Is the solo form dying? Do classical dancers have to be ‘socially relevant’?
These were just some of the questions that spurred the conversation – in dance, of dance, within dance, between dancers — last Wednesday that saw the launch of Antarangam, an initiative of Our Sacred Space, Secunderabad, that seeks to host such introspective conversations with artistes and other eminent persons from varying fields. Vidya Subramaniam, a senior practitioner of Bharatanatyam, based out of Bay Area in the US was the first artiste to be invited. She was joined by city-based Anupama Kylash, who engaged the artiste in a structured conversation. Being a choreographer, a performer, teacher and an academic, Anupama picked pertinent questions to ask of Vidya who is not only a classical soloist but has also choreographed a number of original works tending towards what might be called contemporaneous within the scope and form of Bharatanatyam.
Having been trained in the traditional methods of teaching under greats like Rajaratnam Pillai and guru Kalanidhi Narayanan, Vidya Subramaniam occupies a small but privileged space in the dance world that has seen the old guard giving way to the new. For instance, she spoke of how the very idea of ‘respect’ has changed overtime. Back in the day, respect meant not sitting on even the same level as one’s gurus but that’s no longer true, especially for those who live and practise their art in Western milieus. “Respect is shown in different ways,” she said, “students have a more questioning bent of mind.”
On the more controversial subject of the vanishing breed of soloists, she was cautious in her comment, saying that while she doesn’t necessarily believe that the solo form is dying, she does feel that there are fewer dancers who are working ‘from within’. She further added that when the dance is dictated by audience’s tastes, the product lacks conviction. Before concluding the one-on-one, Anupama brought up the subject of how Indian classical dancers are made to question the ‘relevance’ of the material presented by them or even the pressure of bringing up socially relevant causes in their performances. Vidya responded unequivocally that as long as humanity exists, ‘our art’ will continue to be relevant, no matter what the history. She further corroborated by giving the example of a traditional composition like ‘varnam’. She said that the form may remain the same, but the thought process that brings it to life can be tweaked to suit the modern mind-set.
The talk was followed by a presentation of select excerpts from the dancer’s repertoire centred on her treatment of the ‘nayika’. This naturally was the much awaited part of the evening and was made all the more interesting because of the detailed inputs provided by her on each of these as she demonstrated them.
Alternating between explaining her process behind the conceptualisation of each nayika and the demonstration, the dancer kept the audience’s interest alive, especially since the demonstrations amply illustrated the explanations. For example, through the extrapolation of a just a line, in a varnam mohan aaginen , she showed what she had meant by tweaking the meaning just a wee bit to suit a more contemporary world. While pleading with lord Shiva to fulfil her longing for him, the nayika depicts the idea of Shiva in a myriad ways: he needn’t always be presented in his iconographic form, she suggests. Being omnipresent, he could manifest himself as the rain and the very act of showering upon her could be construed as a union — the thirsting earth being the feminine and the rain clouds, masculine. This could also serve as an eco-theistic model to bring in contemporary thoughts and concerns in one’s performances!
While discussing her approach to presenting nayikas in her pieces, she pegged on to the idea of ‘conversations’ and said that in her mind there are several parallel ‘conversations’ taking place: the nayika and the other characters, herself and the nayika, the nayika and the audience and so on. Paramount, according to her, was striking the right balance between becoming the nayika and retaining some measure of her own personality so while the enactment was convincing, originality wasn’t lost. Again, this was amply demonstrated in her portrayal of gossip-mongering women in the Kshetrayya padam choodare — an example of a character that she simply didn’t identify with, yet, she had to become, in order to be convincing.
This is perhaps a tall order for most: shedding of inhibition. Inhibition, according to her, is a form of ego and an obstacle to abhinaya. She brought this out in her delineation of Radha’s love and longing for Krishna in two different ashtapadis. Here, she stressed upon the need to be thorough with the lyrics since only then, could the nuances be understood and consequently portrayed with justice. For example, in the 6th ashtapadi, sakhi he , she depicted Radha’s memory of her first union with Krishna as tender and tentative. However, there is a an arc of development, culminating in her maturation as a woman who is assertive in stating her desire and need in the last ashtapadi kuru yadunandana where she boldly asks Krishna to make love to her again. Vidya Subramaniam’s nuanced tackling of the same character in two different shades of erotica was captivating, aesthetic and bold.