create a Kurukshetra wherever he goes." Whenever she had a story to tell, 'I do it through Bharatanatyam' she maintained because that is my language of expression. She also mentioned how Egyptian mythology portrays a Goddess reappearing at different times, reinventing herself. So she devised a dance work in the shape of a conversation between two people 'Hathor and I'. She spoke of her faith in a collective Rasottpatti, finding in Bharatanatyam an inherent elasticity which she could stretch to suit her objectives. She also mentioned the Kannada folk tale of a woman who becomes the tree with fragrant flowers, flowering being a symbol of fullness. And to express this idea she used a Girijadevi Thumri (thanks to her days of living in Benares and ease with Hindi) nayan ki mat maro talvariyan as the song of the tree woman. She had similarly used Thumris by Rasoolan Bai. Change of context, adapting to a situation any poetry or song of another regional culture, and accenting body movements in a different way, can all be innovation resulting in changes. She could have said more and elaborated on this point if time had permitted.

Sujata Mohapatra, true to her Kelucharan Mohapatra lineage, spoke entirely for tradition not being disturbed - since those who had created the reference points had done so after much work and thought. She went on to discussing the 'Tahiti' headgear not being worn by some as a move away from tradition.

Actually one needs to ask if tradition can be said to begin at one particular point - since it is the accumulated legacy over a period. In Odissi the restructuring of the dance which took place in the late fifties of the 20th century makes the dance both the newest and the oldest, since the base material to work on came from the Gotipuas and the Maharis who were part of much earlier history. One admires Sujata's complete faith in her legacy. No art however reaches a full stop at any one point. It will keep changing and adapting to situations in which it exists, with hopefully, its core identity retained. There were comparisons of examples of Bach in the original and another made by the computer. If you have roots, you can fly. So while rearrangements and stretching of tradition cannot be wished away, the test will have to be its aesthetics- Again a very personal measurement - for as said one man's food can be another's poison!

By far the best panel discussion happened on the final day on 'Eco-system support for classical dance' with panelists Leela Samson, Bhasker Ghosh, Vinita Bali and Sangeeta Isvaran, with Sushila Ravindranath as Moderator. What is the position of classical dance today, she asked. While it seems to be attracting many students, and dance is everywhere, there is a contradiction in that dance is not a viable industry - for most programs have to be presented free without tickets. Eco system while encouraging dance learning does not pay for performances adequately - sometimes not at all.

Leela Samson disagreed with the title. Eco system, she said, is made by Sanskara. To be in a culturally inclined field is what is important. The early eco system comprised points like language, caste etc. After the institutionalized system which has tried to amalgamate points from the earlier Guru/Shishya method of training in dance with many 'outsiders' who painstakingly learn Bharatanatyam, the learning process needs to incorporate thinking, rationalizing and being creative. With multiple teachers and varied training rigor there are problems in the criteria to judge what is ephemeral. Today money speaks and for youngsters not born to privilege, the big bad world of dance is difficult. The Sabha system is good, managed by the people for the people. But here too money speaks. Hall may be given free but what about the accompanists whose terms are not negotiable? How does the dancer manage?

Vinita Bali spoke of the corporate sector and she dwelt on the question of how to sell dance. She spoke of networking and reinforcing relationships. When there are minimum wages prescribed in every sector, what have we done to position dance in the way in which it is done today? Corporates, she said, have a choice. The 2 percent of profits set apart for various categories as social responsibility, includes many sectors and there is need to convince them that dance is one of the most rewarding sectors to help and encourage.

Bhasker Ghosh, as an ex-bureaucrat who for years worked in the Cultural Affairs Ministry, announced that India does not lack for an institutional framework for the arts - the Akademis and other institutions are all there as a large network. But how do they work, is the question. The problem is that the bureaucrat who has the ultimate authority putting his signature on the dotted line for sanctioning funds, is in a transferable job - perhaps also busy in trying different avenues to see how he can get posted to a more powerful ministry like Defense or Home or whatever. Where is the time for him to learn about the needs of art, to have a policy which he can try to implement? With transient and totally ignorant people in charge and with power, what can one really implement? "Give institutions full power - even financial." If one has reposed confidence in a set of people to run the institution, one must be able to put trust in how to manage the finance. And culture requires many sectors to help - like the Education Ministry which can arrange to take children to galleries and museums to aid the evolution of a discerning art culture in society. Brochures and magazines have to demystify culture. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry can be asked to work with the Culture ministry and institutions to produce special programs conceived round, for instance, archival material of the SNA. Similarly, other departments dealing with aspects which can help advance the cause of culture should be asked to cooperate and chip in - thereby lessening the financial burden on the Ministry of Culture which is short of funds. But for this one needs an outgoing bureaucrat who is willing to interact with other departments to find assistance.

Sangeeta Isvaran spoke strongly against the objectification of the dancer. "Why am I always told to go to see the Sabha people with my mother? Why should it be with my mother? The eco-system has no respect for the dancer. If we have a strong civil community, can we not all together stand up and say 'No' to wrong things like giving money to organizations for getting performance platform? There is so much talent that does not get the space and recognition it deserves. Where are our spaces today for rehearsals? One person allows her roof top to be used. Dancers manage from restricted spaces. Is this a healthy eco system? Organizations like Jana Bharatam and SPIC MACAY are doing their best to help educate youngsters about our arts.

What Sangeeta spoke about is correct in that the dance community without exceptions will have to unite to form a strong lobby against any type of wrong doing. But that unfortunately, has not happened with those able and willing to purchase performance platforms, keeping quiet.

Vinita Bali said that there had to be greater interaction with the Corporate Sector. Why not have a corporate member as part of the SNA Board? That would enable the sector to know what is happening in the art world, and what the needs are where it can pitch in with help. Dancers need to go out and meet and talk to corporate people. They should invite them to performances and persuade them to see what is being done. Just sitting back and thinking that the Corporate Sector will help is not practical.

The discussion clearly brought out the need for greater cooperation amongst various agencies so that culture which is more than just singing and dancing becomes a wide spread concern in which various departments combine to provide a healthier eco system. Unfortunately, in our country every department of government or institution believes in functioning in isolation, which makes inadequate whatever each section is able to contribute.

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.

As a Bharatanatyam dancer, I understand how significant Bharatanatyam has been in building my emotional and psychological wellness. It has served as nothing more than a form of therapy for me. Bharatanatyam has given me a broader outlook. It has also taught me that what is on the outer is not as essential as what is on the inside. It has helped me realize that I am sufficient even without the materialistic things around me. In addition, no props are required for this type of dance. Any stories or characters will be represented by my movements, expressions, and body parts. Like, in the same way, as a result, we gain the wisdom to know that we can find fulfilment in other ways besides financial indulgences. Furthermore, you don't need anything else to be complete, just like Bharatanatyam doesn't need props. This style of dancing provided me with a fantastic opportunity to increase my cardiovascular fitness, blood flow, muscular tone, and bone density due to the fact that it is a type of contact training.
- Mitali Kangalee (Oct 3, 2022)

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