Lay audiences in Mumbai are opening up to the magic of classical dance.

A city with a century old tradition of listening to Hindustani classical music with music circles or mandalis in different neighbourhoods and an equally deep rooted passion for theatre, Mumbai is the unlikeliest of places for developing an audience for classical dance. And yet, in the last couple of years an eclectic audience, has begun to form. Flocking to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and its multiple venues in the heart of the corporate district of South Mumbai, this audience has taken to classical dance with an all embracing warmth.

The well attended five-day long Stark Raving Mad: Mudra Festival of Dance and Bhakti Poetry, sensitively curated by poet Arundhati Subramaniam, proved that an audience for classical dance is indeed growing. Imagined as a multidisciplinary arts festival, Mudra explored the Bhakti tradition with films, poetry readings and discussions through the day culminating in dance performances every evening followed by interactions with the performers.

Leading Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli dedicated an entire evening to an exploration in dance of the poetry of 15th century Vaishnav poet Annamacharya at Mudra. She has performed frequently at the NCPA and has noticed the growing responsiveness to dance over the last few years. Significantly, it is heterogeneity rather than the uniformity of traditional classical dance circles, that seems to be a part of the change. Many who make up this audience are new to dance and come to it from diverse cultural moorings, reflecting in a way, the hybrid composition of the city.

“Theoretical knowledge alone does not lead to an aesthetic sensitivity to dance. The NCPA audiences may not be able to spout jargon but their lay responses are wonderful. Their interest in dance has been nurtured in recent years. I love performing there,” says Valli, who has had several productions premier at the NCPA in recent years.

Prerana Shirmali, leading Kathak dancer from Delhi who performed in Mumbai after a long gap was also impressed by the way audiences sat through her unshowy and occasionally difficult production on Kabir which made a point of not catering to the need for visual excitement. “They stayed back for discussions and asked sensible questions”, she says sounding surprised but pleased.

In most classical dance circles, knowledge of the forms is considered a must, though this can sometimes inhibit a natural appreciation of dance and become more about taking pleasure in the arcane. The perfect technical knowledge of the form does confer feelings of precious superiority, specially today, when that knowledge is declining everywhere. But this self conscious exclusivity only strengthens the views of those at the other end of the spectrum who insist that classical dance is intimidating, and advocate the fusion approach to make it more intelligible for contemporary audiences.

But as the NCPA experience has shown, perhaps the opposite is true. Taking aesthetically inclined but general viewers deeper into the complexities of dance and opening up its creative processes may be a more effective way of building interest in classical dance. Approaching dance by appealing to the intellectual side of a modern audience rather than relying only on the ostentatious visuality of dance, has the advantage of bringing the ideas and powerful abstractions which give the classical forms their fundamental character, to the fore. For example, before Prerana Shrimali began her production on the three verses of Kabir she had selected, she presented a section with footwork and improvisation before switching to a few nritta or pure rhythm pieces like uthaan, paran and aamad, explaining that she was setting up the base for an exploration of Kabir’s austere philosophy through the distinctive language of Kathak. By the time she had moved to her main presentation, her audience had already been prepared and could construct their own meanings from the meeting of form, text and music as dance.

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The fact that this change has been achieved in a city whose dominant rasas are business and Bollywood is significant. It all began in 2010 when Kuchipudi dancer and head of NCPA’s newly formed dance department, Amrita Lahiri and her team began to organise a steady stream of performances and interactions. The number of performances went up from one or two each month to about 5 and even 7 some months over the next two years. The programming aimed for a mix of styles and levels with young as well as established dancers. There was a deliberate attempt to offer some programmes that would please a connoisseur and some that would specifically pull in new audiences. “The strategy was simple — present only the highest quality, and publicise it widely. The aim was simply to present high-quality art — regardless of classical, contemporary, Indian or international”, says Lahiri.

There were lecture demonstrations with gurus, dance residencies, master classes and even month long yoga and Kalaripayettu sessions. Lecture demonstrations for school children and the free monthly Umang series showing upcoming dancers from around the country were specially effective.

How did she know there was an audience out there? “I knew simply the power of the dance that we were presenting. I knew that Bombay has a taste for unusual and intelligent performances, and that any one who gives high-quality dance a chance, can't resist its appeal!”, says Lahiri who has since left the NCPA.

Over time, these activities were able to feed the minds of a general arts audience visiting the NCPA, converting them to the specific pleasures of classical dance. Remarkably, some of the new converts were western music enthusiasts whose tastes are catered to more aggressively and with more resources at the NCPA. The absence of a well entrenched clique of connoisseurs or traditions of viewing and the invariable politics around them in the city may actually have helped.

Sustained and intimate engagement with dance was a critical factor. Last year Lahiri had invited the Nrityagram troupe from Bangalore at the NCPA for an unusual nine day residency with two dance performances, workshops, master classes and panel discussions. The rigorous master classes in Odissi dance from Nrityagram were attended not just by Odissi dancers but by Kathak, contemporary and folk dancers as well. The group also introduced the Sri Lankan Kandyan dance form to Mumbai with a special workshop and a new collaborative performance between Odissi and Kandyan dancers called Samhara. Nrityagram’s artistic director and senior dancer Surupa Sen pointed out that residencies are the preferred programming template abroad and the group had presented their dance and its training philosophy in this format to serious minded audiences abroad on many occasions. “I think it brings a depth and a greater degree of understanding of the dance to both the participants and the artists,”says Sen.

Earlier, a lecture demonstration on Kathakali with gurus Sadanam Balakrishanan and Leela Samson patiently explaining the nuances of the form went house full on a Thursday afternoon. It was an experience that gave the audience a rare insider perspective. During a brief pause, Balakrishnan had leaned forward to point out that while on stage he never thought of the musicians as only accompanists. “The musicians are actually my co-actors”, he said, alerting the audience to look out for how intricately the different elements of dance theatre were bound together and how the form differed in subtle ways from a classical dance performance. But it was the large numbers — including many who were clearly first time viewers of Kathakali — who turned up for the full-length performance of Keechaka Vadham, the following day, filling three fourths of the 1000 seater Tata Theatre, which confirmed that the Mumbai rasika had indeed arrived. Figures reveal that from 2011 to 2012 there has been a 27 percent growth in the numbers of dance audiences at the NCPA.

At the Mudra festival too the range of the programming attracted a free wheeling audience of painters, students, poets, professors and members of literary associations. They listened to poet, painter and playwright Gieve Patel share his exquisite translations of 17th century Gujarati saint poet Akho, a project he has been involved in on and off since the 1960s. That conversation, with curator Subramaniam subtly foreshadowed the finesse of the evening performance a few hours later. Many from this audience stayed on for the dance performances in the evening proving once again that an intelligent and art loving public responds to the specific artistry of classical dance.

Similarly, a Bhakti poetry medley with city poets Jerry Pinto, Mustansir Dalvi, Anand Thakore, Sampurna Chatterjee and Subramaniam reading Jayadeva, Meera, Lal Ded, Kabir, Rahim, Basavanna, Akkamahadevi, Janabai was followed ,after a short break, by dance performances. The ways in which dancers transformed written texts and made them their own were immediately appreciated by the audience.

Bishar Blues, a film on Baul music by Amitabh Chakraborty and Sabad Nirantar, a film on Kabir by Rajula Shah looked at how the poetry of India’s best-known Bhakti poet, is reflected in the lives of ordinary people. By the end, the multi-disciplinary festival had helped dispel the notion that dance was only that which was presented on a glittering stage. The audience had been reminded that poetry, theatre, music and a keen sense of the visual were implicit in dance. It also showed that classical dance was not as remote as it sometimes seems from the rhythms and business of contemporary life.

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Critics of classical dance often complain of the absence of dancers with thinking minds and accuse them of performing an art form that is laden with obsolescence. But at Mudra, the best performances and the ones audiences visibly responded to, came from those dancers who went deep into the Bhakti texts they were exploring while remaining in dialogue with their forms. They were the dancers who created sophisticated and individually inflected pieces. For instance, kudiyattam dancer Kapila Nangiar presented a brilliantly concentrated performance of a piece whose text combined the philosophy of Adi Sankaracharya’s Soundarya Lahari, an ode to the feminine divine, and the poetry of Kalidasas’s Kumara Sambhavam. Although kudiyattam traditionally has dramatic action oriented texts this new piece had long tracts of the abstract or passages where emotion and its shifting textures dominated. G. Venu who adapted and developed the performance script says it took a year of consultations with scholars and dedicated rehearsals before the piece was ready. “In the end it just came together as easy as meditation”, he says, referring probably to the paradoxically volatile stillness with which it was performed by Kapila. The post performance discussion of this most complex and ancient dance theatre form, expertly moderated by Arundhati Subramaniam, was one of the lengthiest and liveliest sessions with many questions from the audience eager for more details of the form and its training.

Assured of an interested audience, dancers made it a point to share aspects of their own choreographic process even as they were presenting their pieces. Leading Kathak dancer Prerana Shrimali explained that her decision to explore Kabir was partly driven by Pt. Kumar Gandharva’s famous comment ‘Kabir Ko Ghungroo Nahin’, which implied that Kabir’s leap towards formlessness was so perfect that it could never be enacted in a form like dance that must use the concrete body. But as the audience was to realize, the attempt to resolve that paradox by Shrimali was a brave and finally rewarding one. It required the dancer to draw on her experience and inner judgment while inhabiting the undefined spaces between the concrete and the abstract. In doing so the performer and her audience came closer with fleeting insights into the very experience of dance.

Shrimali began her performance with footwork, where the lights focused on her feet and the music was just a couplet from Kabir’s poetry, sung like an ‘aalaap’ with a constant beat. “I wanted to create a strong surface for ‘amurt’ or abstraction. I wanted to condition the stage as well as the audience to watch Kabir’s philosophy. The point was to create the formless through form”, she adds.

Approaching Kabir, and the idea of the austere absence was difficult. So, taking a cue from the significance of the Name and its utterance in Bhakti expression, Shrimali turned to his name for inspiration. The three syllables were split up and each was explored for its meaning in keeping with the concept of the parts merging to become the whole.

In the dancer’s choreographic structure, the first syllable ‘Ka’ denoted kaya, the body or the material world, which needs to be acknowledged and experienced before it can be transcended. Interestingly, the dancer has inhabited the language of Kathak so consummately that she is able to mould it to her creative and compositional needs. For instance, she briefly adapted a minimalist gesture of pulling a loom, a reference to Kabir’s life as a weaver, adding another layer of implied meaning for the audience. “This is not strictly speaking a part of Kathak but I have made it mine. Whatever I do in the course of a choreographic exploration looks like Kathak”, she asserted.

Next came rang from the third syllable ‘Ra’. This was an inversion she chose because she wanted to end with ‘Bi’ for biraha, or the endless yearning which is the final residue in the Bhakti experience. Rang referred to the dissolution of the self and the fact of being dyed in the colours of the One. Rare poems from Kabir’s oeuvre were selected to go with each syllable to deepen an exploration of these meanings through restrained abhinaya and improvisation.

To some, gestures such as the one enacting Kabir on the loom might look like a mimetic and literal device reminiscent of straightforward Shabdaarh abhinaya (acting out the text). Shrimali pointed out that she herself was not in favour of its overuse as a principle, but dancers sometimes need to use it very sparingly to set up the basic elements of a particular ‘saahitya’ (text). “After that one has to transport the whole expression to another level, and in our classical tradition ‘sanchaari bhaav’ is there to establish this characteristic of dance”, she added. This was a rare occasion where the audience felt it was taken into confidence by the dancer who at different times in the evening was both interlocutor and performer setting up an untypical and open dialogue. By the end of the evening, Kabir’s philosophy had trickled into the audience’s minds in unusual ways through the distinctive language of kathak.

Mumbai based dancer Sanjukta Wagh presented a piece of ongoing choreography based on Kabir called Bheetar Baahar (Within Without) with Makarand Deshpande a Kirana gharana trained classical musician who improvised in khayal gayaki alongside her exploration. Wagh has used her Kathak training as well as her engagement with theatre, texts and the resources of contemporary dance to create distinctive pieces that cannot always be neatly defined, an ambiguity which adds to the pleasure an audience can take in her dance.

Wagh also presented a new production, Ubha Vitevari (Standing on a Brick) created specially for the Mudra festival. In keeping with the Bhakti theme, Wagh used her intimate knowledge of the Varkari poets of Maharashtra to explore the legend of Vithal. His iconic pose as he stands outside the temple on a brick with his arms folded at the waist-- a stance that belongs to the Kathak idiom too--was her starting point. To the viewers at the NCPA, this familiar image and the possibility of opening up its layers of meanings, made for an immediate emotional and intellectual investment in Wagh’s creative design with the piece.

Using the varying textures of poetry from Tukaram, Namdeo, Janabai, Chokhamela, Soyrabai and Dnyneshwar, Wagh explored the central opacity of Vithal. This she did by approaching him through the relationships his devotees fashion with him seeing him as lover, mother, child, friend, master or a mahaar (dalit). Through all this Vithal remains something of an enigma, a figure who is also a blank which ties in with the larger more abstract theme of the tension between form and the formless. “Vithal does not have a story of his own. He is defined according to the imagination of the varkaris (pilgrims or devotees of Vithal). I wanted to explore how these transitions take place in my own body,” says Wagh.

Using restriction as a device, Wagh danced in a one square foot stage space. Her allegiance to Kathak was clear in the external contours of her performance. But Wagh made a personal statement by choosing a very toned down black outfit with a sash reminiscent of the Varkaris. Elemental positions of Kathak were performed with very quiet movements. At one point the Kathak tatkar was used as abhinaya in conjuction with Satish Krishnamoorthy’s improvised percussion, each change responding to Vithal in his various roles. In this way the rhythm became another layer of meaning along with the recited poems, minimalist gesture and delicately controlled facial expressions.

The grand finale was presented by leading Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli whose performance was driven by a close reading and response to the philosophical and love poems of 15th century Vaishnav poet Annamacharya. “He was the first to write songs in Telugu. In simplicity, in profundity, in delicacy, in explicitness he is unmatched in any genre of literature”, says VAK Rangarao who has studied the poet closely and helped with the interpretations of the Telugu texts for this production.

Sreeman Narayana, an invocatory song popularised by MS Subbalakhsmi was consciously chosen by the dancer as a way of welcoming the audience into the production. A series of five poems of many shades and textures were linked together in a format that loosely resembled the margam approach, drawing on the notion of progression. Each piece was a counter or foil to the other. Never having performed this piece before, Valli was keen to bring an individual dimension to the traditional piece. “When I started thinking of it as a dance composition it sounded new to my mind’s eye”, says the dancer of the popular song in raag Bouli. Thus the notion of the pada yatra (pilgrimage) is woven into the sancharis (elaborations) of the piece. The overt aspects of depicting the dashavatar in its opening section give way to the more philosophical invocation of Vishnu as Paraatpara—the all pervading divine, taken from a Tamil Bhakti Sangam poem from the Paripadal.

Later, the existential theme in the poem titled, Edupayamu Ninnu Cherutaku (“Is there some way I can reach you”), is heightened and the poet’s tone is despairing. He makes a bewildered attempt to reconcile his need as a devotee to touch, feel, worship in a tangible way even as he simultaneously and unsentimentally realises that the One has no attributes.

There is a constant shift from the profoundly philosophical to the despairing intimate voice of the devotee. Such abstract texts are a test of any dancer’s finer judgment and aesthetic sense. “The temptation to over emote or indulge in action based abhinaya could make the whole very mundane,” says the dancer. Misjudging the use of lokadharmi (naturalistic as opposed to stylised gestures) can also render a piece prosaic and a dancer must find the right balance between these devices. “I approach abstraction through music. Responding to the music as a dancer and letting the ideas flow is important”, says Valli.

In this pared down piece Valli simply used her eyes, the body language of despair and surrender as well as a few sparingly chosen moments where she seemed to be indicating space; the space that a dancer exists in simultaneously in the physical and conceptual planes and also the idea of space as infinity which despite a devotee’s best efforts cannot bring him the intimacy he so craves.

She began this text with a shastang namaskar and then moved on to invoke the nature of infinity by using the metaphor of the Vishwaroopam (The Cosmic Form of the Lord) This she did by simply depicting the devotee sinking to his knees and looking up with wonder tinged with bafflement. The minimalism of gesture was deliberate and showed that dancers also sometimes borrow from the devices of theatre where a controlled gesture on stage can suggest a great deal.

To those who complain that the relationship between Bhakti and our classical dances has become trite, Mudra proved that this need not be so. Dancers who created their pieces by responding to the Bhakti texts as readers themselves, adding layers and textures with the music to enable their audience to receive new meanings, were deeply appreciated. The decision to present their forms and aesthetic strategies as dancers without any dilution and trusting that their audience was with them, was a wise one. For the growing numbers who turned up for all five days at the NCPA, the experience of encountering literature, music, film and theatre through classical dance will only strengthen their new found affinity for the form in a city where it seems to have found a new home.

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