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Couple of months ago, at one of those endless award nights shows, Bollywood star Katrina Kaif appeared on stage in a mohiniyattam costume to dance to Sheila ki Jawani. You purse your lips in disapproval, but only till she starts dancing - rather sweetly actually, doing little elegant movements and freezing in pretty poses instead of the wild hip thrusts of the original. Sheila ki jawani very gently nudged into the languid flow of mohiniyattam. You had to laugh, it was that cute, and in some ways, subversive.
Last Monday in New Delhi, when Darpana trained dancer Rukmini Chatterjee did her bharatanatyam-meets-Norwegianblack-metal act you suddenly remembered Kaif's incongruous Sheila ki Jawani. There was Vreid, a band of long-haired headbangers growling some apparently mystical lines in English about shape-shifting, to which a stunning Chatterjee, draped in a minimalist white sari, choreographed sequences that were a mishmash of references to tantra, Shakti and kalyug. She wore ghunghroos, but you couldn't hear them above the wild music that made your heart thump. And to the rage exhibited by the music she would respond with equal ferocity, freezing into fiery poses, leaning into the screaming guitars.
The dancer has said in an interview that she was fascinated by how ritualistic black metal music was. The voice of a priest chanting devi shlokas in a smooth monotone tone segues into a different kind of chant, only this is backed by much growling, deafening drums and the wails of electric guitars. For those going in with a completely open mind it could perhaps have proven an otherworldly experience;if not it could shock.
But, here's the best part - the hall was so jam-packed that you couldn't find sitting space on the aisles. And mostly with youngsters - who had clearly come to listen to the headbangers - and as for the dance, well they enthusiastically and graciously cheered that too. The energetic bouts on the stage were greeted with the rock concert mudra of approval - the devil's horn finger gesture in the air. And wild head shaking and roars of approval. As cultural incongruities go, this beats Kaif's mohiniyattam.
This is not to run down the dancer's talent, or equate it to Bollywood's often churlish inventiveness. She comes from the Darpana school and has a big body of work behind her, including experimental choreography. But the fact is that for the younger generation of dancers like her, the classical repertoire, seen as old-fashioned, is simply not enough to engage audiences. And certainly not if you wanted to get in the kind of crowd Chatterjee got that night: raring to soak in any new experience - an admirable feat really. And it doesn't matter what drew them in, the promise of wild music, the promise of bharatanatyam or the promise of what strange thing results when the two meet.
For two decades now classical dances have been seriously struggling to get the young and restless to watch their slow routines. With their elaborate shastric underpinnings, their ancient storylines and careful deliberations they clearly have none of Vreid's undeniable appeal. Several attempts have been made: modernising lyrics, thematising shows, radicalising the costumes, offering lecture demonstrations, jamming with foreign classical art forms - and now doing some 'xtreme natyam' alongside black metal musicians. Isn't the good old margam enough? How much should we change? How far can we go? Should you hold your own as you fuse forms? Or go the whole hog?
The debate is endless and probably does not have any answers. Those who love the classical dances for what they are probably came out disturbed from the darkened hall that day. If you are purist with a sense of humour you might have had a good laugh at the strange mishmash on stage, but would not stay beyond the first item. If you are 25, adore heavy metal music - and don't give two hoots for India's ancient classical traditions - this might be the only bharatanatyam you will ever watch. Or else, who knows, once you finish revelling in the extreme music, you might want to watch more of this dance. Better still, you might want to figure out what it was before it went universal.
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