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Learning and Unlearning Dance

Bhatt, Ashwini is a Bharatanatyam dancer currently working with Padmini Chettur in Chennai. She also works with children and is interested in music and literature. If we think of craft as skill and dance also as perfection of skill and both steeped in traditional knowledge systems Ashwini is rather concerned with the resistance amongst many practitioners and also consumers of dance to any form of change or experimentation and also the rather disturbing form of commercialisation being adopted for the knowledge to survive. Craft too suffers from this. Ashwini has written a personal piece for our July issue exploring these murky depths.

Our guest column this month is from a rather unusual quarter.

If we think of craft as skill and dance also as perfection of skill and both steeped in traditional knowledge systems Ashwini is rather concerned with the resistance amongst many practitioners and also consumers of dance to any form of change or experimentation and also the rather disturbing form of commercialisation being adopted for the knowledge to survive. Craft too suffers from this. Ashwini has written a personal piece for our July issue exploring these murky depths.

Sometimes after dancing I ask myself: how do I see my training in dance? Am I merely re-producing what has been taught to me? Am I able to internalise what my hands and legs do? I am yet to find answers to these questions - it has been a process of searching.

The dance schools would not want you to ask these questions. Most of the dancers would want to believe that Bharatanatyam is 'divine' and 'sacred', a form danced by lord Shiva and witnessed by Bharata, Nandi and other gods and hence cannot be and should not be questioned or changed by mortals like us. Just as our education system discourages us to ask questions, the dance education coaxes you to live in an illusion that 'traditional' can not be changed.

As a student, few incidents made me re-think about what I was doing. I was learning padams, composed by Kshetrayya (a 11th C Telugu poet). I happened to read the translations of these padams by A K Ramanujam ('When God Is a Customer'). In one of the padams, the nayika, is angry at her lover that he has spent the previous night with another woman, asks him to leave when he visits her. As the poem progresses, even though they fight, there is a great amount of passion and attraction between the two. The hero (it could be the lover/ god as lover/ or the king who is the patron) intensely involved with the nayika goes to her to untie her blouse trying lustfully to cup her breasts. She on the other hand, even though angry, is willing to be seduced: it's a beautiful love game. I read this most sensuous, erotic poem and wondered what we were doing? We, in our class, following the Kalakshetra style of dance had chopped off the two stanzas out of three. We only talked about the nayika's anger. I asked my teacher and I was told that dance was 'spiritual' and had nothing to do with 'physical love' and it was devadasis who used dance to sell their bodies until Rukmini Devi 'sanitised' dance by bringing back the purity which was lost for a brief period of time in history!

Soon after this I was reading Rustom Barucha's book on Chandralekha, where he writes about one of her early works ' angika' which includes a varnam in huseni raga. The nayika in the varnam, the court dancer, is addressing and accusing the king that he has fallen for the 'other' woman. The same varnam performed in Kalakshetra replaces the king's name with that of god, thus making it tame and sanitised, erasing all the possible erotic-sexual love between the two. A formula where shringara is replaced by bhakti, forgetting that shringara itself can be bhakti.

A K Ramanujam called the lover-god as the customer in the house of love; Chandralekha carried it a step ahead. She kept the original version intact and also suggested that the lover is a 'male'. He may take on different roles- a lover, husband, the king, the patron, God, audience; but the 'male gaze' is the same. This opened up a new possibility of looking at Bharatanatyam as a form, which can go beyond meaningless boundaries. At this time, a friend who was equally passionate about her dance did her arangetram- the first public performance in the old-gurukula system. (Arangetram has now become a meaningless show to show off one's wealth, photo albums decorating the coffee tables, and ironically becoming the last performance for most of the dancers) I went to see her perform, I went through a strange experience. She was dancing and for the first time it felt as if I was watching a puppet perform; as if her hands and legs didn't belong to her body. I remembered Chandralekha saying, 'our dancers have stopped using their bodies'.

These incidents had changed me- made it impossible for me to go back to the class where one could blindly go on dancing. As a student, one had to look into what 'was' dance and what it 'is' now and what it is to dance. Bharatanatyam till the 1930's when it was still called as 'sadir naach' was practiced and preserved by the community of devadasis. With the upper cast Brahmins taking over the dance scene, devadasis were reduced to take on the role of mere craftsmen training these dancers who became the artists/ performers/ ambassadors of the form. The form itself was made to change to suit the changed audience, also to suit the moral policing of the upper class and caste. Dancers were also eager to export Bharatanataym as 'Indian dance' in our capsule package to the west. On the other hand, few dancers felt that in this process of learning, which had become mechanical we have moved away from the body, which is the most basic of all. There was a need to explore creatively within the form or borrow meaningful insight from other creative forms. A modern movement in dance emerged as a critique of the 'idealisation' of the body in classical dance. Dancers tried to explore with other disciplines, with older forms like yoga, kalaripayyatu, chhau, etc. the idea was to concentrate on the totality of body expression.

Whatever form one does, there is always a danger of falling into trap- where the body fails to 'speak' but only 'shows off'. As a performer, the dancer owes a serious responsibility to comprehend from the inside, the nature of each physical form they work with. Dance cannot be mere ornamentation or exploitation of the body, an instrument of skill and spectacle. Dance is rather a process of 'transformation' which involves a travel towards deeper interior spaces within oneself through ones work with the form and body.

As a student, it is still the beginning. And I try to ask myself - how do I dance; instead of why do I dance.



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