Click here for all links
Social media links

Classical dance vis-a-vis free thinking
- Dr. Utpal K Banerjee

December 14, 2019

(An earlier, slightly shorter version was presented at the Ocean Dance Festival, November22-25, 2019, at Chittagong, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, under World Dance Alliance-Asia Pacific)

It is a truism that, both individually and collectively, one tends to grow with time and change accordingly. Individually, one comes to grips with sex; grows to fathom the meaning of death; and so on. Collectively, the whole society changes with time. It is proposed that as a collective genre, classical dance of Indian sub-continent should relate to changes in their environment and discard MYTHOLOGY as their enduring 'sahitya' since the latter has lost its relevance to modern times. Classical dance - while fully carrying forward its techniques and treatment, and its highly developed aesthetics - should communicate to the modern society for deriving its contents for 'sahitya', as other sub-continental visual and performing arts have done in the recent years.

Around 1940s and 1950s, mythology was certainly relevant - in fact, essential -- when the invaluable heritage of our classical dance began to be resuscitated and restored. While temples and deities offered venues for performance, the latter was witnessed by priests and laity who were familiar with mythology: with their rich layers of meanings and nuances, as were the traditional performers who participated. This applied, mutatis mutandis, to the royal courts and houses of the nobility.

When the iconic figure of Rukmini Devi Arundale took up the cudgels for Bharatanatyam, she began a "sanitization" process: for the basic approach from Shringara to change into Bhakti; for modernization of costumes; for systematic music arrangements; for meaningful set design; and eventually, for induction of theatrical contents from the prevailing Kuravanjis. (1). One is certain that, given a few more years of precious life span, this patriotic activist would have brought sea change in the prevailing 'sahitya' of the traditional dance she was resurrecting, almost at the behest of the evangelist ballerina Anna Pavlova.

This surmise stems from the strong winds of change already blowing in the other visual and performing arts. The fine arts of painting emerged from their "Oriental painting" incarnation of copying the Ajanta and Ellora style of the Middle centuries, with Bombay School, Baroda School and others taking over - with figurative, landscape and abstract genres coming up. Contemporary Indian art matches the cultural and ideological diversity of the nation and thanks to rapid globalization is becoming increasingly visible in the international art world. (2). Kishen Khanna's The Falling Man was no less reflection of contemporary reality than Pablo Picasso's Guernica in the war ravaged Europe.

But the most striking changes came in the performing art of "classical theatre" that began the make-over almost two centuries ago. With parallel genesis in Chapter 10 of Natyashastra (see paper by sociology scholar and Kuchipudi dancer Ranu Bhattacharjee) (3), theatre gradually underwent a metamorphosis first in Maharashtra and Bengal, and then elsewhere, from its rich legacy of Bhasa-Shudraka-Bhavabhuti-Ashwaghosha-Kalidasa and became modern: first historical, then social, then political, psychological, et al - virtually of any hue. The gravest social problems faced by India at present includes corruption, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, urbanization, gender inequality, caste discrimination, dowry, child labour, drug abuse, prostitution, domestic violence, female infanticide, etc. Most of the social evils being faced by Indian society have their roots both in rural as well as urban India, which need a careful analysis and demand rational solution and communication plays a vital role in this regard.

Theatre is today a vital form of communication, whose primary role is to inform, entertain, persuade, and provide a means for connecting people. It is also a key medium in addressing sociological issues. Folk theatre is the predominant mass medium in rural India. Hence, in addressing the social evils, this medium has a great role to play. Today, the message communicated to the target audience is well narrated and deemed fit to the audience interests, besides being able to make the rural audiences think and analyze the problem. (4). Yet, with the drop of a hat, theatre could become "classical", as seen in the oeuvre of Ratan Thiyam (Chakravyuh), Kavalam Panikar (Karnavaram) and Mohan Rakesh (Ashadh Ka Ek Din). Today, in Lahore, Ajooka Theatre dares to stage the iconoclastic Burkha-vaganza under Madiha Gauhar, in the teeth of Establishment's resistance!

"Classical music" has developed many new genres over and beyond Prabandh, Dhruvapad, Dhrupad-Dhamar, Khayal and light classical music that faithfully carry forward music's Raga legacy and a score of other fascinating variations. Stalwarts like Pt. Ravi Shankar and Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt have reached out to the modern Western music for working out fusion, followed by many inspired young Indian talents. (5).

The first generation and second generation gurus of classical dance were quite within their rights -- while resuscitating dance techniques and fine tuning aesthetics - for adhering to mythology for 'sahitya', with their intimate knowledge of the themes and the safety of sheer familiarity. Yet afterwards, instead of shedding en bloc the "classical" nomenclature and adopting the adjective of traditional and pointing proudly to the exalted regions of their origin, it is perhaps odd that till today "classical dance" continues to be the only known parlance.

Two immediate problems are perceived. First, as once the dance scholar and activist Anita Ratnam pointed out, when the floods were ravaging the city of Chennai, she found that in the Sabhas, the classical dancer could do no better than emoting to Krishna ni begane baro... in raga Yamuna Kalyani. She pointed out how much out of sync with her current environment the young dancer might have been. In another instance, this critic saw a veteran dancer, stylishly dressed, get down from her friend's motor-bike, enter the dressing room of India International Centre, get into her traditional costume, perform to the 'Sahitya' of "Atma meets Paramatma", finish creditably the item, and get back into her torn jeans and ride off with her companion into the night. To this critic, it seemed to be somewhat of a compromise made in one's value system and it also appeared that mythology had simply lost its relevance to our millennials. Akin to the "feel good" factor in life, society and relationships, could it be that there was only a "feel safe" factor in our classical dance's adoption of perennial myths, just for the Jungian archetypal figures, events and motifs?

A third problem is the conflict of secular pan-Indian culture against the symbols and metaphors of the mythological contents, built emphatically and exclusively on the Hindu pantheon of divinities and their attributes. One salutes the courageous efforts of Lubna Mariam of Bangladesh and Nahid Siddiqui of Pakistan to carry on the classical dance traditions in their lands, in the face of obvious perception problems in the surroundings.

Mrinalini Sarabhai, the legendary Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi dancer, who founded the noted Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad, was as unconventional in her performances. She intertwined her dance forms with social issues and used the stage to spread awareness about societal menaces. This began with a performance on dowry deaths in the 1960s and she incorporated ideas of social justice within a Bharatanatyam performance. This demanded a change in the original "shringar" and manner of story-telling and Mrinalini Sarabhai did the necessary, unflinchingly. She continued to raise awareness about a lot of issues including rape and the discrimination and maltreatment faced by the Adivasis through her dance performances. Such an audacious step was unheard of in the times that she lived in. She was particularly close to environment issues and environmental conservation then became an important part of her dance recitals. Not only did she use the platform at her disposal to fight societal evils in her own way, she also used it as a way to promote and propagate indigenous textiles and handicrafts. (6).

Chandralekha, the iconic Bharatanatyam dancer, with a host of unique creations, from Sri to Sharira to her credit, did not want a legacy and had become a crusader for equality, human rights, women's rights, secularism, pluralism and the environment. Her forthright statements to the media, and her accentuated make-up, did not make her popular with the orthodox middle classes, who viewed her as a woman not meriting respect. (7).

Kumudini Lakhia, the trail-blazing Kathak guru, has created works such as Atah Kim, Yugal, Sam Samvedan and Samanva that still draw an appreciative full house. While the dynamism of her concepts made them relevant, her experiments occasionally drew flak. Her minimalist approach to costume and jewellery (when her dancers once wore white costumes, purists termed it a 'show of mourning') and her stylized spins, jumps and glides, were severely criticized. But Kumudini was not one to step back and she averred, "I was keen that the dance form includes abstract expressions and not just Radha-Krishna narratives. And I began exploring the geometry of the technique..." (8).

Almost three quarters of a century have elapsed since we achieved Independence; let our current generation practice only "regional dance", where the likes of Aditi Mangaldas of India and Akram Khan of Bangladesh, both in Kathak, can thrive. For Aditi Mangaldas, dance is an experimental weave of classical vocabulary and contemporary expressions. Says Aditi, "I have always wanted my dance to be communicative involving art and not just a set of movements passed down the ages. I have been enjoying the process. My growing bond with audiences across the globe convinced me that the choices I made were right." (9). Akram is a brilliant young artiste who has created an intensely personal body language from the shock caused by his introduction to contemporary dance at university after studying Kathak since childhood. "It was not a conscious or intellectual development," he opines, "but simply that my body was making decisions for itself and yes, a unique language of movement was emerging from the confrontation of these two dance forms." (10).

Then there is Ramli Ibrahim of Malaysia, wearing many hats: as Sutra's lead dancer, teacher, choreographer and artistic director. The renowned Odissi exponent has this to say, "Though I have a strong respect for tradition, I never negated the fact that I'm very contemporary. But one has to know the rules before you break them, because, after all, rules are manmade. One has to understand what the shastra is within the form and what it is not." (11). Rama Vaidyanathan, the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer, experiments with dance concepts and says, "Since I didn't go out of the idiom of Bharatanatyam, it wasn't purists versus modern rasikas; it was about people who like seeing different things and those who did not. Initially, there was resistance to my perspective, choreography and my way of tackling the abhinaya pieces. But I was so convinced in what I was doing. I took inspiration from people who supported my work and that led me to work on more such concepts." (12).

Further she sees even a unification of classical forms in the not too distant future, "Slowly, I feel, there'll be very fine lines defining our classical dance forms, because that is the kind of osmosis that is taking place. Interaction is taking place among the classical forms, Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, especially as dancers become more versatile and have a greater vocabulary, how they derive from each other, and inform new ways of moving, I think it's beautiful." (13). Currently, Rama's choreography of Birds, in creative association with the dance scholar Arshiya Sethi, depicts an entire Bharatanatyam Margam: from alarippu to tillana, to sensitize society on the avian species and for conserving environment, as an ode to their free thinking on modern life. Daksha Sheth in Kathak, Bimbavati Devi in Manipuri, Ileana Citaristi in Odissi and several others in diverse dance disciplines make valiant efforts to charter less known frontiers -- to perform and thrive -- despite a due process of resistance!

Conclusion and Summary
Following the illustrious torch-bearers of dance and armed with the chiseled bodies as instrument, techniques learnt and kinaesthetics evolved so painstakingly by first generation Gurus and their devoted, second generation disciples since Independence - let our millennial generation's dancers foray into ever new directions into our troubled times and warped situations, as much as "theatre-persons" are doing in Bangaluru, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Chittagong, Lahore and countless other cities in the entire sub-continent.

There is perhaps a need for a "collective resolve" by all classical dancers of the Indian sub-continent:
That they will discard the appellation "classical" and adopt just the adjective traditional, pertaining to specific regions of the sub-continent
That - keeping intact the values and aesthetics of their forms, complete with their canonized grammar and aesthetics -- they will gradually discard mythological themes and adopt what is seen and perceived by their contemporary mindset
That, by the turn of the next decade - probably by 2022 when the sub-continent celebrates 75 years of Independence -- they will arrive at a corpus of themes and subjects as their 'sahitya' of the modern kind and still have the valuable interpretation of myths to fall back upon -- as exceptions (and not as a rule) -- as is commonly done in "theatre."


APPENDIX - Some Interactions
Kalamandalam Piyal Bhattacharya, Kathakali dancer and Natyashastra scholar
What has been prescribed in Natyashastra?
According to Natyashastra, the actual text of dance is known as Kathavastu. They are of three types: (1) Itivritta, that is, mythological; (2) Utpadya, that is, created story and always built upon social context. This is mentioned in the first chapter of Dasharupaka, sloka 15; (3) Mishra, that is, amalgamation of mythology and creative story. According to Natyashastra (Chowkhamba publication) in Chapter 21, Sloka 1, "Itivrittam he natyasya shariram parikalpitam". Generally, the dancer community follows this guidance and, thus, most of their compositions involve mythology.

It is not possible to understand Natyashastra if the latter texts are not studied. Dasharupaka, Natakalakshana Ratnakosha and Natya Darpana are important texts that should be studied to properly grasp the doctrines of Natyashastra. Therefore, it is not only mythology but the subject can be of other genres as stated in other texts. This point is deduced based on specially two types of Rupaka, namely, Bhana and Vithi, that have the structure of mono-acts and these were always used as a tool for social awareness. Thus, subjects of Rupakas were always of social significance. Also, if we go through the history and evolution of the modern form of ekaharya abhinaya from classical dance compositions, these are evolved forms of Bhana, Vithi and, later, Uparupaka. Moreover, Uparupaka as prescribed in the classical texts can never be only composed of Itivritta; it has to be a composition of Utpadya or Kalpita. So, why should the composition of classical dance be only limited to Itivritta?

Priti Patel, Manipuri dancer
Is it always mythology that has to be the 'Sahitya' of classical dance compositions?
Our classical dance forms have a very strong vocabulary and grammar. This gives a dancer a wide scope to interpret themes which can be contemporary in nature. From time immemorial Indian mythology and epics have gone hand in hand with our classical dance forms. Today with the changing times, that is changing just like the way in which dance has been transported from the temples to the stage... from Bhakti and devotion to showmanship and presentation. Today's dancer is a thinking dancer, and she is bold enough to break the shackles of stereotypes and try something new and avante garde. Let us support her and give her the chance!

Ashimbandhu Bhattacharya, Kathak dancer
Is it always mythology that has to be the 'Sahitya' of classical dance compositions?
Being a regular practitioner of my dance form, I feel all the traditional classical dances must adapt the contemporary issues in their creations. Mythology was the base of most of the dance creations but the current issues should equally be reflected in the choreographies as blending them play a vital role to keep us updated. When a famine or a drought or any natural calamity occurs, I as a dancer do not feel it suffices enough to tell the tales of only mythology, while the whole world is pondering upon it. Not only have such pressing issues like natural calamity but the situations encompassing our regular life or perhaps about a person are to be dealt with. My choreographies Ananta speaks about the life of my own mother, whereas Mirza Ghalib is based on the poetic legend. Vasundhara is about restoring the beauty of nature. The story of a little boy and the moon weaves in the composition Moonstruck. But it has to be kept in mind that while the artistes experiment to intertwine the traditional and the contemporary, one should not exceed beyond the parameters of the traditional realms. The aesthetic beauty and the classical techniques should remain unscathed.

Sharmila Biswas, Odissi dancer
Should we not call our classical dances just traditional dance based on rich regional heritage and legacy?
Traditional dances based on regional heritage and legacies are many, including folk, tribal dances etc. Indian classical dances can be termed as Shastriya (codified) traditional dances.

For our millennial generation of dancers, should we not gradually discard mythological themes, done ad infinitum, and let them choose themes of their time and clime that make more sense to them?
1. The dancers are already working successfully on themes not related to mythology.
2. I do not believe in discarding our rich mythology which is rich with information on our heritage, history, social and cultural visions.
3. Moreover, we cannot disregard the roots from which the dances began, and the history of dance; following that, we have reached today's level.
4. Each performing art shows an aspect of our culture, and that's its identity, just like traditional theatre and street theatre. Each has a purpose.
5. When we use mythical gods and goddesses to tell stories, we are not propagating religion; we are using them as symbols of humans, to convey various rasas...

Of course, myths as 'Sahitya' made full sense when the items were performed in the temple premises before the deities for the benefit of the then audience of priests and nobility; what is their relevance in this day and age?
In the hands of intelligent dancers, these stories are reinterpreted to talk about contemporary world. Of course, like all fields, there are insensitive and unintelligent dancers, who literally translate the lines of the songs into dance movements, without understanding. I would disregard them. So would the audience.

Keeping the highly developed techniques and aesthetics fully alive and active, should our dances -- like 'theatre' which also had a classical genesis --- not become fully secular so that dancers belonging to any religion and caste in the Indian sub-continent could perform them and fully enjoy them (including Bangladesh and Pakistan)?
I think even with our mythologies, we dancers are as secular as any form can be. A lot of non-Hindus from different countries are dancing different classical dances. Our dances have enough range and flexibility to include new ideas, even from other religions and societies. If the style and language of dance are maintained, I think it is accepted in most places. Of course, in all societies (including the Hindu societies), there are people, who think dancing is a taboo. For those unfortunate people I have no answer, and frankly no time.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last three decades. He has authored 25 books on Indian art and culture, and 11 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director (1992-93), for UNDP for computerization of Indian art and culture heritage. He was also Tagore Research Scholar (2012-14), at IGNCA for metadata management of their cultural archives. He was awarded Padma Shri in 2009.

Post your comments
Pl provide your name and email id along with your comment. All appropriate comments posted with name and email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.

Click here for all links
Prism | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns