Classical dancers with a penchant for experimentation are categorised as contemporary
Like oil on water/ Many things spread by their own inherent nature and constitution/Such as the award bestowed on an able person/ And knowledge imparted to the wise
I remember reading this in one of the “wisdom from ancient texts” books on my table. It sprang to mind because of the recent controversy surrounding the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award to Aditi Mangaldas, one of our most creative choreographers. Ordinarily, I would have smiled it away, as I have learnt to do in this big city of culture politics. Not this time, I decided. Why? Because Aditi Mangaldas objects to the category in which she has been awarded. Her contention is that the “Creative Choreography” category is not right for her, for she has always used the classical idiom of Kathak to create and expand her dance base. By saying so, Aditi corroborates what I have been saying for decades: That creative, experimental, contemporary dance in India is nascent, does not have a definite dance vocabulary of its own and is rooted in one or another classical dance idiom. Contemporary dance history in India perhaps begins with Oriental dances, a potpourri of forms that Uday Shankar performed in the ’30s/’40s. Loosely structured, these dances used vocabulary from many different classical idioms and projected a “feel” of the East.
When one begins to understand the identification of multiple dance vocabulary, relativism of knowledge or base and subjectivism of perception, then the debate on the contemporary dance movement in India can begin. What we term creative or contemporary is no invention of any new aesthetic that has a body of work that can be referred to, to engage in a critique; but simply a presentation that conjures up varied forms and styles, in a varied context with less flowery costume. In the context of changing socio-cultural patterns, trained classical dancers who display a penchant for experimentation, sometimes radicalism, in a continuing manner are categorised as contemporary dancers.
Democratisation and diversification of the arts, particularly dance, has resulted in an ambiguous understanding of where classical ends and contemporary begins. I refer to reality shows, Bollywood dances, school, college day annual shows, weddings, etc. It is, perhaps, in this backdrop that Aditi refuses to be categorised as a creative choreographer. For, why else would a dancer who has been nurturing creativity, freeing the mind from body language, been open to structures, and, despite revisiting the training in “a” classical form, succeeded in creating multiple avatars of the same discipline, deny the award in that category? Non-esoteric, uninhibited, creating hybrid movements, fusing, juxtaposing, re-arranging music, re-addressing issues, re-designing costumes, creating novel group patterns, use of props, creating special effects through lights, sound and other technology available: This is what we limited souls in India have learnt to call creative and contemporary.
A classical dancer is always on the edge of being termed non-creative. She has to ride the tiger; be perfectly classical in form but different in content. This difference at an individual dancer’s plane is creativity. Creativity is an ongoing process; maybe an idea or execution that is right for the artiste but has a larger truth about the society in it. Which bring us to my belief that all dance is creative; all dance is contemporary. Every legitimate dancer creates all the time, even if she is typecast a conventional, classical dancer.
Contemporary dance in India has survived as a genre, only because classical dancers did not object to the use of “creative and contemporary” as something different from what they practise. In the 1980s and ’90s, India liked to believe classical dancers lived in a time warp. Dance is supposed to be mindless, spontaneous, and meditative. “There are three states of mindlessness,” says Osho — falling below the mind (generally termed mad), falling above the mind (Sufism calls this mast — divine madness) and falling beyond the mind (a state of no mind that classical dance and music accomplish). While classical dancers were actually being complimented for achieving this state of mindlessness, they took it to be derogatory and indulged in furious re-coding and de-coding. Therefore, if creativity be unconventional wisdom in its purest form — it does not exist in Indian contemporary dance. Any debate on the classical versus the creative/ contemporary brings to surface the “multiple personality disorder” that we suffer from. If I were Aditi, I would say, “For 50-odd years, I’ve done what I love. I am happy to be handsomely rewarded in terms of influence, income and societal honours for my creative independence.” So, thank you God!
The writer is a noted Bharatanatyam exponent. firstname.lastname@example.org