Is This Indian Enough?

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A French performer decodes Indian spirituality. A Bharatanatyam dancer enacts Doris Lessing. But contemporary dance has a unique crisis, says Janani Ganesan

Pitcher of perfection Attakkalari’s recent production MeiDhwani
Pitcher of perfection: Attakkalari’s recent production MeiDhwani, Photo: Gichu Tom

DESPITE THE NOW solitary room, the mirror-lined walls and a linoleum mat-covered floor ease the guesswork. One can almost see the impossible stretch of yoga here or the incessant foot-tapping of Bharatanatyam there. The marble floors are not kind to dancers. A wooden or even a mud-plastered floor would have done. Not this. But Gati can’t afford a wood-floored studio.

Stepping up Navtej Johar (left) and Hiroshi Miyamoto perform Mango Cherry Mix
Stepping up Navtej Johar (left) and Hiroshi Miyamoto perform Mango Cherry Mix, Photo: Anshuman Sen

Gati, a not-for-profit institution that supports emerging dancers, is currently housed in a rented basement in an affluent residential colony in Delhi. But building a dance studio requires quite another level of funding. “Donate a dance brick,” reads Gati’s latest camp – aign on a deep magenta poster, which dancer Anusha Lall, founder-director of Gati, discreetly thrusts into the hands of visitors leaving the tiny office. Having flagged off its first edition of contemporary dance festival, IGNITE, in 2010, Gati is hoping to move into a space they can call their own; just like their dance. The finer print on the poster urges the reader to help Gati build “a new community space for dance”. It could have as well added “for a ‘new’ dance”.

Bengaluru-based choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy was the first to set up a contemporary dance institution in India, Attakkalari, in 1992. (It is organised on different lines from the school tradition that dancers such as Chandralekha had begun much earlier.) Palazhy is on a similar mission — to move out of their current rented space, in order to invest in the dance and dancers, rather than a brick and cement structure. The dance school, perhaps the first in India to give out diplomas in contemporary dance, functions out of what was once a garage. Palazhy is tired of all the unsuccessful attempts at convincing the government to fund them. So far, the French and German Embassies have been more active in promoting contemporary Indian dance compared to the somnolent Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA). The SNA hasn’t done much since instituting a dance seminar in 1958, an award for ‘creative dance’ in 1960, and isolated contemporary dance festivals — once in 10 years. If an academy like the SNA is in existence, it might as well be asked to do its bit.

Playing into hands Aditi Mangaldas with Dheerendra Tiwari
Playing into hands Aditi Mangaldas with Dheerendra Tiwari, Photo: Garima Jain

Attakkalari was able to pull off a Rs 5 crore affair of a festival in 2011, a 10-day international contemporary dance festival, the Attakkalari India Biennial, with a 10,000-plus audience. Private foundations like the Sir Ratan Tata Trust or the Ford Foundation are willing to sponsor individual ventures such as this, but not investment in infrastructure for dance schools and performance spaces. “Foreign charitable trusts feel that India is now capable of investing in its own dancers. Why should they continue to do everything for us?” explains Palazhy.

But Lall sees the State thawing. “Sometimes the Ministry (of Culture) seems to be enthusiastic. But, sometimes they take two years to process a form,” she says. That a few institutions like the Drishtikon Dance Foundation, which supports the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company, receive an annual salary grant from the ministry, illustrates the State’s attempt to play its part. But it is the familiar scenario of hit and miss — curse the system, but bless an occasional individual who might turn things around. Lall is quick to add: “There are people and organisations interested in the development of contemporary dance and are willing to support it financially. We don’t have to necessarily wait for the government to help us out.” Nonetheless, one of Gati’s upcoming projects seeks to break ground in policy advocacy and research.

When they can at least afford their own rented spaces, while many Indian dancers, including classical, train on concrete floors of gurus’ houses, why should the government help Gati or Attakkalari? Who are these people? And, most importantly, what is this dance?

Contemporary dance falls between two cultural boats. It has nothing to do with the pelvic thrusts, peppy music and disco lights of Bollywood, which considers Hema Malini and Hrithik Roshan as its best proponents. Neither is contemporary dance among the classical forms — Bharatanatyam or Kathak or Odissi or Manipuri — that we have been brought up to admire, if not taught to understand. To be able to sit through a one-hour long performance of painfully slow movements, perplexing music and subdued costumes, one requires a history of viewing and questioning, which is conspicuously absent in the Indian audience. Almost seven decades since Uday Shankar’s defiantly creative choreographies, contemporary Indian dance is still surfacing only in pockets.

SO WHY should the State bother about a dance that nobody seems to care about? Palazhy explains, “To make sense of a contemporary experience, you need a contemporary form of expression. Otherwise you will feel alienated and that is what is happening with the society. There is nothing to help make sense of what is going on with your life.” Take, for instance, Delhi-based dancer Navtej Singh Johar’s production Mango Cherry Mix. Its underlying concept was the tensions and similarities between two men with different racial origins. As the late Chandralekha’s admirers and students re-quote her desire for a new language, “This country is no more the land of milk and honey. The rivers have dried up. What am I dancing about?”

Aditi Mangaldas, a Kathak dancer, who was influenced by her teacher Kumudini Lakhia to explore Kathak, places the developments in dance in line with developments in society. “After Independence, we were keen on reclaiming our national identity and hence there was an emphasis on classical traditions. But, this nationalistic agenda gave way to people finally questioning the redundancy of an ancient language for a modern society. For instance, feminists were irritated with the portrayal of woman as one who is either constantly in search of her lover or seethes in jealousy for him,” she says.

At this stage, contemporary Indian dance is like the child that cannot explain what it wants to become, but merely what it won’t or doesn’t like. To arrive at a ‘definition’ of contemporary dance would mean to first delineate what it isn’t — a blind following of the Natadavus and Abhinayas, a romanticised rigidity to keep portraying the Ramayana and the likes to perfection (and to death) and an apish tendency to mimic the West or too-willingly embrace ‘modernity’. To borrow the words of Chandralekha, who woke up audiences with her dizzyingly slow moves, “That ‘No’ is very important.”

‘Contemporary dance is not mix-and-match. You can’t place a move from ballet and Bharatanatyam together merely because it looks good,’ says Johar

For Delhi-based French dancer Gilles Chuyen, contemporary dance is to say ‘no’ to someone else’s modernity and adopt it on one’s own terms. “It is not about what I depict, but what I experience within. Depicting would mean I am merely mimicking somebody else’s expression.” One minute, he is seated comfortably on the floor, legs folded, and the next moment he is on his feet, striking a ballet pose to illustrate a point, and he is back to his folded-legs-sitting position with ease. Movement to him is as subliminal as breathing. In spite of having been formally trained in jazz, Chuyen chose to learn and express through Chhau, an east Indian martial art/dance form. Chuyen doesn’t hesitate to explore Indian religion and spirituality in his dance, not being bound by ideas of shedding the past, that too someone else’s. “The West wouldn’t accept me as a contemporary dancer because I explore spirituality. But there shouldn’t be a compulsion to define yourself according to somebody’s norm. For instance, contemporary need not necessarily mean abstraction, though most of it is. It is about finding your own way,” he seamlessly shares his thoughts on the subject.

Johar opens the discussion with a different ‘no’. “Contemporary dance is not fusion,” his distaste for the practice is evident in his mildly irritated demeanour. But doesn’t he mix Bharatanatyam and Yoga in his dance? “What I do is juxtapose the forms, not fuse them. It is not a mix-and-match phenomenon. You can’t borrow a move from ballet and place it along with a move in Bharatanatyam merely because it looks good,” he says. “I dance with a Chhau dancer but I don’t attempt to do Chhau myself, because I haven’t learnt it. If I try to do Chhau, it would be fusion,” he explains further.

But how Indian is contemporary Indian dance if it ranges from a French dancer experimenting with Indian religious philosophy and an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer portraying a Doris Lessing novel in a dance? “Why should anybody prove their Indianness?” lashes out Manola Gayatri Kumaraswamy, independent performer and research scholar at the JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. Johar takes the argument forward, “It begins with my body, an Indian body and I define movement in a distinct manner. Modernity has come to us second hand, and there is a tendency to be derivative.” But that does not mean an Indian body cannot feel the rebellious grooves of hip hop or the swift twirls of ballet.

Though Indian contemporary dancers would like to define themselves in their own terms, some even avoiding the term contemporary, they have one step, if you will, in common — that of raising questions. Not with the arrogance of a forced rebel, but with the ceaseless curiosity of a child.

“Each dancer is writing his or her own essay and that too with a new language evolved by themselves. You can imagine how difficult that is. What is happening is incredible. I am a founder of a gibberish, not random but with patterns and grammar,” says Johar with an excitement that is infectious. His eyes, with a dancer’s concentrated gaze, remain on the listener, constantly searching for a chord he might have struck. There are too many people who don’t understand his gibberish. He can’t take his listener for granted. “Now for all these different languages to converge, it will take some time. Or should it at all converge?” he adds.

Where is the dance headed? What is its present quality? How is it perceived internationally? The dancers don’t have answers. Self-reflection can take one only so far as to question. The answers will come forth when there is a coming together to brainstorm, argue and even criticise each other, given the absence of that platform in the mainstream media. But the dancers don’t know extensively about others in their field, except the ‘popular’ ones whom they either keep bumping into at exclusive gatherings or read about in the media. Palazhy, who discusses his dance centre at length, says, “I’m sure there are other institutions, but I’m not sure what shape they are in. I only vaguely know of some of them.” You’d expect a pioneer of sorts in institutionalising the form, to be more aware of interesting developments. One could write it off as an individual’s ignorance, but other artists too give similar “vaguely” and “perhaps” answers .

COULD THE burgeoning number of dance festivals, residence programmes and seminars across the country change that scenario for good? The year 2012 will see the second edition of Gati’s IGNITE, Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation’s The Park’s New Festival Edition VI, the Bhoomika Institute’s Narendra Sharma Festival of Dance in Delhi and hopefully the second edition of National Centre for Performing Arts’ contemporary dance festival in Mumbai. January 2013 will, of course, open with the Attakkalari India Biennial.

Would a contemporary dancer be able to criticise, say, the ethics of car companies while performing on a stage sponsored by Ford?

This constant mingling of dancers could dispel ignorances perpetrated by geographical cocoons, but would a dancer be able to criticise, say, the ethics of car companies while performing on a stage sponsored by Ford? If the dancers, on one hand, point out the government’s moral responsibility in sustaining them, it is only fair to ask them to fulfil theirs. After all, the difference between the popular dance of Bollywood and performances can’t just be smart abstractions of the same ideas.

As Dr Sunil Kothari, author and dance critic, points out, there are many more individuals whose contribution to the Indian contemporary dance needs a mention here. But the pressing need is to go beyond personalities. Dancers like Padmini Chettur or Daksha Sheth, who trained under some of the pioneers in the contemporary movement (Chandralekha and Lakhia, respectively), have taken off on their own search. Some of the second-generation dancers have been conscious of passing on the tradition of questioning to the third generation. But other young dancers, who work with dance companies, can only embody a repertoire of works of their ‘idol’. Contemporary dance seeks to be a far cry from an impatient teacher flinging a stick for not getting the Aramandi right. But with the pressure of festival deadlines, does the choreographer have the time to indulge in explanations to other dancers? And that too, unlike before, dancers who are now hired and fired. These are not schools but companies; hardly the equation for contemporary dance to transcend beyond individuals like Chandralekha, Astad Deboo and Lakhia, into a meaningful movement in the art history of a nation.

What after these individuals? Though people like Palazhy insist that “the contemporary dance is an approach and not a form”, the lost but obedient look on the faces of hired dancers of various contemporary dance companies implies that the seeking is not for everybody.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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