Tradition and modern juxtaposed
Leela Samson... did something rare.
THE NATYAKALA Conference held by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on the ``Art of Choreography," offered insights into the differences between the approaches of the traditional and contemporary dancers. Both are engaged in experiments. The former generally apply the principle of extension, even while breaking up structure and content to effect new alignments. Contemporary dancers may talk of extension, but their attempt is to re-forge experience in a wholly different, even alien contexts -- visual, auditory and emotional. Their language matches these opposing angles. While the traditional dancer relies on the collective energy of heritage, roots, guru, parampara - in other words - the Given, the modernist is narcissistic, it is I-I-I all the time. While this means an admirable acceptance of individual responsibility, it can also lead to self-indulgence. You heard this solipsistic note at the conference.
Art was autobiography and if it became too personal or idiosyncratic for communication, too bad, it was still valid for the experimenter, and viewers simply had to make a greater effort to comprehend. Such defensiveness is surely the result of the greater insecurities in the lone path. If an international figure like Astad Deboo can end up with a sparse hall, how can a young Preeti Athreya abandon Bharatanatyam for contemporary ventures? In this context the rivetting presentation by Maya Rao and Madhu Natraj gave glimpses into experiments of the older and newer kinds. The mother's innovations as in the dance dramas ``Hoysala Vaibhava'' and ``Amir Khusro'' were a return to the original narrative form of Kathak as practised by the kathaakar or narrator of legends in the temple precincts. With the destruction of the temples by Muslim invaders this tradition was silenced, to be revived as entertainment in royal courts, where it developed sophisticated nritta virtuosities. Rao found the genre a storehouse for contemporary works like Masti Venkatesa Iyengar's ``Yasodhara'' or for collaborating in a Soviet ballet.
Returning to Kathak after interfacing with the martial arts, yoga and contemporary dance in New York, Madhu Natraj's choreography is multi-sourced, drawing from musicians, designers and film-makers, in addition to folk forms of narration like the ``Khoriya'' for a feminist theme. She is as much at ease with a poem by Rilke, as with a jazz number. If the mother believed that India has a ``Theatre of Imagination'' the daughter wanted to establish a truly ``Indian'' contemporary dance genre. While Maya Rao's plays had traditional outlets like the sabha, Natraj's modern creations were staged in the events of the corporate world and youth melas. Their audiences, as well as patrons, were different.
Preethi Athreya's academic presentation of her course work at the Laban Centre, London, was well thought out, and balanced the word with the visual. Explaining that choreological studies had corporeal (the body's practical knowledge of the dance) and cognitive (the mental knowledge of the movement executed physically) aspects, Athreya talked about her attempts to apply Laban's techniques to study Indian traditional dance. That exposure had brought a shift in her aesthetic perceptions. She had to fulfil other needs by finding dance and rhythm where least expected -- echoes in the hall, gothic architecture in the studio, sunlight and shadows, silhouettes and shapes, in grass and leaf, the pulse of a ball game. She screened the film she had made to relate herself to the dance she sees everywhere.
Leela Samson's group choreography (Spanda) did something rare. It unified what we perceived as the opposing approaches of the traditional dancer's heritage extensions, and the contemporary artiste's departures for finding new forms. Like her guru Rukmini Devi, Samson's group compositions throve on asymmetry, seeing nritta as an organic expression of the creative imagination. Wedding sprightliness to quietness, they demanded good lighting, excellent teamwork and precision for the lines, formations and gati changes to appear spontaneous. Whether it created a new expression, vocabulary or dynamics became a secondary concern. More important, you could lose yourself in the joy (ullasam) the dancers brought to their performance.
The session by C. V. Chandrasekhar and Manjari suffered somewhat due to the breathlessness of the dancer after her demonstrations - each more demanding than the one before, all executed with controlled power. But we did see how traditional practice (Bharatanatyam) could draw new meanings from nritta. In the Chandrasekhar-Manjari treatment nritta emerged as a signifier of the mood in its own right. It went beyond its role as a decorative filler, or in fostering natyadhami mode and aesthetic distance. The importance of not just the music, but volume-tone-modulated jati recitation was underscored for establishing the elusive sthayi-sanchari bhavas, as also the more concrete vibhava.
Faulty video projections affected the first part of Krishnaveni Lakshmanan's presentation. Nor were the dancers perfectly rehearsed. The canvas was vast. Despite these drawbacks, she gave a sufficiently clear idea of the innovations of Rukmini Devi in group choreography, authenticated by personal interactions with her guru. You realised that much of what was discussed and demonstrated in the conference as innovations had already been conceived and performed in the Kalakshetra dance dramas.
Perhaps they were not recognised as innovations (as the work of say, a Chandralekha or a Mrinalini Sarabhai) because they fitted so smoothly into the tradition of narrating stories from epics and legends. However, analysed in isolation, we saw how much in advance of her time Rukmini Devi had been, and still a source of inspiration to contemporary practices in Indian dance.
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