Sadanand Menon began by saying that the conference was one where we collectively experienced a collection of thoughts which don’t comfortably fit together. Are the ideas behind the conference new or are there connections that we can find in the past? Dance comes with a history of discontinuities. The idea of continuity is a construct. We have the huge history of women temple dancers without a clear historical record. We are still in the process of excavating that reality. This was followed by a change in patronage, when the dancers shifted to royal courts, and from there they moved to the streets. It is important for people today to be aware of this history. The ‘deep memory ’ of this baggage needs to be acknowledged and not run away from. Unfortunately a large part of this history has been lost to us. The visible image left is that of an dancer who dances for an nationalistic urbanized audience which is limiting, deeming many forms of the performing body as transgressive and rejecting it.
In these time of the rise of the right wing, how does one make sense of the body and what does one say with it? Does one work with the body only to make it look interesting or does one ‘talk back to power’ with it? There has been a ‘talking back’ to the hegemony of classicism in the world of Indian dance. Practitioners from other disciplines need to be engaged in conversations who have been also engaging with this ‘talking back’. One needs to creatively work with confusions into a conversation which could lead to enlightenment. Contestation is inevitable in this moment of history. Art has to become an engine that challenges a certain kind of leveling cultural formation. We need to have the resource of the arts to address this and engage with this. One can not, then, simply experiment. This is the moment for an aware intervention given the reality of an assault on the body from all sorts of restraining devices. The traditional artist often ends up endorsing the system. The contemporary artist with the application of consciousness, stepping out of the space of ambiguities, must then challenge the system that surrounds him or her. The modern moment ended up privileging the bourgeois self. However, modernity seems to have collapsed proving to the artists that they are not better than anyone. Art has to find new resources.
What does one do with one’s received past? As long as traditions are reworkable they hold their importance. Chandralekha used to say that we must pick up our tradition once in a while and hold them against the sun to see they reflect light anymore or not. Tradition doesn’t always need to be rigid. It could be the potential source for multiplicity, creativity and possibility of change. The contemporary moment cannot be a moment of half baked ideas. One needs to know the foundation to talk back. If the piece is not making someone uncomfortable one is only feeding into the cultural monolith.
Building the audience is an important task for the people who attended the conference, which is not to say that one needs to seduce the audience, but bring the audience to dance. This could include people who want to engage in the same kind of conversations but from different fields who would want to collaborate in the project of bring a new language to ‘talk back’.
Menon finished by mentioning the presentations of Jhuma Basak, Preethi Athreaya and Sanjukta Wagh which talked about bringing in the marginal history of contemporary dance into the mainstream and unlearning habits which is a process that has to be self reflexive in order to speak a new language.
Dancers need to read into time and respond to it. They also need to get out of themselves and realize that there is a larger world outside and must respond to it.
The conference concluded by those in the room holding hands and promising to ensure that the circle of a supportive dance community would be much bigger in the next IGNITE festival!
Sadanand Menon introduced the three panelists who are associated with different kinds of pioneering dance institutions in India. Jayachandran Palazhy is the founder of Attakalari which is a contemporary dance institution in an urban location, while Parwati Dutta, director of Mahagami, an institute that works in the performing arts, teaching Kathak and Odissi, is located in Aurangabad, a non-metropolitan city in Maharashtra. Leela Samson is associated with both private and official institutions, including, most recently, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Kalakshetra.
Jayachandran Palazhy talked about his interest and investment in the movement arts. He said that contemporary dance in India is not a form; rather, it is an idea. It is constantly evolving. Artists have to identify their needs and find ways to procure it for themselves and the dance community.
Parwati Dutta talked about her experiences of coming to Delhi as a student and the need she felt to do something new as an extension of the tradition. When she first went to Aurangabad to start Mahagami it was a cultural desert. She says that she felt like a farmer going to a barren land with the determination to plan something there.
Leela Samson said that there will be rupture and discontinuity and glorious moments in every institution. She says that India has far too many expressions even within one expression. Thus it is difficult to form a government policy for performing arts. She ended the discussion by pointing out that dependency on the government means that you will always be the receiver. She urges artists to stand together and be independent.
Nimmy Raphel talked about a recent piece created by her, Nidravathvam, which was based on the Ramayana. Every aspect of Ramayana has been much talked about. So how does one create something new? She worked with the characters of Kumbhakarna and Laxman. Kumbhakarna sleeps for 6 months and stays awake for 6 months. Her task then was to make the act of “sleep” meaningful. He had to have a before, during and after sleep movement. At the moment that he dies he doesn’t know whether he is awake or asleep. Lakshman gives up his sleep for 14 years. Is there a moment where he questions his decision and what would happen to him after he goes to sleep for 14 year. Figuring out movements for the two characters then was the task at hand. In the choreography, Kumbhakarna transitions from an agile interesting person to slow moving one. Lakshmana is also a fast character as he is gaining time over 14 years. Raphel needed to think of two ways of representing speed. While creating the piece, she was reluctant to write. The text must translate what’s happening on stage. She had to figure out the right words to express what she wanted to say and to split the image into two characters. The process of visualization resulted in an organic way of coming up with a solution to the dilemma. Being in a community helps as people share the experience of the painful process of creating a piece. She then concluded her presentation with a few clips from her play.
Sanjukta shares her inspiring journey as a dancer by explaining as well as demonstrating some of her beautiful work . Starting with Kathak as a child she felt limited and inadequate and felt the need to rebel, rebel against the ´female´ or ´nayika´in Kathak. But as she pursued her masters in literature she heard and found new voices. What inspired her was ´rhythm´ and poetry. In her final presentation of her masters, she portrayed a deeply progressive character of a woman from a poem through Kathak, a challenge as it was innately contradictory to the form.
After 22 years of Kathak she started studying contemporary dance in London. After that intense and life changing year, she felt that the release technique she learnt brought back in her the feminine in Kathak. She found Kathak for herself again. She came back with the need to improvise. Improvising with a clear idea of the straight line and the curved line she continues to create more work. Her journey left us in awe and inspired.
Jhuma Basak began by talking about the group and people that made dance happen in her life, that is, the Dancers’ Guild founded by Manjusri Chaki Sirkar during her years in Kolkata. She then proceeded to talk about her working with them, critical thoughts of their work, and how she is dancing now. For her, it is a burden to talk about people who are no more because you cannot have a dialogue with them.
“Serious dancing has to become an industry in India. For that to happen, we need dance doctors to deal with dance injuries. Also there is a need for specialized psychiatrists to deal with the extreme highs and lows that dancers go through.”
Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer and choreographer, Navtej Singh Johar began by giving the audience a glimpse of the processes behind his work. He outlined culture, politics, history and philosophy as important aspects of enquiry for him. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra instead of other conventional texts like Natyashastra, he said, became his entry point into dance. He introduced his fellow panelists – Rizio Yohannan Raj, who specialises in Sankhya philosophy and Justin McCarthy, who has been familiar with Johar’s work from the very beginning.
Raj began by saying that making sankhya philosophy a part of everyday life is an important aspect of her work. Philosophy in general is perceived as cut off from everyday life, or it is perceived to have a religious and non-secular background. Explaining her link with Johar’s work, she said that Johar works towards making the world of reflection translatable in daily life. She then asked Johar to reflect on the role of the ‘body’ in his dance. There is a general separation in the realms of body and mind. How does Johar reflect on or see the body and how does the body become a thinking experience? Johar replied by saying that he started dance and yoga training together. The two did not go together at all, being constantly in conflict with each other. He struggled with the question of how dance can become comforting and reflexive rather than an external activity. The possibilities of the body are far richer than creating an image or projecting something outwards. He said he perceives the stage as a space which opens up to itself rather be a place for showing. He views the exhibitionist nature of Indian dance as being almost violent. He said for an image to be live it must comprise of the movement, the submission to the body movement and the effect or the after glow.
McCarthy began by saying that Navtej’s Bharatanatyam and contemporary work nurture each other. However, Johar’s Bharatanatyam is significantly different from the ‘official’ understanding of Bharatanatyam. Johar replied by saying that cultural chauvinism today has become a part of appreciating Bharatanatyam. It is important to love dance without subscribing to the chauvinistic umbrella under which classical dance often finds itself. He said he loves Bharatnatyam’s musicality. Justin pointed out the myriad styles of music that Johar uses in his dance, not just traditional Carnatic music.
Johar followed this by explaining to the audience the paradox of the lives of devadasis – the paradox of being a priestess and a prostitute at the same time and the possibilities that come out of the following abandon. In the 19th century there were major shifts in this premise. There has been a denial of lived experience and a conscious going back to text. Yoga has gone through the same process of forcible cleansing. If one disowns this lived history one disowns paradox. This amounts to fundamentalism. There are polarities in dance such as sringara and bhakti; modern and contemporary, and with the diaspora opening up, dance as an assertion of cultural identity or just culture.
Yohannan then spoke about Johar’s rejection of the proscenium space. How do we understand rejection? She posited Johar’s passionate fervent rejection vis a vis spontaneity and taking things as they come. Johar said that the premise of Patanjali’s Yoga was Sukh. The state of yoga or mindfulness is achieved when there is a play between abhyaas or assertive practice and vairagyam or detachment as opposed to hatha which is dogged determination. It releases the practitioner into comfort. Bodies are made of Tamas which is resisting movement and Rajas, which is movement. Yoga is a fine calibration between energizing one part of the body while exhausting the other. The practice of this leads to Satva which is an unambitious gentle state. The devadasi in her declaration of love is already accepting resignation which is the delicacy or beauty of padam. This is lost if all of it is made into a ‘projection’. The warm act of wanting to be visible without an agenda- being unselfconscious yet conscious of being seen.
Johar has been influenced by the works of Chandralekha and Rukmini Devi Arundale. While the narrative might be important, Navtej recounted one of his earliest experiences of watching Bharatanatyam and not understanding the narrative at all. He said that dance movement by itself results in a readable image. Raj linked this to the idea of mystery that Johar spoke about earlier. The idea of god cannot be avoided in the world of Indian classical dance. Navtej Johar finished by speaking about the consummation of polarities. This moment of centrality can only be achieved by the state of such a consummation
In the open rehersal with Padmini chettur, 9 contemporary dancers took part. All 9 of them lay down on their stomachs to make small diamond spaces in between with legs and arms. This was to understand the notion of keeping the body in motion using interdependence between the dancers and the floor. It was complex in the sense that they had to move themselves and support their fellow dancers at the same time. For her to be able to work with other dancers their physical strength isn’t important, but understanding the inner line of the human body.
A summary of Padmini Chettur’s expansion of her statement, “To get the dancer to lose ego has been a particular part of my work since I began.”
“Perhaps ego is too big a word. After years of a narcissistic practice that engages the self-image of the dancer in a certain way, how do you engage the in between spaces and manifest your energy in a collective manner? To send energy into collective spaces is in some sense the work we started to do with Chandralekha. Basically, how do you stop bothering about what you look like?
To develop this, I set very precise exercises for my dancers to work the material they have to perform. I also found it useful to do as a soloist in space. The solitary body in space has as much potential to invoke the nine dancers (you see in Crawlimal 3).”
The 101 sessions comprised of three experts in their respective fields who gave introductory lectures on topics that are tangentially but significantly related to dance making. Lawrence Liang, lawyer, who presented ‘Choreographing Copyright’, began by emphasizing the nature of dance which is essentially copied or mimetic body movement. At the same time any kind of landmark art essentially rests on the concepts of uniqueness and originality. Copyright, Liang explained, relies on the romantic idea of the author, the idea of originality and the process of fixation which in the case of dance can only be achieved through video or photography. As a concept, copyright exists to protect a unique expression of an ideal. However, what would a unique expression mean in the case of dance?
Liang then drew on the case of case of BV Karanth, an exponent of Yakshagana, who willed all of his literary works to a certain individual. This presents a unique problem since Yakshagana is a performance based art form. Does the bequeathing of its literary works, then, include the bequeathing of its dramatic forms also? Drawing from the lives of artists like Loie Fuller, George Balanchine and Choy Ka Fai, Liang explored important questions of violations and infringements in choreography etc. Liang finished by stating that mediums that are forced to speak to each other like visual mediums and performance based arts, so the existence of copyright should perhaps engage in questions of a sense of propriety rather than questions around right to property.
The next presentation was done by Rashmi Sawhney who spoke on ‘Writing and the Creative Arts’. She remarked that she had noticed a certain resentment amongst dancers when it came to writing about their work while applying for grants and otherwise. This she said could be resulting from a subconscious bitterness against the hegemony of written language over other sensory practices. She mentioned that there exists a dual world of theory and practice, respectively occupied by academics and performers. However, as performers are slowly entering the arena of also becoming critics of the works of their fellow artists, this wall between the two seems to crumbling. Sawhney concluded by inviting people to talk more about writing with her in the ‘clinic’ sessions on the following day.
Mary Therese Kurkalang of Khublei then proceeded to make the last presentation of the session on ‘Outreach, Marketing and Communications in the Arts’ and the important role that these play in the world of dancers. She emphasized that communication is everything when talking about outreach given that every artist needs an audience. She began with basic questions – what, and why, for instance – explaining that artists must be convinced and clear about what they do. She then proceeded to the question of ‘Who?’ explaining that it is important for the artist to know his or her audience. Kurkalang concluded by giving a brief glimpse of the possible strategies that can be employed by artists for their outreach.
Lawrence Liang: Is the body an archive of the past or of the present?
Preethi Athreya: For me, the two things are the same. You are living and breathing every minute. There’s only the present really speaking. You only have access to your sensual and sensorial present. The present is valid in its own point of time. For the performer, it is the here and now that has resonance.
Sadanand Menon: The whole idea of the body being a repository of memory could be looked at in times when there are certain taboos placed on the body. For instance, in the 1930s when Bharatanatyam was reinvented.
A few photographs from the setup last night, and of when we opened shop this morning.