The writer attends a festival of Indian classical arts in New York and finds that the challenge before young artists is to reinvent their art as a legitimate form of American expression.
It rained earlier in the morning. For an hour or two, it seemed like it would never stop. By evening, however, the only memory of the downpour was the puddles by the street corners that reflected shiny skyscrapers. The natives look down and keep an eye out for the cesspools; the tourists stare upwards enamoured by this vertiginous city. There they must have seen a diaphanous cloud cover, like cellophane wrappers over confectionery, keep a watchful eye over New York City, particularly in the East Village. This is a section in the middle of Manhattan that revels in this post-watery grime. During the summers, it is the sweaty armpit of this great corpulent metropolis. And thus, part erotic and part enervating, this urban boil is filled with human desires, lanced every night, only to spill and reveal the panoply of human desires. Taxi cabs, like irrepressible children, scream past each other to pick up fares. Smoke from lamb-over-rice gyro stalls meet with subway exhaust — and together the fumes roll into a human narcotic. A walk through the East Village is littered with histories of this country’s staggering literary and poetic past. The Beat Poets and before them, through here strolled Kahlil Gibran, Walt Whitman and even before that Hermann Melville and other epochal minds. And witnessing humans since then are a legion of pigeons who, like everybody else in this city, give back as hard as they get. This cornucopia of lived experiences fills the East Village with possibilities, partial memories and alternate histories. Living here till his death, the great Allen Ginsberg wrote:
“Pigeons shake their wings on the copper church roof/
out my window across the street, a bird perched on the cross
surveys the city’s blue-grey clouds. Larry Rivers
‘ll come at 10 AM and take my picture. I’m taking
your picture, pigeons. I’m writing you down, Dawn.
I’m immortalizing your exhaust, Avenue A bus.
O Thought! Now you’ll have to think the same thing forever!”
Into this inferno of pigeon droppings, poets, gay sex clubs, artists, transvestites, cab drivers, bond traders and million dollar construction sites — arrived a week long festival of Indian dance and music called Drive East. There, above rumbling subway tracks and surrounded by late night party goers, in a cosy performance space came to life Madhuvanti and Reetigowlai, Vibhas and Jaunpuri, Charukesi and Mohanam. It was week of dance and song, nervousness and exultation.
This festival came about thanks to an incredible effort by two unlikely individuals: Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Sridhar Shanmugham. Together over the past three years, the two have cobbled together an impressive conservatory-style music and dance environment called, Anamika-Navatman, or Anamika, or Navatman, depending on whom you ask. They make an unlikely pair: separated by a generation and united in their near-evangelical zeal for Indian arts in New York City. In person, both could pass off — as many other Indians here — as investment banking associates or accountants. In person, Sahasra has expressive eyes and an anxious face and thus, perhaps with a certain self-awareness, smiles eagerly. Sridhar jokes and laughs easily, his humour is laced with self-deprecation — but that masks a seriousness of purpose. Together, they seem to have found a healthy working relationship that is hard to find in the arts. Since 2008, over various iterations, Navatman has emerged as a locus for Indian arts in Manhattan. At the Drive East festival, they put up 26 concerts — Hindustani and Carnatic music, dance (including Kathakali) — with nearly 60 performing artists — from Rama Vaidyanathan on the opening day to Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna on the closing night. Concurrently, they convinced The New York Times and other media outlets to cover these events, used social media to get the word out and ultimately, given the thousands of dollars laid out, even managed to financially break even. None of this is to scoff at. Even the rain Gods kept an overcast and watchful eye. As an organisational achievement, this is perhaps the biggest such coming together of Indian arts in North America. This is a long way from the days of Ruth St. Denis and her tautological nautch dance in the 1890s New Jersey.
For decades, Indian performing artists have visited, taught and performed in North America. More so, even Americans have taken to Indian music as scores of students of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan or the Wesleyan ethno-musicology programmes attests to. Deep inside the labyrinths of the American university system are mounds of Indian music- and dance-related material. At Harvard University’s James Rubin collection of Indian classical music is 32 years of recorded Carnatic music from 1957 to 1989 — from the deep classicism of M.D. Ramanathan’s RTP in Thodi to private recordings of S. Balachander playing flamenco on his veena! But, this level of interest has rarely percolated in the American mainstream. Even more so than music, for Indian dance, the experience has been less than stellar.
In an essay by Matthew Harp Allen, we learn about the life of Ruth St. Dennis. From all accounts, she was an inspired Indophile, who had her introduction to Indian “dance” at the Coney Island Expo in 1904, which was inspired by the Chicago World Fair in 1893 (and source material for Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against The Day) and the Paris Expo in 1889 (on the 100th eve of the French Revolution). In the aftermath of the high watermark of German fascination with Indian philosophy, representations of Indic life arrived in the form of tableaux and “Indian villages” at these American and European cultural fairs. It is in one such Indian “village” that Ruth St. Denis saw her first nautch. Soon followed her first production of Indian dance called Radha. Of this, she writes “My first Indian dance was a jumble of everything I was aware of in Indian art.” By 1930, she even performed with Rabindranath Tagore. Her admirers included Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sarojini Naidu, et al. For others, she was just “vaudevillian, inconsequential kitsch.” Since then, Indian dance, like mushrooms after rain, have sprouted here and there — but never to stay. Ted Shawn, Anna Pavlova, Uday Shankar, Ragini Devi, Ram Gopal, T. Balasaraswati, Indrani Rehman — the firmament of American dance have allowed passage to celestials with varying degrees of loyalties to Indian dance. Yet, nearly 100 years after the first nautch, Indian dance still struggles to register its presence.
Less prominent and even lesser celebrated, but more important in the spread of this dance culture, was another group of Indians. They arrived as wives of engineers or software programmers, as students in graduate programmes. Over time, usually in the interstitial phase between pregnancies or little children, they began their dance or music classes. A small room, a photo of Nataraja, quickly fading memories of their own dance education and nostalgia of an abandoned artistic career — was their originary infrastructure. A few among them, thanks to their chutzpah and talent, went on to produce shows, receive grants from American foundations and, in a piecemeal way, became minor impresarios in New York, Bay Area, Texas and Chicago. Other Indians, eager to instil a fading sense of home, began to send their own kids to learn dance and music from these dance-and-music teachers.
An economy of circulation, production and re-appropriation of Indian culture thus began. Something that Indians who emigrated in the 1920s or 1950s never really had. By the late 1990s, these NRI artists and their students began to perform in prestigious sabhas in Chennai and Mumbai. Aided by the all-powerful dollar, local American institutional support — they propped up their street credibility as authentic, as bona fide. This older generation of teachers, by now in their 50s, became the bastion of “tradition” in America.
Concurrently, another set of Indian dancers in America — following the footsteps of Mrinalini Sarabhai, Chandralekha and Shobana Jeyasingh — re-read the original context of the margam (traditional repertoire-based performance) and went about exploring ideas and subjects in contemporary dance and music. But, in this — unlike the traditionalists — the American modernists have had a richer field to mine from. They adapt from ballet, modern dance and Kalaripayattu just as easily from Bharatanatyam or Kathak to arrive at some thing visibly new. But, unlike the traditionalists, their works — often full of invention and sometimes marked by a transgressive spirit — rarely survives time. A production is put up to much fanfare, only to vanish once the press coverage has died out. There is neither a school of thought nor a pedagogical approach to teach contemporary Indian dance. In some sense, intellectually and aesthetically, each is on his own. Meanwhile, a humble Sankarabharanam jatiswaram or a Kharaharapriya varnam continues to stubbornly live from one generation to another. Yet, many ways, in an American context, both sets of dancers — the “traditionalists” and “modernists” — are translators of not just context and content, but also of the underlying ethos and intuition. But to play this role effectively, not only must they engage with self-awareness, they must develop the tools for this. Many however, and perhaps predictably, are defeated by the wide ranging cognitive dissonances between the dancer and the American audience and retreat into the secure environs of fellow Indians.
An oblique reason for this withdrawal is the lack of a cultural vocabulary that is comprehensible to the larger American society and its North Atlantic cultural temperament. The alienness of India, the easy short-term recourse to play up nostalgic themes and tropes from the old country to their fellow Indians who are themselves stuck in an in-between world is an artistic low-hanging fruit that many pluck with ease and confidence. These problems of translating worlds, however, literally and culturally, aren’t unique to India or even Indian music and dance. Translators across disciplines find themselves stuck and agonising about conflicting loyalties to original texts, the art of translating and the societies into which these new performances are born. The Hungarians say fordítás: ferdítés (translations are distortions); the Italians, with a certain Mediterranean melodramatic glee, summarise it even better: tradduttore, traditore. The translator is a traitor. The great Spanish-Portuguese translator — of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Clarice Lispector, et al — Gregory Rabassa, calls his autobiography, with a certain irony, If This Be Treason. Few Indian dance and art performers rarely think of themselves as translators in any meaningful sense. Instead, many are too assured about the sanctity and antiquity of the worlds they represent. Yet, at the heart of all translation lies elision, extrapolation and expedience. The tricks of the trade alternate between reductionism and exaggeration in search of that agreeable middling ground. Classical Indian arts in America are no different. Some play up the exotica to arrive at a perceived authentic Indianness, some others strip away the accoutrement to get to the metaphysical core of Indian art. In both cases, the art of dancing in America must share its space with the subtext of how this performance is viewed, understood and interpreted. So the more engaged with the larger American audience a dance performance is, the more we have texts, voice-overs, setting the stage, question-and-answer sessions.
But there is another world too. One that is content to explore dance for dancing’s sake, and avoid the borrowed narratives of inter-texuality and post-modern angst about the original and the replicas. None to surprisingly, even in India, this is a slowly vanishing world. This idea of dancing sees itself as an apolitical project. This is a view that is content to let society be: instead, they seek to explore the nuances and details of the margam. Like a person in love, they seek to spend time with the familiar beloved, only to discover yet another reason for having been enamoured. They seek to dance without excessive efforts to contextualise. This is, of course, a luxury to see the arts as something worth its own sake. The politically engaged call this view of dance and music, with a certain sanctimonious sneer, as an orthodox view of Indian dance. They insinuate that this perspective is stagnant and it merely regurgitates the past. But like most name-calling, this is a facile reading. On the contrary, what this is is a conservative view of the arts. It is humble about what it seeks to convey. It says there are worlds beyond the reach of dance and music. Socio-political concerns for whom dance and music may not be the apt mode of representation, far less as a solution. The question of being ‘contemporary’ doesn’t really arise. Only questions of reinterpreting, for our times, the familiar. It sees the dancer and musician as a safe-keeper of a tradition. This is quiet and unbroken lifeline from the past that seeks to help one to transcend the ravages of fashion and foolishness. It has little use for a singular figure who undoes what history has produced. This ‘conservative’ view continually experiments with the dance’s original modes and conceits, while still retaining its aesthetic form and sense of boundary. To partake of this worldview, the viewer must be an initiate, an acolyte, a wilful explorer. Most importantly the viewer, like the performer, must be humble.
Earlier this week, in midtown Manhattan, I watched a few students at a workshop. Amid a swirl of dance and breathlessness, stood the great Bharatanatyam dancer C.V. Chandrasekhar. His voice guided these young dancers who repeated the adavus. Hold your mudras, be still, turn slowly... his suggestions proliferate. In itself, like all discrete units — be it the sound of a word, the shape of an alphabet — there is something absurd, arbitrary and unnatural about an adavu. Impossible looking body postures and movements are a pain. Ask any young child who begins to learn. But from this repository of unnaturalness, emerges an efflorescence, a strangeness that reaches for the skies. If lucky that which manifests will be, what was once called, the Sublime. But, that is only on a rare day. For all else, like any craft and art, dance is just hard work, frustration and self-doubt. In that studio, there began to emerge the spectre of what would eventually become a thillana in the Ragam Shanmukhapriya. It is an alluring raga for a thillana. At the lower octaves, Shanmukhapriya, like a reluctant beloved, pauses, meanders, threatens to walk away, and then as the musician persists, on a whim the raga lets go of its melancholia and breaks free. Ecstatic bhakti in vivid plumage. But that world of religiosity and un-modern sentiments is unknown to most of the dancers in there.
At the end of his three-day workshop, a visibly pleased C.V.Chandrasekhar speaks to these students about the difficult art of dancing at the highest levels. Technique and grace, even if hard to achieve, he says, can be trained and mimicked. Harder however is to develop the intuition of one’s body. Its reach, its natural mood, its ability to withstand the ambitions of one’s mind. It is important for a dancer to cultivate this intuitive faculty, he suggests. But, he adds, this can only emerge from a mind that is self-aware. Surprisingly, he echoes the phenomenologists of the mid-20th century and insists that the ‘mind’ is not circumscribed within the material body. Before long, a young girl asks a question with a candour and self-assuredness that American kids have while talking to their elders: when did you begin dancing? He replies, since the age of 11. She breaks into a smile. The thought of this patrician figure as a pimply-faced young boy, now with his ancient gait and gravitas, perhaps, struck her as an impossibility. Another wanted to know if he gets tired while dancing? With a visible fondness on seeing a new generation take to an art that he has devoted his life to, he goes about answering. This wasn’t an indoctrination session about purported virtues of Indian art forms or even the heavy handed guru-knows-best responses. Instead, unlike most Indian artists who are all too self-assured about matters small and large, he adds explicit caveats — in my experience, the way I look at it — deferring to the possibility that others may have different ways of being, of experiencing their body. His is a democratic mind.
A string of Sanskrit words follow — java, sthiratvam, rekha, bhramari, dhristi, a’shrama, medha, shraddha, vacha, geetam. Qualities that he says a good dancer must work to develop. Some hurriedly begin to write it down, in the very American tradition that believes documentation is the first step to understanding. In many ways, it is a Borgesian list. Real enough to seem reasonable, but on closer inspection one recognises at the heart of it all is a mystery. How does one become all of those? How does be filled with shraddha or medha or geetam? The beast to slay is lack of self-awareness. To do so is a life time’s work. To develop an understanding of not just one’s body during dance, but also to weed out all that deforms the temperament of a dancer: excessive emotionalism, a wandering mind, splayed hand gestures, the ache in knees, the irregular breath that demands to be let out. No teacher can help you get there. But like a Zen master, he can point to the moon. Some students may see the teacher, others his filigreed skin, some the void between the finger and the skies and very few the shiny orb dangling in the dark. Hearing all this, this possibility of a life filled with dance fills up the room with joy. Smiles widen as he introduces and demonstrates new ideas. How about doing an alarippu with just your eyes? Amazed by his control over his unblinking and powerful gaze, they giggle and involuntarily break out into applause. Laughter, perhaps, is the body’s response to that which is unfamiliar but attractive. His talents and persuasive rhetoric are both. His enthusiasm for Bharatanatyam, after 68 years of dancing, seeps into these young minds, as Arundhati Roy writes elsewhere, like tea out of a teabag. All this is very encouraging, or so I conclude in a fit of enthusiasm. The future of Indian dance in North America is well.
Till I see a mother of a young student press forward. Her heels propel her upwards and their clip-clop sound punctuates the shuffle of barefoot dancers. She guides her daughter to the teacher. She orders this girl to bow down to him, to seek his blessings. This American child performs this ritual desultorily, unsure how low to bow down. The mother hectors her again: “Prahperly sevichhu him.” Her r’s roll with a practiced forethought. It is a familiar inflected accent that Indo-American parents use on their kids to impose authority, to influence actions, to buy legitimacy. All this has an element of artifice. But once one begins to see past the haughty demeanour of the mother, the confusion of the child, this fumbling effort to instil “culture” — there is something moving about all this. To instil rituals that purportedly signifies more than what meets the eye speaks to a certain longing for roots in a country which prides on reinvention and rootlessness. That this happens in a country where such rituals are foreign makes the precise meaning of these actions even more obscure and harder to locate. The difficulties of classical Indian dance in America are no different.
Like elsewhere, Indian dance and music too struggles with the obvious: studio space, financial resources, press coverage, petty rivalries, petulant critics and grandstanding older generation of artists and so on. But here in the U.S., classical Indian forms like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi or Kathak have an added burden (to say nothing of Kathakali, Manipuri or Koodiattam). They have to extract their art from a wilderness of meaninglessness. The U.S. instinctively reduces all to its functional essence. This talent is both the genius behind its material successes and precisely what makes this society banal. Dance, in this schema, is reduced to stream of attractive movements and nothing more. But Indian dance emerges out of a culture that suffuses these adavus, mudras and kritis with meaning and metaphysics. The Indic cultural infrastructure — temples, sabhas, festivals, mythologies, families — fuels that meaning with a meaningfulness. That infrastructure which creates meaning is alien to the cultural geography of America. So dancers here, on this stage at the Drive East festival, must struggle harder to endow, with similar, if not same, gravitas and meaning to a Navasandhi Kauvthuvam or a padam by a virahotkhandita nayika. This is not just, of course, an American problem. Even performances in Mylapore or Matunga run the risk of being nothing but powdered pantomime. This is a problem of what to think of artistic efforts when the world out of which these arts emerged no longer exist. The U.S., as usual, puts this slow creep towards the absurd on steroids.
Without the paraphernalia of Indic culture, Indian dance in the U.S. struggles harder to endow meaning. This not just the well intentioned and anodyne meaning of the sort that we grant to cultural curiosums like line-dancing or flamenco, or even contemporary dance, but a meaning that is grounded, beholden to the living practices of the culture from which these classical dances leap out. For in absence of a cultural context, a varnam becomes mere song and dance. So here at this Drive East festival, the Indian dancer and singer have an added burden. To not just fill up the performance with his presence and talent, but to repeatedly instruct the audience that these movements on this stage, that vibrates every time the No. 6 train streams past underneath, has an immediacy, mythical import and emotional resonance that is deeper than meets the eye.
But seeing the energy and hushed excitement as darkness precedes a performance, one is struck by more mundane matters. Saris and tank tops, flowing kurtas and infirm patrons who find the energy to come and watch young men and women perform. In all this, one can only feel a certain coming together of humanity. The Navatman and Drive East festival is propelled by a new generation of artists. Many of them are in their mid-20s to late-30s. They are children of those who came to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Their voice, as Don Delillo begins his opus Underworld, is American and “there’s shine” in their “eye that’s halfway hopeful.” What ‘American’ means is still subject to enquiry and reinvention. But that pregnant optimism in their individual artistic careers — be it Akshay Ananthapadmanabhan on the mridangam, Roopa Mahadevan on Carnatic vocals, Puneet Panda and Malini Srinivasan performing Bharatanatyam, Arun Ramamurthi on the violin — is there to see in all of them. To survive as artists, like everywhere else, all the performers who performed — they hustle, they seek out sponsors and venues, they market themselves in small and subtle ways that is admirable, they have a sense of confidence and more importantly seem to be having fun. But their struggle, unlike a previous generation of Indo-American artists, is not to register their artistic presence or land a spot at the prestigious venues, but for their artistic presence to mean something beyond the exotic. They may have all gotten off the Oriental Express, but reading reviews in prominent American news outlet reveals how strange these art forms are even to sensitive Americans. The goal of these young artists is to avoid being reduced to a token presence on the multicultural American scene. The challenge these young artists have is to reinvent their very Indian art as legitimate forms of American expression, in ways say, Jazz or Blues or even Yoga have become. It is a long way off and there are many ways to go about this. But all involve educating the average American music and dance audience that there is something here that may speak to their unique experiences. And that is what a festival like Drive East aimed to arrive at. It was a shot across the bow, and a splendid one at that.
What however, to this writer, is more interesting are the less obvious aspects. With Navatman is the emergence of a new kind of organisation for Indian arts — one that is equally adept, and learns with each passing day, on how to play the American culture game. But, more importantly, it has a different set of ideas for the mainstreaming of Indian dance and music. True to the spirit of the hyper-capitalist environs of Manhattan, Navatman has a corporate head that tries to guide and temper its artistic intentions. Its models itself after The Juilliard School, a prestigious private music conservatory, and less after the sprawling government-run Kalakshetra. As of now Navatman rents nearly 2000 square feet studio-performance space in Manhattan, one of the priciest real estate markets in the world. It has begun to look for a building of its own on the west side of Manhattan, keeping in mind access to trains and the large immigrant populations in nearby New Jersey and Queens. With an eye on the long run, and following a well-tread model by other Western dance companies, Navatman runs summer dance camps and offers fellowship programmes. It coordinates with other local artists who come to teach and bring along their cachet and reputation. From pre-kindergarten to senior students — as of now 150 — this is a multi-faceted approach to incubating an environment. To any outsider, it is clear much has been achieved, in a short while, in so far as the organisation is concerned. And this has come about through vision, shrewd planning, singular commitment, nail-biting execution and the passion to spread the message of dance and music. But, any organisation reflects the environs in which it emerges. Navatman is no different. It is born in a society where almost all aspects of material life are monetised. The emphasis in most organisations in New York, the bigger they become, is towards impersonal and commoditised transactions. The emperors of Yoga, who rule from one American coast to another, are perhaps the best example of that. Money can liberate, but almost always that liberation comes with a certain kind of deformation. In New York City, there are few pockets or communities that investigate their actions and growth with the kind of self-awareness that all true art forms need. Artistic organisations tend to be collaborative when young and eventually transmogrify into fiefdoms as they become complex, powerful and large. Whether Navatman can resist the inevitable is hard to say.
None of this — the organisation or this successful festival programme — indicates that the challenges of Indian dance and music in the U.S. are likely to be met. Part of this is because the arts emerge as responses to historic and social conditions. This second generation of Indo-Americans are happy to abandon the metaphysics and religiosity that informs much of Indian arts and adapt an agnostic, utilitarian view. They, like many in India, may notice little truth or emotional resonance with the actual content of their compositions. One may understand and sing paasa mochana, meena lochani..., but this knowledge is an anthropological one. The relationship of this younger generation with Indic arts is one that of an object-and-subject not an immersive and irreducible one. It is a relationship that sees the Indian artistic traditions as something that can be studied, prodded, copied and innovated upon. But not one that is essential to their own identity as human beings. One cannot expect a Madurai Somu or K.V. Narayanaswami to emerge out of the immigrant swamps of New Jersey or the dust hills of California. India is the subject of their gaze and inspiration. The consequence of this is a certain glib instrumentalism that marks all aspects of our post-Enlightenment Anglophiliac minds. But much of Indian arts have little to do with thought, ideas and institutions that emerged via Voltaire, Kant or Thomas Jefferson. Instead, much of classical Indic art is an effort to translate our mythological and deep intuitions of an ancient Self into comprehensible units. This poses unique challenges. For example, Theyyam, at its acme, is the revelation of our religious instincts that is beyond Reason. To reduce it to a 30-minute dance for the tourists as the Kerala government does or as a prop in a book launch as William Dalrymple does is to transform this great and complex tradition into something else: a witless participant in the global capitalist political economy. Or worse, a dumb prop in a narrative, no different than a chair, table or capital flows. The consequent meaning of this performance of Theyyam is hard to fathom. To borrow historical meaning of these great art forms onto these excerpted capsules smacks of cynicism and bad faith.
To be a work of art, writes the great Martin Heidegger, means to set up a world. To create a universe of grammar and relations that allow for Truth of experience to shine through as meaning. Truth, he writes, happens in van Gogh, not by the virtue of verisimilitude or record keeping. But by van Gogh creating a representation that opens up the world, to reveal a larger Truth. Art is this effort to arrive at the ‘unconcealedness’ of truth in the world it engages with. An instructive example of this idea is when T. Balasaraswathi writes that a Bharatanatyam margam performance is creation of a space that ends with sublimation. To her, the alarippu is the gopuram, the jatiswaram is the ardha mandapam, the shabdam is the mandapam, the varnam is the holy precincts inside the temple, the padam is the clay lamps shining in the garbha griha and the thillana is the final camphor burning itself away in the quest for the Lord.
When a woman who holds such belief performs ‘Krishna Nee Begane’, we witness a certain authentic interpretation of faith and its artistic handmaiden, dance. As a dancer, a translator, her actions have a fidelity that is hard to mimic. It speaks to us intuitively as adequately self-aware, self-contained and in good faith. For one who has no such faith, dance and music become human innovations in sound and movement, as opportunities to experience secular epiphanies about life. This is perfectly fine. But what we progressively see in Indian dance and music are performers who indulge in double talk. They have no use for metaphysics or religiosity, but are willing to hitch a ride on that train to grant their art work with historical potency and metaphysical profundity. In a way this is a case of having one’s cake and eating it too. One need not be religious to sing about Krishna or Rama, but then one ought to acknowledge that one’s art is just pleasant aural innovations and nothing more. While watching performances at the Drive East festival and the dancers who went about describing this God and that Goddess in the heart of East Village — where the entire culture and environs have little use for temple, religion, ontology or God — what exactly does this varnam or padam really mean? Is this all just make believe? Is this just movement and sound like in an opera — a secular psychodrama being enacted? Do the dancers and singers themselves believe in any of these words or is this just unthinking mime that scintillates the senses?
This is not an easy question; and I doubt there is a convincing answer. What is clear to me is the arrival on the scene of new organisations is by no means a guarantee of answers. Organisations, by construction, aren’t thinking beings. Navatman is no different. They merely provide circumstances and opportunities to investigate. And in this we must rejoice in Navatman’s presence and flourishing. But the thinking about Indian arts and its fast vanishing original contexts, particularly in the U.S., must be borne by individual musicians, dancers and administrators. By failing to uncover a new set of relationships of Indic arts with our modern, agnostic and secular world — what we are likely to see is a lot of sound and movement — but little light to highlight the meaning of these movements. Lacking a new pedagogy and curricula of how to think about dance that borrows from a pre-Enlightenment past and transplants it in our times, what we experience is a quiet and growing pointlessness. A despair that these arts fail to speak to us in ways and vocabulary that we comprehend. Barring for a temporary thrill that the performers feel and the audiences exult in, there is little else, little of the prowess to create new worlds that the arts purportedly possess.
The consequence of failing to do so, is that we must be content with a varnam or a padam being no different than a set of physical movements that circus artists and cheerleaders do. The challenges and choices for young dancers and musicians at Drive East and elsewhere is stark: between being an expedient performer of piecemeal, traditional and colourful units of dazzle and display or to try to break new ground, invent new and relevant worlds that aren’t just self-congratulatory pieces of ‘contemporary’ dance. But something more radical. To create an art form that while it imbibes rigour, fosters pedagogy and allows for the promise of rapture — it must also speak to our modern times. The last time such a renaissance happened was, nearly a century ago, in the 1920s with Rukmini Devi and her re-appropriation of the Dasi Attam or when Venkata Krishna Bhagavathar changed Kathakali music or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar introduced the present Carnatic concert structure. Like them, to give birth to something profoundly new and lasting — we need, as C.V. Chandrasekhar tells his students, a triad of qualities: medha, shraddha and geetam. Intelligence, Mindfulness and Music. And that remains the original puzzle. How will one find that? Perhaps a festival like Drive East is a step in that direction.