Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
A la carte or buffet?
Shanta Serbjeet Singh
As we enter the twilight zone of the entire millennium, a new picture of classical dance emerges. From a holistic, integrated, focussed portrait, one that took pride in not only relating to hundreds of different elements within its own discipline but als o those within a wide swathe of multi-disciplinary interests, such as literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, religious epics and treatises such as the Vedas and the Puranas, even Ayurveda and the tenets of grammar, we see dance today morphing before ou r eyes into a cubist expression of an elongated eye here, a distorted limb there. Perhaps the analogy of the sense of taste and of food which has traditionally dominated all our artistic expression and been the real tool of creative expression in our performing arts help explain what is happening to our dance scene. Thus, from an art which has lived and breathed the Mool Mantra of Rasa, the quintessence of all artistic experience, we are fast progressing to a smorgasbord of hors d'ouvre, little helpings of a lot of food, described by my Websters as appetizers served buffet style on a long table.
At its extreme, this approach to food, whether it is for the body or the soul, of course, lands us in the junk food parlour. Here a set menu card tells you, at a glance, the speciality of the house as well as the 'buy one, get two' offer of the day in te rms of a burger, a salad and a Coke, thrown in for good measure. Just as the taste of a Macburger is guaranteed to be the same in Taiwan as in Toronto, so is the set, rate card of a Margam, from an Alarippu to a Tillana, bought thus from a teacher in Che nnai and another in Delhi. For good measure, this quickie recipe is most likely manufactured by the teacher's second-hand disciple, thrice removed, most likely in Montreal or Adelaide.
I have scrupulously avoided using the word 'Guru' in the above paragraph. This four-letter word is perhaps the most important pillar of our entire Sanskriti. If we still have a living tradition in the arts, we have only the Guru-Shishya Parampara to than k. And nothing has changed as drastically in the post-Independence fifty years as has this tradition. Thoughtless governments, callous bureaucracies, indifferent rasikas and a lay public innocent of the devastation this erosion of the Guru-Shishya Paramp ara will bring to our arts, have pro-actively framed rules which have slowly, but most certainly, taken our performing arts traditions on a roller-coaster ride downhill.
Take the Delhi scene alone. At present there are only two traditional Bharatanatyam gurus left in this city: Guru Dakshinamurthy and Krishnamurthy. The rest are all performing artistes turned gurus. Besides the compulsions of their own, highly demanding careers, there is the inevitable dilution in Parampara which comes when a modern sensibility, engaged in numerous "innovations" and "experiments" for the purpose of keeping up with the Jones is in sole charge of a new generation of acolytes.
This is not to say that the modern performer-gurus are not conscientious or are irresponsible. In fact dancer-gurus like Leela Samson, Kanaka Srinivasan, Kalyani Shekhar, Geeta Chandra and Sonal Mansingh in Odissi not only teach with the utmost respect f or the propriety of learnt material but they also go one step forward. In a city like Delhi where many students come from homes where there is no puja room, no tradition of "Deep-Bathi," no instruction from seniors to touch the feet of elders etc. , the dancers take on the roles of first preparing their young wards to be mentally ready for an arduous field like classical dance, and only then move to Taki Ta.
In fact the needle of suspicion, as far as "quickies" is concerned, points more at traditional gurus than anyone else. A certain unwonted hype seems to have overtaken the best of them. A great artiste like Kalanidhi Narayan is a case in point. Her forthc oming second workshop in Delhi, this time for Kalangan and Sangeet Natak Akademi is open to all the dance styles. Nor is there any attempt to screen participants according to levels of training and aptitude. What, you may ask, is the aim of such an exerc ise? To teach "items" and render clones across the smoragasbord of homogeneity? Can abhinaya be learnt in a few days, however intensive the training and capable the teacher? What, in any case, is wrong with the old tradition of the seeker going to the Gu ru? Do our scriptures not say that no advice, or counsel, or by extension, Gyan, be offered to any one unless actively sought?
The menu card, fast food joint approach has already changed the contours of teaching and learning everywhere. Says Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran: "This scenario is undoubtedly the best thing that could have happened to traditional gurus. Students c ome from all parts of the world and their first questions are: "Can you record it? Can you tape it? Can you videotape it?" They gladly pay Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 50,000 for thus recording an entire Margam. Or bits and pieces thereof. Add to it the teaching ch arges of Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 5,000 an item, for about five hours a week, and you have a solid business." Such a rudimentary sketch of a particular item is called "composed and given".
But in a real sense, when can a dance student be given the licence to teach? Says Tripura Kashyap: "While taking a degree in Bharatnatyam at Kalakshetra I realised that in spite of my being able to achieve a neat technical mastery over the form, my searc h for "something" new had begun." The five year diploma, in other words, can just be a pad for the gifted dancer to take flight. It cannot be a licence to perpetuate the mediocrity of a menu card approach to dance. As Kashyap says: "The traditional marke table structure of this form has become a security blanket under which mediocrity hides." The glitter of costumes, the heavy wraps of jewels under which the face and the body is veiled and the plastic smiles, she notes, camouflage the vapidity of movemen ts dominated by the rhythms spewed from the orchestral pit. "Rarely does the musical accompaniment happen to be a mood piece that complements rather than overpowers the dancer."
But if this teaching shop approach to classical dance is bad, imagine the mess being currently created by anointing a few such shops around the country with the insignia of the authority to give out diplomas to teach. Take Odissi. Recently, on a visit to Orissa, I was horrified to discover that while path-breaking, Government-funded institutes like Kumkum Mohanty's Odissi Research Centre or the nearly 50-year old Utkal Vikash Kendra of Cuttack do not have the right to hold examinations and give out thes e diplomas, a far away centre in Chandigarh with no access to knowledge of Odissi or its ethos has the statutory right to confer such a diploma. In the midst of rumours of corruption, some made by certain pillars of the cultural scene in Orissa, that dip lomas can be had, even by rank novices to dance for obvious considerations, one question begs to be answered: Why, in God's name, can an Oriya institution of known track record not be given these powers by the powers that be? Why should an institute in f ar away Chandigarh be considered competent for doing such a crucial job?
Referring to this scenario of indifferent dance and clumsy choreographies, Gitanjali Kolanad, the expat Bharatanatyam dancer, terms them the dance equivalent of "someone eating sphagetti with his fingers", or "foreigners walking on the street in India in choli blouses and long skirts, clothing which Indian women wear under their sarees." With cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary work proliferating all over the world, she notes, "somebody's sure to be ignorant about something, leaving us all open to thi s latest version of the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome." According to Kolanad, a dancer she knows is a modern dancer when she goes to India and an Indian dancer when she comes back to New York. "She can count on people's ignorance on the two continents t o make a decent living."
In fact the new breed of dancers and rasikas who live on cultural fast food can count on that one ingredient, for sure, ignorance. On the other hand, if there is an adulteration of food for the soul more dangerous than mixing mustard oil with mobil oil, it is ignorance. Classical dance better watch out lest it fall prey, in the new millenium, to the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome!
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