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15th anniversary edition of Attendance: A bouquet from dancers and rasikas
- Ayswaria Wariar

July 29, 2013

The dance annual Attendance edited and published by Bangalore based Ashish Khokar, has earned quite a reputation with its themes and aesthetic sense. Its special issue on Classical Dance and Modern Times, guest-edited by Dr. SD Desai, recently launched in Delhi, deserves notice for two reasons – celebrated dancers of the country belonging to our internationally known dance forms share their thoughts on how they attempt to reach out to as many people as possible and in the process without compromising on the traditional aspects of the forms they represent.

The theme these distinguished writers focus on is of perennial relevance in the field of arts because any art form can survive only if it relates to the life and times of the people who view it. A detailed analytical reading of the articles makes it evident that it is exactly this quality of all Indian dance forms that sustains their eternal appeal. All Indian dance forms spring from a common socio-cultural-spiritual heritage as children of one mother and so share the same lineage and yet grow into separate individuals. To quote Dr. Desai, “One can see fragments of modernity getting unified and fragrant, like petals of a flower that grows looking skyward on a plant with the sap running within it drawing nourishment from the water oozing, if not gushing forth, from the soil below.”

The bouquet of 22 articles, each spread over five to six pages, well written and illustrated with enchanting pictures, will be something of a reference book for dancers and rasikas in the years to come. Their subjects have all been carefully chosen. Each flower in the bouquet has its own beauty and fragrance. The character and structure of the book align remarkably with the theme. Just as a good work of art needs an empathetic aficionado, so too the reader must willingly surrender and listen to what each dancer has to say about that great creative force which compels them to recreate life and its myriad experiences.

Art forms can generally be categorized into two broad streams. One is the Classical that appeals to connoisseurs. The other is the Popular which resonates with the masses. This book has articles that discuss the influence of the classical traditions on the popular medium as well. In introducing each article, gently guiding the reader, the guest editor becomes the Sutradhar with his prelude to the piece. Where he interacts with the contributor, he uses sagaciously framed questions such as, “What motivates a classical dancer to get modern? Is it the desire to be understood and appreciated or does it underscore the inner urge to be responsive to the reality and perhaps mould it?”

The collection has stimulating contributions by veterans like Mrinalini Sarabhai, Pt Birju Maharaj, Maya Rao, Kumudini Lakhia, Darshana Jhaveri, Kanak Rele and VS Sharma. On the other hand, there are pathfinders like Aditi Mangaldas and Rukmini Chatterjee as also young promising dancers and scholars, not to mention two knowledgeable writers on classical dance in films. It opens with the eminent arts writer Shanta Serbjeet Singh, who in her gallant style lays bare the current apathy and compromises made in the name of classical dance, exacerbated by the total disregard of our age-old traditions by the media.

Aditi Mangaldas, while articulating how she forayed into the contemporary from the classical, reveals her approach of trusting her imagination, venturing into the unknown and exploring it without fear. Contemporary, according to her, is when “you sow the seed of Kathak and water it with contemporary sensibility, so that the plant that grows has its roots in Kathak and is internally fed with contemporary sensibilities.” She describes her thought provoking productions with literary elegance and willingly shares the road map of her creative thoughts. The pictures seen with detailed explanations have the reader watch her perform on the stage of the mind’s eye! She concludes with her conviction that each of us must “have the courage to dance your own dance.” This thought is later also echoed by the four young dancers.

The beginning, thus, is with an interesting dialogue between the Sutradhar and an artiste who draws on her vast repertoire of contemporary work. This, in fact, sets the pace and context for the book.  The excerpts from the film Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Artiste and Her Art (2012) provides a bird’s-eye view of the breathtaking library of choreographic work communicating intense social, literary and dramatic themes that she has presented spanning six decades.

Painting an entirely different picture seasoned art connoisseur A Seshan voices his opinion. He discusses the recent trend of classical dance moving away from the margam tradition into thematic dances; he calls this ‘neo-classical dance.’ He refers to the surge in this kind of work, “which began as a trickle and has now developed into a flood!” One of the most important and relevant points raised by him is the dearth of traditional nattuvanaars and their diminishing status; from the pre-eminence of being the conductor, the nattunvanaar has now been reduced to being a mere member of the orchestra.

Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant’s piece To dance is to be is most definitely an inspiring read! Culled from her own life experiences, this article with intensity shares the stirring saga of a strong and dedicated dancer refusing to be defeated by cancer. It is about how she faces this fierce demon fearlessly and wins back her life. In her words, “I got ready for the surgery like I go about staging a new production!” She converts her experience of coping with and fighting off this disease, which could break many lesser mortals, into a combative and yet softly healing path of dance.

Pt Birju Maharaj, his disciple Saswati Sen and Guru Kumudini Lakhia trace the delightful journey of Kathak from the ever so traditional to the contemporary possibilities within the traditional format. One does hear a faint tinkle of love-hate relationship between traditional Kathak gurus and Indian mainstream cinema. These articles are peppered with an interesting mix of photos ranging from Pt Birju Maharaj caught on camera in a momentary nritta pose as well as poised in abhinaya to the hugely popular Madhuri Dixit and Rekha.

Dr. Kanak Rele’s authoritative article throws light on the life history of the dance forms that we know as classical. While describing Classicism and Modernism in dance, the thorough theoretician that she is, Dr. Rele drives home through apt references from Natyashastra, the ultimate text on dramaturgy, the point that our traditional art forms have always adapted to changing times by evolving continuously. If at first, dance was a part of theatre, today theatre is a part of dance! She also describes evolution of various traditional dance forms and her own fascinating quest to recreate Mohiniattam.

Travelling through various artistic points of view, major concerns, choreographic works and artistic pursuits, the reader sets out on a journey in which relevant developments in the classical dance scenario post-Independence are discussed, bringing forth the works of many more artistes. However, if at least one of the contributions had focussed on the evolution of classical dance music in contemporary times, it would have introduced a new dimension to the theme since dance and music are eternally wedded and a dancer essentially performs to music. This is particularly relevant since changes in dance are always supported by and reflected in music and vice versa. Though some of the artistes have spoken of the innovations in terms of music in their dance, one feels, this symbiotic relationship has only been touched upon and not examined in detail.

The guest editor Dr. Desai has a remarkable flair for maintaining uniformity in the articulated word, considering that there were 22 contributors! His erudite editing guarantees authenticity while ensuring easy readability. In the process of experiencing what this book offers, the reader realizes that the classical dancer in contemporary times is one complete persona - an all-inclusive package! The dancer is the script-writer, director, choreographer, and academician all rolled into one. The book has comprehensively covered many aspects and most dance forms. If the intention of the book was to understand the path traversed by the classical dances of India and the various creative and contemporary offshoots that have sprung from this sojourn owing to the social, regional and secular interactions, then clearly it has done a marvelous job.

By the end of the book the reader has a clear picture of the relevance, content and outreach of classical dance with respect to its expansion in India as well as into foreign lands. This book is a must read for all artistes and especially for those dancers engaged in meaningful dance who feel an urge to touch the sensibilities of the discerning audience. It is a book for all the ever so important rasikas too who would love to understand the working of an artiste’s mind, the sources of their creative nourishment and the constraints that they face in giving life to a work of art. It is a book for those who respect Indian culture and tradition and feel proud of what we as compassionate art lovers and artistes collectively offer to the world.

Ayswaria Wariar is a Mohiniattam exponent based in Vadodara.

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