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On self-expression
- Yazhini SP

November 7, 2021

In the performing arts of India, the audience is not a spectator, but a participant. This principle implies that a responsibility is placed on the audience. But does this matter concern the artist?

Today, there is a cloud of anxiety centered on the experience of dancing. It must be truthful, it must be spiritual, it must be profound, revelatory, meditative, and so on.

There is no cloud of anxiety centered on the audience. After all, the audience is "led" by the artist to the inner experience of rasa. No artist wants to be known for "playing to the gallery." The audience must be "uplifted" in a performance, from whatever low depths they have sunk into. Dancers very much care about the number of people in the audience. But as far as the craft of the dancer and the stuff of dance are concerned, the audience is an irrelevance.

Is it any surprise that the audience is abandoning dance performances? This line of fracture is not superficial.

Unfiltered, direct self-expression is a cherished value today. Social media encourages us to be our authentic selves. One's clothes and one's living room are considered forms of self-expression. One's art is no exception. But what is self-expression in art?

To understand the implications of an idea, it is sometimes useful to understand what it is not. What is the opposite of self-expression? Imitation? Falsehood? Deception? Inauthenticity? These words are inadequate, because they contain negative connotations, implying that self-expression is something inherently good. They reduce the discussion to a comparison of good vs bad, moral vs immoral. What could be an idea that's the opposite of self-expression, but is not negative?

If self-expression is about authenticity, then an opposite idea could be artifice. But artifice, or "false or insincere behavior," is essential to art making. There is artifice in a poet choosing a rhyming word, a painter picking a color, and a film editor arranging a climactic sequence. There is great artifice when an actor cries out in surprise, when a comedian times a punch line and when a dancer performs abhinaya. Artifice, however deeply embedded and made invisible in art, is what the artist uses to reach towards the audience.

If we focus on the "self" in self-expression, then an opposite idea could be expression, without self-with-a-capital-S. If one is not anxious about expressing one's "true self," then one is free to do things in art that one would never do in real life. The opposite of the self-expressive dancer is the chameleon-like dancer, whose self remains hidden from view. I don't want to call this as the "sublimation of the ego" because such a phrase once again elevates the experience of the artist as a matter of highest importance.

But for practical, performative reasons, a self that's tucked away is useful. A dancer who can change colors like a chameleon is able to surprise, amuse and convince. He is able to "become tiny or mighty, light or heavy, to become noble in virtue, to transcend heavens." A dancer whose self is constantly visible is a prisoner to the vagaries of his individual personality. He is incapable of making the audience see what he wishes to show them, because the audience cannot stop seeing him as the real person. When viewed from this angle, the opposite idea of self-expression is expressivity, or range.

Can another opposite of self-expression be stylization? The word is sometimes treated as the opposite of "the natural way of doing things." But by definition, stylization only means using a set of symbols and conventions. Our very act of using a language is stylized. A spoken language has a set of sounds, vocabulary and grammar. If we stopped conforming to these symbols and conventions, we cannot understand each other. If a dance is a language, then stylization is the material out of which it is constructed. It is the means of expression itself, self- or otherwise.

Self-expressive art is not in need of a defence. Its partners are ideas that center on the experience of the self, that is, the artist. These ideas -- immersion, spirituality, etc -- do not need defence either. In fact, this constellation of ideas has come to occupy an exalted status in the hierarchy of ideas in performing arts. They are not in need of defence, but scrutiny.

The ideas that stand in opposition to this constellation, such as range, stylization, the artifice that's inherent in craft, etc. are not exalted. They do not glitter. They certainly do not come with an attached moral high ground. But without them, self-expressive art making excludes the audience, and devolves into an exercise of mere vanity and self-indulgence.

In the performing arts of India, the audience is not a spectator, but a participant. Is there not a burden placed here, not only on the audience, but on the artist as well? Is the artist not responsible for facilitating the participation of the audience? Or are we to assume that if the artist "lives" it deeply enough, it will, through mysterious ways, matter to the audience?

The performing arts are, above all, performative. This definition does not reduce them. But quarreling with their nature makes them no art at all, at least as far as the audience is concerned.

Yazhini SP
Yazhini SP is a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Bangalore.

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