Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
The language of mudras
V. R. Devika
The fact that it cannot be detached from the people who make it is why dance is "personal" in a way that poems, paintings, sculptures and buildings are not. All these forms transcend their creators and the moment of their creation. Dance, even when recorded, exists in a personal here and now.
This means that every dance, no matter how steeped in tradition, always says something about the present. The conscious preservation in whatever form, of the dances of yesterday is proof that we value the past in a way that goes beyond the restoration of old canvasses, statues and manuscripts. The past comes alive in the dances if only because someone alive today must feel the urge, the need, and the duty to dance them. The fragility of these survivals from the past is a source of concern to many and the continuity is a source of annoyance to many who wish to break with the past and create something new. The dance itself new as it is being performed today by a person who belongs to the present generation.
Dance also shows that the body is the mother tongue. Dance, like language, is the means to convey something about the land one comes from. Have you seen the way Gujarati women have a small skip as they glide in a circle in a Ras or a Garbha, the robust manner in which the Punjabi women take over while dancing the Gidda? The social and cultural history of a place gives its dance, the language of its movement. The movement of the Manipuri dancer seems like the wisp of a cloud across the mountain while similar movements of Mohiniattam in the south west of the country arouse imagery of soft lashes of water on the sea front. Odissi gets its inspiration from the architecture of its temples, the architecture of the dance of Bharatanatyam resemble the gopurams of the Chola temples. Geography and climate have everything to do with dance. Like language, dance has power. All societies acknowledge its power and harness it according to their fundamental values, aesthetics and mores.
There is a point of view that traditional dances are not contemporary. Anything new is said to mean modern. And modern dances are said to bring in freedom from traditional rules. Freedom from what tradition? Is any non traditional dance modern? And the ignorant are free. Does that make them modern? Traditional dance may keep to a mythical story or talk about personalised feelings dedicated to an unseen god. But they almost always externalise personal, authentic experience and bring out the personality of the dancer. Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai dance the traditional Bharatanatyam. But their own personalities speak through their movements clearly. While Malavika brings a kind of touch-me-not-introvertish perfection to her movements, Valli extravagantly involves the audience in her dance. There is total involvement by the two artistes and yet they are both the best representatives of a steeped-in-tradition Bharatanatyam. Not of the archaic kind, even if the contents are from the Sangam period but today's affirmation of the dance and its contemporaneity. Every dancer adds her or his own language to the classical dance idiom.
A comedy show by a couple of Kattiakarans in the middle of the Mahabharata story of the dice game by the Therukoothu group of Dharmapuri showed the superior level of body language. The two subtly changed their body language to the mood of the moment. They were at the same time modern, contemporary and traditional. The accepted symbols of movement were challenging to them and they were able to get the viewer to discover and acknowledge the reality behind the traditionally accepted movements.
"Modern" is understood to mean realism or naturalism. But the dancer's response to naturalism varies according to sensibility, experience and region. The influence of the traditions and customs of the land and other links with the land cannot escape the body that dances. A German dancer dancing the Bharatanatyam will show that there is something of Germany in her body. Can techniques born in a separate metaphysical be transvalued, opening up the present in relation to the past? The dance can be the realisation of the present as a memory of the past and the body's memory of its links. A vital aspect is that of collective memory of the contents and body language that can shape a dance and its language. Body then becomes the mother tongue. Collective memory provides easy recognition and continuity for the audience, as representing and conforming to a known pattern of values of movements in a tradition. Regional rootedness can bring in greater diversity and differences can become the source of greater identity of one's language and a seeking of unity through the differences.
When people talk of traditional dance and its limitations, its inability to express adequately, the contemporary situation, one wonders what is contemporary, to whom and in relation to what? The traditional dancers of India are both at dead stagnation and absolute creativity. Movement, music and dialogue all become dance in the folk theatre of India.
Being born into a particular society, into a particular era, a specific milieu, each one of us has been accultured. Says Eugeno Barba: throughout our childhood and adolescence, a process of innervation crystallises into patterns of behaviour, conditionings, a way of conducting oneself, of reacting, of using one's physical dynamics, which makes it immediately possible to distinguish a dance and the different body cultures, and techniques. What we have in dance is not mere movement but the passage of body positions from one to another and at a particular pace. The movement is at a rhythmic advance. The impulse to move is the raw material that cultures have shaped into evocative sequences of physical activity we call dance. Dances to court, celebrate a wedding, mourn a funeral, of healing, dances of instruction, to arouse, amuse, or uplift the audience, dances to usher in the seasons and dances that tell stories and those that speak of the inner struggles. The meaning and the beauty of the dance are in the eye of the viewer. Another may view a religious frenzied dance of ecstasy as a sexual abandonment. Dance is intensely linked to cultural identity.
The darker forces of life make people believe that it is impossible to live in it without continuous acts of propitiation, rituals, prayers and offerings. Among these is dancing which takes on astonishing forms and complicated beauty. Elitist society has its own reasons for creating new dances to bring individualistic cult forming to a new height.
Contemporary life has its uses for dance. While the majority feasts on the meaningless dances of the silver screen and high society looks in awe at the irreverent new dancer makers, village India keeps producing dancers of the calibre of the two clowns of the Dharmapuri Koothu group, who raised body language to a perfectly articulated mother tongue. Assimilation of today's movement culture was not absent in them but was so totally assimilated that it became as natural as one's own tongue.
Dance plays its part in providing a link to space and time. It finds a language of movement for each one. There is no reason to fight a personal language, it is an organic statement of one's culture. The important thing is to stretch personal vocabulary so that it does not remain static. Living in a transcending culture, with science giving us a constantly changing attitude toward what is the good life, there is constant demand for a constantly changing justification for the art. The fearless and radiant sensuality of a Kalanidhi Narayan needs courage to perform. Chandralekha combined Kalaripayattu with Bharatanatyam in her choreography and that has become a popular idea to unify different forms of performing arts. This is the need of the elitist performing arenas today. The artist has to compromise.
But folk systems remain contemporary through their mythological stories. Look at the Yakshagana scene in Coastal Karnataka. Coastal Karnataka is now in tune with modernity in its lifestyle. Literacy and financial security in jobs has brought in "development" to a great extent. Yet Yakshagana has not gone down in its popularity. University professors, advocates, waiters in hotels, doctors in hospitals and teachers in schools and others don make up after their day's work and perform mythical roles on the stage. Perhaps "development" has brought in the need for looking at non-contemporary values and ideas and to relate them to contemporary life. As modernity develops, values and ideas far away from it become closer to the mind and creativity develops with greater relevance.
While specialisation and fragmentation in the arts continue, the body becomes the natural conduit for conveying a language. Dance will ever remain a power to contend with.
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