Indian Classical

‘Nothing is isolated from dance’ : An interview with Bharatanatyam artiste Lata Surendra

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Lata Surendra discusses how a dancer can bring a performance to life, transcend the confines of the stage and the auditorium and transform the dance into a visual prayer simply through the act of reading and understanding the nuances of emotion and expression found in literature, poetry and ancient texts.

As part of National Centre for Performing Arts’ (NCPA) ongoing Mumbai Dance Season, Bharatanatyam artiste Lata Surendra delivered a talk on the importance of literature in dance. Curated by Kathak artiste Poulami Mukherjee, the talk was conducted at the Kathak Reference Library in Dadar, a space especially created to provides dancers free access to literature around performing art.

Held on 19 February, the event, Role of Library in Dance, hosted along with Surendra, two other speakers who shed light on various topics such as the importance of dance as a co-curricular activity in school and the different means for amateur artists to obtain senior fellowships, research grants and scholarships.

Surendra for her part discussed how a dancer can bring a performance to life, transcend the confines of the stage and the auditorium and transform the dance into a visual prayer simply through the act of reading and understanding the nuances of emotion and expression found in literature, poetry and ancient texts.

In a conversation with Firstpost, the dancer who trained under the stalwart Vidwan Kalaimamani TS Kadirvelu Pillai, discussed the difference between artistic ability and artistic creativity and finding the power of words in a world of hashtags.

Edited excerpts:

What prompted you to be a part of the event, Role of Library in Dance, and why according to you is it crucial for artists to also be readers?

When Poulami Mukherjee approached me to speak on the subject, I thought that it was so vital because today I find that most of the dancers, they are technically sound – the alpha and the omega of the art form that they have chosen is very much intact in serious dancers — but what they lack is a step towards mining what the teacher has taught and another step where you are contributing to the art.

See, artistic ability and artistic creativity are two different things. Artistic ability is the ability to reproduce what your mentor has communicated to you but [artistic creativity is] to transform it to a communion where words are not necessary. It is like writing an essay, you can’t by heart an essay [sic].

A voracious reader herself, Bharatanatyam artiste Lata Surendra emphasies on discovering emotions of the abhinaya in books, stories and poetry.

I have always loved languages and I have always believed that it’s important to connect to words because I was conditioned by a father who believed that words can connect you to the world.

The traditional items, the emotions in them and the message within them are as relevant today as they were in times of yore because emotions are universal: you are as jealous today, as irate today, as happy today, you are light-hearted in joy and heavy hearted in grief. The patterns of sorrow and joy have not changed with time but if you want to add your own signature to a varnam then you must be equipped within.

If I am a guru who is equipped artistically to teach, then I teach by the limitation of the student in front of me. The item may be the same, the form may be the same but I know the mathematics of it, beyond that I also know the capacity of that child. So I will give her as much as she can digest, as much as her awareness links her to life. You cannot have little kids do traditional varnams that really need an in-depth exploring of art related to life and I think with time, if art has to contribute to life and life has to enrich the art, then the child must be exposed to the library. The parents must expose her to those companions who can take her to the worlds that she has not travelled physically.

Could we discuss the impact of social media on the expressive ability of today’s youth?

The youth today, either faces teachers who have come out of some university or are not equipped to teach and the result is that very skillfully they have workshops conducted where a maestro or mentor comes down and teaches them one item. But with all due respect to the mentors who are conducting these workshops, let me also tell you that it is the beginning of the end because all youngsters are only cloning these items; and I detest them uploading their items on YouTube. Maybe it is PR for them, but if they are committed to the tomorrow, they are creating a dead end for artists who are supposed to be creative.

So the subjective element is lost to today’s kids. There are Instagram hashtags which have come into this world and I should say it is not a world where artists can connect the brevity you are trying to find because you are not good with words. A time will come when you want to show your joy and your face is plastic. And you take out a smile from your pocket and say, “I am happy.”

You have to cultivate words because inside you is a kinaesthesia where your speech, sound, sense of hearing — when you say water, it’s not just water you see, if you are a poetess, water can have multiple meanings to it — everything becomes larger in your mind by virtue of the connotations that are expanded by reading. Reading maketh a full man.

When Poulami told me we are going to do this, I thought this was the best way to reach youngsters and tell them, “Don’t clone.” We are all exclusive boutique pieces made by someone up there and just sit and understand that inside us is a poet, and we have to awaken that and not the hashtag world.

How can dance instructors and mentors cultivate the habit of reading in their students and make it a part of the teaching methodology?

When we were in school, we had a subject: it was reading. We were given a whole set of books to read. But today that has gone from the school curriculum.

I would tell my son to write his own essays and on Open Day I would take out those papers and read his essays because that was the only way I could know his mind and it made a lot of difference. I think in schools, it’s time we understood that.

Nothing is isolated from dance  An interview with Bharatanatyam artiste Lata Surendra

The Bharatanatyam danseuse stresses on the importance of literature as a powerful tool that can elevate a performance and boost an artist’s creativity.

I think it is time we stop those digital blackboards and also use the physicality of artists and the children to read the books and read out the poems, bring an artist across and have a point brought to life. Otherwise the child will be constipated.

Could you also elaborate on the importance of reading theoretical subjects which are part of the formal examinations conducted by dance schools and institutes?

I don’t care a whit about this graduation certificate. Texts of a dance are not meant to be by-hearted [sic]. You cannot mug up a cookbook and parrot out how sambar is made. This is a performing art, it is not an exam. We talk about dance as yoga or a visual prayer, so I am no one to assess whether your devotion is bigger or mine. It grows with time and ultimately it is about you improving on your performance.

If we take the art form in that perspective, we will be creating artists. Otherwise we will be creating students who think that they have a certificate which gives them the right to create the degeneration of art which is happening today.

Go to any festival, you will find all [artists] doing the same thing. And nobody is doing solos because they don’t have the depth to hold an audience. You need the depth and that depth will come only if you start equipping yourself with reading, with observing, with appreciating, with assimilating what you have seen and what you have read. How many different ways you could bring out that line which a composer has written and connect it to the audience?

I remember there were classes where I would hear my guru talk and maybe he would not have taught me anything but those classes where he used to only talk, he was connecting me to the worlds he has assimilated with his reading, and I think I learnt much more there than when I danced.

At the end of the day, it is not the Padma Shri that comes with not what you know but whom you know, but if an unknown person comes to you, holds your hand, and says how much the dance has moved him then you have scored, then you have been honest as an artist. Otherwise, each time you stare at that Padma Shri you will know that you have purchased it and it’s an apology unto all that you professed to be.

When it comes to teaching fine arts, it is not the common syllabus. It is who can digest what. Some are very good in pure dance and some, their abhinaya or expression will grow over time. So you must know what to create. Instead of creating the traditional varnam, if you are working in a city like Mumbai and you have four children to tide over the expensive venue spaces, and you have 10 children doing arangetram and one is a Bengali and one is a Maharashtrian, you choose padams, you take Rabindrasangeet, you take a bhajan, I mean there is no linguistic barrier but you have to be well read to be able to do that. Otherwise you are constipating a system that actually needs an embracing, open sky.

What according to you are some of the texts that students of dance should familiarise themselves with?

As students of dance, I think nothing is isolated from dance. We are dancing the energised creation but it is a process that has to evolve with time.

I love NCPA’s post discussions where you can enter into a dialogue with the performer and discuss a dancer’s process but again, I find the audience is tongue-tied because they are not well-read. So to ask questions you need to at least be aware of the theme that is being presented. When you go abroad, they come prepared. They do their homework well and they come there ready to ask questions. That I think is very important. In one way, it is the artist elevating the standard of the audience and the audience is also very keen on being nurtured, so this kind of balance is vital.

We had critics in those days who knew their subject, who knew music, who knew art and those reviews which I have, I cherish them. I can read them and understand how I have evolved. Today it is like paid criticism, you call the press and you tell them to write and they tell you, ‘Why don’t you write and give us?’ and then they put it up and you put it up on your social network.

Now we have to have a word, whether you have the last word or me, always hanging between us.

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