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Cultural Divide

Creative vs classical: The mystifying divide

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When Kathak danseuse Aditi Mangaldas refused the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in the ‘Creative/Contemporary Choreography’ category, she triggered off a debate about who defines traditional/ contemporary and on what basis

This fortnight, when internationally acclaimed Kathak danseuse, Aditi Mangaldas, refused an award from the Sangeet Natak Academy, the government body (and arguably, ultimate arbiter of what constitutes traditional/contemporary/aesthetic or otherwise in Indian performing arts through criterion intelligible only to itself!) under the specious category of 'Creative/ Contemporary Choreography', she set the proverbial cat among the pigeons and triggered off a serious debate on who defines traditional/contemporary and on what basis.

Mangaldas argued, with commendable civility, that "Eighty per cent of my work in the last 25 years has been solidly grounded in classical Kathak and only 20 per cent has been experimental, contemporary and that too is extremely nascent and mere foray into uncharted terrain over which I claim no command and in which I'm admittedly experimenting. And even this experimental work draws strongly from my grounding in classical Kathak". Implicit in the specious categorisation of her award was a dismissal of the hard, much lauded work of the dazzling Kathak soloist and star pupil of Kathak greats, a la Birju Maharaj and Kumudini Lakhia. The award under the very arbitrary category to Mangaldas is even more mystifying considering the same government body didn't find (presumably) any contradiction in awarding a prize decades earlier, for classical Kathak to her iconoclastic guru, Lakhia, who, in the seventies, broke every rule in the Kathak book and proclaimed famously: "There CAN be Kathak sans Krishna" !

Mangaldas, though anguished, remained circumspect pleading for "debate and more indepth thought on the part of a national cultural body while devising categories, granting awards. It is the prerogative of this prestigious conglomerate to decide what category my life's work belongs to. On the other hand, it's my prerogative to disagree and state where I think my contribution really lies. People like Astad Deboo, Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Daksha Sheth have done serious work in the contemporary space and actually toiled to evolve a new dance idiom and vocabulary. I claim no space on that turf because I'm a mere starter here. My life's work has been in other domains". Dance critics, peers agree. Author of a tome on dance history, longtime observer/critic Leela Venkatraman feels the categorisation, the award was unfair. "I understand her hurt because they seem to have slighted her Kathak abilities. Completely cutting out Kathak belittles her training, background and proven record as a performer of exceptional calibre. They should have awarded her for Kathak choreography rather than Kathak contemporary. In any case, I don't understand these contemporary Bharatnatyam/Kathak categories. "

Bharatnatyam dancer Navtej Johar who has battled pretty much the same perception /mindset for a while now is sympathetic. "Aditi is first and foremost a fabulous Kathak dancer and deserves to be celebrated for that. It's her strong commitment to this form that makes her curious about its form, content, malleability. She richly deserved to be awarded for her Kathak. " Malaysian Odissi dancer Ramli Ibrahim, an earlier SNA awardee in the classical Odissi category, who, ironically enough, has been lambasted in Orissa for taking liberties with Odissi costume, 'classicism' offers another insight: "Aditi/s work is like her guru, Kumudini Lakhia's. It is distinctly classical. Yet like her guru, she's transformed it wonderfully, infused it with a stunning contemporaniety. The tragedy? Will she ever be recognised twice over for both categories of work? These categories/ nomenclatures are very strange. So is traditional Kathak not creative then? Is Bharatnatyam not creative within the traditional form?"

Going by this logic, Rukmini Devi should have been stoned to death for her heretic reinvention of what we today call 'classical, pure Bharatnatyam'. A muted though very significant endorsement of Mangaldas' stand comes from the SNA chairperson Leela Samson herself who was reportedly absent from the meeting where the decision for giving this particular award was taken. She terms the episode as "unfortunate" and goes on to say "she has done what other gurus have done in their time, which is to create, experiment, make the contemporary relevant". She stops short of castigating the SNA body saying the body "in its wisdom" made a "unanimous decision". Pressed to comment whether implicit in awarding Mangaldas in such a category implied a dismissal of her contribution to classical Kathak she would only say, "As a dancer, I think it is very unfortunate. " A reaction that though very sympathetic begs the question: was there perhaps a disagreement within the body on this issue and was Samson sidelined? Follow-up question: can Samson be exonerated for culpability in a decision taken, after all, by a body which she heads? Again, is her reservation on record? Or is it that Samson is wary of the cultural body politic after her bruising experience with Kalashetra?

Either way, the mysterious workings of the Indian cultural establishment continue to perplex and confound most observers and members of the creative community. Many though, are lauding Mangaldas' act of courage in calling the Academy to account and challenging ossified mindsets. Someone, after all, needs to tell the truth about the Emperor's New Clothes!

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