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The dance disconnect
Are the themes of feminine love and longing in classical Bharatanatyam dance totally out of sync with the brutality of our streets? As Delhi raged against sexual aggression, Chennai dancers introspect about the relevance of their art in the modern world.
Half-way through her Bharatanatyam performance at the Krishna Gana Sabha hall in Chennai, Malavika Sarukkai stops for a small note to her last piece. Her theme for the evening is Krishna, and we watch the beloved, time-honoured pieces on his grandeur, childhood and loveplay. But this, the last piece, on Vrindavan wilting in the summer heat, the river poisoned by Kalia and awaiting Krishna's miracle was different. "In a world struggling with aggression and dark violence, " says Sarukkai, "the classical arts can offer one thing - emotional and spiritual balm. "
It was just nine days since Delhi was convulsed with the horror of the gangrape of a young girl. In distant Chennai, the Margazhi season was offering an embarrassment of artistic riches and the protests and barricades seemed a long way off. There was a night-long protest at Marina Beach but for the rest, the season dominated the city - the frantic search for premium events, juggling dates, sipping coffee at the canteens.
But this year, it is somehow tough not to wonder at the disconnect between the nayika on stage - pining, loving, flirting, sulking in turns in dazzling costume and jewellery - and the savagery on our streets.
Dancers chose to react differently to this disconnect. Three days after Sarukkai, Vyjayanthimala Bali stunned her audiences at the end of her Karthik Fine Arts performance with an impromptu speech. As fans stood up for a rousing ovation for her unflagging energy, she returned to the stage. She wanted to dedicate her dance, she said, to "the brave young girl who died fighting for her life".
Hers had been a planned performance, typical of a rigorously classical format. That was not something she wanted to play around with in the activist space. "Both art and activism are a part of life. If I feel strongly about something, I will speak about it or take out a protest march but it will not be reflected in my dance, " says Bali. Earlier this month, she took out a protest march in the historic Triplicane area.
Classical dancers in the contemporary circuit are often confronted with the relevance of their themes in this time and age. A typical response to this is that the antiquity of Bharatanatyam items - the songs of love, coquetry, betrayal and reconciliation with gods and kings - has a unique and unmatched space and logic of its own. It is the art for art's sake argument. "We cannot dance to the theme of bride-burning or corruption in the classical format. The classical dances are not about depicting reality, they are about transcending the reality. But does it mean that they have no place in our lives? What they can do is to re-envision for us all that is refined and good in our souls. And believe me, in times like these we feel bad about ourselves, " says Sarukkai.
There is little in the conventional repertoire (margam) that allows the dancer to dwell on death, destruction or rape for that matter. Choreographer Anita Ratnam agrees with Bali's point of view that if, as a woman and a citizen, she wants to express her distress and rage at the way of the world she would rather do it outside the realm of Bharatanatyam.
"Classical dances are rooted in a time when society was not complex and lines were clearly drawn between classes, castes and genders. That world is gone but classical dances continue to resonate those social structures, " she says explaining the disconnect.
There is more scope for, say, dance theatre to connect with social upheavals than Bharatanatyam, she says. "You can't stand on stage, in a typical dancer stance, attired in silk and gold and talk angrily about AIDS and rape. It simply does not work to suddenly weave a campaign into a jatti. That would serve neither cause, dance nor activism, " says Ratnam.
She points out that it takes a backbreaking amount of planning, conceptualising and outof-the-box thinking to pull classical dances into contemporary themes. But that will fall into the category of dance drama with strong, spoken words worked around dance movements. Pina Bausch, she recalls, was one such dancer who could do so - have women lying still on stage and get a male dancer to do push-ups around the stage to indicate sexual violence and stereotypes.
Ratnam presented her curated show Epic Women during the season in Chennai, showcasing artistes' interpretation of legendary mythical and historical female characters. The stories of Yashodhara, Frida Kahlo, Draupadi, Kunti, Hidimba, Helen, Kannagi and Sita were told using classical dance only as a grammar.
Alarmel Valli, who kept to traditional Bharatanatyam through the season, says that folk and popular arts are a better tool for protest. "It looks forced if we use Bharatanatyam to talk about violence, rape or corruption. The way I see it classical arts are a way to harmonise the mind, elevate it but they cannot be directly connected to what is happening on the streets," she says.
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