February 29, 2020
E for....Engrossing. Ethics. Entertainment. Eeks!
How can Indian dance be made engrossing? Or entertaining? Is it not so, currently? Name 10 performances or productions in a year, that were worthy by way of a repeat show, abundant audience or outstanding reviews that matched the work. Ten is too many? Then how about five?
Forget us editors, critics, historians, commentators and assorted opinion makers and givers. Even if dancers don't care for our opinions - unless flattering or it suits them - what we often report or state reaches far. It reaches higher echelons of babudom, decision makers and VIPs. They often put us on committees that decide candidates for festivals, awards, even grants.
Dancers may think their art is great or they are god's gift to mankind but where's the audience? And, more importantly, where is the PAYING audience? Except in Mumbai and the Chennai Sabha December season, most dance shows are "family and friends" affair. Excuses abound after 70 years of state spoon-feeding: ours are divine dances (then please go dance in heaven; don't create hell here on earth!) Or, its inbuilt chamber-art content is that it makes it less accessible to masses, it's only for the classes (who understand sangeeta, shastra, sahitya). Some dancers ably and without much effort themselves have made it less accessible. One Delhi dame made parables saleable by stating geometric patterns as part of art discourse!
We were at E for engrossing. I can rarely find 5 or lucky 7 dance shows or events in a year that are so. Or even entertaining, in any part of the country, any form. Is it ennui after 50 years of dance watching? As I turn 60 on last day of a leap year birthday, in some ways one feels rewarded for the richness of art in India and yet sad for the quality. It's not fatigue or ennui. It's the content. One tries to be positive (my blood group is B Positive!) because we love art. We live it. Unlike some dancers who use, abuse, misuse the art often for self glorification, getting grants or awards, critics and genuine commentators get nothing for our love of art.
If dance is not engrossing (all who dance BN can't be a Valli or a Sarukkai or even an Aishwarya or Parshwanath and all who do Kathak can't be Birju Maharaj or Durga Lal) or entertaining then what can be? Or is? For me, after 50 years of watching dance, it is the scale. Scale means not senseless size but dance in cinemascope style. Scale means go grand, but NOT Bollywood awards night. (With best of funds and fanfare, each item looks the same. Watch one, you have watched all). Earlier, only Uday Shankar understood scale. His productions had that. After him, if someone understood scale with artistic strength, it is Padma Subrahmanyam. One look at the Shivaratri chart schedule made dexterously by her organisation headed by Kannan, the veena vadak and master organiser of Natyanjali-type marathon in ode of Shiva Nataraja and one is greatly impressed. Imagine a dancer reaches Tanjore from wherever then performs dawn to dusk in 3 or 4 venues 2 hours apart by road! Not one dancer, but many.
Divas Sonal Mansingh and Padma Subrahmanyam watch 1008 BN dancers
That scale comes through in 1008 BN dancers, drawn from various schools in a huge college maidan of A.M. Jain College, Chennai. Then done at Guru Nanak College arena with that smiling, hugging Mata Amritanandamayi as the chief guest. Wow! To see 1008 perfectly turned out youngsters in their dance finery was quite a sight. Seeing it, the chief guest Sonal Mansingh, who had specially flown in from Delhi on an important day like the Republic Day, commented: 'I have tears of joy at what Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam has created.' Gayatri Kannan conducted the entire proceedings efficiently and effectively. Although it all looked effortless, so many rehearsals under individual schools and their respective dance teachers took place to get such high professional results. Each one was acknowledged in the end. How cultured and inclusive.
It was a spectacle fit for an Opening Ceremony of a world event, where dance can be given a pride of place. Give Dr Padma Subrahmanyam one solo body or 1008, she will chisel out finely and uniformly. Her eye for detail makes it happen hygienically. How can dance be hygienic, you'd ask. Today, it is so polluted that any clarity of content, concept and intent can make or mar it. Hygiene is akin to eco system. An art form flourishes when there's a supportive eco system. How can there be one? Govt. patronage. Policy, there's none. But patronage decides where an art form is going. Look at the Padma honours this year.
Teatro tascabile di Bergamo
Photos: Gian Franco Rota
Talent many have. How many can use it well, is truly a gift of the gods and those whom the gods choose get lots. Look at TtB. Italy's best kept secret in a little Lombardy region town called Bergamo, just an hour's ride from Milan. It has the beauty of Ooty, the climate of Simla, the splendor and richness of Mysore and antiquity of Benaras, a most scenic town to live and work in.
Teatro tascabile (second t is not cap we are emphatically told by another T for Tiziana Berberio, its important pillar) di Bergamo was started in 1973 by theatre buff, actor turned scholar, teacher Dr. Renzo Vescovi, who was inspired by theatre lab model and teachings of Jerzy Grotowsky and E. Barba. TtB has grown over the last 40 years. It has seen and attracted some of the best talents and what's most important about them and that concerns us here, is their learning of Indian arts - Orissi, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and not just learning it but mastering it enough to outshine the natives. Add Carnatic music to go with it. Sanskrit. Hindustani music, even if they learnt no classical dance form from North India like Kathak, which actually would help them much with rhythmic structure a la Flamenco, which they do. But what they do, they do well. Seeing Beppe, Alessandro or Reuben on stage in one of the many Kathakali patras they do, makes one realise it is possible. Watch Tiziana's Orissi and one sees lasya and purity of form missing often even in Odisha. See their Bharatanatyam and you can see why hard work has its own rewards. At their recent visit and performances at Bangalore, they showcased snippets of their 40 years' work. At Natya Stem, it was an academic evening of dialogue and exchange and at P. Praveen Kumar's annual day, it was pure entertainment.
Students of Chitkala School of Dance
First, at the most understated and non-guru trappings of P. Praveen Kumar's institution Chitkala's annual day, the 5 to 65 could be seen on stage in perfect synchronization. What beauty of lines in each of his 50 wards put on stage; what fine choreography, even the routine varnam, always a torture to suffer in hands and feet of less able dancers, was a delight with diagonal constructs and many senior students undertaking it in a cameo form. Praveen never projects himself but his exceptional art comes through. Even in the opening sequence, he stood in last row, almost innocuous, unseen. High aesthetics and professionalism marked his function, in which TtB was showcased. Better curatorial inputs would have helped choice of items presented to a rather conservative BN audience of Bangalore, comprising of mostly parents, students, fans and friends. Caterina showcased her seniority and grasp of the form (BN) while director of TtB, Tiziana did justice to her years of Orissi. A third generation TtB lass did BN and added variety to the evening. On the whole a rewarding, even fulfilling evening.
Rewards... Awards... I now see titles galore. Last fortnight in BVB Chennai, there were more awardees than audience. Anyone who was anyone got an award! I sat in the last row, lest they spotted me and decided to reward me with an award there and then! That'd be poetic injustice.
Speaking of poetry, it was so refreshing to hear some at launch of the Joshi couple's latest collection of poems Yuhin Saath-Saath Chalte.... Just Walking Together, loosely translated. The Joshi couple - Malavika and Sachchidanand - represent the heart of India. They come from there too.... Central India, that's Madhya Pradesh. They are originally theatre artistes and he, the alpha male, had distinction of serving Gul Bardhan-Prabhat Ganguli's Little Ballet Group in Gwalior, then Bhopal. Later, he was VC of a journalism institution in Raipur.
The Joshis, birthday poem
At Delhi's center of power and culture - the IIC - their 31 poems found a ready audience in assorted litterateurs, cognoscenti and poetry lovers. Their family head, veteran Malati Joshi, Padma Shri awarded poet and novelist, herself led the proceedings, so correct and classy. Speaker after speaker eulogized the couple and the poetry was made memorable by the fact it was the couple's 31st wedding anniversary too (on 31st December 2019). Some poets present looked like vignettes from the past. One beauty, with Mala Sinha looks and hairdo was straight from the sixties with matching anguish and pathos that one thought she would start crying on stage. Another dissected many of the works and gave expert comments. The chief guest, Sonal Mansingh, arrived from her basant panchami puja at Kamakhya Devi, Assam, and blessed the power couple. After a long time, one had a fulfilling and truly literary evening in Delhi. It was nice to see lots of youngsters too in the hall. A good time was had by all. My favourite poem in this must-buy, well designed (by Bharat "busybee" Tiwari) book is on birthdays. As mine is coming after 4 years now and a big one at that, this poem appeals to me most. Buy the book as a birthday gift to yourself (email@example.com)!
E for.... Entertainment too. TV dance reality shows are third in line of TRPs after crime serials, singing idols and then come these TV dance shows. Wonder why there's so less of classical forms... Maybe Mumbai ought to wake up to beauty and depth of our classical forms. But when most of these talent shows have judges who have no background or dance talent, then how can the participants be of any merit? Anything goes in amazing India.
In the end, Indian DANCE came to rescue of even the Trump road show in Ahmedabad, then Agra. For the arrival ceremony, the stadium event and in Agra, the challenge was how to present Indianness in 5 minutes. DANCE. It fills space and hearts. It has an instant connect, appeal and accessibility. Seeing those peacock dancers at Agra airport, even Trump would've had a softer, aesthetically motivated moment. First lady Melania was clearly impressed by the costumes. We still depend on dance to impress foreigners (why we need to do that is topic for another PhD! Colonial complex or... ?) and dignitaries and Indian dance stand out instantly. 3000 dancers, 30 stages and 300 support staff. One India!
India. I. Next month we take up I. Not me but the alphabet I. It is about vowels: A, e, i, o, u. See, there's method to my madness and I do have a roadmap!
Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed author, arts administrator, historian, critic with many published books and edits India's only yearbook attenDance. He is now helping the IGNCA, Delhi, set up the Mohan Khokar Dance Archives-cum-Museum.
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