It seemed like the setting for a regular Kathak performance. A closer look revealed that the circular open-air stage was fanned by four canvases. The usual interaction between the dancer and the audience was accompanied by an underlying dialogue between the dance and the canvas.
Celebrating the birth centenary of artist and art historian, Jaya Appasamy, Rasaja Foundation organised ‘Imprint’– a confluence of visual art and dance at Bikaner House, Delhi. Acclaimed for her innovative dance costumes, Sandhya Raman conceptualised the concert as a collaborative ground for the visual and performing arts that would culminate in an art exhibition in February. The dance recital by Gauri Diwakar was accompanied by a performance of live art-making by four visual artists (Aditi Aggarwal, Anubhav Som, Tanya Dobhal, Surbhi Raina) as they captured the dance on easel.
As the Secretary of Rasaja Foundation, Raman felt this would be a befitting tribute to its founder, “With this concert we wanted to establish an artistic exchange, a visual statement of the dance. The challenge for these young artists is to explore new ways of capturing dance, visually interpret and express aspects of the performance.”
A life in art
Trained in fine arts at Santiniketan, Jaya Appasamy was mentored by stalwarts like Nandalal Bose and Binode Behari Mukherjee. Her artistry was matched by talent for incisive critical writing on art, further sharpened by education abroad. On her return to India, she joined the academia, teaching at the Department of Fine Arts, Delhi University, and later at her alma mater- Santiniketan. Alongside, she also emerged as an art critic with a prolific oeuvre on contemporary artists, folk traditions and art history.
It is striking that Appasamy was also an avid collector of Company style art. The Company paintings of the 18th-19th centuries by British painters documented life and culture in India. Several of these works revolve around the ‘dancing girl’ who was an intriguing character for the British within the cultural fabric of India. Mostly seen as the native exotic, the ‘nautch girl’ was socially situated at the margins of respectable society, yet assumed to be artistically proficient.
During the same era, elsewhere in the world, dance was similarly inspiring art. For instance, French painter Edgar Degas is remembered and revered for his paintings of Western classical dance-ballet. While his works brought to light the dance world as a professional arena based on skill, practice and talent, Company paintings attempted to document the dancing girls in India, with their costume, jewellery and glamour.
A contemporary collaboration between the visual and performing arts is more challenging and open to interpretation. While the visual form can freeze the transient and ephemeral performance before it is lost in time, the moving body as a muse also promises to impart energy and vivacity to the static art work.
Gauri Diwakar chose a simple music composition revolving around a straightforward theme. The sringara-bhakti piece dedicated to Krishna formed the musical edifice for the evening. The uthaan, paran and aamad sections rhythmically revolved around the dhaivat note. Diwakar alternated between moments of strength and subtlety. The choreography had splashes of surprising silences and well-balanced pauses that could have been further enhanced through expressive gazes.
The dancer explored Teentaal with the tukda, seguing into 23 chakkars and concluding with brief tihaais. The gat nikas depicted ‘ghunghat ke prakaar’. The different gaits were executed with slow, eloquent grace. Instead of resorting to the usual rhythmic acrobatics in the jugalbandi section, Diwakar chose to enthral with the most gentle footwork, lowering the volume of the ghungroo so that the audience sat up to watch the gentle movements in rapt attention.
Over the years, Gauri Diwakar has established her distinctive dance style – a sophisticated demeanour finely balanced with simplicity in technique. Neat, precise footwork is rounded off with nuanced flourish. One hopes to see the dancer present a wider repertoire that would showcase versatility in abhinaya as well.
The concert concluded with an energetic performance by Diwakar’s young students.
Different aspects of the dance caught each visual artist’s imagination, lending itself to a wide range of artistic expressions. While some focused on the dancer’s portraiture, another artist attempted to capture the moving form. Space and time colluded as impressions in one composition, while another sought to interpret the movement patterns through different colour registers.
One of the visual artists, Aditi Aggarwal, is a visiting faculty at the College of Art, New Delhi, and is pursuing a doctorate from the University of Delhi. She chose to focus on the rhythm of the dance and capture the extensive footwork through abstract linear strokes with acrylic on canvas. “The idea was to create variation within sameness,” explained the artist, “the placement of the strokes was important to create images of the nuances in rhythm.” Working with the strong rhythmic framework of classical dance for the first time, the artist experimented with the intensity and shape of linear strokes. Alternating dotted lines with thick strokes, she worked in black and white, with occasional splashes of orange and red derived from the dancer’s costume.
Strokes of dance
For the visual artists the works are the first draft. These are works-in-progress that would be the take-off point for them to dwell on the finer nuances of pictorial representation of dance, music, movement, rhythm and form. The art works can be seen as the afterlife of a performance, and would soon find a new dimension as part of an upcoming exhibition.
The event sought to rekindle a much-needed conversation between the visual and performing arts. The journey from stage to gallery and concert to canvas opens up possibilities of experiencing art as infinite reflections.