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The language of the body

ANJANA RAJAN

In the search for new themes and styles, a large collection of choreographic work has emerged.



FORMS OF CREATIVITY: Choreography pared down to the basics. PHOTO: SADANAND MENON.

The truth that group shows catch audience attention faster than solos has come down to us right from the Natya Shastra, whose legendary author Bharatamuni first learned the art of dance from Lord Brahma.

According to Bharata's account, he trained his 100 sons and formed a troupe with help from a few apsaras. The group's first performance was before the gods and demons, and its impact on some of the spectators was of the kind today's artistes would envy for its publicity value.

The asuras took objection to the storyline showing the victory of good over evil and casting them in a disreputable light. They disrupted the proceedings by paralysing the actors. Indra sprang to their defence, and the celestial battle was settled in style.

Later the troupe enlarged its repertoire of productions, but group shows remained its strength.

And today, though every dancer may aspire to solo stardom, group productions — annual school shows the main purpose of which is to put every child on stage or sophisticated productions with metaphysical themes — form an important facet of every dance institution's activities.

Dance drama

Among the definitions classical dance students learn is that of natya, roughly translated as dance drama.

A sloka in Nandikeswara's "Abhinaya Darpanam" says natya is a rendering of sacred, ancient stories (Natyam tannatakam chaiva, poojyam poorva kathaayutam).

Naturally enough, when classical dance underwent a revival from the 1930s, besides the development of solo forms dance dramas became a means of popularising the art.

Rukmini Devi Arundale is credited with being one of the first to choreograph dance dramas, which she presented with her Kalakshetra troupe across India and other countries.

She used the techniques of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali to interpret her creative ideas, all of which could be classified under mythological lore or history, quintessentially, poorva kathaayutam.

Over the years, presenting dance productions using classical dance techniques has lost its novelty though not its popularity.

In the search for new themes and presentation styles, a large collection of work has emerged, not all of it meriting serious analysis.

The word choreography has been bandied about for years. Every addition to a solo dancer's repertoire is termed a piece of choreography, every dancer is considered a choreographer.

While there is no denying some people have both skills, it is time we moved beyond this mindset.

Uday Shankar was arguably modern India's first choreographer. He used classical dance techniques to formulate a new language of movement.

His autobiographical film "Kalpana" reveals not only how he knitted together elements from various folk and classical forms, but also his conviction that strong social messages could be conveyed through dance. In this context, he was only furthering the idea behind poorva kathayutam, since such stories promote discrimination between right and wrong.

In later years, however, Uday Shankar's disciples furthered a style of their own that did not retain its visual links with any recognisable classical form. Rukmini Devi, besides presenting mythological stories, also revived old theatre forms like the Kuravanji Natakam and Bhagavata Melam.

While a host of luminaries did likewise, the next person who gave dancers and audiences food for thought was Chandralekha.

Staggered cues

In the early 1980s, Chandralekha presented a lecture-demonstration, the highlight of which was a tillana by four dancers. Using levels created from within the pool of dance postures, allotting staggered cues and varying the direction of identical movements, the choreographer seemed to be showing the possibility of paring the dance form back to its basics as a language of the body — like singing raga aakaram.

Later she produced `Angika' that primarily used kalaripayattu (a traditional form of martial art) and Bharatanatyam.

Angika literally means `body.' Indeed, the production was a rather literal rendition of the exercises and classifications laid down by scholars of these forms. Instead of music she used verses from the texts, making the soundtrack seem like a dance theory classroom but audiences lapped it up.

This was not merely because many were impressed by the Sanskrit and didn't know the recitation was akin to reading out a time-table, nor just because the kalari artistes were astoundingly flexible.

Defiant paring

What was significant was Chandralekha's almost defiant paring down to the basics.

Later she went on to more `radical' ways of celebrating the body.

With names like `Sharira', `Raga', etc., the works provoked controversy. She also moved away from strict classifications of, say Bharatanatyam, or any other form.

But a few of her approaches have come to stay, like the use of pure dance technique to design space and convey abstract themes, the exploiting of groups to present the same movement simultaneously from different angles, even the lack of emphasis on youth and `prettiness'.

Approaches to expressional dance have changed too, but they merit a discussion of their own.

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