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Kala Prachara

March 30, 2017

Dance needs discussing, even debate in today's clime of closed minds and doors. It needs dialogue, discourse and deliberations. Each city I go to (in a month, 3 on an average and this past month traversed Trivandrum, Pune, Delhi), makes me realize how badly dance needs catalysts so it cuts across binaries and boundaries.

Classical dancers are stuck in their mould. Modern dancers are unstuck because they don't have a mould! In between lies the thinking dance! That can think but not dance. Add the confusion in fusion and you have Bollywood as the only acceptable pan-Indian dance making a mark globally. No matter what classical or modern dance lobbies say most don't practice what they preach. I find myself uniquely placed between two worlds: old India and new; traditional and modern. Wah! What a palate. So I go like a wandering minstrel city to city doing kala prachar. Dancers do that too but they often are limited by their own form, bani, guru, gharana, labels, definitions.

In Trivandrum, over a lakh people were in audience when I spoke on dance issues based on realities of declining male solo dancers. The occasion: Attukalama temple festival and our PURUSH ensemble (Tushar Bhatt for Kathak; Sujoy Shanbhag, BN; Aneesh Raghavan, Odissi; Sinam Basu, Manipuri; and Kalamandalam Suresh Kaliyath, Ottanthullal) presentation. There, the Devi impersonation was so good (whose 9 days are now called Navratte in North India, where I sit and write this column) that I bowed because the dancer from Alleppey was fully involved with the role. She was possessed. And in Delhi, I saw Papiha Desai's powerful production ‘Mahakali' at Chinmaya Mission. A team of 15 wove in the many aspects of Kali. The dances were good and visuals great. Script and voice was excellent. Her father, the 95 year old Yog Sunder sat through both offerings, mine and hers, but more on Delhi, read below.

In Trivandrum

95 year old Yog Sunder attends, Delhi

‘Mahakali' by Indian Revival Group

Left to right: Rujuta Soman, Vinod Chaudhry, Ashish Khokar, Prabha Marathe, Sucheta Chapekar, Neha Muthiyan, Pune

In Pune, at short notice, Rujuta Soman hosts a goshthi, with Meghana Sabade of Nrityayatri. A gathering of gurus and goddesses of dance scene where the veterans of the city, gurus Prabha Marathe and Sucheta Chapekar come too, as do over a hundred dancers, teachers, students, even editors and writers. Guru Prabha Marathe is an interesting character. Just 80, she is sprightly and sparse of body but sharp of mind, full of memories of how she started her Kalachaya, how she got land from govt. How she had to tell the corporation to marginally shift the drain water away from her institution etc. Then she shows the Kadamb tree planted by Bhimsen Joshi, the willow by Pt. Birju Maharaj. She is a living example of guru bhakti.

The Master Talks Series I've devised for dance is interesting as it shows old India with new, willy nilly making me the bridge between tradition and modernity. Armed with rare films from KhokARchives that I've culled from the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection, the films speak directly to the audience. Dance being a visual art, there is no point talking about it but showing actual dance as it happened.

Pune is unique in that it has very enthusiastic learners in both major forms Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Add Contemporary. There is a nice continuity between generations, much respect for gurus and also acceptance by gurus of younger people coming up. Delhi is the opposite! First there are only few active above 75 age gurus left in Delhi. Birju Maharaj, the great, in Kathak, and Saroja Vaidyanathan for BN. Rest are all teachers. To know the difference see the new issue cover alone of the latest attendance.

Attendance cover

You see each aspect of the two and who's who. Delhi also has senior dancers like the Reddys in Kuchipudi, Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan and Aloka Panikar in Odissi who teach. Add Bharati Shivaji, Madhavi Mudgal, Geeta Chandran, and Rajendra Gangani who are active third generation acharyas. I'm talking of active as in consistent. Over 20 to 30 years spectrum with both a body of work and students to show. Anyone left out is inadvertent because Delhi has such large egos, each one thinks they are born great! Why Delhi alone, other metros feel the same I'm sure? Pune is practical. Almost unemotional. Yet dancers have interest in learning. The number of workshops that take place in Pune are amazing. Each month some senior teacher visits and many register.

Prachar is critical now, if one has to build new audiences. Prachar is important as tool of reaching out. Dancers can't do it because they lack wider credibility and they also often don't take a stand. Dancers can't be observers of the whole field, all forms either. Then too they may not be pan Indian but know only their city or region well. In this scenario who can reach out nationally? Writings by critics (the few left of any merit or substance) doesn't matter anymore in this age of blogs and self reviews. Most senior critics have no mainstream forum like newspapers or national magazines.

Magazines on dance don't sell easily. There are only 3. One a monthly - Sruti. One quarterly - Nartanam. And one an annual - attendance. I rarely see dancers buying all three costing Rs.2000 a year but they sport expensive cell phones and jewellery often! That's the premium dancers put on dance education. FB today engages most. Real books?

Unless this trend is reversed, it will be a big mess in dance field because there will be no assessment or audiences left. Or let's say rasikas. Patrons have already dwindled. Except govt. organizations, where are sponsors for dance? Kerala has maximum. Chennai next best. Bangalore almost zero. In Delhi, the sarkar is the maibaap. ICCR, SNA, SKP - so many shows so few audiences. Overdose of support, no audiences. Hyderabad? Mix of two but more of same. Mumbai - NCPA, Shanmukhananda and Nalanda at best. Audiences for classical dance in most metros don't cross 500 on a good evening.

Thus, in this scenario, less is more. Small is beautiful. Organize talks with gurus. Bring dancers close to new audiences. Young India is looking for directions. It is looking for something to do meaningfully.

Rama Vaidyanathan

After Pune, I go to Delhi, and thanks to Natya Ballet Centre's (Radhika Hoon coordinated by Nikita Maheshwari) central space, swanky at that, is given free to host a gathering. Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan with daughter-in-law Rama and her daughter Sannidhi join me, as I talk to a group of 100, on tracing 70 years of dance, post independence. Students from NSD, Kathak Kendra, Ambedkar University, Ashoka join in to see and hear how Guru Shishya parampara continues. On screen through films I've compiled and on stage through the interactive session by the Vaidyanathans. Shovana Narayan, Ambika Panikar, Aditi Mangaldas send their students to see and learn. Unless new windows open and new winds blow, going India will not get challenged or motivated. They are looking for role models. Let's not talk down but reach out. This is the way to go. Prachara.

Ashish Mohan Khokar wears many hats - that of a critic, historian, scholar, editor, curator and mentor. Around 40 published books and numerous articles in the last 40 years of dance writing, vests him with a wide, ringside view. Films, festivals, seminars, exhibitions, committees on dance are also his domain, as also visiting universities to teach special modules on dance history. He publishes and authors India's only yearbook on dance, Attendance - now in its 19th year. The chairman of the Dance History Society, he is the inheritor-curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection.


It's always a pleasure to read all columns on Narthaki. I am writing this mail particularly in appreciation of the latest article 'Kala Prachara' which was part of the 'Trending' column. It made for a very interesting read since the author brought up some very pertinent issues/concerns.
So, thank you and hope to keep reading more engrossing material on Narthaki.
- Payal Ramchandani (April 2, 2017)

Excellent article; it also gave an amusing and delightful chuckle to see Ashish place himself as the central vortex of thought and practice of classical and contemporary dance. Fortunately, innumerable sensibilities, artistic achievement and passionate curiosity and growth mean that all our dance present and future will thrive and is not endangered even without Ashish's commendable personal interests and efforts.
- Anon (April 2, 2017)

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