Ashish Khokar and S.D. Desai on “Classical Dance in Modern Times”

The 15th anniversary of Ashish Khokar’s “Attendance: The Dance Annual of India” is being celebrated in cities across the country including New Delhi. This year’s topic is “Classical Dance in Modern Times”, since, feels Khokar, stocktaking is due of the classical dance scenario. Indeed, with India changing precipitously over the decades, its classical dances and dancers have kept pace with remarkable elasticity. Veteran critic and writer Dr. S.D. Desai, who prefers to be described as a rasika and has been a close observer of the arts for over half a century, is guest editor for “Attendance 2012-13”. In this interview, Khokar and Desai share their opinion on a range of dance-related issues. Edited excerpts:

Looking back, we see that in the decades after Independence, there was a pioneering zeal to bring the dance forms into the limelight and adapt them to proscenium presentation. Today, the classical arts are a commonplace hobby. Among audiences there is a noticeable ennui, and it is hard for young dancers to draw audiences….

Desai: A revival of our interest in classical dance forms, as indeed in our rich heritage in other arts, reflects what the ambience of freedom can produce. With knowledge, vision and diligence the classical dance forms, sans all traces of crudity, were restored to their pristine condition following Independence. Many of their early practitioners are considered near legends today.

For a large number of young learners of classical dance today, it is a part-time activity. Only a few continue to dance, paradoxically, after their arangetram. The bare ‘classroom’ environment hardly establishes a particular dance as a living tradition and the need for a lifelong sadhana to get to the heart of it.

There, of course, are inspiring dance centres in the country and quite a few young dance pursuers reassuringly belong to them and gradually flower. With continuing exposure, they develop interest in allied disciplines, particularly music and text, and overall taste.

Compared to the earlier times, fewer in the audience today — there are honourable exceptions — would qualify as rasikas. Classical dances, without compromising their standard, are for a class, and that class, in the days defining entertainment differently, is getting thinner.

Khokar: Classical dancers today face challenges from sponsors who want something novel, from audiences who can’t understand its sangeetam or sahitya (music or muse/literature) and government bodies which are under pressure to survive and deliver. Post-Independence India needed to revive its submerged dance forms, suppressed due to long alien rule. We salute the pioneers who left their villages and came to cities like Madras and Delhi and Bombay to propagate art and young dancers who left their families and all to learn an art form. Today, there are just too many dancers who think they are great artistes! They have barely learnt for few years and, helped by PR type critics and reviews, aided now by FB and Twitter outreach, blogs and self-promotional tools, they arrive centre-stage and after few years of success, fade out. In each generation only two or three names in each form have always ruled the roost. True art stays forever.

What were the major issues you took into account in this issue?

Desai: This fascinating coexistence of the two, classical dance and modern times, has been the focal point of exploration. A classical dance performance at times creates an experience akin to one the highest kind of poetry does. I desired to get those who followed the tradition of classical dance to say how they reached out to the questioning modern audience. Did they have a questioning attitude themselves? How did they evolve? Do classical dancers turn modern to be appreciated? Is there a calling from within to respond to the contemporary sensibility? Is there a source philosophy that anchors their creative exploration? How do they manage the tightrope walk? … Does the popular medium like cinema help take the classical dance to the masses?

Dancers, most of them celebrated, a few growing up, were approached. A keen articulation of their approach was a total surprise. It seemed as though they had been waiting for an opportunity!

Khokar: Fifteen years is time for stocktaking of where our classical forms stand today, hence even the title “Classical Dance and Modern Times”. I don’t know if we are indeed living in “modern times” but the times are changing! Audiences are dwindling and in each city it’s the same maximum of 500 people only who are drawn to Indian classical dances, on a good day! The biggest change is: the classical form is no more the art of the soloist but a group art. To cover big spaces, groups are the answer and also many classical dancers, save a few stars, don’t have the magnetism to draw audiences or interest. Fifteen years also have been a cut-off point for competition from other art forms, especially TV channels. All in all, we asked and invited three generations of dancers and gurus to share their concerns. From 90-plus Mrinalini (Sarabhai) Amma to 20-plus Arushi (Mudgal). Dr. Desai also widened the scope by including films and youngsters — not known names nationally. We also always try and find new writers and create space for dancers with marginalised voices. Attendance is for everyone and very inclusive. We celebrate the art of dance. Its history and heritage, tradition and trends.

The more mature an artiste gets, the more the classical arts have to offer, in terms of spiritual and mental growth, understanding and imagination. However, to the modern world, dance is also a physical art. And physical prowess does not follow the upward path of mental and spiritual progress. What yardstick should apply in appraising the performance of a classical dancer at various ages and stages of his/her career?

Desai: Shariram khalu dharmasaadhanam. The body is the instrument. Visible grace, only when it expresses the invisible processes within the body — of imagination, the spirit, mind and heart — turns beautiful. Inner revelation and realisation grow with maturity. So does a nuanced expression through the idiom of their dance form.

The exceptional potential of a young practitioner, however, does not go unnoticed. A 19-year-old girl at a recent national festival of young dancers achieved such complete identification of the vatsalya bhava of mother Kausalya that, with the right body language, she had tears (of joy) in her eyes.

A veteran dance guru once whispered to me, “Artists are ageless.” How true! Dance lovers marvel how beautifully very senior dancers sometimes portray a mugdha nayika, abhisarika, a virahotkanthita or a dheerodatta nayaka …Call to mind the octogenarian Kalanidhi Narayanan’s exquisite abhinaya, and you would realise how the age melts with exquisite facial expression.

Khokar: My approach is: be supportive of youngsters, as they need maximum encouragement when stepping in on professional stage; don’t take lightly the established ones because they are the custodians and role models, and be kind to veterans as they are our repository. Of course, one can’t be predisposed or judgemental. There is no set formula. Each performance is a standalone piece. On the whole a critic has to have integrity, distance from subject, be involved with the art but remain neutral and not be in-the-face. Living in the South, I learnt humility. Reputation takes years to build, on a national basis. Dancers ideally desire not only captive audiences but also captive critics!