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Sans dupatta

The midriff gets its moment

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"We feel surprised that you want yourself to be considered in the category of Kathak Awardees but on the other hand you are refusing the basic traditional attire of it" - Letter from the gurus of Kathak Kendra, Delhi, to dancer Aditi Mangaldas on why her work cannot be categorised as classical.

From the various letters flying around over the controversy, it appears that the Kathak establishment is outraged by the absence of a dupatta over the contemporary dancer's bosom. This is not the first time the modesty police have struck. Eight years ago, Malayasian dancer Ramli Ibrahim sent the Odissi establishment into a state of righteous indignation by presenting his female dancers (mostly young and petite Chinese women) on stage without an odhni, leading to cries of "corruption" of tradition and "philistinism".

Anyone would think that the scarf has always been an integral part of the classical ensemble. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indrani Rahman, who stormed the dance scene in the mid- '50s, dropped the dupatta to show her midriff and started a mode that a whole lot of young dancers either aped fully or adapted. There were no howls of protests then, none that could deter her or her young fans anyway.

"She danced all over Orissa in her Odissi revival mission and there was no controversy over the midriff. How times change, " says her daughter Sukanya in a Facebook post protesting Kathak nobility's grandstanding.
Rahman abandoned most of the traditional trappings of old Odissi - ikat replaced the flashy silks, the gauche pajamas under the sari were dumped (in response to Pandit Nehru's remark that it looked unaesthetic), filigree work replaced the gold. Young dancers followed suit and the Odissi costume was changed forever.

"She was a dance and style icon for us as well. We were dying to bare our midriffs like she had because it looked so elegant, " recalls senior Odissi dancer Kumkum Lal with a laugh. The maharis (devadasis), who were the early dancers of the form, mostly wore a long, thick velvet blouse that almost came down to their waist. Young dancers irritated with the rather restrictive gear - but still anxious to not offend their gurus - would work around the whole modesty issue by using the flimsiest material to work as a dupatta - Banarasi tissue, chiffon.

"I would pin the dupatta in a V-shape onto the blouse so the midriff would show. Other dancers would somehow fold the chunni to fit the blouse. Some pinned it to the top of their headgear and let the two ends tie into the bangles in what was called the Bengali veil, " says Lal. "Aditi is well within her rights as a dancer to use or abandon the dupatta. Dance is a creative medium and the dancer knows what suits her form and art the best. "

The transition of classical dance from temple to court and then to the stage required a constant reviewing of costumes. Every great diva has left a distinct stamp on the classical costume, often creating a trend. Rukmini Devi Arundale, in bringing Bharatanatyam to the modern stage, refashioned the costume by abandoning the gaudy saris and tight pajamas.

Yamini Krishnamurthy abandoned the dupatta to create a fitted bodice that framed her magnificent frame and showcased the power and muscularity of her dance. The dupatta was a different construct for her - it did not cover her shoulders but was pulled tight across her blouse;a fan was added as an embellishment underneath. There was none of the brouhaha then about the fall in aesthetic standards in dance costuming.

"The basic question to ask is: what is the dancer's intention in experimenting with a costume ?" says Rama Vaidyanathan, a disciple of Krishnamurthy. "Yes, Yaminiji wore sensuous, tight-fitting costumes but they enhanced her dance by showcasing her form as it moved. The body is a dancer's instrument and how it is draped to best show her art is a key element, almost as important as the dance itself. As long as the fundamental aesthetics are fine why should anyone lay down costume diktats?"
As for Kathak, it has evolved fast over the decades in all respects - music, style, literature and costume. The roots of the current debate go back to a recent Kathak utsav in Varanasi that hosted young dancers. One entrant was asked to rework her portfolio to include a photo where she had draped a dupatta to make a 'Kathak' (read authentic) photograph. Aditi says flexibility in aharya is every dancer's right and that she is mindful of the context in which her costumes are designed. So for her contemporary pieces she dresses in modern, costumes, but sticks to recognisable Kathak code for classical shows. Her guru, Kumudini Lakhia, discarded the dupatta in 1973 to better showcase her choreography.

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