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.



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