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New Natya Shastra

September 11, 2015

Natya Shastra must be the most used and abused word today. Wherever I go, Pune or Paris, Baroda or Bolivia, this is one random word thrown by those who wish to impress their bookish, inapplicable knowledge of Indian dance. It is another matter when I ask some obese dancer or guru what NS has to say about age and weight of a dancer fit for stage or what dimensions stage ought to be, then they look blank or have excuses that it was WRITTEN eons ago and not applicable in its entirety today! Some silly teachers have drilled NS so much into ears and brains of poor unsuspecting students that most students are lost today and are feeling dance art is too heavy and redundant. Imagine, even modern dancers are suffering from this overdose of NS. One beauty from Bombay asked me, “Sir, how to use NS in modern dance by Bombay beach?" (as though its content and concepts of purvarangam or rasa theory would be used differently in mountains of Almora or sands of Jodhpur!).

So, new Natya Shastras are books and journals and new mags or blogs? Not all. While most are self promotional and lack plausibility, some books and journals are becoming seminal. Books by Dr. B.M. Sundaram on devadasi genealogy (though mostly in Tamil, so inaccessible to those who don't read vernacular); books by scholars and writers abroad like Davesh Soneji, Douglas Knight (on Bala ma); book by Leela Samson (Rukmini Devi) are benchmarks in dance writing. On NS, the best book is by Adya Rangacharya. Well researched and well written.

Loud Applause

Sometimes, surprises come in small packages from small town India. One such is a bulletin (a 16 page leaflet cannot be called a magazine or a journal) L.A (not the famous city Los Angeles in USA but Loud Applause) showing how small can be beautiful and meaningful. Well brought out, elegantly designed and produced, using shining glossy art paper, this centrally bound (pinned) bulletin is brought out by a Kathak do-gooder called Neha Muthiyan. With her own monies and efforts, she brings out this bi-monthly from Pune. Since she is a Kathak dancer she calls it an activity of her kathakpatsha and focuses on all issues related to the form but not limited by it. It is a must buy (subscribe) at mere Rs. 500 per year. So much news, views, medical advice, even quiz on dance and dancers! The first page (editorial) and last page (quiz!) are its most original and illuminating parts. One also gets to know what's happening in the land of the Peshwas.

Imagine, for all the noise dancers make and India dines out of its dance heritage and identity, very few books get published. Why? Our dancers are brahmagyanis! They don't need to read anything or learn anything. They are so busy performing and travelling (when not putting each other down!) that they rarely buys books or wish to unless they are featured in it. Preferably on the cover! Publishers say dance books don't sell so most publishers are not interested in doing dance books. But that is not entirely true. Even at the cost of sounding self promotional, I have done 43 books till date and there is not a single copy available in market now. Maybe I got lucky! Or the publishers have good outreach and distribution. (In my experience, biographies of Indian dancers don't sell easily in India largely because these are hagiographies.)

Seeing Vishal Krishna at IIC was interesting. He introduced himself to me as granddaughter of Sitara Devi and looks it! But then corrected himself and said “I'm grandson of her brother Durgaprasad ji.” His dance has that unfinished quality about it. He is very young and might improve as he grows.

Content: That's what makes a book, a film or a work of creative depth. Name alone can sell once. Even Amitabh Bachchan films have flopped occasionally (Sanjog, Mrutyudata, Black....) or Kamal Hassan's Vishwaroopam. Ultimately, the work, the product has to be good. I know this having done 7 major books on dance for Rupa & Co, 3 for Roli and 18 years of attendance (recent issue launched at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi by one and only icon of Bharatanatyam, the great Yamini Krishnamurthy and since the cover had Sitara Devi, star of Kathak, Shovana Narain released it and Geeta Chandran, Ambika Paniker, Sharon Lowen, Rachna Yadav, Kailash Sharma were in attendance plus many dignitaries like Dr. Karan Singh hosted by dynamic director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Delhi Kendra, Dr. Ashok Pradhan. The best news for an author-publisher is when stocks finish and this year's attendance is sold out. So much so that when I reached Baroda, there were no books left for launch there! Geeta Chandran was in Baroda the same time as me for her SPIC MACAY tour and she regaled audiences with accessible ashtachaap kavis and she is one dancer who can sing too. Geeta reaches young, unsuspecting India very easily. She has star quality, so essential to create magic on stage.

Attendance release in Delhi
Geeta Chandran, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Dr. Karan Singh, Ashish Mohan Khokar, Shovana Narayan, Dr. Ashok Pradhan

Geeta Chandran

Sudha Chandra Sekhar

So what's trending this last month or next? International travels and collaborations. Not a single musician worth his or her musical note could be had for any amount of fee in Madras for recording! Nor in Bangalore, Delhi or Bombay (which has few anyway worth any standards) so were one to perform or record in these months, one had to be abroad, preferably in US of A! Just not a single team of Bharatanatyam or Kathak musicians were available in India.

July-Aug is arangetram times in USA. Some like Sudha Chandra Sekhar undertook her 100th! Imagine, in wilderness of Michigan (where I got married 25 years ago!), one dance guru has taught so many as to conduct her 100th arangetram. Such is the power and outreach of dance.

Powerful dance and dancer… When one conjures up this image, Yamini, the great (Krishnamurthy) comes to mind. I often take time off and go sit and talk to such Living Legends or Masters because when unplanned and impromptu, they share lots of filtered knowledge. I love listening to them and their concerns and their approach to art. Someone like Yamini Krishnamurthy is a storehouse of observation, knowledge and wisdom. Each sentence is a Ph.D! One must be on the same wave length to capture the essence. Young dance students must make time and listen to such greats, else their dance knowledge is incomplete or just item learning. This should be TRENDING. Learning at feet of few Masters still left with us.

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He served govt. bodies in many capacities and 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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