Spectator art

Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India; Edited by Anita E. Cherian, Gati Dance Forum, New Delhi, Tulika Books, ₹1,950.  

Books on aesthetics these days seldom carry that word in their title. Not certainly because the aesthetic has slipped down from its place of prominence but probably because critical inquiry into the aesthetic space has largely evolved into more of an ontological and epistemological inquest seeking living connections with social and economic spheres of life and living.

This book is an endeavour to explore the area of contemporary dance in India. What is dance? What is its contemporary status in India? How or why do we distinguish the contemporary from its traditional form? How does dance define itself in space and time? What are its political and post-colonial implications? These are among the major queries that this unique book is concerned with.

Multiple critical and analytical perspectives on the nature and aesthetics of dance as performance, its innumerable performative aspects, drawing attention to dance as performance in process, liberally sprinkled with curated-photo-spreads make this book a collector’s item. The living connections with space and time which hold mutually generative biotic ties with the multicultural identities of the spectator as well as the spectatorial space in which these evolve are what its contributors seek as dance ecologies, underscoring the idea that this art form involving the body and its socio-political identity has definitive ties with the problematic of culture. At one point we read this neologism: spectholder, a combination of spectator and stakeholder.

There are nine essays and 12 choreographic portraits that explore the iconography and geometry of the performing body. In the opening essay, Anita E. Cherian, while writing on the rewiring of cultural policy in India, observes that “cultural policy is neither simplistically top-down or bottoms up; the sites from which it emanates are various and we participate in its production and its methods of subjectification.” Nationalised cultural institutions like the established Akademies are conditioning forces and avatars of bureaucracy operationalised as arts/cultural management.

Spectatorship is the key to understanding the politics and aesthetics of any theatrical artistic practice. In a provocative essay titled The Contingent of the Contemporary: The ‘Failure’ of Contemporary Dance to become ‘Political’, Brahma Prakash interrogates the spectator and contemporary art practices that engage with the body, identity and subjectivity, and concludes that contemporary dance is not suitably political in the sense that it is not perceived as a threat to neo-liberal politics.

The best perhaps what the theatre can do is to abandon the figure of the spectator and assimilate spectators into actors. Of course, it is not unusual that performers are called upon to embody and represent the selves and aesthetic tastes of the dominant spectators—actors as the Indian aesthetic term delineates them become ‘patra’ or vessel that need to be filled by the expectations of the spectator. Dance in India can be categorised as the classical, the contemporary, the everyday and the popular. Thus, to become political any idea of contemporary dance has to confront both the bourgeois liberal notion of autonomy and the valourised mode of everydayness.

Playing the entertainer

In the process of her explication of Bharatnatyam in her unique manner, Chandralekha blended research, insight and performance to highlight the grammar of classical dance as space, time and body lines. Padmini Chettur, one of her leading students from a very early stage, writes: “Throughout my engagement with Bharatnatyam for ten years, it was always the ‘narrative’ that I found difficult to connect with. It was not just the content, religiosity or innate patriarchy that was communicated clearly in the difficult relationship with the ‘master’. It was more the idea of playing the role of an entertainer on stage—the meaningless smiling, the ‘performativeness’ that had started to creep into the practice of the form itself. I could never become a Bharatnatyam diva, and so at 17, I chose academics over dance—for which I am eternally grateful.” Her own concern was to liberate the structured space and stillness in order to reconnect with the audience in a more liberated manner.

Alternating between narratives from within the spectrum of the performative space and theoretically-sophisticated and insightful critical dialogues from without, the book enquires what it means to witness contemporary dance in India. However, the title, Tilt, Pause and Shift, is perhaps a deliberate choice to disengage with the commonly held fluidity of the art of dancing. The words are mechanical, perfunctory—removed from rhythm, movement and the balancing of space that dance normally means. The genuine reader would perhaps come to recognise that the element of the aesthetic is deliberately extended into the sphere of technique.

In the final analysis, one is left wondering why contemporary dance critiques have resorted so less to easily accessible Indian critical concepts. However, this does not take anything away from the theoretical readings that delve into the politics and iconography of the shared body and space of Tilt, Pause, Shift.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 10:58:23 PM |

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