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With "a lover's smile": Strengthening resolve in the times of Corona

April 25, 2020

I am a news junkie. That is a genuine confession. I push sleep to look at the news-apps on my phone, just one more time. Recently, my two addictions, news and dance, went on to imbricate. Watching news reports and social media entries pertaining to the clouds cast by the Corona virus, I encountered, somewhat unexpectedly, a dance story on the popular news site, Lallantop. It came as a complete surprise. In the age of diyas, candles and torches, this was a genuine ray of light. Based on Kuldeep Mishra's Hindi poem, recited by him too, NCR based Kathak dancer Mrinalini, who prefers to go only with one name, a twenty-six year old data scientist working at an analytics firm, did an impromptu five minute performance, in what looks like the corridor of an apartment block, possibly her apartment block, since we are in a lockdown.

It took Mrinalini exactly an hour to come up with this choreography, after her mother introduced her to the poem. Like all young, digitally savvy people, quick fingered at making videos and sharing them on various interactive platforms, Mrinalini too posted a recording of it on the photo and video sharing platform, Instagram. While the poetry, when she heard it, may have touched a chord in her, leading her to do this choreography, and maybe her only purpose in making it was to find escape in dance during this time, her artistry apparently touched a chord in several thousand hearts and became a viral hit, collecting over 35000 views. Its hashtag #zarakathakcorona was gripping enough, and its message "India fights Corona" short, sweet and punchy! The comments were encouraging, with people liking it as something different, finding hope in it, and referring to it as the best thing they had seen in this period of quarantine. You can see the choreography here

Wearing a red saree, and with visually heightened reddened palms, Mrinalini commenced her choreography, in consonance with the poem, by contextualised corona in a global environment. The poem urges people to stay indoors during the nationwide lockdown, to fight this peculiar war, not of guns and fighter planes, but of an invisible virus. She reminds us that India, which has seen tsunamis and earthquakes, will emerge out of this pandemic too. Reassuring are the words of the poem, that the gentle breeze of spring would inevitably still enter through the open windows of locked homes and that shortly, things would go back to normal. Soon, very soon, the streets will see children playing together, the wild, childhood shots of cricket, as old friends meet again, and do quotidian activities like eating 'chaat', says the poem. She gives through dance, the message, not just of hope but of practical protocols, of frequent washing of the hands, and as the poem goes on to exhort "Kisi ka haath chhoona nahin hai, par kisi ka saath chhodna nahi hai"! Truly dance is a universal language, capable of conveying the most complex or messages, with elegance, cogency and felicity, transcending language barriers.

Kathak dancer Mrinalini's performance is going viral on social media

In these times of lockdown, people are doing many things to keep boredom at bay, and posting frenetically on social media in the spirit of sharing, and possibly validating and visibility - workouts, cooking, makeup tricks, throwback pictures, music sessions, as well as saree and other challenges. Some are even putting up dance images, of both birds and people. Thus, Mrinalini's dance video on instagram, was not unusual. It was the picking up of it, by a news show, which was unusual.

With that one decision, the news channel momentarily mainstreamed art, specifically dance, which is as many believe, the most sophisticated of them all. When did you last hear any discussion of dance on prime time? Once in a while a reference is made to an artiste, but it is a reference with respect to demise or decoration. Formerly, 'Art Talk' on News X, a news channel set up in 2006, hosted by Jhujhar Singh, was a rare example of art getting a spot on mainstream media at prime time. The programme does not exist today, but even from the time that it did, it is important to remember that Jhujhar covered all arts, and dance got but a sliver of his time.

On other entertainment oriented private channels, one gets to see exciting and titillating dances, mostly on Bollywood songs, in reality shows. On Doordarshan there has been a presence of more serious dance, especially since the now half hourly National Programme of Dance came into effect in 1976, the very same year in which Doordarshan and All India Radio parted ways. The seeds for the National Programme of Dance were planted, unknowingly, as soon as Doordarshan was established in 1959.

Television had arrived in India, as an educational experiment on 15th September 1959. It was then called SITE, Satellite Instructional Television Experiment. It was inaugurated at the Vigyan Bhawan by the then President Rajendra Prasad. As part of the program, cine and dance artiste Vyjayanthimala Bali performed a five minute Bharatanatyam dance. That was the first dance specifically performed for electronic media. In 1959, the main purpose behind the television experiment was education, rural upliftment and community development and themes like public health, disease prevention, traffic, road sense, and citizens' duties and rights. Despite that, dance, by being part of the inaugural ceremony, had staked its claim to the content and software as well as the future of television in India.

When it started, the weekly National Programme of Dance and Music was scheduled at prime time. But today things are different. Writing on Live Mint, seven years ago, almost to the date, Shubha Mudgal had said, "Among the few television channels that continue to program traditional and classical arts are the previously state-controlled and now supposedly autonomous Doordarshan, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha channels. The once prestigious National Programme of Music and Dance survives even today, occasionally featuring poorly produced glimpses of the best in the performing arts, but largely plodding on with mediocre content featuring odd shapes, sizes, sights and sounds made to look and sound even more odd, by poor production values. A similar fate is shared by other music programs on Doordarshan and its many channels, despite the phenomenal reach and spread of their broadcasting network". Today the National Programme of Dance is just about alive and is telecast around midnight, and remains ever susceptible to be dropped, due to rescheduling, as a result of a special telecast or even a cricket match.

The spread of Doordarshan on the ground was the result of the vision and efforts in space and satellite communications, of Vikram Sarabhai, whose centenary we celebrated last year, the year television in India turned sixty. Vikram Sarabhai had a very close connection to dance, and a continuing one, being the husband of a dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai, the father of a dancer, Mallika Sarabhai and the grandfather of a dancer, Revanta Sarabhai. By 1975 his vision had proved successful and through a combination of satellites in the air and transponders on the ground, a vast area of India was brought under the footprint of television. The very next year, the National Programme of Dance was introduced, initially as a weekly 45 minute slot, starting at 9.30pm, on what was the prime time of that time. It has been running for 45 years, and though diluted in quality and on a shaky time slot, the fact that it is still on, despite no sponsorship, speaks volumes for the commitment to dance, of the national broadcaster. This is a commitment that we don't see on other channels or video portals.

After knowing this background, I am sure you will agree with me that this is what makes Lallantop's inclusion of Mrinalini's dance, on a newscast, so significant. Finally, I would like to end this column by sharing with you something that happened in my very first days of writing on dance. I was then merely twenty-six years old, and selected to be a dance critic for the Times of India, Delhi. The critic before me was the formidable scholar, poet and writer on Sanskrit poetry, Mr. K.S. Srinivasan. Mercifully I was given three months to shadow this great critic. Those three months were amongst the most precious ones in my life. Every evening, Srinivasan Sir and I would drive to the venue of the show. We would talk during the drives. Correction - he would talk and I would listen. I think he was trying to prepare me, as fast as he could, for this new role. I recall him telling me, that my reviews should use the tone and tenor of language that dancers were used to. I must have looked totally perplexed. He went on to clarify, saying "dancers use their persuasive power like a lover's smile". He used the term "kanta smitam" if my memory serves me right. During the difficult time of Corona lockdown, Mrinalini's video gave much needed messages of hope and protocols, with the attractiveness of a lover's smile!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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