1984 - Redux
- Bharat Sharma
Photos courtesy: Narendra Sharma Archives
January 17, 2021
(Reflections on the 13th death anniversary of renowned choreographer Narendra Sharma)
How to take India's dance forward...this question has been troubling dancers, choreographers, critics, connoisseurs, pundits, bureaucrats and art funders for long in India and international sphere. One way is to contrast developments in 20th century by making reference to the colonial question, East-West relations, civilizational discourse, dialectics of tradition and modern, unity and diversity, philosophical dispositions of 'self' and 'other', identity politics, gender relations, sexuality and of course the mind-body conundrum. Nevertheless, new ways of taking dance forward have come to stay, whether we like or not, and become integral part of performing arts in India - a distinct possibility, process, practice, theoretical reasoning and production of performance. Body in Performance was never culturally neutral.
In my 50th year of formal career, I thought of reflecting on events in last few decades as witness, participant and mover as an artist. 1984 was no ordinary year. There was George Orwell's dystopian novel '1984' as one pointer, but East-West tensions had peaked right through the center of Europe with a call to 'tear down The Wall'. By the end of that year, one saw the worst in Delhi - tragic assassination of a Prime Minister and pogrom against the Sikhs. One was shaken from the boots, never before I had seen such horrific scenes. Whatever was the aftermath, performing arts sector went for a toss, and has yet to recover since...
With Yamini Krishnamurti - East West Encounter, Mumbai, 1984
Let me make a chronological assessment keeping 1984 as a defining year. As a case in point, let's take East-West Encounter held at National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in January 1984. Above is a pic of me dancing as Kamadeva with Yamini Krishnamurti as Rati as opening performance of the Encounter on January 22 in Tata Theatre. So my presence was there at the beginnings... My independent solos were presented somewhere in the middle of the festival, just before Carmen De Valavad, well known Black American dancer. My performance was somewhat noticed too, and Sruti - the conservative magazine of classical arts from Chennai - put my Body on their cover, with my back to the audience.
My works were otherwise overlooked at the Encounter. One Mumbai socialite, writing in a glitzy magazine, even felt affronted by my costume - I had none! I danced a solo 'Untitled' in the nude, barring thin black undies. I was questioned privately by a pundit of 'Natyashastra' - 'Why did you show your back?!' I retorted - 'Why not!'... During discussions, I talked about my experience at Bhoomika. There has been much literature on this event, but in hindsight, its celebrated status is a bit of hyperbole. There was already a build up since the 70s, and several events thereafter were to follow that give a clearer picture of the sequence. Georg Lechner, then Director of Max Mueller Bhavan/Goethe Institute, Mumbai, the mastermind of event with a passion for dance, perhaps seized the right moment at right place. But the fault lines can be deciphered from the concept note of the event.
This cleverly worded note succinctly gives a continental map on developments in dance in 20th century - in the East and the West - but with a Euro-centric perspective, and that too from the perspective of a divided Germany. Cold War, Counter-Culture, Anti-War Movements, Flower Children, Freedom, Anti-Communism, State Power, Post-Modernism were all part of heady conundrum that made the idea of European 'Space' a problematic issue, and her unification in Post-Colonial world even more complex. And the resonance stretched from Vietnam, Bangladesh, to University campuses in Paris and Berkley, in Europe and the US since the 60s. In India this had a fallout in the form of Emergency in mid-70s. As such, Post-War dance needs to be seen afresh, now that Soviet Union is gone and The Wall had a Fall...
In dance, the note tracks Classical Ballet from Italy and France to Russia, and there was always a feud between American and German dance as to who invented Modern Dance movement in 20th century. Asia, as part of the East, despite Max Mueller's eulogy of India as 'Light of Asia', was described as an amorphous region where performance traditions were acknowledged with long history, even longer than Classical Ballet. A statement of intent followed the mapping, that India needed a 'new direction in dance'...Of course the venue itself was of importance - NCPA - a symbolic space where State/Corporate/Private Philanthropy in performing arts was at loggerheads from late 60's. Perhaps the affluent and influential Parsee community, with philanthropy of Tatas in the lead, in commercial capital of Mumbai, became a potent site to 'engage' the Body with an 'angst' of Indian dance. A strange version of dialectics of 'de-constructing' Bharatanatyam and Kathak was to emerge from this encounter.
Another key point in note was the reference to Fritjof Capra's book 'Tao of Physics' published in 1975. Science and Culture, in a New Age/Third Wave construct of Green Politics, was yet again pitted against the Body, this time on the iconography of Nataraja. Currently, a statue of Nataraja stands outside European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, on France / Switzerland border, where research is continuing to decipher the mysteries of 'Black Hole' - extending Mankind's study of Matter. But there was yet another Nataraja that was creating problems in South India - one in the holy temple of Chidambaram...
Chidambaram Temple was under Archaeological Survey of India, and Department of Culture in Delhi forced the gates to be opened for a Bharatanatyam dancer to get to the very Source - to propitiate Nataraja in the sanctum sanctorum - as a divine offering, completely challenging the 'secular' space of performance. This time the bells were ringing from Chidambaram to CERN, in the perceptions of Quantum Theory. Few decades earlier, another major conflict had erupted worldwide - Robert Oppenheimer had quoted from Krishna's discourse in Bhagawad Gita, at the detonating of Atom Bomb in 1945 in the US - 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds'.
Tragically, entire burden of 'self-pride' fell on Indian Dancer's Body, this time through the agency of Nataraja. On one side there was already an ongoing battle to get rid of 'Temple' and 'Shastra' politics that had entered blood and veins of performing arts, and on the other, there was expectation for dancers to dwell in Atomic Theory! These cross-currents of texts, translations, imagery and iconography are problematic, and artists often have to wade through perceptions that are not of their making.
Interestingly, Shanta Serbjeet Singh's review following the Encounter in Hindustan Times, Delhi, quotes the same premise as a beginning... In the same write-up there is yet again an intriguing nugget - she wrote under the column 'Ballet' in Hindustan Times of Delhi. This clearly acknowledged that there was some animal hovering around as 'Ballet' before the Encounter. Even more interestingly, in a section on fascinating dance films, the Encounter started with the screening of Uday Shankar's magnum opus 'Kalpana!' As such, there were undercurrents that were being overlooked...
When my male body stood alongside Yamini Krishnamurti's female persona in the inaugural performance at the Encounter, there was something else I was bringing on the stage. From 1982-83, I got a fellowship of Asian Cultural Council, USA to study Modern Dance in New York. This was in recognition of my work in India, my lineage and Bhoomika. Earlier in 1979, Uttara Asha Coorlawala helped to get me a full-scholarship at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Massachusetts which turned out be a dreamlike exposure to American dance. By January 1982, I began to slog in the studios of New York. Here a friend, Sheela Raj, a dancer who had settled in France and danced earlier in Twyla Tharp's company in 60s in New York, guided me to take classes at Merce Cunningham Studio and Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab.
Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, New York, 1983
I stayed at Westbeth across Hudson River in Manhattan, in a first-floor studio apartment - and Cunningham Studio was on 11th floor. So my mornings were spent at Dance Lab and in evening I took the lift to take classes in spacious Cunningham Studio on the roof. In summers I made my first visit to American Dance Festival, Durham, often quoted as Mecca of Modern Dance. I fell for Betty Jones's Limone technique, Jazz and Improvisation. My training in Mayurbhanj Chhau helped me to connect with Limone technique's fall and recovery, and fluidity of Betty's technique. On my return to New York I gave up on Cunningham technique and continued with Limone's. All through my fellowship I was seeing performances almost 4 times a week. New York was on the boil and there was lot to absorb.
In a visit to Chicago in summer of 1982, I met Joan Erdman, a dance scholar who was researching on the career of Uday Shankar, and told her my comfort level at Nikolais/Louis Dance. In the Lab there was yet another key person who was teaching - Hanya Holm. She was a colleague of Mary Wigman (the German pioneer of Modern Dance) who had settled in the US when Adolf Hitler was rampaging Germany. Joan explained to me that my comfort was partly because of the structure of classes - technique, improvisation and composition. This was my father's way... Why? Because Zohra Segal, a key pedagogue at Uday Shankar's seminal Almora School (1939-43) in Uttarakhand, had studied under Mary Wigman in 1930s in Dresden. This was all turning out to be fascinating!
Hanya Holm at the Lab was teacher of the old school... One day she taught leg extensions for full 3 hours, while lying on the floor. I had to take one week off because I could not get off my bed! But Alwin Nikolais (fondly called Nik), her student, on the other hand had interesting ideas on the Body. He had returned from France, along with Merce Cunningham, in taking American Modern Dance to Paris. He was revered out there! He also saw the Body-politics of the times in its Home. He was a Russian émigré, had fought in the trenches of World War II, and was ardent follower of Bauhaus School in the US.
Nik had two interesting thoughts that I remember. He often repeated: Mind-Body dichotomy is too limiting. There are multiple points of departure marked on the entire human form. One could start from anywhere and create a universe of one's own. He had developed improvisation exercises to elaborate on them. And then, another idea that had scientific moorings - each Cell of the Body is an independent entity, having intelligence and memory of their own. Give them a chance to think and dance, Body will be free...
On my return to India in January 1983, my father immediately gave charge to train dancers at Bhoomika. So morning 3 hours were mine, and post-lunch 3 hours his. No interference in each other's work, although as a dancer I attended both sessions. Along with repertory work, I experimented and chose selectively from all my experiences to develop a series of exercises that could animate an Indian dancer, even taking liberty to introduce elements from American techniques - like the six positions, floor routines, and improvisation method of Nikolais/Louis technique; fluidity from Betty Jones's fall and recovery technique; covering of space across the floor, pretty much the norm in New York studios; and structuring classes from warm-ups to combinations. Perhaps this was the first time American techniques were introduced in the field of Indian 'Ballet'.
As Bhoomika's work progressed, my father informed me that he had received a message from Keshav Kothari, then Secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi, that Yamini Krishnamurti was planning a new 'Ballet' and was looking for a male partner, and I should contact her immediately. I could not believe this! I had seen Yamini ji's fireball performances since childhood in Sapru House, Kamani and other venues. I held her artistry in awe. So approaching her I clearly said - I have no training in Bharatanatyam although I had learnt Kathakali briefly. She reassured me that she wanted to look afresh...
For one full month I reported promptly, to see closely the doyen at work in her house in Rabindra Nagar. And for three weeks I saw scholar K S Srinivasan working on a script with the doyen on 'Vedas' with the musicians in attendance.
K S Srinivasan had earlier seen my performance in 'Wolf-Boy' of my father, and in his review in Times of India, had categorized my dance as 'bagful of monkey tricks', although I had danced a half-man, half wolf persona!
Few days before the performance, I still had no idea what I was supposed to do. So I braced myself to ask Yaminiji, what was my role? She said I had to be Kamadeva, and gave me few 'taki ta taka dhimi' (7 beat) steps. And then K S Srinivasan explained that it was part of an elaborate marriage ritual, with Vedic chants, 'hawan' and 'agni' that was to be enacted on stage that I was supposed to complete with 7 'pheras' (sacred rounds). I was flabbergasted! This business of being 'authentic' was going haywire. Performance was in 2 days, and there was no way I could have opted out!
There were other interesting interludes that finally compelled me to stand as Kamadeva in this 'Vedic Ballet', standing like a statue most of the time. Delhi critics panned it thoroughly thereafter... I went into a depression. Yamini ji called me and we had a good chat. In January, all of sudden a call came that 'Vedic Ballet' is going to be the opening performance of East-West Encounter! Georg Lechner cajoled me to perform in it since I was already called to perform my solos. During the discussions after the performance, critics and dancers yet again panned the presentation! That was the end of my tryst with 'Vedas' in 'Ballet'...
Why I took time to dwell on this was to give insights into the 'classical vs contemporary' that was already animating the dance world for decades. Right here in Delhi! I was 27 as Kamadeva then, full of energy, flexibility and ideas, with a recently acquired training in American dance. The doyen was decades older to me. Despite mutual respect, we couldn't get anywhere. This schism continues to run through the dance scene even today...male-female body or otherwise...
American Dance Festival
Yet again there was a significant event that happened in June, 1984 - this time in the US. During my fellowship in New York, I got introduced to Charles Reinhart, the eminent dance impresario who was also Director of American Dance Festival (ADF). In the summers I went to study at ADF in Durham, and we began talking. He got interested in happenings in India. I talked about the legacy of Uday Shankar. He was aware of his historic tours in the US, but not the aftermath. By the end of fellowship, I had prepared my first programme of solos that I presented at Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab. Charles Reinhart came and saw. And the ball began to roll...
For the celebration of 50th anniversary of ADF he visited India to make a survey. He decided to invite Uday Shankar's Dance Company from Kolkata, under the direction of Amala Shankar, to present dances from surviving repertoire of the maestro's tours earlier in the US. After their performance, the group gave a workshop to introduce Shankar's methodology. Charles also brought Astad Deboo and me to share a programme of solos which became my international debut. The festival also marked the beginning of ADF's International Residency Programme with Astad and me in it. The festival was also dedicated to Balasaraswati, Martha Hill, Louis Horst, John Martin. New York Times gave a spacious review. This was a breakthrough!
Back home, I again returned to working with Bhoomika with more vigor. A plethora of events, thereafter, began to unfold in following years despite political setback at national level. There was also an interest in State/Private agencies in this new phase of 'how to take India's dance forward'. For some strange reason, by design or default, I waded through most of these events. As such, a short survey of events is called for at this stage...
During the Emergency in 1976 & 1977, Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) made the first attempt after Independence to have 'Ballet' festivals that commissioned new works of groups from different parts of India. Under the leadership of Mohan Khokar, a suggestion was made that new dance movement could be named 'free style'. That could not go far as choreographers were comfortable to continue with the word 'Ballet'. Despite the success of the festivals, these forums for new choreography were shelved till 1984. In 1985, SNA stepped in once again and under the leadership of Keshav Kothari, SNA began to present its own version of 'new choreography' in New Delhi while a second East-West Encounter was held in NCPA, Mumbai.
Bhoomika's 'Prarthana,' 1987
In the SNA Festival, Bhoomika premiered its path-breaking work 'Antim Adhyaya' - a commentary on the phenomena of Death. Pundits yet again confronted my father - 'Natyashastra does not allow Death to be shown on stage!' He replied, 'Why not?!' In the seminar during the festival there were lively discussions. One key member from Mumbai Encounter who was invited censured a whole generation of choreographers on the 'muck' that was being produced and presented by SNA. I protested on this arrogance that was being displayed!
In 1987, SNA yet again did a major festival on Tagore's 150th birth anniversary. This time Bhoomika premiered a fresh work 'Prarthana' based on Tagore's poetry 'Where the mind is without fear...' Earlier ADF, Durham commissioned a new work from me. I premiered 'Utthaan' (The Rising) with 6 dancers, and later I remounted the same dance on dancers of Bhoomika.
However, there was a significant change in defining new choreography with Tagore's festival in 1987. SNA chose to showcase works of both theatre and dance groups under a broad rubric of Dance-Theatre - perhaps a re-think on paradigm of performance to mirror the nature of Asian performance traditions, or vision of Tagore or for that matter align with the Brechtian-model of Total Theatre. This was to have a major effect in subsequent years... However, it was clear that the idea of new choreography was recognized, albeit in an 'Indian way.'
Padatik's Theatre Seminar, Kolkata, 1987
Between 1985-90, Padatik in Kolkata took the initiative to hold two festival-seminars on theatre and dance in collaboration with UNESCO's International Theatre Institute (ITI). While in the first, Eugino Barba from Odin Theatre, Denmark expounded on his version of Theatre Anthropology around the concept of Body, while dance got sidelined despite the presence of international stalwarts in the seminar, including Russian Bolshoi Chief Yuri Grigorovich and Robin Howard, founder of London Contemporary Dance School. In another festival, representatives from Mumbai Encounter were first time presented in Kolkata. After giving my solos, Sunil Kothari wrote in a review that I had created a unique niche for myself!
In 1989 in Bengaluru, Protima Bedi took the initiative to have a festival as a precursor to setting up Nrityagram. Along with performances, a significant seminar was organized in collaboration with National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) to suggest guidelines for dance education in schools. A document was formulated with a panel consisting of U S Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi, Tripura Kashyap, Chandra Jain and myself, and sent to the ministry in Delhi. Nothing came of it, and recommendations continue to lie in dustbin! In Delhi, Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi Administration's cultural wing, organized 2 big festivals from groups within the city. In Bhopal in 1989, Rang Sri Little Ballet Troupe organized a festival and seminar in memory of their founder Shanti Bardhan. I gave a lecture on India's 'Ballet' movement at first Shanti Bardhan Memorial Lecture.
First Shanti Bardhan Memorial Lecture, 1989
International Festival of Dance
Mother of all festivals happened in 1990 when first International Dance Festival in Delhi was organized by ICCR, SNA and Delhi administration with American support. This was unprecedented, and perhaps the biggest representation in preceding decades, where groups came from far and wide. In multiple venues major dance companies from several countries performed, including Poland, Indonesia, Venezuela, Argentina, France, and even a fresh modern dance company from China. Interestingly, from the US came my teachers' Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab. Separately, American Dance Festival (ADF) had a residency organized for dancers from different styles and dance companies of India. Teachers included Betty Jones, Sarah Pearson, Donald McKayle and others. A separate festival was organized to showcase India's approach to new choreography with Bhoomika's 'Antim Adhyaya' as the concluding event. Press came out with profuse coverage for the entire festival.
A separate seminar was held at FICCI Auditorium on 'Pluralism in Indian Classical Dance' spearheaded by Kapila Vatsyayan. I attended 2 sessions and was taken aback by speaker after speaker going in tizzy about 'self-pride' - everything other than the classical styles was seen as 'western' and run down. Even the theoretical concept of Body in Performance was suspect... so much so that an American participant had to point out - 'Body has a spine; a tongue doesn't have one!' I often wonder why this seminar has not seen the scrutiny of scholars.
But there were other issues at play although there was every reason to believe that India was ready for a regular international festival of dance for exchange of ideas and presentation of art work, pretty much like India International Film Festival (IFFI)...This idea was yet again shelved, and 9 years down the line National School of Drama (NSD) started their annual Bharat Rang Mahotsava (Bharanagam) with some representation of 'contemporary dance' tagged along on the sidelines. This is what I had pointed out earlier, that the idea of Dance-Theatre subsumed new choreography as an extension of Theatre in Indian context. This was a mixed blessing. Theatre in India has been more receptive to new choreography, given its 'progressive' persona. But representation in Bharangam of 'contemporary dance' has been peripheral ever since.
In 1993, there was yet again another East-West Encounter in Delhi, organized by India International Centre and Max Mueller Bhavan with same format of performances and discussions. I presented a solo Rippi Rippi Di Rippi Kora (based on a tribal tale), and 2 duets - Dwand (Conflict) and Homage - the last as a tribute to Safdar Hashmi, a theatre activist who was murdered in 1989 in outskirts of Delhi performing a street play. Discussions in subsequent days were now limited to preset agendas, and every argument was ram-shackled into one particular direction. 'New directions in Indian dance' had yet again closed in. Contentious idea was - 'Why the center of India's Body was shifting outside India.' I wonder yet again, why this seminar has not been scrutinized by scholars!
Collaboration with Daksha Sheth
Soon after, I shifted to Bengaluru as part of the first team to set up India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), independent grant-making agency with support from Ford Foundation and Tata Trusts. While I slogged to give shape to the new organization, I took time off to devote energy to my chosen field and passion...
In mid-80s' Bhoomika had performed in the city. I had performed solos and taken several workshops. Bengaluru always had an openness with its salubrious atmosphere and sophisticated intelligentsia. Besides, the burgeoning IT industry was beginning to put the cosmopolitan city on global map spurring exponential expansion of urban development. The city was also a hub of Non-Profit/NGO sector, expounding on various issues of 'development'. Culturally I also found the city at a safe distance from 'sabha system' of Chennai.
In dance, I had known the presence there of US Krishna Rao, Chandrabhaga Devi, Lalitha Srinivasan and the reclusive Shanta Rao. There was a subdued 'sabha system' of Karnatic Music, visual art hub at Chitra Kala Parishad and a vibrant theatre community. Natya Institute of Kathak & Choreography had already shifted base from Delhi to their new campus in Malleswaram. Nrityagram was active with Protima Bedi launching 'gurukulams' and several well attended cultural extravaganzas in her campus in Hessarghata. And there was this mythical flavor of Svetslav Roerich and Devika Rani estate and lingering legacy of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya.
There was no doubt a buzz in place when I re-located there in 1993. To begin with, I touched base with Apoorva Dance Theatre run by Tripura Kashyap, ex-member of Chandralekha's dance company who had seen me perform at the first East-West Encounter in Mumbai in 1984. She put me in touch with Alliance Francaise de Bangalore who had lovely studio facility and intimate performance space. The director allowed the space to be used for free. So while Apoorva Dance Theatre worked on their repertoire, I taught Mayurbhanj Chhau for months that culminated into an evening of demonstration of technique and dances from traditional repertoire.
Nataraj in Mayurbhanj Chhau, 1979
From there I touched base with local director of Max Mueller Bhavan who became very receptive for doing things together. In next 5 years, we did 22 events that included seminars, commissions for new choreography, performances by local groups and film screenings. Tripura Kashyap connected me to her friend Aditi De at Deccan Herald who began to give liberal space for Contemporary Dance in Sunday supplement. Full page write-ups began to appear on weekends, and I began to write regularly on different aspects of dance. Audiences began to fill performance spaces. Soon international dance companies began to perform at regular intervals. Dance companies came from Germany, France, Italy, Britain and the US. Soon Nrityagram had its international debut in New York. SNA brought in 2 festivals of 'Ballets' and there were several private initiatives, including by Prasiddha Foundation.
Some key grants were made through IFA. Soon one grantee of IFA, Attakkalari based in Aluva, Kerala, shifted base to Bengaluru introducing a British version of contemporary dance. Annual residencies were organized and soon a biennial festival began to take shape. With a dose of help from NGOs, workshops were organized in different venues on varied themes. Interestingly the audiences that poured in for the events were diverse. I made a survey - each event attracted a different set of people, signaling broad interest across art forms and interest groups. Smaller companies began to appear on the scene, and young dancers began to shift base to the city finding a congenial space for this forward movement of dance.
One nugget I found by accident one day. A friend called me over to show an 8 mm film she had discovered in another friend's archive. As she ran the film for me to identify the person, I exclaimed, 'That's Ram Gopal!' That's when it dawned on me that he was born in Bengaluru in 1912 to a person of royal lineage and Burmese mother. I did a bit of research and wrote a piece for Deccan Herald. I knew of the great debate my father had told me of competitive perception in public domain between careers of Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar in the 30's. Some felt Ram Gopal had better technique while others felt Uday Shankar was more innovative. Nevertheless, there is little research as to why Uday Shankar returned to India, and Ram Gopal stayed back in London after World War II.
Ram Gopal's persona also ran through East-West Encounter in 1984, and the inauguration of Nrityagram. However, despite the prevalent 'son-of-soil' theory there is no memorial yet on Ram Gopal in Bengaluru - a sad commentary on preserving our artistic memory!
By 1999, I quit IFA to return to the field and took up a project of building a performance circuit for contemporary dance. I felt too much was left on dancers' shoulders to be on their own - to be a performer, choreographer, manager, storekeeper, self-publicist, accountant, fix-it person and what not... Here was a case for Bertolt Brecht's play 'Exception and the Rule' in India, in a totally inverse way! Besides, performances needed an outreach in the community, outside metropolises, to increase performance opportunities and get paid for the same.
Project Chaali, 2000-03
A formal feasibility study was undertaken for 9 months in entire South India to build a network of hosts, performance venues, audience base and interactive forums. With back-breaking travels and talking to art groups, NGOs, schools, colleges, private and public performance venues, tourist complexes, theatre institutions and like-minded individuals, a performance circuit was evolved. This initiative, christened Chaali (first walk exercises from Mayurbhanj Chhau dance style), strived to serve critical interests of dance in community by travelling on highways. Given that dance could benefit from growth of audiences, new choreography needed an appropriate life-span in performance. Besides, values of performing arts could enrich community life and education, and become a vehicle for self-reflection for artists outside the paradigm of a metropolis.
Two rounds of Highway Performance Circuits were undertaken in January-February 2001 and November-December 2002 in southern states of Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh. Each round, of approximately six-week duration, traversed more than 5000 kms on roads and accessed diverse audiences across regions and social strata. Three groups - Bhoorang (Bengaluru), Samudra (Thiruvanathapuram), Dancer's Guild (Kolkata) - offered dance repertoire that represented new choreography in Indian dance. Each round had more than 36 events - performances, workshops/lecture-demonstrations and interactive sessions with local artists. Groups travelled with their own lights and sound equipment in a van, traveling from Goa right down till Kerala along the coast line, and thereafter to Tamil Nadu to return to Bangalore. Hosts were asked to pay for each event in cash or kind. Two rounds were able to recover almost 25 percent of expenditure, and there was hope to increase income in subsequent rounds.
Project Chaali, 2000-03
Yet again, this initiative closed down because of lack of funds. But the last performance in University of Hyderabad opened up yet another avenue...
Sarojini Naidu School of Arts
In 2004, I shifted base yet again as Assistant Professor, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts (S N School) at University of Hyderabad (UOH). Interestingly, UOH was established in late 70's by an Act in Parliament, as a post-graduate academic university in South India, on par with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in North India. Schools for the Arts were activated pretty much simultaneously in 80's in both these universities.
UOH started operating from 'Golden Threshold' campus in Central Hyderabad, an estate that was donated to the nation by Padmaja Naidu, in memory of her mother, late nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu. The name 'Golden Threshold' came from a book of poetry Sarojini Naidu had written in 1905. Mahatma Gandhi had christened her 'Nightingale' because of her voice, and her ashes have been consecrated in the estate. As such, a School for the Arts was established as per family wishes. S N School was set up with an inter-disciplinary approach having Communication, Theatre, Visual Arts and Dance under one umbrella. Interestingly, while first three had a forward outlook, Dance discipline only offered degrees in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. At the outset, this became anachronistic in broad framework of S N School, and my job was reduced to teaching choreography to handful of classical students who were more interested in getting a degree than enhancing their craft.
Nevertheless, I took the initiative to develop an independent, practice-based course on Contemporary Dance and Choreography. This was the first in the country to be introduced in university system, which I steered with active support from then Vice Chancellor and School's Dean. This course was ratified by Academic Council of UOH and Board of S N School. The VC assured that there will be no dearth of funding for such an initiative.
Given below is a pic of the poster of the new Master's course that also outlines the structure of this course, and admission process began earnestly. Another accident turned the course of my journey yet again...
In December 2007, I received a small grant through Communication Department of S N School to conduct video interviews with Narendra Sharma to reflect upon his illustrious career spanning more than six and a half decades.
While boarding my flight on Christmas eve to Delhi, a series of questions crossed my mind. How was I supposed to have a critical distance in these conversations separating the personal, familial from the art, professional? What aspects of dance and his journey should I be talking? Will he open up for long sessions of questioning and probing? As I headed home, to my utter surprise, my father, whom I called Baba, was in a most receptive mood. He had prepared himself this time, and organized all his personal diaries, papers, photographs and videos from 1939 onward - tracking his journey from being a student of Uday Shankar at maestro's seminal cultural centre at Almora (1939-43), till his work at Bhoomika - his dance company - which he nurtured with love and care since 1972.
For next week we talked, for hours at end, morning and evening with the video camera running... Hail, hearty and accessible, he was quite vivid on his childhood memories and training at Almora. We covered a lot of ground till early 50's before he made a move to Delhi from Mumbai. While animatedly describing his experience, whenever in doubt, Baba would dig out a diary from his collection to emphasize a point. This was an exceptional and rare moment for me to see him in such exuberant flow...the long wait to begin this conversation with him was worthwhile!
Dance Conversations with Narendra Sharma
I had to return to university to begin a new term on January 1, 2008 as per norms, but promised him that I will return, possibly in a week, to continue this intimate dialogue. He mentioned that in first week of January 2008, German choreographer Pina Bausch was visiting Delhi to perform her latest work 'Bamboo Blues' at Siri Fort and host National School of Drama (NSD) had insisted that he, as senior choreographer, should attend the performance and felicitate Pina after her performance.
Within a few days of my return to Hyderabad, I received an emergency call from our family homeopath that Baba was hospitalized due to acute chest congestion and his condition was serious. After the performance of Pina Bausch on January 6, from what I heard from friends in the audience is this - he danced his way up to the lined up dancers at the curtain call, and presented a bouquet with a bow to Pina. Thereupon he mingled with the group backstage, had snacks and by mistake, a cold drink. Delhi was exceptionally cold in those days, and while driving back he caught a chill. He had also forgotten his grey colour Russian Ushanka cap he had bought in Moscow in 1974, which was his regular companion in winters. The chill in his chest got worse in subsequent days...
By the time I flew in morning and arrived at the hospital, Baba's condition had deteriorated due to multiple organ failure. Next day, hospital staff made a mess of his case, and he developed cardiac complications. He had to be removed to another specialty hospital. By the time his body reached there in an ambulance, doctors mentioned the situation had become worse. Next day he was put on a ventilator. On January 14, 2008, at a ripe age of 84, with no particular ailment in his body, on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti, the Spirits asked him to let go off his earthly being...soon he danced his way to a higher abode!
His demise shook me from inside. This was no way to go...when our real conversations had just begun...
When I reflect back on those days, with perhaps hidden metaphors embedded in them, all of that looks like an 'angst' of modern times. In a memorial thereafter, as a proud teacher, Zohra Segal paid glorious tribute to her student - tracing his journey as an 'ugly duckling' who had arrived from his village as a runaway boy of 14 to Almora, with 'choti' and 'khaki' shorts as a subaltern Brahmin, and became choreographer and teacher of immense achievement.
Although Pina's first visit to India started in India in 1979 with her 'Stravinsky Evening' with references to Diaghilev Era in Paris in 1910s, a kind of first wave of defections from St. Petersburg, Russia in reaction to Bolshevik Revolution. Ironically Uday Shankar's achievements, a little later, were also spill over from same upheaval in the art world in Paris. Later Pina became the founder of German Dance Theatre, picking up linkages from her mentor Kurt Jooss and Mary Wigman. Before settling in Wuppertal, she returned from her training in New York at Julliard School. As such there was a long stretch of 'cross-over' that was already in motion after World War II.
In 1997, I had a privilege to sit alone in her Wuppertal Studio to watch her rehearse 'Café Muller' (1978) for forthcoming season. 'Café Muller' was a critical break-through in terms of design and narrative, where her designer recreated macabre interiors of a restaurant, with chairs and tables strewn all around, portraying her own traumatic childhood of being brought up in a bar run by her parents in the ruinous years preceding World War II.
Next day, I saw her '7 Deadly Sins', a musical based on Kurt Weill - Bertolt Brecht's songs, portraying misogyny and patriarchy. In a meeting with Pina after the performance I remarked - 'Although you have pointed to Brecht's women as subaltern, you have re-invented the 'angst' of Brecht all over again!' - indicating to Fall of the Wall. In that tour I also saw Bill Forsythe's 'Impressing the Czar' at Frankfurt Ballet - a livid commentary in movement, of 'The West' continually 'de-structuring' her own tradition of Classical Ballet.
Some years back, in 1990, Bhoomika toured Germany, its first and last, with Baba's path breaking work in Indian contexts - 'Antim Adhyaya' (1985), a commentary on Death, differentiating the perceptions in East and West. Earlier in 1979, he had adapted Kurt Jooss's 'Green Table' into 'Conference-79'- a satire reflecting his own political times. It was a quirk of fate in January 2018 that another East-West Encounter had taken place on a platform provided by NSD. Baba was to present a bouquet to Pina Bausch, as his last public gesture. A year later, Pina Bausch passed away in 2009 at 68, apparently due to cancer from excessive smoking, and Zohra Segal passed away in 2014 at the ripe age of 102, not able to find a home in Delhi. And I was reminded of my German connection in the US through Hanya Holm in 1982-83. Was this another Dance of Death?
I am reminded of Tagore's play 'Ghare Baire' - Home and the World. Artists often look outside their windows to reflect inside one's own four walls. Which brings back the question of new directions being only looked through prism of German Dance Theatre and its inherent perspectives on Euro Body-Politics. Too much time, resource and energy has been spent on this 'angst' that has now become a cult 'guilt-in-spine' industry that flows through contours of global capital. Much has been written on this in the West itself.
I have, however, wondered why Pina did not come to Delhi via St. Petersburg where millions of Soviet mothers lost their sons liberating Berlin from Fascism at the turn of World War II...In fact, my father was entertaining Indian troops fighting for Allies and Russian Red Army in Iraq and Iran in 1944 when there was threat of Adolf Hitler's army moving south towards the Middle East. After one performance he was sexually abused by men in uniform when he was barely out of his teens! My father never had the luxury to wallow in intimate personal details in his creations at the cost of public exchequer... the personal, story-telling, formalism and approaches to negotiate violence have different meaning in Indian contemporary art.
Despite years and years of activity by many to create a critical mass of contemporary dancers in India, individual artistic journeys have continued to be seen as isolated dots on a map. As much as performance is a process, performance thrives by performance. Enlightened investments are needed to expand opportunity and audience in India, especially for groups.
Even today the term 'choreography' is seen with suspicion in India - as an alien concept. Our pasts are strong, present more complex - no Indian choreographer worth the salt will deny this. Being a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural nation, the founding fathers were wise to leave behind an epitaph at the dawn of India's Independence that still holds good for us as citizens. Dancers and choreographers are often bewildered themselves at the staggering diversity in culture. Given this context, new choreography is bound to have many point of views. In each phase of evolution, choreographers have looked for fresh sources, enriching their art much beyond the limiting role of technique and theory of classical styles.
As such, I am compelled to ask - Where are the professional support systems in India? Why is state/private/corporate funding for new choreography so abysmal? Where is the dance curriculum to be infused in National Education Policy? Where are the studios for dancers to practice, and spaces to present new works? Where are archives, research centers, documentation and dance journals? Why contemporary dance has become an elitist? What happened to dance reviews in newspapers and media? Who is speaking for choreographers, and for that matter, contemporary dance in higher echelons of power? What is the value of Body in Performance in India? Who will give jobs to dancers? There are again, more questions than answers...
East-West relations were always complex in 20th century. We are now living in Post-1989 and Post-COVID times... Wonder what is East and what is West in this context... In any case, we still are not clear of where is Asia in the East, despite Max Mueller's translations of Sanskrit texts, and how much East is within us, despite Tagore's travels in Asia. Despite Macaulay's Minutes, I am reminded of my own 'angst' of a Post-Colonial Body - as Kamadeva 36 years back in 1984!
Time for dance to move forward...
In a formal career spanning 5 decades, Bharat Sharma has been active as dancer, choreographer, composer, teacher, film maker and arts administrator. Currently he is Director of Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre, Delhi. Trained by his father in principles of choreography, he has learnt Mayurbhanj Chhau, Kathakali, Yoga and Modern techniques in the US and France.
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