Why it’s time to stop labelling

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In an online discussion, four dancers emphasised the need to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary

What is traditional and what is contemporary in Indian dance. These questions were raised at a recent round table discussion arranged by TomoeArts, a Vancouver-based dance theatre company, supported by ArtsComeOnline and spearheaded by Shivani Jatar. Paris-based dancer-researcher Kavya Iyer was the moderator.

Kavya Iyer

In a specially curated India version of the event, four dancers from the diaspora shared their experiences and journey.

Meher Malik

Meher Malik  

Meher Malik traced the origin of belly dancing to the pagan ritual of Rajasthan that was passed on from mother to daughter to prepare for birthing a child. This gypsy trail found its way to different countries outside India like Egypt and was looked at as entertainment for men. Though deemed ‘vulgar’ and barred from being performed as an ‘art’ form, Meher’s passion for the dance kept her research going. She spoke of how the sensuality of its movements came in the way of it being accepted as a form of performance art like any other. “It is referred to as ‘birth dance’, since mothers-to-be who regularly did belly dancing were supposed to have shorter labours,” said Meher.

In an excerpt from her solo piece, ‘Body, Mind and Soul’, Meher conveyed a meaning beyond the long hair, costume and midriff, the external identities associated with the dance. A collaborative project with an Odissi group (a dance form that also has fluid torso movements) attracted harsh criticism on one side and appreciation from even traditionalists on the other. “Dance is a constant search for a language that doesn’t seek words,” said Meher.

Divya Ravi

Divya Ravi  

Divya Ravi from the U.K. touched upon the turbulent history of Bharatanatyam, how it fell victim to Victorian standards of morality, and was salvaged from oblivion. Her aim was to objectively look at the tradition as the transmission of a historically and culturally significant entity. Besides the tangible legacies being passed on, what is more important is the passing on of the intangible, such as practice and discipline. “Traditional art is exhaustive in construct and scope. To think out of the box, you need to know what is inside the box,” said Divya. In an ambitious attempt to break the stereotype, Divya created a new margam — Manjari. A clipping of the varnam was shown, with the lotus as protagonist.

Showcasing mudras

For the layman, the traditional and the contemporary are two ends of a spectrum. Divya asked if contemporary is a marker of relevant art created in the present, but pointed out that the freedom offered by the idiom of Bharatanatyam is immense. It is fertile ground to explore current social issues. Her digital work in collaboration with her husband, Dr. Sharan Subramanian, showcasing the hasta mudras, underlined their journey into veganism. In her Navaratri piece titled, ‘Not just an idol’, she brought out woman power. Traditional, classical and contemporary are all subjective terms. It is important to respect artistic choices.

Hanne Bruin from the Netherlands, who has spent over 30 years in Tamil Nadu and is the co-founder and director of Kattaikkuttu Sangam, spoke of the theatre form. The soundscape of the gurukulam, the elaborate make-up, and colourful costumes were encapsulated in an introductory video. She spoke of all-night performances in the village. “In ‘Rama-Ravana’, the principal characters were presented by many women artistes. The juxtaposition of Rama and Ravana was contemporary in approach. In another piece on the disrobing of Draupadi, she was depicted as a bold woman, not subservient or suffering,” said Hanne.

In a recent collaboration, using music by T.M. Krishna and Sangeetha Sivakumar, and with Duryodhana played by Rajagopal, the last day of the Kurukshetra war was displayed differently. The coming together of Carnatic music and Kattaikkuttu was unusual, but these experiments need to take into account the economic aspects, as well as the performance space and proximity of the village audience. The moderator pointed out how the sphere of folk art has specificities which we often tend to ignore.

Sanjukta Wagh

Sanjukta Wagh  

Dancer Sanjukta Wagh, quoting T.S. Eliot, said, “The definition of tradition is a matter of wider significance. Tradition cannot be inherited. If you want it, you must obtain it with great labour.” Terming her dance as being rooted in Kathak and Hindustani music, her approach has been to inculcate an inter-disciplinary approach with many art forms in conversation.

A visual from ‘Rage and Beyond,’ her collaborative work with Deepa Dharmadikari on the lights, depicted Gandhari’s rage directed inwards. The script emerged in words, silences, songs, sounds of the tatkar, and strings of the guitar. The next visual was an extract from 16th century Sufi poet Shah Hussain’s poems, a collective voice of defiant women. Before staging this project, Wagh spoke of her experience at Laban in unlearning and relearning movements in a newly aligned body. Instead of binding forms into terminologies like traditional and contemporary, Sanjukta asked if it was time to do away with them altogether.

The Mumbai-based author writes on

music and dance.

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