“When Parallels meet”, the theme for this year’s Natya Kala Conference by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, with dancer Priyadarshini Govind as Convenor, lost out on the interactive side by packing each morning with five sessions from 9.30 a.m. to near 2 p.m. The audience, with brain fag after the third session, dwindled considerably for the last two sessions.

“When fine artists dance to near-empty halls and mediocrity attracts large audiences, one has to reflect, “Where have we gone wrong?” was the crucial query posed in Dr. Sreedhar Pottarazu’s inaugural talk. Silver-tongued presentations of some chief guests notwithstanding, cutting out gush and over-statement for brief curtain-raising formalities should become the watch word for art events.

Suiting the theme was the opening performance featuring Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan and Leela Samson in a Kathakali/ Bharatanatyam blend, enacting a scene of Urvashi bidding farewell to Pururava on the eve of her re-entering her Heavenly abode. It was choreographed in the Kathakali idiom by Sadanam Balakrishnan’s Guru Kumaran Nair.

The two parallel forms were aesthetically and seamlessly interwoven – something late Rukmini Devi accomplished with such finesse and to such effect in her productions. The two characters revealed contrasting attitudes to the impending separation - evocatively expressed through abhinaya/nritta by both artists. An anguished Pururava, unable to accept separation, uses the argument of the child born of this union, while the calm Urvashi philosophises that joys and sorrows, meetings and partings are inevitable. Interspersed sequences of Vedic recitation by pundits, added another dimension - the passages incorporated for interpretation in the choreography, with the music in Khamas, Mukhari, Huseni, Dhanyasi and Amritavarshini sung by two sets of musicians for the two forms.

Recast, Bharatanatyam with the ever parallel music stream won people’s acceptance when “they saw the music and heard the dance” said Lakshmi Vishwanathan, demonstrating the musicality of abhinaya through excerpts from padams and javalis.

T.M. Krishna articulately spoke of both music and dance as artistic abstractions connected with the world of emotions and appealing to the senses. The physicality in Dance makes the abstraction more difficult, whereas in music, the voice alone is less intrusive to the senses. What dance visualises is not real life though it may be influenced by it – an “illusion and not delusion.” Questioning an abstraction about its relevance or irrelevance to a context is itself irrelevant. Cross-pollination of influences and overlap amongst parallel streams of creative groups cannot be ruled out, with nattuvanars, Devadasis, classical musicians such as Dikshitar existing side by side, each borrowing from and giving to other streams. While Dance and Music are separate disciplines, one should not be reduced to making the ‘artha’ in the music dictate the ‘bhava’ of the dance.

Briefly explaining the special characteristics of a pada varnam with a flow in rendition (certainly not composed for the concert musician in the first place), and tana varnam, which accentuates each point separately, Krishna succinctly brought out how padas, geetams and prabandhams (all composed for dance) influenced later creation of keertanams. It must have sounded like Manna from Heaven for dancers to hear from an established voice of Music that Dance has given to music rather than owing its repertoire and existence entirely to the music.

Parallel disciplines flowing in unison, have a shared aesthetic aim – though singing for dance, as pertinently stressed, is a separate discipline – unfortunately not adequately understood, with every classical singer considered suitable to sing for dance. So too the rhythmic aesthetics of dance is different, which the arithmetic and ‘kanakku’ of the percussionist who has turned the main composer of jatis for dancers, is not equipped to deal with.

In total opposition, next day senior journalist/cultural activist Sadanand Menon trashed Krishna’s painstaking argument as a ‘quibble’, maintaining that like the telescope vision manifesting in increasing colonisation, reconstructed classical Dance had “remained a still born project, locked in time and getting frozen,” the politics of the time turning the dancer into a cosmetic performance object, exercising no control over her own body, a carrier of conventions in a “flawed narrative” with mindless dancing, erecting “an artificial binary of tension between tradition and modernity.”

“Bharatanatyam is actually modern.” Amidst such violence when the body is under siege and brutalised, the idealised body of classical dance is meaningless. This politics of ‘illusion’ and making body invisible has to change to a hands-on engagement with the body – which Chandralekha did, “leapfrogging out of the classical ghetto.” Abstraction should not overtake figuration and we have to release ourselves from that cusp in the ‘vanishing point’ where dancers have been pushed, with audiences made into docile, acquiescent viewers. The body has to cope with reality.

For Elizabeth Petit, a French woman who was mesmeried by Bharatanatyam, modern/classical became unimportant, for everything lies in the interpreter’s ability to communicate. Cross-cultural parallels will be looked at in the next story.