Dance India Dance

Rival Indian concepts of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ face each other in a dance-off

Gati’s program director Mandeep Raikhy teaches a morning class at their Studio. SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2010

LET'S CONDUCT A SMALL EXPERIMENT. Extend the index finger and thumb away from the palm, as the remaining digits fist inward. Now, is this the yogic expression of chandrakala, the representation of an evanescent moonbeam, or is it the American ‘L’ for ‘loser?’

The first interpretation is a part of the vocabulary of Indian dance, in which socio-historic, spiritual and artistic influences intersect. The other is a mimetic form of Western slang—current, terse and expressive. When this single physical locution is performed on stage, in a dance that intends both meanings, there’s a cultural collision.

But as an element of dance, is the archaic amplified or attenuated by the overlay of the colloquial? Are we cheapening the ‘traditional’ notation or deepening the ‘contemporary’ meaning?

The Gati Dance Forum is a cooperative of choreographers interested in formulating, conducting and testing these experiments.  Somewhat like an R&D facility for dance in India, it engineers head-on collisions between East and West, modern and ancient, cultural and personal. It then forensically analyses the vectors, the corollaries, even the debris, in its dance laboratory.

A tiny not-for-profit, it occupies a capacious basement in New Delhi’s ritzy Nizamuddin East neighbourhood. Though Gati is dedicated to art and aesthetics, the studio is all function over form. Strips of mirrors are pasted along the entire length of one wall, minus a corner allotted to the utility kitchen. A large square of rubberised black linoleum covers most of the marble-chip floor. A separate alcove holds the indispensable conference-plus-dining table and a couple of workstations.

This is where Mandeep Raikhy, Gati’s programme director, with the lidded gaze and ball-footed gait of an Indian Nijinsky, claims “ a place for different dancers to come together. A space to have a conversation.”  Founder and director Anusha Lall wants it to be a forum for the “questioning and exploration” of the received canon of Indian dance.

Indian dance, as Lall is quick to acknowledge, is a hybrid term. It most often refers to eight major classical Indian forms of theatrical expression, rhythm, and dance proper. The eight, with Bharatanatyam and Odissi as dominant species, owe some of their gnarled and knotted roots to an ancient scriptural text, the Natya Shastra.

Cross-pollination has always been an integral feature—between the major eight, the many minor folk forms and imported techniques. If the thrilling spins of the Kathak dancer are indistinguishable from the dervish whirls of the Sufi mystic, it is because seeds sown in the Persian Empire also blossomed at Mughal courts.

As the taxonomy of each form expanded, the inter-breeding diminished. The Gati Forum states as its core philosophy that “dance forms can and must enrich each other” and was, in fact, founded in April 2007 in response to the stasis that had set in. (Dave Besseling discussed the disquieting repercussions of such torpidity in his story End (of) Days, which appeared on these pages in March, 2010.)

Lall speaks nostalgically of a watershed workshop at Max Mueller Bhavan in 1993, where a present-day who’s who of Indian dancers (she ticks off Navtej Singh Johar, Maya Rao, Aditi Mangaldas, Chandralekha, Astad Deboo and Justin McCarthy) came together to perform and critique their works in a ‘no holds barred or punches pulled’ collaborative session. But, she says, there was no “ripple effect. It didn’t generate its own dynamism.” Gati, a Hindi word, has an essence of speed and velocity, a certain vigour that the directorial duo of Raikhy and Lall wish to impart to the stalled evolution.

If Gati is the little dance engine that could, it is fuelled by  “an unfortunate and often misleading distinction between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘contemporary’”— excerpted from the organisation’s philosophy. That the approach has been articulated in these terms stems partially from the bisecting arcs of Lall and Raikhy’s initial disciplines. Lall began with traditional Bharatanatyam and then gravitated toward contemporary dance. “And if you reversed her trajectory, that’s been my training,” says Raikhy.

Contemporary dance, of course, is as confounding a notion as traditional Indian dance. It’s best defined chronologically by the dance techniques and aesthetics—primarily Occidental—of the past 30 to 50 years. Under the umbrella of contemporary dance are gathered the structure of ballet, the fluidity of modern, the scope of theatrics and, often, exotic and ethnic modes of expression—this can include the elemental tempo of African styles and, circuitously, the mudras: iconographic hand gestures that are part of the lexicon of Bharatanatyam and Odissi.

Each of these schools is also an amalgam without fixed boundaries and loosely affiliated with their pioneers—the folks who introduced new elements or restructured old styles, like Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey did for modern dance. If there is a cohesive element, it is choreography—the deliberate selection and sequencing of movements that create a narrative.

Lall lodges her complaint against the absence of choreography in Indian dance through Gati. “There isn’t a context outside the guru-shishyaparampara. You inherit the dance. The pedagogical style has a mythological element. There’s a sense of reverence that bars you from experimenting.”

She found the physicality of contemporary dance “torture,” but was intellectually drawn to “the principles of choreography, the possibilities, the questioning. I could see the process at work.”

So, while Gati’s basement doesn’t actually have a window, that didn’t stop the defenestration of the classical pedagogic style. Gati began with the simplest of premises. “When a dance actually sits on you, what does it make your body do? What are the nuts and bolts of the form?” asks Lall. Questions like these can then be used to deconstruct and reassemble the traditional form.

Raikhy, conversely, felt alienated from his contemporary work and longed for an expression that felt more personal and authentic, which began his exploration of Bharatanatyam. It came with a different set of concerns. “To borrow from the outside, I felt I was really bastardising it. But then [I] can spend the next 20 years training in Bharatanatyam and still not feel the right. So I just took the liberty.”

He borrowed liberally for his recent work, Inhabited Geometry, which debuted in New Delhi on 12 August. The performance was “inspired by the notion of lived experience of architecture in Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of define, architecturally and imaginarily, the idea of home” —an assertion so weighty it was a wonder the dancers were able to get off the floor.

But the troupe of six soared. Raikhy’s use of mudras, juxtaposed with the long-limbed dashes and leaping dots of modern dance, spoke in an argot that was immediately accessible to the well-heeled, urban—and urbane—Indian audience.

It is clear that for both Lall and Raikhy, the physical has already replaced the verbal as their first language. Lall uses her expressive, kohl-lined eyes as emotional punctuation in her considered and articulate speech. When Raikhy talks about selecting elements from various techniques, his arm swings upward and out in a balletic port de bras and his hand plucks in a perfect hamsasya mudra, thumb and forefinger pinched to an almond shape and the others fanned out. It is like watching the physical counterpart of a conversation in Hinglish, an elegant visual pidgin.

Martha Graham, in her treatise I am a Dancer, said, “I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living.” As a symbolic art, if dance is to survive, live, thrive, then its semantic components need to adapt, expressions and narratives need to be recreated.

Archetypes, whether they are mythological or secular, beg interrogation and reconstruction or art will remain atavistic. Homer’s Odyssey  isn’t invalidated by Tennyson’s poem, Joyce’s opus, Kazantzakis’ continuation, or the Coen brothers’ really funny version. Gati arrives obliquely at this truth when wrenching apart Indian dance and overhauling it with modern life.  Worrying about ‘bastardisation’ is moot— that’s just a bad word for globalisation.

But there is a counterpoint. Let’s return to the earlier experiment. The fist is folded and the thumb and index finger are splayed at right angles. Look again. Is that a gun with the hammer cocked?  Is it a viewfinder, panning across your field of vision? Meanings can be extrapolated about loaded imageries or ways of seeing, but at some point they devolve into incoherence, or are only interesting as an exercise in imagination.

Raikhy felt alienated from his contemporary work and longed for a more personal and authentic expression. SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN

So if there is a potential threat, it is not the compounding of cultures but the dilution of meaning. Thus far, concerns have been couched in the rhetoric of the ‘pollution and taint’ of ‘sacrosanct and pure’ forms. Indian traditional dance (arguably Indian tradition, or hopefully India) is at odds with such fundamentalist zeal, and its most lauded practitioners have been rebels and reformists.

Innovators in the previous century parsed and reconstituted elements of the canon, propagated socio-cultural agendas and danced political manifestos. In 1932, the Madras Music Academy appropriated the marginalised temple dance ‘Sadir’ and termed it Bharatanatyam, a

compound of natya (dance) with bhava (mood), raga (melody) and tala (rhythm). Its congruence with the ancient name for India was not a coincidence. To align a marginalised entity with the great nation-state is a pretty slick move, even for dancers.

Neither were performers of that era bashful about employing Orientalist agendas to spotlight their own forms, though it meant pandering to some amount of cultural exoticism. Ruth St Denis’ nautch dances were staged in India in 1926 and became the cultural underpinning for Uday Shankar’s nascent modernism, and Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi Arundale’s revivalist interpretations of Bharatanatyam. Indian dance has frequently and forcefully tested its boundaries and found them elastic.

Chandralekha, the danseuse who continued Balasaraswati and Arundale’s legacy, unreservedly mixed and matched elements of Bharatanatyam and Kalaripayattu, possibly one of the oldest living martial art. Her protégé and amanuensis Tishani Doshi transcribes in a recent article published in Open:

I remember dancing about gopikas frolicking in the water, but in my head there were images I’d seen in the newspaper of the cracked earth and long queues of people waiting for water with tin cups in their hands. How could I dance about the abundance of water when the reality was so different?

Even as fusty traditionalists worry about the siege of the new—in Besseling’s End (of) Days, Arundale’s disciple MR Krishnamurthy expresses precisely these fears—the modern, the contemporary, it’s the twin Trojan horses of Bollywood masala mash-up and TV dance competition gimmickry that are laying waste to the Indian dance-scape. With no connection to reality, the kind that inspired thinking choreographers like Chandralekha, the two are reducing dance in India to its lowest common denominator. When the aggressive jut of a pelvis wins accolades, the appreciation for subtleties dwindles proportionally, whether it’s a mudra replete with spiritual significance or a battement executed with technical virtuosity. The threat is not from change but from capitulation to mediocrity.

This is why, even though Gati’s basement room doesn’t have much of a view, it offers a much needed perspective. It opens up cultural contexts for charged metaphors that can re-engage an audience alienated by the removal of tradition.

Let’s re-examine the experiment with the hand. That a single gesture can bridge the sublime and the ridiculous, shows how Indian dance has the capacity to explore

beliefs and explode boundaries with wit and pathos. Just like that, a minor alignment of the metacarpals can get metaphysical.