The heart knows the way through
There may be high rises, checkpoints
Armed soldiers, massacres, wars
And those who will despise you
Because they despise themselves
Watch your mind
Without training it might run away
And leave your heart for the immense human feast
Set by the thieves of time
Do not hold regrets.
Cut the ties you may have
To failure and shame
- Joy Harjo, American Poet Laureate
Are we in February already?
The days continue to whirl by and the blur of the hours passing seem almost like a monotonous hum. How long can we continue to pretend that dance and the breathing, dancing body can find a hybrid space via the digital platform?
Meanwhile, there has been quite a ferment in politics and art.
As the Capitol building was stormed in Washington DC by white supremacists, India's national flag was dishonoured by a group of protesting farmers on Republic Day.
Rumbles in Andhra land as Kuchipudi dancers resist attempts to prevent their paid recordings from being used for online performances.
Collaborations across communities in 20th century Tamilnadu occurred even during the seismic events of the independence struggle. An occasional series begins this month.
The world's largest vaccination drive begins in India as millions line up to get vaccinated against the sneaky Corona virus that has successfully mutated into more 'avatars'.
As farmers broke through security barriers on India's 51st Republic Day on January 26th and dishonoured the national flag, impeachment proceedings are on course to begin against former US President Donald Trump. All eyes were on the Half Jamaican/ Half Tamil woman who strode into the White House on January 20th. Kamala Devi Harris shattered the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton was supposed to 4 years ago. That it took America so long to join the club of Women World Leaders speaks volumes of the deep seated racism and white supremacy that has infected the USA.
Wearing purple as a painter blends red and blue, America's first female Vice President scored top marks with her remarkable success story and her blended family.
But it was artistes who stole the show during the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph Biden. Reflecting the colours of the flag - RED, WHITE and BLUE, singers Lady Gaga (red), Jennifer Lopez (white) and Garth Brooks (blue) made brilliant statements with their choice of songs and dazzling charisma. Following their stellar acts was 22 year old Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman who burst onto the American consciousness with her original spoken word poem THE HILL WE CLIMB.
Using her strong and well modulated voice, hands moving in amazingly original "hastas" (I saw choreographers widen their eyes at this new possibility) Ms Gorman delivered what is now touted as the highlight of the inauguration.
For me, it was symbolic of what the new administration felt about the creative community. That artistes are the prophets of society and that all art can go beyond ART to make a statement while provoking thought for change.
# GURU vs STUDENT
The hot issue as I write this from the cool hills of Coonoor is the impetuous COPYRIGHT STRIKE against several Kuchipudi performers. A Facebook post by dancer Deepa Narayanan Sashindran alerted me to the situation. In the long post she shared that she, and other senior Kuchipudi dancers, have studied directly under a senior guru Vempati Ravi (son of the iconic guru Vempati Chinna Satyam), and paid for both the classes and the recorded scores featuring Vempati Ravi's own voice. When these senior students posted videos of themselves dancing to these recorded scores on their social media platforms, Vempati Ravi's wife initiated a series of "strikes" on YouTube and Facebook "thus causing the videos to be muted and taken down."
Do the Kuchipudi dancers who studied directly under Guru Vempati Ravi have jurisdiction and ownership over the choreographies and the paid recordings? With students spread all over the world and digital media becoming the sole avenue of showcasing dancers, will this "protest" by the copyright owner stand in a court of law?
If a student has studied for a continuous period of 10 years with a senior guru and decides to start teaching during the pandemic, does that student have a right to continue the tradition without the "blessing" of her guru? If both guru and student have parted ways in not so pleasant terms, can the guru prevent a student from teaching what has been willingly taught and national honours awarded to the student? How does the student earn a living if ordered by the guru to stop all performing and teaching?
The above mentioned events are a marker for many gurus of several academies as their students spread their wings and fly off in different directions to find their own space. Can the tradition be "owned" by one person? Even a reconstruction occurs from a source upon which newer interpretations and research based practice is built. How can a style (even if it is given a new name), a composition, a voice reproduction, a movement phrase and a tradition be copyrighted and trademarked?
Watch this space as the drama unfolds. As of now, it seems to be more an issue of Ego and less about the ART.
# REPEATING IN A LOOP
Over the past several months, the tempo has been turned up on the issue of caste in Bharatanatyam. The incantations of words like "appropriation" and "marginalisation" are mobbing and intimidating the artistic community with academic force. This is being done by a small collective, so future students of dance studies can flock to this coterie for a variety of reasons other than the ones that really matter.
This was not just a self aggrandizing media stunt. This is a narrow minded attempt to rewrite Bharatanatyam's history, thereby influencing, even browbeating future generations of dancers, musicians and scholars into their way of reconstructing history. An academic culture war has erupted over who has the knowledge, who can speak, and whose voice needs to be heard. Within Western academia, there is a captive audience for the supposed "downtrodden" from the non-Western world. A rescue narrative is appealing for the privileged in academia who can pronounce from the safety of their ivory towers. It would be useful to challenge them with the question, who is their audience in India, or among the Indian dancers and scholars residing in other parts of the world who disagree with their "cause" of rescuing traditional artists from supposed Brahmin exclusions?
A recent online seminar and discussion titled THE ARDUOUS ARTS - Caste, History and the Politics of "classical" Dance and Music in South India was hosted by UCLA, Los Angeles, California. It featured a carefully selected panel of likeminded diaspora scholars and India based practitioners. There were 3 non Indian speakers thrown into the mix but it was clear that the panel was weighted towards the Indian panelists and their presentations. All the speakers were well prepared and presented with poise and purpose.
Rather surprisingly, the nearly 4 hour discussion, which started at 11.30pm India time and streamed live on YOUTUBE and FACEBOOK on the UCLA page was taken down IMMEDIATELY after the event. Why? The various presentations had takeaways to think about and discuss further, especially for young dancers and budding dance scholars, but a reluctance, even silence in debating with those who may disagree with the presenters was evident.
The allusions to "purging" Bharatanatyam of its current upper caste/Brahmin domination, "ceding space" to hereditary artistes and the "problem of Brahmin gatekeepers in Chennai" were spoken. This discussion, coming within a week of the deadly domestic terrorist incident of January 6th when white supremacists stormed the US Capitol building drew an eerie parallel. A strong subtext (not stated but implied) by the mostly upper caste Indian male scholars at the discussion seemed to be "STOP THE STEAL" and "DRAIN THE SWAMP."
Gallows were erected on January 6 outside the US Capitol building. Are similar gallows being constructed as a metaphor? Who are the accused? How far back in history?
Who then will be the new leaders? And, more importantly, who will be the new audience, the new musicians, performers, teachers, students and dancers?
Victimhood rarely demands accountability.
What has converted these competent dance scholars and performers into enemies of their own constituency?
Each of the speakers had useful ideas, but, for me, the voices of both hereditary women were the most interesting. Yashoda Thakore calmly stated that she wanted to be called a "DEVADASI" and not a COURTESAN artiste. Nrithya Pillai delivered her written speech with her expected passion. Both women spoke with complete conviction of lives lived in the arts. Both were far more compelling than the upper caste male voices who used their academic and activist cover to freely pontificate and cast aspersions, veiled and unveiled against the Chennai based Bharatanatyam community.
Carnatic vocalist and public intellectual TM Krishna admitted to his Brahmin privilege and how it has enabled and continues to aid him in his career. His admission of being unable to hear the original "Carnatic sound" before it was manipulated into the modern day concert format was interesting. What then is the discussion about the Bharatanatyam visual? I myself, trained in the Kalakshetra model, find today's global Bharatanatyam unrecognisable from my early training.
One aspect of the Music vs Dance question is that music can enter any space, through the smooth marble of mosques or a sliver of a stained glass window of a church. You can close your eyes and listen to verses from the SEERAPURANAM composed by Tamil Islamic scholar UMARUPULAVAR (17th century), or Christian songs from BETHLEHEM KURAVANJI (18th century) written by VEDA SASTRIGAL.
Carnatic musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers have both attempted verses from BETHLEHEM KURAVANJI over the past 2 decades but with not much success.
More than listening to the music, it is the entry of the FEMALE DANCING BODY in the equation that radically alters the politics. A male voice vs a female body raises the problematic politics of gender, form and feminist discourse.
Hard on the heels of the UCLA round table conversation came the special publication CONVERSATIONS: DECOLONISING DANCE STUDIES, from the Dance Studies Association (DSA) in the US (a merging of the Society for Dance History Scholars, SDHS, and the Congress of Research on Dance, CORD). This new body, DSA, attempts to engage the global happenings and trends in the world with academic rigour.
The current issue of CONVERSATIONS, edited by two of the DSA board members (both upper caste themselves), rather simplistically eludes the societal outrage against systemic racism in the US with the "BURDEN" of caste in India's dance scene. No India based academic voice was invited to contribute except for the lone voice of performer Nrithya Pillai, whose words and tone in the article are very familiar to select audiences through her active social media platforms. The absence of significant India-based dance historians, or those based in other parts of the world, devalued those who have contributed to the early understanding of Bharatanatyam and its entanglement with caste and community, as well as demonstrating the British game of "divide and rule".
This unsavoury pull and tug of power is leading some dancers to write long Facebook notes in an apologetic tone about practising a form that is riddled with caste politics. These same dancers are currently under the stewardship of upper caste/ Brahmin scholars.
Watching this battle of words and ideologies from afar, I believe, more deeply than ever before, that all the young dancers are not sheep to be herded and that they are watching, listening and making up their own minds. They are also looking for ways to enhance their knowledge, working through their blind spots in dance history and uncovering new layers of purpose and process their own practice.
#GUARDING THE GATES
Over the past several months, there has also been a recurring chant from overseas artistes. That Chennai is not "interesting" any more. That there are "gatekeepers" who are all or mostly Brahmin and that the power brokers "ensure" that outsiders are not welcome. How mistaken this is! I have already written on several occasions, that Chennai is filled with a self importance that is not realistic. That the power centres of Bharatanatyam have shifted out of this city to many centres around India and the world. That dancing here is NOT the marker of success. And the imaginary bogeyman/woman as a zealous "dwarapalaka" is a fiction of one's own insecurities.
Chennai is welcoming, open and embracing of good work. In any space - on terraces, balconies, courtyards, living rooms, water bodies, gardens and abandoned warehouses - visiting artistes have performed and have been embraced. AND reviewed. Informal spaces are never considered review worthy in the WEST. So, make up your mind AFTER a visit. Not by building imaginary walls in your mind.
Besides, in Chennai or anywhere in India, NRI artistes arrive on tourist visas and perform in professional festivals. And get paid! Try that in Europe, UK, USA or Canada! You cannot step onto a stage or a university lecture hall without a professional business visa. As I write this, the Indian Government is clamping down on visitors entering for leisure and blithely misusing their visas for commercial purposes. USA has raised the fee for visiting artistes and India too is increasing the cost of the business visa. Will the Indian presenters now be forced to report the work visa of performing artistes like the US and the UK do?
Adyar K Lakshman
When Lakshman Sir left NATYALAYA in 1966, my sister Pritha and I were the direct beneficiaries of his knowledge and talent. For 6 days a week we studied with him and unknowingly, several aspects of Kittappa Pillai's influence seeped into our new choreographies. An example was the Rupaka Talam Ragamalika Varnam NITHYA KALYANI. Here one TEERMANAM (the rhythmic phrase in a varnam) was completely replicated. TA TA JAM, TA TA NAM, TA TA RUM, TA TA DI is a traditional Jathi that is familiar in Tanjavur hereditary dance circles. As is also the method of using the "tamrachuda" HASTA held near the cheek for the famous Hindolam Tillana of Madurai N Krishnan.
The entire 5 beat Pancha Nadai that comes at the end was choreographed with only the feet responding to the rhythms while the single hand was held continually in the same "Mudra". Here again, Lakshman Sir was referencing Kittappa Pillai's dance classes with Vyjayantimala.
Lakshman Sir's unusual style of nattuvangam, the dynamism of his spoken pneumonic phrases, his voice modulation with dramatic flair, the flourish towards the end of a phrase were all direct inspirations from his idol Guru Kittappa Pillai. The sheer vigour of Lakshman Sir's presence while conducting Yamini Krishnamurthy's shows was attributed to Kittappa Pillai's aura on stage as he conducted performances for his many famous students. These facts have been borne out by Guru KPK Chandrasekaran (Kittappa Pillai's son) and Lakshman Sir's younger brother, Gopinathan Rao.
Being an accomplished mridangist, Guru Adyar K Lakshman would observe the percussion artiste at every performance. He was a great admirer of T Ranganathan's style of playing for his celebrated sister Balasaraswati. The singular manner of softly "rolling" the fingers over the surface to produce a gentler sound during the walk back of the dancer and other nuances were keenly observed. He advised his younger brother Gopinathan to adapt to that method while playing for Balasaraswati's grandson Aniruddha Knight.
On one crowded SIVARATRI night in Chidambaram, 14 years ago, Lakshman Sir pushed through the throng and pulled Aniruddha and his cousin, Carnatic vocalist Tiruvarur Girish to follow him. All dance had been forbidden that day due to the massive assembly of devotees. The senior guru and the junior dancer had met just minutes earlier in the crowd - both having arrived separately to participate in the celebrations. Lakshman Sir cleared a small space, sat down and shouted to Aniruddha "Start now!". And the performance unfolded! The crowds parted just enough to give space to the dancer, mridangist, singer and nattuvanar to offer their prayers through performance!
Towards the end of Lakshman Sir's life, Aniruddha Knight rehearsed at his dance academy in Chennai. Even though extremely unwell, he would insist on being carried on his chair to watch the rehearsals, and in between gasping breaths, instructions would be passed on to his brother to play while always watching the dancer's hand gestures..
Adyar K Lakshman - my guru - was open to influences and not a fanatic of any one form. His world view of dance and Bharatanatyam was influenced by his guru Rukmini Devi. From Rukmini Devi he inherited an open minded approach to dance, teaching, performance and choreography.
Imagine this... a student of Rukmini Devi- now termed a "revivalist", working with a scion of the hereditary family of Tanjavur Balasaraswati. A graduate of Kalakshetra - the academy where "modern Bharatanatyam" was born, being inspired by hereditary artistes.
Such historical examples of positive collaborations between communities underline the fact that cultural and social economics are linked, and that art flows best when shared. It is instructive to remember the words of Martinique poet and essayist, Aime Cesar, in his DISCOURSE ON COLONIALISM, that "it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds... that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen".
And so, amidst the continuing pandemic and its successful rampage across the globe, artistes are persisting. But Indian classical dancers have largely stayed insular and self absorbed. Have they missed a chance to assert their presence? The recent list of the Padma awards does not contain a single dance name. One dancer DID get the Padma Shri (Wayan Dibia from Indonesia) but he’s not from India. Have dancers been relegated to the furthest margins of the mind screen? Are we our own worst enemies?
And yet, artistes are gathering once again. Performances on stage are unfolding all through this month, with caution. Dancers are travelling and sharing processes. Classical and contemporary dance events are being announced with limited seating and safety protocols in place. I am excited to watch an event this month as, I am sure, many of my colleagues are.
As many artistes mark landmark birthdays and ruptures in personal lives, this pandemic has taught us that we need less although we may want more. That we have an opportunity to reset out goals but never lose focus.
So, let us call our spirits back from its wandering. It may return in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
I close with hope and the cool mist that passes before my window echoes this.
Until next month,
- Anita R Ratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Learning Kuchipudi at Kuchipudi Art Academy was for free (I have no idea about what is happening at the academy now.). Guru Sri Vempati Chinna Sathyam and his son Vempati Ravishankar had not charged any fees to teach Kuchipudi. I have seen Ravi working hard while choreographing a new dance piece and teaching that (for free) to his students, and today those same students are selling those dance pieces by the name of Vempati Ravishankar's choreography (using the name of Vempati to market their recording). Guru Sri Chinna Satyam and Ravi both have given everything to their students selflessly including recording of the Kuchipudi items....now some of the students are selling these recordings for whooping 80,000 Rs., 8000$ for 6 items choreographed by Vempati Ravishankar.
- Maitreya (Feb 11, 2021)
Post your comments