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Conference achieves its purpose

Veenapani Chawla... quiet and productive.

THE CONSENSUS about this year's Natyakala Conference on dance choroegraphy at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, was that despite some unevenness, the presentations were generally better focussed than they had been in the recent past. Some did turn into shows rather than demonstrations, or mere expositions without thought for reflection. A few were confused and disjointed. The video-audio projections were mostly shoddy. And yet, the forum offered scope for exchanges and debates, welcoming inputs from the often silent youth segment. There were few dance students though, and fewer dance gurus/dancers of the city, with notable exceptions like Kalanidhi Narayanan, the Dhananjayans and the Chandrasekhars. The choice of speakers was not wide ranging, but there was some variety in disciplines and genres. Contemporary theatre found a voice in Veenapani Chawla, whose quiet work down in Pondicherry has yielded significant results. With lucid assurance as always, she talked of her Adishakti company's attempts to integrate the ancient five-headed drum from Tiruvarur into contemporary creations, as also for traditional Kutiyattam and Nangiar Koothu. The aim was to recover through the new prototype, the three kinds of spaces energised in the temple by the rhythms of the Panchamukha vadyam in ritual practice. Such rhythms related the interior landscape of the performer with the exterior. She drew attention to the parallel technique in Kutiyattam of relating the interior landscape of the performer with the exterior. Here the use of the breath tapped the inner spaces for enhanced communication with the rasika.

In the demonstrations, the instrumental ensemble of panchamukha vadyam and mizhavu were an audio-visual treat, as hands danced over the drums in synchronised lyricism. But the Nangiar koothu seemed tame in parts, the replication of the visual movements of the dancer by the drum is too well known for impact, and no other dimension emerged clearly to make it a different experience for the viewer. But this is work in progress, and we must wait to see how Chawla develops ``rhythm as sound and silence'' to lead us to the ``invisible underlying the visible."

We know that the ancient scholar Abhinavagupta considered the intrusion of the personal into the art experience a major flaw in rasa realisation. The West too frowns on ``victim art", when the target of some misfortune or tragedy makes art a vehicle for personal outpourings. In this context Canada-based Lata Pada's presentation gave rise to some debate. Excerpts from her multi media presentation ``Revealed by Fire'' encapsulated her own tragedy of losing her husband and two daughters in the Kanishka aircrash of 1985.

``It was only 16 years after the event that I found the courage to deal with loss in my work,'' Pada said. Not as a personal catharsis, but as a means of recovering personal identity and achieving personal transformation. By what other means could she have done this except through the dance, a lifetime pursuit both in India where she had trained, and in Canada where she had worked for 35 years and set up her Sampradaya Dance Academy? The video clip had excellent photography. The moving images as a backdrop for dance movements, and the mimed recreation of personal memory - especially the sequences of girlhood - were powerful, dramatic, and poignant. Interestingly, in the discussions following the lecture-demonstration, viewers said that the use of the Sita myth and her ordeal by fire (to authenticate the experience in artistic terms) was redundant. The work had its own strength as an experience of contemporary times. Pada then informed us that after September 11, this work had acquired newer and wider significance for varied audiences. She also scored in not harping on herself, as she highlighted the work of her peers to give a composite picture of South Asian dance in Canada. Other inputs included dance historian Ashish Khokar's fast forwarded version of the history of choreography in Indian dance. Contemporary dance artiste Astad Deboo talked about his work with hearing impaired children. Dance guru K. J. Sarasa's students demonstrated adavu patterns in the Vazhuvoor bani.

Day One had started with Shanta Dhananjayan's query: could the word choreography be relevant for solo dance, especially as the past had used terms which correspond more to ``composition"? The last day had more visuals to underline the changing concept of solo and group choreography in Bharatanatyam.``Dance is visual language and it must speak.'' Too much conceptualisation prevented the dancer from communicating her own intense feelings, said Malavika Sarukkai. She also discussed her need to make the content more relevant to her own times, but without the literal equations too often drawn in current practice. To do this she sought themes like the story of the childless Thimmakka, a real life village woman of Karnataka who had planted whole avenues of banyan saplings and found satisfaction in nourishing them with motherly care. Or incidents on the ghats of Kasi where twilight increased passion in the lovers, grief in the mother of a dead son, and devotion in the ascetic, to symbolise the riverine flow of time cycles. The nritta was integrated with the content, to balance that objective distance and subjective closeness, held to be the ideal of sadharanikarana.

Two tillanas with a difference followed, one which set Mohanam to western orchestration, choreographed by dance guru Adyar K. Lakshman; and another by Oothukadu Venkata Subbier, a recitation of sollukattu and verses, choreographed by young Narendra Kumar, performed and received with riotous high spirits. It had a sense of timing, of drama, and a clear notion of the spatial sequencing of both movement and imagery for maximal impact. The conference ended with an open discussion of what "contemporary'' and ``choreography'' signified to participants and audiences, after the weeklong expositions on the subject. No resolutions here. But the babble of questions and comments demonstrated that the conference had achieved its purpose. It had raised enough issues for more confusions and perplexities, further doubts and speculations -- to be tackled by other seminars on the same subject. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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