One of the crucial experiences that shaped my response and attitude to dance was during my first public dance recital – my arangetram. It was a charity programme in aid of the Rayalaseema Drought Relief Fund. I was dancing Mathura Nagarilo, depicting the river Yamuna, the water-play of the sakhis, the sensuality, the luxuriance and abundance of water. Suddenly, I froze with the realisation that I was portraying all this profusion of water in the context of a drought. I remembered photographs in the newspapers of cracked earth, of long, winding queues of people waiting for water with little tins in hand. Art and life seemed to be in conflict. The paradox was stunning. For that split second, I was divided, fragmented into two people.
Through the years, this experience has lived with me and I have not been able to resolve the contradiction. On the one hand, a great love for all that is rich and nourishing in our culture and on the other, the need to contribute positive energies towards changing the harsh realities of life. For me, to be able to respond to these truths is as crucial as to remain alive. I have struggled to harmonise, to integrate these diverging directions in order to remain sensitive and whole.
Bridging the gap
In the dance sphere, what I have found most lacking is a dialogue. We must initiate one if we want to infuse classical dance with contemporary vitality. Being inheritors of colonial structures and institutions (in education, language, liberal values and maybe, even notions of aesthetics), we cannot overlook the mediation of the West in shaping our approach to our traditional arts. Problems of revivalism, nostalgia, purity, exclusiveness, conservation and preservation need to be examined. There is a tendency to swing between the polarities of rejecting the West to seek the security of our little islands or of accepting the West at the cost of a wealth of traditions and without any attempt to listen to what they have to tell us.
Such conflict stems from a lack of consciousness and an inability to comprehend the central and basic issues, which, ultimately, are issues connected with the integrated and humanised existence on our planet. The East, in order to be contemporary in its expression, need not have the burden of using the West as a crutch or a ready reference. To me, to be contemporary would mean to understand and express the East in its terms; to explore fully the links generated by valid principles common to all arts and central to the creative concept of rasa; to extend the frontiers of the loaded cultural language of our soil.
An uphill task
This will not happen without a struggle. Concepts such as loki and margi, mandala or rasa were formulated by Bharata and Abhinavagupta centuries ago and are, even today, radical concepts. Any move to generate rasa, a harmonious integration of the individual with himself, with his society and with nature, in an epoch of social fracture, is to enter the realm of human liberation and will be looked upon with suspicion. Thus, the traditional dancers too, trapped in their repetitive slots and reproducing quantitative values, militate against rasa and can be accused of being contrary to the spirit of the early radicals.
I see dance as a visual, tactile and sensual language, with an infinite capacity to recharge human beings. The internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between the dance and society cannot be taken lightly. First of all, we start with the fundamental premise that dance does not originate from heaven – it has a material base, it is rooted in the region, the community, work rhythms, behaviour, food patterns and social relations, and in racial characteristics such as nose, skin, eyes and hair. The history of dance, then, cannot be separated from the history of the various stages of society. Over a long period of time, however, dance became integrated into the evolving hierarchical structures of society, effecting a transformation in its role – from communal participation to communal consumption.
From the viewer’s eye
Through all the distortions of the medieval period, dance played a vital role in maintaining human dignity in spite of much privation. It is when we come to contemporary times and an industrial society that a harsh break occurs. The vital link, between body and nature, body and work, body and ritual, snaps. Dance becomes almost totally a spectacle. A reversal, too, takes place. While traditional thought conceptualises the human body as a unique centre, industrial society converts the human body into a target: as citizen, attacked by the political system; as consumer, attacked by the economic system; as individual, bombarded by the media, denied contact with nature, incapable of self-renewal, suffocated by poisons in air and water, isolated and deprived of directions for change.
The question then arises: what role can dance play in such a society? Can it recuperate energies? Can it initiate a living flow between individual and community? Can it infuse people with the joy for life, radical optimism, hope, courage and vision to negate all that is ugly, unjust and hurtful? I have experienced dance as an essential freedom. Its unflagging potential to regenerate the human spirit is the reason we need to work with the form. Any human mode with a capacity to touch, to energise, to transform is potent. Art is primarily to be lived. It is nothing but the quality of all that is made.
The other side
In the prevailing dance situation, there are certain negative features against which we have to guard – spectacular mindlessness, archaic social values, fake religiosity and numbing sentimentality. There are also more serious questions. Why have classical Indian dances become insular and unresponsive to the dramatic social, historical, scientific and human changes in the world around us over the past 30 years? What blocks and complexes prevent classical dancers from initiating basic changes? Why have no attempts been encouraged to explore the power and strength of these forms? One does feel the lack of serious and integrated intellectual input. The question then arises: what kind of scholarship is available to us today?
I have explored classical Bharatanatyam to attempt a set of primary references based on which, a progressive series of departures can be made. In a group production called Devadasi, I ventured out of the comfort zone of the traditional framework for the first time. Rejecting religious sahitya, I composed and choreographed this dance on the contemporary history of Bharatanatyam, through its manifestations in the temple, court and modern stage; the social status of the devadasi dancers; its ostracism from orthodox South Indian society; its resurgence, riding the crest of the nationalist movement; and its present decorative status. Even this primary exploration was intoxicating and I could no longer return to the irrelevance of the solo dance. I could also understand the pulls and pressures on modern Bharatanatyam, now the cultural vehicle of an elite section of the community.
Navagraha was another effort to interact with the conservatism of the classical dance world. Very deliberately, I pursued an approach involving leading vocalists, instrumentalists, graphic designers and filmmakers. I explored, to the full, abstract notions of time and space, stillness and movement, centre and cosmos. It represented a need to go back to the basics. My exploratory dances convinced me that the conceptual foundations upon which our classical dances have been organised are powerful and charged and, in fact, have worked out aspects of the form, the body, the stage and presentation, which are quite contemporary and avant-garde in their sweep. The amount of inspiration the contemporary dance and theatre movements of the West have taken from these are an indication of their formal richness.
What is needed today is for classical dancers to probe deeper into their art with an open mind – not in terms of large audiences but, first of all, in order to come to terms with the unexplored wealth of the form itself. For this, of course, they will need as much intellectual rigour, sensuality and broad humanism as a Bharata or an Abhinavagupta.
This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.