October 29, 2012

Of travel, books and possibilities of disrobement

Packing light was never one of my skills. I have reformed considerably from the days when I took 30 shirts to Bangalore for a month-long trip. That was in 2006.

Wherever I go, I am always equipped for intergalactic travel. I carry sweaters to Orissa in summer (and use them) and sleeveless kurtas to Delhi in January (brrr, and never use them). I have a book, or two or three. I have socks for the day and socks for the night. And in recent times, I have my yoga mat.

For the past two years or so, I have limited my luggage to a single bag or rucksack. I think this was partly because of the trauma of moving house several times in Delhi, and worse still, moving back to Bombay. Moving house makes one see the wisdom in living without appendages. On that memorable occasion, I had 13 bags. The taxi driver was aghast and it took some serious ganging up on him before he agreed to drive me to the station. That was also the only time I had to socialise in a train, because my 13 bags alarmed my co-passengers significantly, even though none of them actually had to sleep with my bucket by their head or anything.

On my last visit to Delhi, when S heard I had travelled with a single bag, her jaw hit the floor. Clearly her last memory of me is coming to my hostel room in JNU and seeing the aforementioned thirteen bags and watching me panic as I searched for a missing sock in a rolled-up chatai.

And this was after I couriered 40 kilos of books home. Sadly, where books are concerned, I see no recourse. I may, at some point, feel guilty about buying sarees, but I have no such qualms or scruples when it comes to books.

The closest I ever came to complete reform was in Kerala, where my bag was actually not full, and I wore everything I carried. I even carried a saree, but forgot a petticoat. So when I went to the Padmanabhaswamy temple, I wore my saree on slacks with a dangerously pliant elastic band and spent my time in the temple wondering what would ensue if my saree decided to come apart. Since I managed to make it out of the temple without Draupadi-type scenes, I awarded myself a certificate of distinction in saree-wearing. And then I was secure in the delusion that my saree was immune to accidental slippages till (horror of horrors) it fell apart for the first time in nine years of mummy-independent saree wearing in a masterclass with the Nrityagram dancers. Really, horror of horrors.

Delhi is almost like a second home now, and if I am short of sweaters or shawls, or even socks, I know I can procure them. But friends have not been very helpful in this regard, what with them sending me e-mails about how cold it is in Delhi and how I should come well-equipped. I wish I were a witch; then I would take my room and stuff it in a beaded bag like Hermione.

Fantasy apart, I shall prepare for intergalactic travel now.

October 25, 2012

An interview with Kumkum Mohanty

This was an interview I did with Kumkum Mohanty during the International Odissi Festival in Bhubaneswar last December. To read the transcripts alongside the video, go to  https://pad.ma/BJG/player/ . The interview was transcribed by Divya Sarma.

Kumkum Mohanty ran away from home as a toddler to follow a brass band in a wedding procession. Though she was found soon after, in the care of a vigilantpaan shop owner, she fondly cherishes her memory of that incident as a sign of her inextricable links with dance and music. Along with Sanjukta Panigrahi and Priyambada Hejmadi Mohanty, she was one of the earliest students of Kelucharan Mohapatra in the fifties, when he worked with others to establish Odissi as a classical dance form. Besides making her name as a dancer, Mohanty pursued a career in the civil services, ending her career in a post and place close to her heart, as the chief executive of the Odissi Research Centre in Bhubaneswar, set up in the mid 1980s.

Here, she talks about her early years in Odissi and speaks out against bureaucratic apathy towards cultural institutions in Orissa and what she perceives as flippant trends in choreography and compositions.

October 24, 2012

Another extremely discursive reflection on dance

So as a struggling dancer, I should probably keep my acid tongue well-hidden, but I'm still trying to stop feeling goggle-eyed about some recent events. They are discursive; discursive is clearly my new favourite word, after soporific, those epitomising the two things I do well.

  • Please snigger, but I don't get this variety show business. I was recently in conversation with someone who wanted to rope me in to dance Odissi at a university programme. We haggled companionably over the length of the dance. She was a nice, well-meaning person who told me how she learned dance in her youth but found it hard to balance dancing and the rest of her education. What stumps me is how readily she made the assumption that I would travel to another city and bring my costume along to dance in a show without any talk of payment or any compensation just out of overwhelming good feeling. I agreed because I was actually meant to be in that city at the same time for something else, but I was left aghast. Now, as I write this, I realise that it is not uncommon for many of us to travel to other cities to do fifteen minute performances so that we are seen. And this lets us wheedle our way into more fifteen minute performances. Why then, did my conversation with this woman leave me so irked? 
  • Maybe if I stop thinking of performance as an income-generating activity, I'll feel better about the whole business and come to terms with it. What I find hilarious is that I have been covertly offered a bribe to review a dance festival but never to dance in one! I have said this earlier - clearly, they pay the light and sound people, the stage attendants, the hired VIPs, the compere and even the dance critic, but not the dancer.
  • The Orissa government recently brought out a festival schedule where half the dancers who're on the list don't know they're on the list. And those who're not, are grumpy. I can't stop laughing.
Now I'll be a good dancer so that I can awake early enough to salute the sun. That, though, reminds me of the mother of a very famous classical dancer telling me how her daughter could not cope with the stress because she wouldn't take to the bottle (when she didn't awake on time to be interviewed). I don't know why I recall it now, but it was an ah! moment.

When I was 12, I would brush my teeth every night because I wanted to be Miss India. Now, twelve years down, I gnash the aforementioned teeth delightedly and want to be a gossip columnist. Clearly, I am growing sedentary and old.

October 01, 2012

A history of perception

This was published in the Asian Age on September 27, 2012

Those were the days, one always hears. The ancientness of India’s classical dance tradition has always been central to its continued existence. While we can only imagine what dance in the 2nd century must have been like, as we come closer to the 21st century, it becomes easier to make connections and harness an imagination of the past.

Most compellingly, this imagination is sustained through oral history and the personal memoirs of artists and those who were surrounded by art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These accounts abound in the history of performance; the musician who could summon the rains, or the dancer whose abhinaya left the audience in tears. We only have a fragmented notion of what dance may have looked like in the early 20th century, but slowly, and sometimes, insidiously, these fragments begin to stand in for the whole picture in the popular imagination.

This imagination is also an interesting marker of what has changed. Musicians and dancers always worked together; dancers were often very talented musicians themselves. Performance could thus be very spontaneous. The dancer could decide how many times she wanted to elaborate one line of a song, and any changes were easily accommodated. Now, as the dancer performs to recorded music, or with musicians hired for the night, being spontaneous is often a luxury she can ill afford.

Feminist writer and researcher CS Lakshmi remarks that we often do not make much of what we live through, finding more value and meaning in those times when we look back at them. Of dance, she says, “In the process of reassessing the past, we tend to exaggerate and romanticise it. I lived in Bangalore when Shanta Rao was still performing. Even in those days, I admired her a lot; looking back, she almost seems like a superhuman figure because she did something that nobody dared to do at that time. Another instance is the devadasi community. An old devadasi I interviewed told me that when they performed in court, they also had to do things they had learnt from circus artists, like placing a vegetable on their bodies and cutting it, because they were court entertainers. Not all of them were the classical artists we dream of them as. We should look at them in their historical context and not exaggerate them.”

One tends to look back at the virtuosity of dancers in the first half of the century using present-day parameters, and this leaves one with the feeling that the past has not lived up to the hype about it. Our notions of beauty and virtuosity change with time. In costume and in movement, there is a shift towards sharper and clearer lines. Costumes are more fitted, and sleeves have inched away from the elbow over time. The draped sari costume is not as popular as the stitched costume, for the latter facilitates quicker costume changes.
One very prominent marker is the increased emphasis on the perfection of nritta or pure dance movement in present-day dancing. This also stems from the way dance is taught now. The student first learns the basic steps, and the introduction to other aspects of dance is slow, or even delayed. Earlier, dancers benefited from an immersive dance atmosphere where they were in close contact with the extended artistic community and even artists in the family.

There are many dance connoisseurs who find it hard to come to terms with the way classical dance is shaping up. Bangalore-based Ajay Cadambi is one such person. “I am appropriating the past because I cannot stomach what is performed today. Yet, how do I know what was performed in the past? For one, in the abhinaya, there was so much more maturity in the way srngara was depicted, compared to the infantilisation of srngara by many dancers today. There are infinite possibilities in abhinaya, but that requires an understanding of its cultural and social milieu. In biology, evolution means moving on to something better. That has not happened with abhinaya. Dance used to be a means of communication but that quality is now lost. There is an absolute lack of sensitivity for old dance compositions, in the way they are now being performed,” he asserts.

What happens when we revisit the past? It is important to remember that the formation of a classical dance was never a static narrative of change. Post-independence, the existence of the classical dance was deeply connected to the need to propagate a national culture. Its classicisation was a contentious process, highly influenced by questions of morality, respectability, cultural production and even statehood.