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A flame of dream

August 29, 2016

Rarely, one hears of dreaming dance or dancer's dream or a dream dance production. Normally, in the dance world of India, mediocrity prevails and nightmares is what is the leitmotif - of survival, succeeding, even seduction by routine of awards and tours, honours and glories, institutional grants and grouses against govt. patronage systems. Dance comes last, especially in metro India. So, what of smart cities? (polite word for non-metros but no less important, tier two cities). Like Pune, inaugurated by the PM as the first one such one, just last month.

Pune is different. Self-sufficient, insular and bindaas. Unemotional. Practical. Almost unmindful of the rest of the world. But dreaming and making dreams come true. I ask senior Kathakaar Shama Bhate, now guru, also daughter-in-law of the late much loved Guru Rohini Bhate, what made her do that complicated production on Mahabharata last year, which involved six to seven star dancers drawn from different forms and states and countries. Ramli Ibrahim from Malaysia did minimal Orissi; Vaibhav Arekar from Mumbai showcased excellent Bharatanatyam; Gopika Varma from Chennai illustrated the beauty and charm of Mohiniattam and Vyjayanthi Kashi from Karnataka did filmy, over the top Kuchipudi. Add local talents of Kathak, Shama Bhate's own Nad-Roop group, from which Ameera Patankar and Avani showed merit. To get dates of these stars of styles from all over for next show itself is herculean, so how does such a big production, recover costs? She answered simply: “We had one show after the premier in Pune and may have one in Bangalore. But it was my dream to do such a production so I did it!” Simple and straightforward answer, deep and meaningful, just like her.

Pune also has today maximum number of Kathak dancers in the country. Yes! Pune. At least over 2 to 3000. Yes, thousands. Thanks to work in last 50/60 years of pioneers like Madame Menaka, Mohanrao Kalyanpurkar, Rohini Bhate, Prabha Marathe, Sharadini Gole, then add visiting gurus Munnalal Shukla, Birju Maharaj, Rajendra Gangani and their followers and disciples, that this has happened. Add the next generation of teachers - Roshan tai, Nilima tai, Amla tai and all other tais. NCPA planning to mount a production in Kathak needed 50 trained Kathak dancers and where did they find so many in one city? Pune. Not Delhi, not Lucknow, not even Kolkata, Bombay or Bangalore, but Pune.

So this past week when a younger dancer - Rujuta Soman - of Pune, belonging to the same school and style of the late guru Rohini Bhate mounted Rajhansa, with gizmos and all - stylish lights and visuals; rich musical scape with alluring costumes, even elaborate haute couture hairstyles! - one wondered what it cost? A rough guess would be 5 lakhs. For one production. Hall (50,000), music (1-2 lakhs), lights (1 lakh), rest for food bill, rehearsals, transport bills, production, promo, hairdos, and lastly, pocket money for dancers. Yes, as students of Rujuta Soman Cultural Academy they all chipped in with their various talents, even did crowd funding but was it worth it? “Yes. It was my dream to do a big production, with no costs spared!” says Rujuta.

Pune is the real cultural capital of Maharashtra, just as Tanjore was of Tamilnadu. Or Mysore of Karnataka and Delhi of Delhi! Pune is known for its very vibrant theatre scene - and what an earth shattering and strong talent Atul Pethe is. He woke everyone up post lunch by just being himself! Just seeing his rendition and snippets of work called PROTEST, at the Shabda session - the Spoken Word (or seminar) - was enough to know that theatre was successful and strong in the belt. Yet, he questioned the students and system, parents and politics. Above all, he questioned dancers as artistes. What were they doing for society? What were youngsters so busy with?

Veteran Kathak Guru Sharadini Gole (seated), senior BN guru Sucheta Chapekar, Sadanand Menon, Atul Pethe, Hrushikesh Pawar, Rujuta Soman with her team of dancers.
Photo: Tanvee Kanitkar

Without sounding self promotional, it needs to be stated simply by way of record of events that yours truly, began the day-long proceedings with a session on ‘Choreography Then and Now' with lots of rare, unseen film clips that left many eyes wide opened. A culturally inclined dentist by profession, Dr. Joshi, tried to play devil's advocate by raising issues and questions out-of-context and also played moderator and the audience had fun listening to cryptic answers cuddled in a dulcet, soft voice. It was followed by Dr. Nilima Adhye's detailed and descriptive showcasing of Guru Rohini Bhate's works that brought old memories alive and the day concluded with Sadanand Menon's platforming of Chandralekha and her works. Miti Desai, the fine graphic designer and Mohiniattam dancer, helped him technically. Young and eager students of the RSCA were in attendance, where yes, the same sounding name yearbook was released too by two octogenarian Kathak gurus - Sharadini Gole and Prabha Marathe. This was the first ever launch of attendance in Pune and the gathering inspired the doers to plan a special focus issue on Pune, nay, Maharashtra, someday soon.

Rajhansa look to be very simple, pretty-polly work, with opening Ah! and wah wah! moments but it is a deeply layered and structured entry into emotional, even psychological contours of a dancer's being. The best part was, Rujuta has used Kathak and not sacrificed its fundamental “footwork” language (generalists whose core competency may not be in Indian classical dance field and those who don't even know the grammar, language and structure of a form like Kathak may dismiss or pooh-pha use of words like “footwork” but in Kathak that's the mainstay called Tatkar, leading to Paltas and onwards to Tohras) and while being modern looking, the work is not full of confusion that fusion works often lead to or result in. So it holds, artistically very well. Rujuta is making a statement in a language she is in command of and yet giving the form a new dimension. It is also not abstract (that often few understand) but very much rooted and accessible.

While on surface the story of swans swooning and cranes crashing into a party delights audiences with technically superior projections and spectacular colour and musicscapes (by excellent composer Nandu Bhide) the underlying angst and jealousy of competitive dancers, is well brought out. Scenes move seamlessly even if tad too long, especially midpoint, which would benefit by some editing. Uday Shankar had once said: Audiences should want more, so don't drag a production. Golden rule for established or upcoming dancers starting out with big productions. Kiran Yadnyopavit's script was tight and Harshwardhan Pathak's lights were superb. Milin Phadnis' videography merged with Kaustubh Atre's photography. Friends from far and near helped her like Revati Puranik and Vinod Satav. Among dancers, Sailee Raut made an impression and Tanvi Kanitkar. The setting could have been Spain or Mexico with its vibrant colours or the north-east from where the cranes seem to have flown from, with little red tufts to show their true colours. Wearing that as a ring and often using just hands to depict flight or beaks, was intelligent. Rujuta Soman has arrived centre-stage as a choreographer and artiste of merit, with this work. It is a cut-off point in her own evolution.

Photo: Kaustuv Atre

Photo: Kaustuv Atre

When does a dancer become a choreographer or a complete artiste or a guru? What is a real guru? Not who, but what. Is teaching all? That's skill development. A craft. What is art? Where and when does a teacher become a guru? These questions concern me now ( when I see dance being taught as a franchise! Yes, Pune has many such franchises in Bharatanatyam and Kathak all over Maharashtra. 5000 students in Pune of various forms and less than 100 are academically inclined. Same in other cities and in Delhi it may be in double digits only: JNU types plus one or two like Geeta Chandran and Yamini Krishnamurthi. Bombay, Kanak Rele is only one who comes to mind. Astad too. Madras maybe a handful like Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Leela Samson, Anita Ratnam (she is the only one also interested in modern dance trends, worldwide) but mostly in one form, Bharatanatyam. Kerala, despite boasting 100% literacy amounts to not much where dance academics are concerned. A Registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam made national news some years ago when he was caught cheating in English exams paper! So where are dance academics and academicians? Not the leftist variety of discourse and drivel of anti-tradition, anti anything ancient Indian but truly committed dance academicians? What's the sign of one? How does one spot one? I will detail in my next column with specific examples.

FLAME University campus entrance
Photo: Ashish Khokar

Some iota of academics is happening slowly in new private universities springing up as richie rich campuses. Visiting FLAME (Foundation for Liberal Arts and Management Education) at Lavele, some 20 km outside Pune, in a dale-like verdant setting was an eye opener. What facilities, what space! What beauty. Two Gujjus have helped create this magic and educational wealth - one a business tycoon and other, a famous architect. Imagine having 53 acres with a helipad nearby in a golf course…for VIPs, stars and the smart set to drop by. Two AK's visited the same week, yours truly and Aamir Khan! I came the easy-peasy hoi polloi, mofusil way of road and he, the AK may have hopefully seen the helipad at close quarters and come to an audience of thousands waiting eagerly while dance field being marginalised anyways, had less than 50. But as Padma Subrahmanyam, the most academically-minded dancer in India today, once said, (seeing a sparingly filled Madras hall), “There may be 50 people in the hall but each one is equal to 100! So there are 5000 in hall today.” This was on an occasion when 11 BN gurus were being honoured at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore and there were 20 people on stage and 50 in the hall. I felt a bit the same when eager liberal arts students and faculty members joined to hear me and we learnt from each other. Teachers had more questions than students. Kunal Ray, a jovial choreography fan, and Ashutosh, ex IFA, now teaching theatre there, Chitra Dandawate, German language expert, and many more joined the session. Priya Joshi, a bright disciple of Sucheta Chapekar (Bhide) is now heading the dance dept., and as I was free the morning of the Rajhansa show, I decided to check FLAME out and came away blown by sheer possibility of a shahenshah of stocks and banking sitting in Mumbai sponsoring and paying for this fine facility built by B.V. Doshi. What are the rich of south doing? Opening more medical or engineering colleges? Or buying more silk saris and diamond jewellery? Except Chettiars and Mudaliars, no one does much philanthropy, just self promotion, it seems to me. Even computer and software companies' CSR programs don't have much place for culture and the arts. Repairing toilets and potholes, yes, but that's municipalities' work, no?

Why does dance have so few academicians? One student at Shabda seminar asked me, “What should a critic be like and how can one be objective?” That needed another seminar, but I said, “First of all see a show with an open mind and heart, don't be judgmental. Also, have a certain code of conduct and ethics.” (‘What's that?,' most in dance world will ask, especially since they see most past and present critics as writing mostly PR pieces, if not outrightly promoting those who will pay them their next meal ticket). Critics should also know something about grammar of art, languages and basic history of the form they are writing about. Add exposure and neutrality. A critic should be read, not seen in front row (seeking importance or favours). Critics should maintain some distance from subjects so they are independent and taken seriously. Eating and meeting with all , staying in their homes to save monies, implies one gets obliged to write nice things or smartly avoid important assessment points. A critic is an assessor, just like a goldsmith. By writing a review, which is authoritative and meaningful, a critic gives credibility to a work of art so that the public can understand and enjoy and help an artist grow. For that, first a critic must have credibility. A critic can have credibility only if s/he is honest in work and neutrally nice to all but not involved with gangs or groups. A critic should work without fear or favour. Art is bigger than the individual artist (or critic). Each production is a stand alone. Last production or work doesn't matter in reviewing current work. It only helps place the progress of a particular artiste and over years, nay decades, forms a body of work. Only those one has known and grown up with in the field, say over a 20-30 years perspective, can one even afford to associate socially with because one knows their character and attitude to art.

Acerbic music critic who also wrote on dance, the late P.V. Subramaniam alias Subuddu, said, “Ideally dancers want not only captive audiences but captive critics as well.” Dancers are very fragile folks as their dance shelf life is very short. A bad review affects their fortunes, they think, so they try and cultivate critics. It is up to individual needs and station in life how one deals with these realities. Best is to avoid arangetrams (reviewing) as that's just the first foot forward. Take upcoming and established dancers seriously and leave veteran gurus alone as they have done enough. They are at best reference points, not review points. Be extra kind to the less fortunate, those who have come up the hard way. Don't be too much in awe of the rich, the famous, the corporate, the top civil services or the political class connected dance talents; let them prove themselves. Lastly, don't take yourself too seriously! Take your work more seriously. Laugh a bit and loosen up, its art not rocket science. No one really cares in today's world of FB and blogs, who needs reviews when dancers can promote themselves and how! But reviews are needed in serious places for national awards and tours and if one has to be known far and wide nationally and internationally. Grant giving bodies see press reviews, not blogs or FB posts.

All in all, dance, like any other art is a calling, not even passion or profession. Respect it as Saraswati's gift and enjoy.

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and books on Indian arts and culture. He also teaches Indian dance history and aesthetics for university faculties. He is the curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and chairs the Dance History Society which hosts an annual convention and dance discourses that afford many talents a platform. He has mentored many and instituted five awards through attendance, the dance yearbook he edits and publishes.

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