The artiste and the intellectual, are they best as two separate compartments? Why do we fear when they co-exist? 

I have often heard the argument that classical dance need not be “intellectualized”. In other words, dance and intellectual reflection needn’t be mixed. The belief is that dance should remain in the realm of performing arts and should concern itself with aesthetics, practice and performance but should steer clear of intellectual engagement. To put it very crudely and simplistically, intellectuals are supposed to write books whereas dancers are meant to dance.

While it is largely true that intellectuals think and write books, and dancers dance, the idea that a dancer cannot or should not be an intellectual is somewhat baffling to me. Of course, disengaged reflection interrupts artistic flow and diminishes art. But reflective and introspective intellectual engagement with art does not. So why are the practice and performance of dance, and intellectual enquiry considered mutually exclusive?

For one, I know at least a handful of dancers who find great solace in the intellectuality of dance – the narratives are often layered with socio-political issues that appeal to an intellectual mind, aesthetics itself is deeply philosophical, the raga and tala systems that are used in classical dance are highly complex and arguably intellectual. The mathematical calculations required when choreographing a jati or korve is also an intellectual exercise. Even trying to understand the rasa theory requires quite a bit of intellect! And finally, the tremendous cultural depth that we have inherited as classical dancers is so extensive that it often forces intellectual curiosity about it. I argue that for the above reasoning itself, dance is an intellectual practice, whether we like it or not. 

Coming to a more obvious and direct intellectual exercise, let us examine the writing on dance. Many who have written books on dance are not professional dancers, but well-respected scholars in India.  Equally, many practicing dancers have written books on dance. If dancer and intellectual cannot reside in the same body, then who are these bodies that dance and write? Do they stop belonging to the dancing world when they enter the world of intellect? They do not. They belong to and benefit from both worlds. An artist does not cease to be an artist if he or she intellectually engages with his or her art. 

I believe this conflict of identity between artist and intellectual is largely fictitious. But it is, by some, imagined to be very real. Now, the question is – why? Why does this conflict – real, imagined or invented – exist? Perhaps it arises from the fear of questioning. I had said earlier that the cultural depth of our art forms begs intellectual curiosity. But our cultural heritage also handed us the gurukul system, where questioning was extremely rare. The gurukul system, in a strange, fragmented sort of way, still persists in many of the classical arts. And even if it does not, that sensibility is certainly prevalent in the teaching, learning, practice and performance of classical arts. So could it be that “intellectualizing” dance is leading to questioning – something that the gurukul sensibility does not permit or encourage?

There is a definite association between intellectualizing and questioning. And there is also a clear indication that questioning was not encouraged by the traditional gurukul sensibility that pervades the classical arts and indeed, classical dance. Then, might it be safe to conclude that the conflict of identity between the intellectual and the artist arises from a fear of questioning too much?