August 03, 2015

A treatise on murder

How does it feel to kill? I feel remorseless.

Until last week, the biggest living thing I'd killed was probably a cockroach. I am a huge proponent of 'live and let live' unless the creepy crawly in question is getting too familiar with my living area or worse still, feeling me up. 

At the moment, I live in a village and am reasonably nonchalant about dogs, caterpillars, lizards of various dimensions and hues that revel in falling on human heads, squirrels, bats and nearly everything else that wild untrammelled nature can throw at me. But when we do not share a concept of private space, our peaceful coexistence is threatened. 

Earlier this week, I was having a quiet Thursday evening, singing Raga Bihag and sipping my coffee. The electricity was out, as it usually is in this part of town on a rainy evening. I stepped out of my room and heard something rustle behind me. I looked back, expecting to greet the friendly inhouse dog. What I saw was a snake languorously uncoiling itself and slithering away. I ineffectually declaimed 'snake, snake' to no one in particular and then rushed to the nearest human being whose response can be paraphrased as - oh that's the resident snake. 

But that was not the end of my tryst with the animal kingdom. That very night, I was sleeping rather peacefully on my bed by the window. As you can see, peace and quiet form the crux of this narrative. Suddenly I felt something tug at my hair and then whack my bum. I first thought it was a human being trying to wake me for some inconceivable reason. Then I started having complex thoughts about the possibility of human beings tugging at hair with such precision and sharpness in complete darkness. Then I heard a peculiar sound and realised it was a rat. That took care of weeks of the sleeping without a mosquito net variety of nonchalance.

I spent a good hour trying to figure out if the rat was still in the room. Then I unsuccessfully tried to continue sleeping. In the morning, I dumped all my possessions in the centre of the room and ran around them like a madwoman, in the wild hope that a rat would emerge and find its way to the door. The rat, as it happens, did not emerge.

The next morning, I woke to find my bananas scooped out of their skins. And oh, my clothes were on the floor. This was the last straw. I screamed my battle cry and was the proud owner of a rat trap by that afternoon. My last and most recent acquaintance with rat traps dates back to when I watched Tom and Jerry cartoons. So I was most surprised to find out that there have been significant advances in the field of rat catching. The traps that are now in fashion open out like books and are coated with a really strong adhesive that makes the rat, well, stick to them.

That night, I laid the trap out and placed alluring bits of food on it. Sure enough, two hours later, a rat was squealing on its side, caught in the act. Life doesn't prepare you for what comes AFTER you trap a rat. I stared at the rat for a good five minutes before finding the courage to close the door, or in this case, the book, on a squealing rat. This happened at midnight, to the accompaniment of a gaggle of very amused young adults trying to take videos of this process, discussing rat disposal practices in India and making humane but unviable suggestions such as - we should take the rat out of the trap before we send it away. 

Finally, what the rat got was close to a ritualistic funeral, because none of us were willing to step within squirming distance of the rat. We managed to get it into a bag, which was then hoisted on a long stick, which three of us carried out of our living quarters with great pomp and ceremony. The rat died during the night, and I may have observed a moment of silence. But my conscience hasn't been very troubled. Most importantly, I can rest in peace without having my books and bags shredded to bits. 

March 26, 2014

My new writing blog

Just a shout-out to say that I have moved all my dance writing to a new blog - Arts Writing. Clicking on the 'Dance Writing' tab on this blog should also take you there. Read, share and enjoy!

January 28, 2014

Organising Bayalu Pradarshana

Bayalu e-flier. Artwork by Jyotsna Rao.
The idea for Bayalu Pradarshana emerged quite suddenly, following a ‘where else can I perform’ conversation with an artist. I live in a city with one regular, easily approachable presenter and eventually we agreed that performance opportunities were, well, scarce. Also, you knew what kind of audience to expect – and almost had it down to whom you could expect at your performance.

Anyway, from an image of dancing in the glow of halogen lights under a tree, a plan of action slowly surfaced. Jyotsna and I both found that we agreed on what we wanted to do under a tree. Our collaboration stemmed from a crazy midnight telephone call, but that is another story. We discussed possible locations, and ended up choosing to be close to the city because we found a potential location and since it would be easy for performers to travel there at short notice. Jyotsna had relatives in Chikkabanavara, and that seemed like a good starting point.

Two weeks before the show, we started looking for artists, only armed with Facebook and the vague idea of staging the performances at Chikkabanavara. Meanwhile, Jyotsna spoke to her relatives, contacted B.E.T school, and travelled there to meet the principal. The school authorities were quite thrilled to be in on this once they understood what we had in mind. Very generously, they offered to support the cost of stage, lights and sound, and other logistics. They also arranged for publicity – putting flex banners up along Hesaraghatta Main Road and sending an auto with a loudspeaker around the area a day before the Pradarshana.

Meanwhile, with our midnight musings becoming quite real, we intensified the effort to find enough artists to present an all-night performance. We planned to pass a hat around and collect money to pay the artists. There was, occasionally, some uncertainty about how this would work, but there were other, more important issues to address, so we buried our doubts.

We initially felt that keeping performances short would help keep the audience engaged, which was a good decision since the performances were not curated. But this may not always hold true. In the future, we’re definitely looking at longer performances too.

Right from our initial discussions, residents had suggested the names of home-grown performers they might like to see on stage. Many of these performers also teach in BET school and other schools in the area, so their students got to see them in a different light. Gradually, many students of the school also hoped that they would be able to perform. When we reached Chikkabanavara, the school coordinator gave us a list of students who wanted to sing, dance or act. We agreed to have some of them, but said no to most – they wanted to perform to film songs. It was hard to say no, and I felt like Cruella de Vil when some of them started crying. But we feel that film music gets a lot of attention anyway, and that there are many other platforms for film-based performances. 

It felt brilliant to see the stage going up. From about 4 pm, we played classical music over the sound system. School teachers and performers started arriving. We had four rooms for artists to change and warm-up in.
There were moments of panic – like when no one had turned up and we were ten minutes away from starting time (and ten minutes later, it was packed to capacity!). Also, when they started putting chairs on stage for the ‘guests of honour’. But we had a very sympathetic school principal on our side, and after a few sentences spoken by way of introduction, we started on time.

The performances included classical, contemporary and folk dance and music performances by performers from Bangalore, Chikkabanavara and Mumbai. Look at photos

A short video clip below...

The audience was its own beast, but being out in the open meant that the constant buzz was fun once we got used to it. The children had a lot of questions about the different dance forms. But any of the usual tripe about how classical dance or the less popular manifestations of ‘contemporary dance’ are not appreciated by rural audiences didn’t hold true. The children were an energetic lot, but they were mesmerised enough to sit down and watch the performances. In fact, the audience was quite discerning and alert, and could tell when dancers were hamming it up.

We loved how the school students brought their entire families along. In its own small way, it helped us see that children who are brought in touch with the arts can do great things. Over a thousand people passed through the Pradarshana this way. Many of them contributed to our hat collection – we had a lot of coins and ten rupee notes, and some big donations from school trustees. Pooled together, this became a modest sum of money which we then split between the artists.

We came away with new ideas for future Pradarshanas. Using the local school as a base and a venue helped us immensely in all ways – logistically, in spreading the word, and in engaging an audience. The next Pradarshana will be curated. We will also need to fundraise, because the hat collection is great, but it may not cover too many costs and won’t let us work too far from a city or with outstation artists. We need to start planning in advance – from idea to realisation took 30 days here and most of the actual work was done in the final 15 days. Also, some groundwork in the vicinity of the performance might help. Going into the school and holding workshops with the students to introduce them to ideas of different kinds of movement patterns and dance vocabularies, without preaching to them, might help them connect to the performances better. If we are to have performances by school students, they could possibly emerge out of these workshops.

This is just a sampling of experiences and ideas we could use the next time we plan a pradarshana. 

Here's to more Pradarshanas!

December 30, 2013

The Many Shades of Madness

This review of some performances at the NCPA Mudra Festival (April 2013) was written for Avantika Magazine and was supposed to be in the June issue, but the magazine folded up (again). I normally do not write reviews, but I spent some time thinking this one through, so I decided to put it up here. All photos courtesy NCPA Mumbai.

Sanjukta Wagh
“I could no longer show; I just had to be,” says dancer Sanjukta Wagh of her engagement with Kabir’s poetry. In allowing the beauty of the poetry to reign supreme, Wagh, the youngest performer at the recently concluded NCPA Mudra Dance Festival in Mumbai, articulates a choreographic journey that could be true of many other dancers at the festival. The festival was conceptualised by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam. Held in the last week of April, Mudra delved into the boundless world of bhakti poetry through discussions, poetry readings, film screenings and performances. 

The festival, called Stark Raving Mad, after a line from a Tukaram poem translated by Arun Kolatkar, is a fitting ode to the eccentricities of a tradition that sought to democratise the space of the divine. Bhakti encouraged forms of devotion that were essentially monotheistic, but extremely secular in their approach to god. Making devotion an elective process, it brought within its scope hitherto unconventional groups of devotees, who were not mainstream or privileged temple worshippers because of their caste or gender status. It was not bound by the harsh rules that defined devotion in an orthodox tradition. 

Rama Vaidyanathan
In choreographing to bhakti poetry, some dancers at the festival found opportunities to step out of their comfort zones. For Bharatanatyam dancer, Rama Vaidyanathan, costume is a significant marker of departure. Portraying two medieval women mystics, Janabai and Lal Ded, she dresses in the Maharashtrian style and then in the Kashmiri style. Wearing a nine-yard sari, she interprets Janabai, an important 13th century poet of the varkari tradition. Janabai was born to poor parents and entered the household of the poet Namdev as an attendant at a young age. She sees Vithal as a friend; he becomes part of her daily existence, helping her with all her strenuous chores. In her Marathi abhangs, her relationship with Vithal is one of flippant reverence. 

The opening abhang, Utha Panduranga, is framed by a projected sketch of the arches of the Vithoba temple.  In this first piece, Vaidyanathan’s impression of Vithal’s posture makes for a striking image. Her stance is informed by the quality of boldness, almost calling the dance style to question as she stands - hands on her hips, legs unbent and slightly apart. 

As Janabai, Vaidyanathan’s Bharatanatyam takes on an exaggerated element of swaying and bouncing, responding to the cadence of the Marathi abhang. The abhangs, however, are sung in the Carnatic style of music associated with Bharatanatyam. 

If Janabai could be called bubbly, Lal Ded, in comparison, is stark. In the second half, clad in a flowing white tunic and churidar, Vaidyanathan enters the life and poetry of the Shiva devotee Lal Ded. Leaving an unhappy marriage, Lal Ded casts off her clothes and her hard life, for they are of no consequence in her realm of devotion. From exhilaration to inward-looking gravity, Vaidyanathan’s portrayal of Lal Ded spans a wide emotional register. Reciting Lal Ded’s vakhs and then depicting incidents from her life that relate to them, her interpretation is not unlike a Bharatanatyam varnam. The vakhs are separated by passages of sharp nritta. The nritta clearly stands for the singlemindedness of Lal Ded’s devotion; yet, in the choreography, one is assuaged by doubts about its presence. 

Sujata Mohapatra
While bhakti inspires new motifs in Bharatanatyam for Vaidyanathan, it takes Sujata Mohapatra closer to the repertoire of her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra. The renowned Odissi dancer performed abhinaya to Sanskrit, Oriya and Awadhi poetry in her recital. In the ashtapadi, sakhi he, Mohapatra gracefully stretches out her movement, elongating it to fill the most complete extent of time possible. Filled with desire, Radha entreats her friend to bring Krishna, the slayer of the demon Kesi, to her. She recounts the story of their first meeting; whether this is for real or only a fantasy, no one knows. 

In the climax of sakhi he, as Krishna and Radha kiss and the percussionist Ekalavya Muduli beats up a frenzy on the mardala, Mohapatra assumes a slow and deliberate final pose before leaving the stage. Measured, contained movements are the hallmark of her Odissi style. Subtle escalations in the tone of a movement are harnessed to great dramatic effect. In ahe nila saila, a poem dedicated to Jagannath by his ardent devotee Salbeg, a Muslim and a leper who is not allowed past the temple gates, Mohapatra portrays a crocodile. One leg leaves the floor and her body tilts forward at an angle. There is nothing extraordinary about her stance; yet, as she slowly raises her head, showing us the evil glint in the crocodile’s eyes, it is powerful enough to blur her connection to gravity, if only for an instant. 

She ends with a new choreography set to an extract from the Ramacharitamanas. Shabari, after waiting for a lifetime, finally meets Rama and learns about the nine paths to bhakti. After watching her embody some of Jayadeva’s most compelling ashtapadis and the moving poetry of Salbeg, this finale is slightly mood-killing. The abhinaya is flawless, but Rama’s preachy message to Shabari, and by extension, the audience, inspires much fidgeting. Classical dance is deeply rooted in Indian culture, but as a performing art, it is also committed to telling engaging stories, and Mohapatra’s final piece is far from being one.

Kapila Venu
The next day, seated behind an unlit brass lamp in a nod to fire safety regulations, Kapila Venu uses the layered and intricate narrative of the Saundarya Lahari to reiterate one of its core assertions – Shiva possesses the power to create only when he is one with Shakti. The young and immensely talented Venu is one of the most popular actors of Kutiyattam, an ancient Sanskrit theatre form. Mohapatra stretches time; Venu strikes it senseless. As Parvati, when she witnesses the opening of Shiva’s third eye and its aftermath, her eyes vibrate with the burden of perceiving such a destructive force, as the world around her quivers for an indefinite span of time. 

This interpretation of the Saundarya Lahari is one of many new Kutiyattam choreographies derived by Kapila’s father, G Venu. While adhering to the narrative and the tenets laid down by an acting manual specific to the story, the Kutiyattam actor is free to improvise endlessly. 

Venu started her training under Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar at a young age. “People imagine that I grew up in an ashram surrounded by lotuses. That is far from the truth,” she giggles. In the post-performance discussion, responding to gushing enthusiasts in the audience, she goes to great lengths to explain that there is no such thing as a trance-like state in acting. Even in her trance-like meditation as Parvati, who undergoes penance because she wants Shiva as her husband, Venu is acutely aware of being in performance. 

Performing a day later, Sanjukta Wagh, in her presentation of contemporary Kathak, interprets awareness in a different way, as she lets the space around her shape her movement. In Bheetar Bahar, the first part, she improvises to Kabir’s poetry. Her arms curve around space, periodically evoking images of music-making, as vocalist Makrand Deshpande sings yeh tan that tambure ka (this body is the scale of the tanpura). In an earlier incarnation, this piece focused on the creation of movement; now, Kabir is the star. 

Moving from nirguna to saguna, the second part of Wagh’s recital is Ubha Vitevari, a necklace of abhangs by various poets of the varkari tradition. Each poet understands Vithal differently, but the image of a standing Vithoba in the Pandharpur temple, hands on hips, binds these interpretations. Wagh occupies the same patch of stage space throughout her performance, never moving from it to traverse space. She begins with her back to the audience, turning to face them in the second abhang. Even then, she continues to stand still, only letting her face reflect Vithal’s sentiments for his various devotees. Midway, Wagh begins reciting extracts from some of the poems; this brings the piece together and suddenly makes it feel complete in how she embodies the poets, their poetry and the image of Vithal or Vithoba. 

Classical dance and bhakti poetry go back a long way. Yet, for some of the performers at Mudra, choreographing to bhakti poems meant making radical shifts in language and treatment. How did they go about this? Each dancer had different answers. Vaidyanathan and Wagh let the poetry wash over them and then responded to it. For Mohapatra, the tryst with bhakti reaffirmed the pleasure of performing and preserving the repertoire of her guru. Venu chose not to think about the process, lest she lose it on trying to break it down. Just as there are different paths to the divine, there are innumerable methods to the madness. 

Ranjana Dave

November 12, 2013

My first Swan Lake

After spending hours mooning over videos of Swan Lake, I finally went to watch it live at the Staatsballett Berlin yesterday, with Iana Salenko playing Odette/ Odile. When you see something in one form and are then bombarded with it in the flesh, it can be rather disconcerting. However, it is also amusing.

  • Swan Lake or Horse Lake? Watching ballet videos, you have no clue how noisy pointe shoes can actually be. So the swans are at it, making these fluid, beautiful movements, making you feel sorry for them - but that requires some suspension of disbelief, because they sound like a traffic jam of horse-drawn carriages. 
  • For the first ten minutes, I kept expecting dancers to trip on their nightgown like-dresses. Thankfully, they didn't. In general, there were some conflicting costume ideas - men and women were dressed to fit into different centuries.
  • Talking of dress, Siegfried's tutor (if I correctly identified the hulking/sulking man who dances a duet with Konigin) looked like he had escaped from the bank that's across the road from the Deutsche Oper. And stolen someone's pants on his way to the theatre. I have never seen such ill-fitting pants on stage in a long time. He danced beautifully but the pants were his undoing.
  • I liked the scenes between ill-fitting pants and Siegfried, where they fought while dancing something that I'd like to call a pas de deux (but I'm not sure if it'd actually qualify as one). 
  • Till the very end, Von Rothbart was a random man behind a screen, waving obviously fake cloth wings. Initially, I thought this was a surprise Matthew Bourne-esque male Odette/ Odile, but turns out it wasn't! His wavy arms reminded me of the drill we performed on sports day, back in school.
  • I've been watching staid versions where Odile just laughs when Siegfried promises her eternal love. But, in this one, Odile and Von Rothbart come back to Siegfried to say aye popat! before they disappear. In the background, Odette is fluttering so madly - I'm not sure if she was trying to lose feathers or was just really upset.
  • We all know that everyone dies (in life and in Swan Lake). But why die so thanda? Odette just dances her sad duet with Siegfried, says chalo ji main chalti hoon and flutters away with her swans. She doesn't even give Siegfried time to run after her. Then, Von Rothbart appears, in the flesh, finally, and discards his wings before fighting Siegfriend. He dies like Gulshan Grover. Siegfried looks at Von Rothbart's body with such yearning, that I began to wonder if the two of them were in love. Then he also says, "Fuck it. What's the point? The party is over. I'm going to go lie down in this white smoke too." (lots of white smoke from wings) Konigin comes and shakes his dead body with such vigour, she should take over from Raakhee in Bollywood.

November 01, 2013

How I met Alina Cojocaru

 Yesterday, I watched Alina Cojocaru in Romeo and Juliet, dancing with the Hamburg Ballett at the Hamburgische Staatsoper. I'm too swayed by emotion to be objective about her performance. I want to talk about what happened after that. When I emerged from the theatre, I saw people waiting by the stage door. I assumed that they were waiting for the principal dancers to emerge, so I joined them. Initially there was a crowd, which dwindled after most of the other dancers left the building. By this point, it was 11 pm – the performance had ended an hour ago. Romeo had left. There were seven of us still waiting.

I was not sure what to expect and didn't know if she'd be interested in being nice to people after a long day. So I was more than a little taken aback when she finally emerged, apologising for making us wait. Most of the others were her groupies, who seem to follow her around from country to country, so she knew them. She spoke to all of us individually; she was thrilled that someone from India was watching her and even posed for a photograph (okay, I stop gushing here). The woman photographing us was not sure if my camera had taken the picture, and it was super cute when Alina Cojocaru told her which button she should hold down and for how long. (I know I'm objectifying her here by expecting her to be an ethereal being. Sorry, cannot help it.)

I expected her to pose for photographs, sign people's programmes and go away. But someone commented on her performance and she was very eager to talk about it. She favours John Neumeier's Romeo and Juliet over Kenneth MacMillan's version ever so slightly. She feels that Neumeier makes the story more dramatic by starkly distinguishing the periods of happiness and sadness in the characters' lives. “You can't be silly and mature,” she said, explaining that being a rough-around-the-edges Juliet in Neumeier's choreography lets her react to the story in a more visceral way. Juliet is a young girl who is still unsure of herself and uncomfortable with the idea of the woman she is expected to become. Her inability to fit in is portrayed through a series of steps that her mother teaches her, which she executes imperfectly and reluctantly. However, even Cojocaru's imperfect, faltering steps are an act of perfection.

In MacMillan's choreography, Juliet must react in a mature manner when she is forced to marry Count Paris. Cojocaru feels that the MacMillan version characterises Juliet by dwelling on how the family reacts to her, whereas Neumeier tries to bring out what Juliet must really feel. Someone asks her if she has ever considered doing Romeo and Juliet to another composer's music (this one was by Profokiev). She says that she identifies most with his music, having performed it for so many years.

I don't remember this part of the conversation well, but I think she said something (addressing nerves, or Profokiev, or both) on the lines of - This was my first role at the Royal (Ballet) when I was 19; I feel that if I could dance it at 19, I could definitely go on stage and perform it now.

Of course, she said that her Juliet changes every evening – and a couple laughed in delight because they've watched every single Juliet she danced this season (I am jealous). In the end, she picked up her own bags and struggled with two flower bouquets, and thanked the woman who offered to help carry one of the bouquets profusely. I am utterly charmed by the Alina Cojocaru I met.

September 23, 2013

On contemporary dance in India

A brief history of contemporary dance in India, NCPA Onstage magazine, December 2012, coinciding with their season of contemporary performance. Click on the images to zoom in and find legible text.