Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
Antiquity," said Voltaire with aphoristic precision, "is full of eulogies of another more remote antiquity."
The preoccupation with antiquity - or with an idealised perception of tradition as hoary, pristine, and unfractured - continues to hold true of the Indian cultural context, and more specifically, of the predicament of Indian dance.
While the shrill voice of purist outrage against "innovation" in dance has certainly grown fainter, a certain endemic mistrust is hard to erase. The kind of mistrust that is still in some haste to label change as "adulteration", experimentation as "gimmickry", and almost every adventurous creative practitioner as representative of anarchic brat-pack.
"Thankfully, things are changing now - somewhat slowly, perhaps. But the situation today is quite different from the way it was when I started out," says Astad Deboo, one of the country's most resilient apologists of "modern dance" (a definition that is still functional, even while remaining inadequate).
Not surprisingly, Deboo, with his obstinately individual creative sensibility, found his position far more beleaguered in the Sixties. Given the Janus-faced impulse of societies recovering from the colonial trauma to reconstruct the past in order to face the present, the post-Independence years in India were, not surprisingly, concerned largely with the retrieval and consolidation of classical dance. Thus Deboo was to find even in the late Sixties that other than Uttara Asha Coorlawala, there were no Indian role models available to him in his fledgling quest for a more contemporary dance idiom. "I had learnt Kathak as a child, but it was watching a performance by the Murray Lewis Dance Company in 1967 that opened my eyes to new possibilities of movement. It clinched my decision to become a dancer. But it was to be a lonely journey of self-exploration," he remarks.
Interestingly, despite his ten itinerant years abroad, Deboo did not decide to put down anchor in the West either. "If it was difficult here, it wasn't particularly easy there. The view at that time was that if you didn't belong to the Martha Graham/Merce Cunningham/Jose Limon school you weren't a modern dancer - a view that suited his creative temperament and physicality, and "then moved on", the dance establishments abroad clearly did not find him easy to pigeonhole.
It was this innate attitude of creative insubordination that probably made him refuse Pina Bausch's invitation to join her company. "She wanted me to perform only Kathakali, but I wanted the freedom to incorporate and interpret other forms, as well. Even at that point, I was certain I didn't want to merely dance to someone else's tune."
The East-West Dance Encounter of January 1985, jointly organised by the Max Mueller Bhavan and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, acknowledges Deboo, did mark an important moment in the neonatal history of modern Indian dance. Although, the East was represented largely by classical dance and the West by modern, what the encounter brought sharply to the fore was the urgent need for a certain self-reflexivity and enquiry on the part of the Indian dance practitioners into the process of relating inherited idioms to contemporary contexts. "I had seen Bharat Sharma's work in the early Eighties, but the encounter gave me the chance to see other dancers who were asking themselves searching questions, such as Chandralekha and Kumudini Lakhia," says Deboo. "Later I discovered dancers like Ranjabati Sircar, Aditi Mangaldas, Daksha Sheth, among others, as well."
While the East West experience was heartening, the sense of community proved inevitably to be short-lived. "We were all from different cities, with no commission to follow up or look into the logistics of regular encounters. The result is that we continue to operate in isolation - a situation that is actually quite universal, I have observed," says Deboo.
He acknowledges that this growing tribe of dancer-choreographer is not searching for a unitary direction either. "Our quests are divergent, and so our work is obviously varied." Thus while Chandralekha devotes herself to exploring the abstract potential of Bharatanatyam, in conjunction with allied idioms of yoga and kalaripayattu, Daksha Sheth seeks to evolve a contemporary vocabulary that draws on her background in Kathak, Chhau and Kalari. While Aditi Mangaldas strives to replace the Radha-Krishna troupe in Kathak with more feminist content, Bharat Sharma and Maya Krishna Rao address themselves in diverse ways to the areas of slippage between dance and theatre. Likewise Deboo's own tryst with abstraction has been conditioned by his widely ecletic training in Martha Graham, Pina Bausch jazz, Kathakali and Kathak, and his need to collaborate with practitioners of other disciplines, ranging from puppeteers and actors to dhrupad exponents and deaf dancers.
Although the heterogeneity of the scene is an indication of its dynamism, the support systems necessary to sustain and catalyse such activity are still to emerge. "It is true that innovative work is being featured in some of the major forums and dance festivals in the country and is receiving some measure of recognition. The Sangeet Natak Akademi award was conferred on me recently, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But the financial support is still frugal," says Deboo. Corporate houses, he alleges with some bitterness, still privilege fashion shows, followed by high-profile Hindustani music recitals, in their hierarchy of priorities. There is also clearly a need for a decisive role on the part of cultural institutions to provide infrastructural assistance and facilitate creative ensemble work.
And what of the covert fundamentalist view that the modern/ post modern/ creative dance (the appellations being many and debatable) is in some way more "Western" than "Indian"? Such ideological jingoism has particularly plagued Deboo whose work refuses to adhere to traditional edicts and consistently quotes from multiple traditions. "Thankfully, that 'not-quite-Indian' allegation has begun to fade now," smiles Deboo.
And yet, while dancers like him may choose to regard Indianness as a complex and integral part of their identity rather than a matter of external cargo, it is easy to see how such pressure from a cultural climate can produce dishonest "ethnic" flourishes and perpetuate Orientalist cliches. "In fact, I've often found it difficult to prove to the Western world that my work is "Indian", simply because it isn't exotic enough to have easy export value," he says. "Even when working with thang-tha artistes from Manipur, for instance, I enter into an interaction with them, but never claim to represent their tradition either in India or abroad."
The subject of subtle forms of cultural imperialism brings one inevitably to a realistic appraisal of the current dance scene. While the burgeoning species of innovative dancer is clearly in evidence, how much of the work is about genuine creative ferment and how much about clever posturing? "The word 'modern' is so loosely used that it is blasphemous," admits Deboo. "There is a lot of re-packaging of the same form that masquerades as innovation. And there are some youngsters, with hardly any training or technique behind them, who go around claiming to be choreographers, which I find really appalling."
It is a trend that Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli once pithily termed "the what's new syndrome" - a politically correct endorsement of any novel element in performance that can, in fact, result in a kind of reverse dogmatism. It also, of course, allows those whose politics fall in with current wisdom to jump on the bandwagon, even while their artistry lags far behind! On the other hand, few would deny that to watch a performance by an Alarmel Valli or a Malavika Sarukkai, a Kelucharan Mohapatra or a Birju Maharaj, all of whom work within traditional stylistic parameters, is to watch dance that is so obviously about genuine self-expression that it makes the equilibrium between tradition and the individual talent seem utterly harmonious.
It is indeed possible that a jejune enthusiasm for change will spawn mediocrity of another kind. It is possible that the quest for a new horizon in dance will lead many a dancer to a cul-de-sac. It is also possible that some pathbreaking journeys will eventually be discredited because of the spate of soulless rehashes they leave in their wake.
"But in the middle of all this," says Deboo, "there are dancers like myself who simply see themselves as creative dancers from India today. We're not trying to prove our Westernness or Indianness, our credentials as traditional or trailblazingly new. We just believe our work deserves a fair viewing. And that hopefully is what the new millennium is all about."
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