Khajuraho, with its Hindu, Jain and Buddhist architectural and sculptural heritage and the celebration of contemporary dance forms, is a living negation of all things narrow, dogmatic and constrictive.
It was a strange yet pleasant coincidence. At a time when Right-wing Hindutva forces are hell bent upon browbeating publishers of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s various books, Madhya Pradesh’s BJP Government that shares their ideological persuasion organised the 40th edition of the seven-day Khajuraho Festival of Dances in the last week of February. While Doniger’s critics are attacking her in the name of an imagined singular, anaemic and linear Hindu tradition, there can be no better contestation of this claim than Khajuraho and its dance festival as they celebrate the plurality and the all-embracing nature of the Hindu tradition with great élan. Doniger’s Hindutva detractors have alleged that she has placed undue emphasis on sexuality and thus scandalised and defamed Hinduism. Perhaps they are innocent of any familiarity with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Tantric practices, Vatsyayan’s “Kamasutra” and Kalidas’s “Kumarasambhavam”, and the nectar-dripping erotic poetry of Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Braj bhasha poets like Bihari. Khajuraho, with its justly famous erotic sculpture, is also universally hailed as ‘poetry in stone’.
As the beautiful sculptures housed in the Archaeological Survey of India’s museum outside the Khajuraho temples show, the region was a big centre for the Jains and the Buddhists along with Shaiva, Vaishnava and other Hindu sects. The idols of male and female deities or Jain Tirthankaras are not clad, but there is not a trace of nudity or vulgarity as these are specimens of the highest level of artistic creation. And so are the so-called erotic sculptures on the outer walls of the Khajuraho temples. In fact, all the male and female figures depicted in various sexual postures wear an expression of divine ecstasy on their faces.
One cannot but commend the Madhya Pradesh Government and its Department of Culture for continuing with the Khajuraho Dance Festival and turning it into the most prestigious annual event for showcasing all the different styles of Indian classical as well as folk dances. In this sense, the festival itself symbolises the diversity and multiplicity of the Indian cultural tradition where no single view or single style of artistic activity takes precedence over others. Aspiring as well as established dancers from all corners of the country participate in the festival, thus presenting a panoramic view of the thriving dance culture. It is really appropriate that the dance festival takes place against the imposing backdrop of the Khajuraho temples, thus sending out a subtle message.
One is also struck by the realisation that the Delhi dance scene is somewhat restrictive. There are so many talents that seldom get a chance to come and perform in Delhi as a veritable star system has taken firm roots à la Bollywood in the world of music and dance. Therefore, one sees the organisers inviting the same artistes again and again, because of their marketability and crowd-pulling capacity. On the contrary, the Khajuraho Dance Festival offers a national platform to youngsters as well as veterans. This year, if it featured senior Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran, it also presented 17-year-old Mahati Kannan and the young Dakshina Vaidyanathan. Meghranjani Medhi, a popular Assamese actor and a Kathak exponent, was another young dancer given a chance to present, along with her mother Marami Medhi, a beautifully choreographed blend of Kathak and Sattriya dance forms. Shanta Rati, who presented Kuchipudi on the last day, stole the show with her exquisite performance. Similarly, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy soared in their presentation of an Odissi duet.
One hardly sees the likes of Mahati Kannan, Shanta Rati, Meghranjani Medhi, Surupa Sen or Bijayini Satpathy performing in Delhi. And, even if artistes like them do get a chance, it’s an exception rather than the rule. One strongly feels the need for widening the Delhi music and dance scene and opening its doors to deserving artistes from all corners of the country as culture is a great binding force. No single or dominant narrative of religion and culture can elbow out other alternative narratives as the plurality of vision forms the cornerstone of our national life. Khajuraho, with its Hindu, Jain and Buddhist architectural and sculptural heritage and the celebration of contemporary dance forms, is a living negation of all things narrow, dogmatic and constrictive.