Why a dance is worth a thousand words
One of the most stunning performance pieces that I saw this year was by actor Jyoti Dogra who used her India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grant to create a piece called Notes on Chai. The piece had no accompaniments, music or props. It was just one woman—Dogra—on stage in a black costume. She began by making these weird sounds and nasal noises and moving in a fluid non-rhythmic fashion. Not another pretentious performer attempting to be an Indian Martha Graham or Twyla Tharp, I thought. After a minute of moving through the stage, Dogra stopped, held a pose, and transformed into a small-town girl from, say Raichur, and spoke in a breathy little girl’s voice. “My father, you know, wanted me to get married, and I said, ki, Papa, not now….” These aren’t her actual dialogues but they fit. Throughout the nearly 2-hour performance, Dogra transformed herself into multiple characters, including an old man. It was a unique and uniquely Indian approach to theatre and it showed a speechless audience the power of a live performance.
For someone who makes a living through words, I am acutely aware of their limitations. Words—save poetry, perhaps—attempt to address the visceral, intellectual part of our brains. We clarify, analyse and explain using words. As a tool for communication, words are both ubiquitous and occasionally ineffectual.
Dance and music, on the other hand, touch the deepest parts of our selves; the parts that developed before humans invented words and had to rely on gesture and gaze to get their point across. The performing arts burrow deep into our souls towards those points—call them chakras or neurons—that are beyond analysis or articulation. They do the thing art does best: they change how you feel.
Occasionally, gifted dancers use both words and dance to explain ideas to laymen. Many months ago, I was a guest at a unique, inventive event called the Bee Festival at the Hyatt Regency in Chennai. The event, organized by cultural impresario Rajiv Sethi, brought together the country’s top artistes such as Bharatanatyam danseuse Malavika Sarukkai and Odissi dancers Rekha Tandon and Sonal Mansingh on one stage. A highlight was Mansingh’s virtuoso demonstration of the bee or bhramara, as it appeared in Indian poetry and mythology. Using a mix of words, gestures and evocative dance, she bought these humble insects to beautiful life, and taught a lay audience the idioms and gestures of classical dance.
My recent intersection with dance comes through my daughter who has learned it for many years. She began with Bharatanatyam and then switched to Kathak. Through her teachers and her peers, I have come in contact with this special ecosystem of teachers and dancers that is present in every Indian city and town. Delhi is home to Kathak greats like Aditi Mangaldas, who refused the Sangeet Natak Akademi award earlier this year because it was given to her for her work in creative and experimental dance rather than in Kathak. In a fascinating debate on the online forum of Narthaki.com, Mangaldas and gurus from the Kathak Kendra (a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi), in Delhi, went back and forth about Kathak’s relevance, context, costume and meaning.
Dancers have taken two paths to making their art relevant in today’s world. Some like Anita Ratnam have transformed and contemporized the dance forms that they were trained in (Bharatanatyam in Ratnam’s case). Others like Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind seek to stage events such as Govind’s recent collaboration with Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna as a way to draw in audiences. Best of all, in my view is to follow the path of Mangaldas and Mansingh, which has been to teach the idiom of dance to a lay audience without diluting it. As dancer Akram Khan said once, in order to transform tradition, you have to dig deep into it.
Documentaries help illustrate the thoughts and processes behind dance. A terrific blog in this area is Cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.in, which connects dance, cinema, and heritage. A more recent one is a documentary film by Pakistani journalist Sonya Fatah and her husband, film-maker-journalist Rajiv Rao. The documentary, I, Dance, portrays dance in Pakistan predominantly through the prism of Sheema Kermani, one of Pakistan’s few classical dancers. Created with a grant from the IFA, this documentary portrays the women dancers, “who dared to defy the social, political and legal code for the performing arts”. I heard about the documentary from economist Surendra L. Rao, and his wife Geetha Rao, a textile expert. Rajiv Rao is their son. I must add that even though I have mentioned the IFA twice in this piece, I have no connection to—and agenda for—this organization.
Dance, they say, comes naturally to children. It is what we do to express ourselves. Sometimes, when that expression gets suppressed you have to fight for it. As Kermani says in the documentary, “The biggest victims of the Islamization were women and the arts, especially dance.”
Those of us in India are lucky to be able to dance in public. We should try it sometime. Seeing dance from an audience perspective is one thing. Doing it is another pleasure entirely.
Shoba Narayan learned about the Ashta-Nayikas or eight heroines depicting eight moods from Sonal Mansingh in Chennai.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns