PEREGRINATIONS OF ARCTURUS
or a homage through Bharatanatyam to Swiss writer and photographer Nicolas Bouvier
by Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, Geneva, Switzerland
Nicolas Bouvier, an important icon of 20th century Switzerland traveled in the mid-1950s from his native Switzerland through the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan to finally reach India. An intriguing production was conceived and staged in his honor in Geneva on April 4,5,and 6th, 2002.
The program was carried out under the cathedral dome of the Uni-mail building with lanterns as our only lights and no microphones. To add to this, the stage was the bare floor on which various images and photographies were projected throughout the performance. Intriguing and even weird, I was thinking to myself on our first day of practice. How could I, known to be a classicist in this field, find myself with, among others, saxophonists from France, a drummer from Algeria, shaman dancers from Siberia and Greenland, and a translator for the deaf and dumb? The result, coordinated by Carlo Brandt, famous film director and actor, was a surprising and highly successful blend that had the audience calling for more. I had wondered who in heavens would come to see such a performance, but I needn't have feared. People of all ages and even the Cultural Minister and the wife and son of the late Nicolas Bouvier packed the hall, some returning to see consecutive shows.
Although the Indian team consisting of myself and the six-member orchestra who had flown in from Chennai were very conservative, the treatment we received was one of utmost respect and understanding. The other artists were only too eager to make our acquaintance and know how a nadaswaram or mrdangam are played. We were allowed to be ourselves in the midst of a sometimes alarming diversity. At first it was rather unreal and awkward, but gradually, with each practice and program, the atmosphere settled into one of exchange and most importantly, fun.
In the end, it was a true homage to a man who tried to understand and build bridges between cultures and nations. The audience and the artists became travelers themselves, travelers through distance and time to reach out and identify with the other. For me it was an eye-opener. I realized I could perform a strictly pure Bharatanatyam dance in the midst of something completely alien and still retain my identity. It was a most enriching and refreshing experience. I also realized that I was not diluting or belittling this art by interacting with artists of other disciplines. Indeed I now believe that this is bound to be a positive experience. Bharatanatyam in the Indian diaspora is bound to encounter other artistic forms. The only way to show, teach those who know little about this art and to set an example to those who use and abuse it, is to interact with other artists whilst retaining that pristine and spiritual essence of Indian art. I will continue to retain the stand of a classicist because for me, I feel this is right. However, should an opportunity like this present itself, I would do it again.
Manjula is a leading Bharatanatyam exponent based in Geneva where she runs her dance school, Silambam, an alliance of Shree Bharatalaya, Chennai.