End of Days

Choices for art: as artefact, evolving entity, or in aspic

The Bharatanatyam guru in his Bengaluru compound. @ DAVE BESSELING
01 March, 2010

LIKE SO MANY URBAN SANCTUARIES in India, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk right by it. I almost did, but a small signboard caught my eye. The Kalakshiti dance studio is set inside a gated compound, a Raj-era bungalow deflecting the dead-duck bawls and two-stroke chortles of passing rickshaws. The house is a series of quadrangular rooms that, with each set of clasp-shut doors, walls adorned by Mysore-style paintings and local knick-knacks, further filter the din of Bengaluru’s Basavangudi district. In the surprisingly silent enclave behind the house, the only sounds are the slaps of bare feet on a marble floor, and the echoes of deep, expelled breaths, as two Bharatanatyam pupils rehearse a complex sequence of movements dating back centuries.

A portrait of Rukmini Devi Arundale, the woman who popularised the ancient temple dance and brought it to the public in early 20th century Madras, hangs on one of the posts supporting the roof of the outdoor atelier. These dancers are not devadasi, but urbanites in what many call India’s most cosmopolitan city. But their watchful guru, MR Krishnamurthy, who trained directly under Devi Arundale for 17 years, is adamant that Bharatanatyam must retain its roots as a religious sacrament.

“This art is a divine way, a spiritual thing,” he says, sitting at the edge of the practice floor under a metre-high stele, where the benevolent, half-lidded eyes of his namesake deity hold vigil over the space. Dressed in a long kurta and wrapped in a shawl, the septuagenarian’s forehead is swept with the white stripes of a Hindu devotee fresh from puja, a calligraph red dash over the pineal eye. “In the dance,” he says, “[mankind] will be uplifted.”

The two female dancers, dressed in traditional costume — pleated sarees over pyjamas —finish the routine, and before leaving, collect their purses, check their mobile phones, and drape their spring jackets over their shoulders.

“Before, there were dancers that could concentrate 24 hours a day,” the guru says. “But now you have families, money… If they want to [study deeply], they must sacrifice everything in their life.”

He says not many do, and with Bengaluru becoming more westernised with each outsourced gigabyte—the West being the main culprit in the expropriation of traditional Indian arts, according to him—the dedication of the original temple dancer has all but disappeared; his beloved pursuit is losing its purity.

He disapproves of the way India’s national dance—dubbed so thanks to the efforts of Devi Arundale—is being ‘modernised,’ and clucks at those who would amalgamate what he believes sacred with other, more contemporary styles he clearly considers profane. For many contemporary dancers though, turning to more commercial pursuits has been the only way to survive. Yet “you cannot mix and match,” he insists. “Pure art cannot be compromised.”

Ironic then, that his own guru, the woman who would eventually turn down the post of President of India in favour of running her dance academy in Madras, “brought the art to the public so everyone could dance. In that culture there was a stigma,” explains Krishnamurthy. “The Brahmins would not allow people to see the dance. She reformed it.”

And she did so by adapting the art to her times, something her disciple is reluctant to do today. Outside the Kalakshetra theatre in Chennai, there is a statue of Devi Arundale kneeling, greeting those who enter with open palms of welcome. Looking at the monument on a visit to the city, I think of how she brought the dance, not even so much out of the temples, but out of disrepute. As a result of shifting social priorities and artistic patronage, the devadasi suddenly found themselves without temple funding during the onset of British rule. They were forced to find alternative sources of income, largely understood to have resulted in prostitution. It was Arundale who removed the perceived prurient elements (certain hip, neck, lip and chest movements) from the dance, but was still met with outright opprobrium at her first public recital. She also introduced musical instruments like the violin, along with set and lighting design to Bharatanatyam performances. I look up at the statue’s closed eyes. It’s as if the will it must have taken to defy Tamil society at large on behalf of her art, and being a woman at that (even more so being a woman married to a British Theosoph), was something to be conserved. Rebellions require energy.

Around the rock that forms the base of the tribute, the greenery is reminiscent of lotus leaves, and Krishnamurthy seems to embody the lotus flower’s philosophical locus—taking root in the mud in order to blossom. But the lotus pond is only one part of an ecosystem.

The biwa sensei, Tomoyoshi Kakushin, performing at Gallery éf in Asakusa, Tokyo. © GALLERY éF

Krishnamurthy admits none of his students’ roots will ever reach as deeply as his, and his successor will inevitably be a “part-timer.” Yet he insists someone twice or even thrice removed from his direct teaching, with a good understanding of the basics, could tap the perennial rhizome and “come up” like a lotus from the mud and attain the highest level of the art.

But today’s youth are not as well-versed in Hindu mythology as they once were, and Krishnamurthy laments that without a solid base in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the dance’s fundamental communicative intentions are wasted on today’s gilded youth.

But one musn’t let the shift and flux of the present lead to cultural regressionism just because the past is easier to define. People still visit Europe’s great museums and wonder “Where is the 21st century Mona Lisa?” But contemporary standards of art cannot be nailed to the door of a culture that lived however many hundreds of years ago anymore than the present state of affairs can be held accountable to the mind of a traditionalist who refuses to go with the flow.

Controversies surrounding the sacrosanct subject matter in certain paintings by MF Husain, for example, unveil an uneasy transition in Indian art, from the support systems of religions and royalty, into a secular, free-market economy where expression serves no agenda-wielding patron and any subject is fair game to be creatively dissected. Paradigm shifts can be painful.

Arts and culture, as living entities, evolve with us, because of us, and sometimes, in spite of us. We borrow, we refine, and nothing stays the same. If it does, eventually, it dies. The only constant is change itself: Sho gyo mu jyo, goes the Japanese proverb.

It is this tenet that occupies my thoughts as I enter Gallery éf in Asakusa, on the eastern periphery of Tokyo on an autumn afternoon, to see a musician perform. If Krishnamurthy is a lotus, this guy is a cherry blossom.

LIKE MANY URBAN SANCTUARIES IN JAPAN, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk right by it. I would have, had I not exhibited my own art there in 2002 when I lived in the Japanese capital. The sandwich board on the sidewalk outside catches my eye, advertising a seasonal satsuma biwa recital by Tomoyoshi Kakushin on the stringed instrument. The Doppler’d whizzings of traffic are muted as the door shuts behind me and I enter the café/bar space where Tokyoites sip green teas and coffees. At the back of the room is a heavy door that swings open like a bank vault: the entrance to the gallery/performance space that was the original warehouse on the property, before Tokyo’s concrete sprouts were fertilised by the post-war economic boom. The warehouse, built in 1868, is one of very few buildings to have survived the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and American fire-bombings during WWII.

I am met by the gallery’s art director, who when I told her I was in town, had invited me to the sold-out performance, provided I was willing to stand at the back, and not smoke. “Of course,” I’d said. In a room where ‘sold out’ means 20 people, I wouldn’t exactly be getting a nosebleed. One by one, the patrons are called in, ducking under the low doorframe and into the warehouse—floors lacquered black, original studs and beams exposed, whitewash in the square spaces between, and a staircase to the left. Once everyone is in I bow deeply to gain entrance, take off my shoes and lean against the back wall.

Kakushin descends the stairs from the floor above, wearing a black kimono, the only sound the whooshing of the fabric as he makes his way to a stool in the centre of the square room. His equally black hair is tied back. In his hands is a black satsuma biwa, and he’s one of the last people in the world able to play it.

The four-stringed, lute-like instrument was once an indispensable tool of expression for the Samurai class. It came to Japan from Persia, through China and Korea; around the same time as Buddhism’s Far East etymology, moving across the Sea of Japan, evolved from Ch’an to Zen.

Like all foreign ideas that arrive in Japan, the Japanese have a way of personalising everything imported, from religion to art to music. But in their own onslaught of Western culture—one that’s held rapt a generation of post-WWII babies with stars and stripes in their eyes—the preferred instrument of the former warrior caste is on its way out.

After a career that has included shows at New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, Kakushin is ready to take a cue from the sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom that burgeons for only one fragrant week every spring before falling to the ground.

The festival that celebrates this ephemerality, hanami, is classic Japan. The idea of a wilting flower being more beautiful than one in full bloom is deeply rooted into the nation’s psyche. Natural processes are not to be interrupted, and stoic melancholy at their passing is divine. But to those who have fallen in love with the biwa as an audience member, Kakushin’s philosophy can seem wasteful and even foolish. But the artist is unwavering.

“When today’s society doesn’t need my music and my instrument, I am ready to let it go,” says Kakushin. “Rather, I pursue aesthetics in the fading.”

Kakushin, like Krishnamurthy, makes the bulk of his living through teaching—he has seven pupils—but he says this “just isn’t enough” to sustain a livelihood.

The Japanese government is known for its efforts to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage, and some artisans who are the last in their lines receive up to two million yen per year under the title of ‘living national treasures,’ where they are given a stipend for themselves, and their students’ living expenses are covered while the sensei promulgate their ancient practises. But Kakushin is insistent he doesn’t want that kind of help.

“I think it’s a kind of refrigeration,” he says. “[Something] looks preserved, but it is not alive in this moment. Needless to say, neither will it be in the future.”

Alongside Kakushin’s apathy in Asia’s original techie city, Krishnamurthy’s obstinacy in the face of 21st century globalisation seems démodé in a place like Bengaluru, where so many nationalities come to stir the pot; where expats and diaspora exchange values and opinions with locals—themselves a mish-mash of Indian cultures and backgrounds. Should this not be a place capable of birthing a new aesthetic? Or does something have to die first?

The death throes of an antiquated, isolationist view in art are no different from those of morality; and political dogmas in the extreme sense, as voiced by the Sri Ram Sene in Karnataka or Varun Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh, appear in the press because they are such a minority in India’s secular heterodoxy that they are doing just that: dying.

Tomoyoshi Kakushin is ready to live like a sakura, shun culture in aspic, and die like a Samurai: the cherry blossom to Krishnamurthy’s lotus in the garden of cultural preservation. But this garden is also home to some viticulturists.

IN A COUNTRY THAT MUST GATHER a prism of a billion souls’ worth of socio-religious spectrums, those who disavow staid, past-due-date tenors—in art, culture or politics—are to be all the more commended. And in the potential of this pluralistic garden, many of the new viticulturalists (word to Devi Arundale and woe to Hindutva), are women.

I meet dancer and choreographer Mayuri Upadhya in Café Coffee Day on Lavelle Road in Bengaluru. She has found a way to bridge the chasm between art as artefact (what Krishnamurthy pines for and Kakushin laments) and art as a living thing. She trained in Bharatanatyam, but in running her contemporary dance troupe, she’s mixing and matching to a degree that would send Krishnamurthy into cardiac arrest.

“I live in this world and I want the best of both,” she says. “I want to make my art contemporary enough for the common man to understand, and it has to evolve with the times. I can’t express myself if I’m not living [within society].”

For Upadhya, the monastic level of commitment that dancing formerly implied would not allow her to engage in the discipline as a living thing. She echoes Krishnamurthy in that the requisite timeframe for traditional dance to be fully realised is no longer available, but where Krishnamurthy is wistful, Upadhya is practical.

Her Nritarutya Dance Company operates as just that: a company. The corporate world has the cash to support the arts these days, something Nritarutya makes full use of and no apologies for (just try to find a large-scale art exhibition in Europe that isn’t sponsored by a bank).

“When we started, it was just a group with no structure,” she says. “Now, with over eight years of experience, we’ve understood the problems and the needs of the country today, which is why we now function as a business.”

With the former systems of patronage in India—from the temple sanctums to the princely courts—there was no need for officious transaction. That is until the royal sources of art funding were lost after independence from Britain. There are no more jewel-showers from maharajas to sustain an artist’s livelihood, just as there are no longer Japanese courtesans living off handouts from a Daimyo. Not unlike the devadasi, when Japanese feudalism came to an end, courtesans also needed to find a way to support themselves. So they used their talents and began to charge by the performance. Rumours of prostitution marred their reputations as well. They’re called geisha.

Upadhya says she’s tried government funding, but in Karnataka, the rules are “very funny,” to the effect that the single time she did receive government aid, the cheque bounced.

Compared with Japan, where the state sponsors bids for intangible art forms to be recognised by UNESCO, India only has one—Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre of Kerala. There are bodies in India, like the avuncular Karnataka Lalithakala, that fund concerts and other artistic mediums, but with art councils bouncing cheques, questions arise concerning the evolution of patronage and how that affects content. One Bengaluru-based group is adapting to the times, proving not all funding organisations are cultural taxidermists.

A Salvador Dali adaptation swoons in front of a Gucci store in Hong Kong. © DAVE BESSELING

“If you see any of our materials, you will not find the word ‘preservation’ anywhere,” says India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) director Arundhati Ghosh. “Preservation can actually be quite bad if you’re stopping growth, if you’re taking something and objectifying it and putting it in a box and saying ‘This is it.’”

Ghosh comes from a financial background, and as Mayuri Upadhya is comfortable treating her art as a product, so is IFA at ease with treating their grant selectees as part of a financial portfolio. “To me, it seems like the speculation market,” she says.

ARTS AND CULTURE PERFORM MANY ROLES: librarian, social barometer, prognosticator and sortilege. Creative expression in its many and varied forms has the ability to forge and transmute ideologies and belief systems—or as it may be, to let them know they’re not needed anymore. When the Catholic Church was paying the bills in Europe, the subject matter was pretty cut and dry. I remember walking through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and thinking, “Jesus wept—if I see another ‘Madonna and Child,’ I’m going straight to the pub.”

The artwork that signalled the shift from ecumenical to state support in the West, to me, was Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix in a container filled with the artist’s own urine. Suffice to say that wouldn’t have gone over well under the medieval papacy. But whatever one’s faith, the piece marked an evolution of what could be offered up for questioning; a dialogue still denied MF Husain in a modern yet often atavistic India.

Where does this leave us? After church and state, it’s advertising that pays the bills, and this may well prove even more insidious than religion or politics—it’s less content specific and therefore harder to descry. Neither Krishnamurthy nor Kakushin will likely take part in the dialogue, but that’s what the next generation is for, at least until we become stalwarts of our own realities. Maybe theirs is a cycle we can’t avoid either.

And maybe outside art as a hobby, we can never escape the whims of another oligarchy in new pajamas, but that’s another treatise, and one I’m sure someone, somewhere is expressing artistically, as Andy Warhol once did with a few soup tins. Such is art’s malleability, and such is its purpose in these malleable times, where the axiom ‘this far, but no further’ no longer applies.