May 25, 2012

Pushing Freedom

A piece I wrote for the dance page of the Asian Age newspaper, May 25, 2012
See link here

An oft-narrated story about the dancer Chandralekha talks of the alienating experience she had during her arangetram in the 50s. Its proceeds went to the Rayalaseema drought relief fund. One of the pieces she performed was Mathura Nagarilo, describing the abundance of water and its free-flowing nature, as young women frolicked in the river Yamuna. Describing what went through her mind as she danced this ironic contrast, Chandralekha wrote, “Suddenly, I froze, with the realisation that I was portraying all this profusion of water in the context of a drought. I remembered photographs in the newspapers of cracked earth, of long winding queues of people waiting for water with little tins in hand.” In later years, as a narrative of the triggers that propelled her towards finding her own movement formed, this incident would take on great significance.

Recently in Mumbai, at a private screening of a film on the Gati residency for emerging choreographers, the guests found themselves mulling over the space of the classical and the contemporary in dance. Some dancers in the film spoke of moving away from the classical forms they had trained in for long years to find their own expression. Did this then mean, the viewers wondered, that in contemporary dance they found a freedom that classical dance had denied to them? In not holding them back within structures and rules, contemporary dance must liberate them, they reasoned.

Launching into an imagination of contemporary dance, one is compelled to pose the trick question —how does one define contemporary dance in India? In her paper, Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircar’s work, Alessandra Lopez Y. Royo tries to unpack the word “contemporary” in the Indian context. She explains that “contemporary”, when used in western contexts with reference to Indian dance, is taken for “non-traditional” or “anti-traditional”, giving rise to an oppositional relationship where “traditional” — stable and archaic, is set up against “contemporary”, which comes with a suggestion of temporariness. She adds, “...there is a conflation with ‘contemporary’ in the sense of ‘western contemporary techniques of dance’ and this further complicates the issue, equating as it does Indian ‘contemporary’ with ‘hybrid’.”

Dance artist and teacher Mehneer Sudan feels that classical structures, by way of being older, may seem more rigid — perhaps because they have a certain historicity. “As an artist, you often begin your journey within a structure. It takes some time to understand that freedom doesn’t come from the form; it has to do with your nature, what juncture you are at in life. There can be things that bind or free you in any form. Within its ethos, contemporary dance carries a sense of experimentation – that is why you see so many ‘techniques’ emerging in contemporary dance. The spirit of change is inherent to it,” she remarks.

That several drastically different styles are bundled under the contemporary umbrella only exacerbates the situation. Contemporary dance, in the west, may be said to represent a historic progression beginning with a break from classical ballet. In India, “contemporary” is an agglomeration of several western vocabularies and the works of artistes who are grounded in classical dance but seek to push its limits. And this is not always out of frustration – it is not oppression by classical dance that drives them towards the contemporary.

Vital to the imagination of the ‘contemporary’ as a freeing space is the absent idea of rigour. Some may visualise a dance vocabulary unimpeded by structure, and often, technique. Those who allege that contemporary is flippant and half-baked point to its purported absence of rigour. By ignoring rigour, an essential element of any serious dance practice, both groups fail to recognise the process through which a contemporary dance vocabulary is catalysed and distilled.

All dance can be flippant – be it an under-rehearsed classical piece or a mindless flailing of arms and legs that masquerades as contemporary. A classical dancer cannot learn everything by imitation; she must work towards understanding how movements look on her body and internalising emotion. The famous classical dancers we admire today are not just shouldering a legacy, but have also spent a great amount of time in making the dance suit their personality, and vice versa. They must work within the boundaries of a form, but there is no lack of freedom; rather, there is too much to explore. The contemporary dancer works with reference points that shape her movement vocabulary over time.

Perhaps in contemporary dance, there is an honesty of the body, whereas classical dance prides itself on transformation. Bald men become damsels, and wrinkled ladies play warriors. That is why irascible dancers who wildly gesture to their musicians on stage are often ridiculed; yet their refusal, implicit or not, to treat the stage as an artificial space, is endearing. They visibly adhere to the notion of performance as lived experience.

Balasaraswati, who personified the improvisational freedoms of classical dance in her abhinaya, delivered a famous speech in the seventies, where she emphasised the need to find rapture through discipline. She said, “...if she humbly submits to the greatness of this art, soon enough she will find joy in that discipline; and she will realise that discipline makes her free in the joyful realm of the art.”

In the end, dance is as subjective as freedom is fraught.

May 04, 2012

Living with varicose veins

I hope that title doesn't sound pedantic and long-suffering. Even I'm not as mulish as my veins are.

Over the past 18 months, I've dealt with varicose veins. They started small, with a vein or two visible behind the knee, which didn't bother me. Then, last September, the biggest of them suddenly announced its presence. Since then, one vein steadily floods and engorges others around it, so if I stand for a few minutes, you see a tapestry of swollen veins behind my knee. Sometimes they cause discomfort, in varying degrees, and on a few occasions, twinges of pain.

They're not yet as gross as the pictures one finds on searching for 'varicose veins' on the internet, but I am told, and can see, that they will worsen if I do nothing about them. I should shut up, actually. They're not life-threatening in the least. (Varicose veins are dysfunctional veins that don't do a great job of returning the blood to the heart and cause an abnormal reversal of flow; in my case - letting it pool in the veins instead, engorging them and putting pressure on other veins.) Nevertheless, dealing with them can be spirit-sapping.

Doctors are good at siphoning out spirit. I just came back from a visit to a general surgeon who was pessimistically honest, promising no all-encompassing solutions and saying things like - but this is life, my child. In his own sincere way, he was depressing. But I appreciate that he didn't try to foist a single agenda on me. My first few visits were to a vascular surgeon who specialised in dealing with varicose veins, at a fancy hospital a stone's throw away from home. I don't know whom to blame; he was moderately precise, but everything he did or prescribed reeked of how much more money he could make off me. When you're already confused, a doctor who's sizing you up like a blank cheque really sets off alarm bells. He came with happy optimism and 97% success rates, which I'm not completely disinclined to believe, but I could see that his approach was superficial.

He also recommended that I wear support stockings.

Stockings. Life's little ironies. I clung to socks long after most people my age abandoned them. I still love socks, though I'm less anal about when to wear them now! For the past few months, I've gone around wearing a long support stocking on my left leg. This was not how I envisioned my love affair with socks - this is fate's sadistic comeback - you love socks, you wear really long ones! The veins feel better, but wearing that thing in summer is torture. I feel like a member of some cult that practices corporal mortification.

Depending on what mood I am in, I find the stocking sexy or terribly awful. They're also awfully expensive - I suddenly realise, in a moment of painful clarity, that I don't own a sari that costs that much. Warped vanity indeed - my most expensive clothing a pair of support stockings?

The cost apart, these stockings are also a pain to put on. The few times I've tried to wear this particular pair (it fits me right, of course, I've been measured for them), it took two people and fifteen minutes of trying to slide the stocking up my leg before I managed.

I'm strongly considering going in for the laser procedure that destroys the veins - when the vascular surgeon clinically described it, I couldn't help thinking it sounded like Poothanamoksham. Around the time I began wearing support stockings, I spent some days obsessively looking for information on varicose veins. I've read tons about the procedure now and about veins in general, but that doesn't leave me less confused - also because most of this is US or UK-specific. Most India-related links on the web are either maintained by vein clinics who obviously endorse their work or random stocking suppliers. At one point I really wanted to talk to others who'd been through the procedure or who've dealt with varicose veins. Call me alarmist/ maniacal for wanting a varicose veins support group, but sometimes those things help.

My favourite stance these days is a very Krishna-type thing, with my weight resting on my right leg. The veins in my left leg love it. Meanwhile, I'll keep raising my throbbing leg into the air in the middle of a meeting. But now you know that's not a pose from erotic sculpture. In sculpture, they cup their breasts, not the back of their knees.