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In search of the 'authentic' in the Performing Arts
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Delhi

September 29, 2005

When we talk about 'authenticity' we are implying the whole spectrum of 'tradition ' that goes into making an authentic and revered art form. But at what point tradition walks into the zone of the non-traditional, is itself a very thin razor's edge. This is true even while talking only of the technique and the vocabulary of dance. If the focus is only 'aharya' it becomes a debate on 'auchitya,' good taste. Nothing else. After all, even the Maharis did not use odhnis and the 'traditional' dress, complete with a diaphanous odhni can look grotesque, at times, when draped over an ungainly body. When the odhni-less dancers of Ramli's troupe are being discussed, no one who has watched him and his disciples can ever accuse them of bad taste. Nor can one forget the stunning perfection of their technique, totally Odissi and totally traditional, even when it has a somewhat modern feel.

As far as the 'aharya' debate is concerned, what is relevant or ought to be, then, is the body which is clothed in it. The body in Ramli's dancers is an impeccable instrument of movement, never drawing attention to itself but only to the dance.

Come on, Orissa! Why not try to produce a Ramli in your state? After all, ever since Sanjukta passed away, Orissa has not produced one dancer of equal calibre, not even female, what to talk about a male! Reflect on that and let the presence or absence of an odhni remain the trivia which it actually is.

So, what exactly is the nature of the authentic that the critic looks for in a performance? What determines authenticity? Who is the ultimate arbiter of this supposedly desirable quality of art? Does it reside in following, phrase for phrase, "bol" by "bol" the guru and if so, what happens when the guru lacks authenticity? Can one use tradition and authenticity interchangeably? Does an art form become authentic simply because it is being performed more or less the way it was fixed in time several decades ago? Or is authenticity something else again?

I am going to try and answer some of these questions by looking at the definition of the word "authentic" itself. It is derived from the Greek "authentikos" whose root is "Autos", meaning the self and "entea", meaning tools or instruments. In a general sense, then, it means that which has genuine authority as opposed to that which is false, fictitious or counterfeit. So how do I, as a critic, supposed to offer scholarly, aesthetic debate through a daily newspaper's forum, itself a prisoner of space and deadlines, decide what has true authority as against something that is spurious? It is no special feat to determine authenticity and high art retrospectively, after several people have expressed their views and raked up hidden issues. The Indian critic is rarely so favorable positioned. In any case, immortality awards are best left to our descendants to confer or withhold. We need to analyze the nature of authenticity in our creative arts, like dance and music, even as they are being created, here and now. This requires looking back at some of the works that have moved one and elicited from me the encomium "authentic" in its widest and most complimentary sense. They are those that fit the definition of the word that the Greeks must have intended. In other words, it derives from the quality of the relationship between the self and the tools or the instruments it uses to express itself. The more honest and single-pointed this relationship, the more authentic is the art that emerges.

In a very profound way, this takes us to the proposition that the dancer's tools are not just the grammar and the syntax of, say, Bharatanatyam, but more fundamentally her body and the energy that suffuses it. It means that personality in a dancer, or any actor for that matter, is of two kinds. The first relates to what may be called social personality such as the kind we notice when we say "That's a pretty girl" or That's a funny fellow." The second kind of personality has to do with the dancer as an instrument. When he or she is a person of fluent emotional nature, quick sensory reaction, mobility of inner constitution, a person with an expressive, may be even melodious voice, natural grace, commanding, proportionate figure, imagination, impressionability and temperament and if such a person has also a command over the material of a dance form, the resulting material would most likely be authentic. By themselves technical neatness and fluency, the mere mechanics of dance can't create that authenticity that we are talking about.

I would like to illustrate by an example of a dancer whose work was outside the pale of authentic dance as we narrowly interpret the word but which struck me as deeply authentic the moment I first saw it some 15 years ago. This was Chandralekha's Navagraha, a group composition with two soloists and seven associate dancers on the theme of the nine planets. The soloists were Chandralekha and Kamadeva and when they came dancing onstage from the wings, to take up positions facing each other, it was clearly not Bharatanatyam as one had seen it performed so far, always focussed in a solo, frontal frame. Then, as in her later works, "Angika," "Leelavati" and the latest, "Shree," the authenticity lay, despite the turning of Bharatanatyam on its head, in the use of the tool, the body. For over a decade one found oneself in a minority of critics, defending one's views against the charge of being avant garde and therefore unauthentic. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has conferred its award on Chandralekha and at a recent festival in Palermo, Italy, she was singled out for her contribution to an authentic language of dance that was specifically Indian but had universal communicability. It was the same quality of something over and above just dance or music, a certain degree or quality of human experience that made me stop short decades ago, as a critic, on hearing Kumar Gandharva. Those gushing, volatile "Taans," those passionate and vehement phrases, disregarding all the rules of the Ragas, those glowing fireworks of the voice that brooked no barrier… at that time they were considered offensive to the purist, seeking another kind of authenticity. But now, so many years later no one questions the place of Kumar Gandharva in the musical firmament. In other words, the issue of authenticity has been decided by the very court of appeal before which such artistes place their case, the larger body of Rasikas.

In her latest work, Shree, Chandralekha has used certain "walks" that capture the theme of the work, the enslavement of women, more profoundly than any feminist manifesto could. At one level, the movements are very real. The slow movement of women sweeping the floor, of dragging their bodies the way they drag out their entire existence, their flops when the bodies are bent in a humiliated mass of suffering… all these have a "real" look. And yet the reason they move us and can be called authentic is not because of this realism - any of the photographs of suffering women in our daily newspapers are more real, but because they are derived from dance. Everything is said from within the boundaries of dance, from within its spaces and its timings. As Chandralekha herself says, "Even when dragging yourself, the body cannot be loose. The spine must continuously search for itself. There can be no faking about the extremities of the spine. If you want to say that your backs are broken, it is the vigor of the spine that has to convey the message." It is the relationship between "autos," the self and "entea," the tools, in this case the body, that decides the kind of authenticity that is generated. Using the dynamics of body energy, the tension that is released by the opposition of contrary energies, "Shree's" dancers effectively convey being pushed back against the wall by actually fighting back the momentum of the movement. While in the case of the self, the difference is not in the skill but in the stuff of life out of which art is made, the instrument, the body, has to be trained and honed for the required expression.

I would like to cite another example in which I have had to weigh the seemingly contrary evidence that the dancer is presenting before one's eyes and the total feel of authenticity that one gets from the finished work. This was from Sonal Mansingh's recent experiments with fusing some movements from Chhau with Odissi to create a vehicle for her conceptual works on the Jagannath and Shree theme. Some others, soon after, tried the same route but with less success. I asked myself why one worked and other did not. The reason, I felt lay, in the latter's lack of preparedness in both the self and its tools. There was a heavy reliance on decorum, leading to decorativeness. If you decorate a thorn, it will lose its sting. Too much ornamentation on a dagger will make it look like a flower, not what it was intended to be. To convey the tandava mood, the movements can't be allowed to be the lasya variety.

I would like to conclude with an invitation to all dancers to remember that you, too, can achieve great, authentic art if you do not let the rat race, the publicity, the adulation and the false that is, ignorant praise take you away from yourself. The problem is not so much in gaining an opportunity as in making something of the opportunity that you get. To do this, you have to keep on polishing the instrument of your body and remember that talent is not just a possession; it is a responsibility. Even at this age, Chandralekha can perform all the difficult asanas and stances that she expects her dancers to perform. Sonal Mansingh does nearly 1,000 Bhastrikas daily. Only then does authenticity float to the top and bloom, like a lotus.

(This article was written in the mid-eighties for "The Hindustan Times" and the opening three paras were added afresh for by the author)

Shanta Serbjeet Singh is Chairperson, APPAN International.
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