I am usually wary of festival invitations. What does a writer do at these events? Just watch, observe and report? The format of watching a series of performances and writing about them in appeasing terms has never been of interest to me. In fact, this particular practice has caused more damage to the performing arts ecosystem than we can imagine. Writers and performers forged a mutually convenient friendship and critical writing about the performing arts was thus sacrificed at the altar of social niceties. Writing about the performing arts gradually became merely adulatory and reduced itself to offering a summary of the presentations.
Sarngadeva Samaroh organised by dancer and Parwati Dutta at Mahagami Gurukul in Aurangabad is a festival with a consciousness. The eleventh edition of the festival which was recently held from January 17-20 saw performances, short research presentations and workshops offered by participating artistes. Dutta said that she did not want to create a festival where people just watched performances.
“Conversation or dialogue is at the core of this festival — let’s talk and agree to disagree about what we saw and heard,” she said. So it turned out to be.
The discussions happened in the presence of the performers, who had to offer a workshop or deconstruct their practice after or before the performance. Thus, the workshops offered a glimpse into the form and practice of the artistes. In the process, audiences also felt better prepared to witness a full performance. The afternoons were reserved for short research presentations by young academics to discourse about various facets of the arts — neo-Classical dance forms, use of social media by dancers, adapting tradition to modern times amongst various other issues. Thus, the festival created a culture of dialogue and discussion around performers and their work. The morning after his performance, vocalist Madhup Mudgal conducted a workshop on voice training and then showed a small film about choir singing. In the conversation that followed, he also spoke at length about composing music for dance. The audiences thus found an avenue to engage with the artiste beyond his performance.
Ritualistic art forms were the festival focus this year. We saw performances of Mudiyettu from Kerala, Nat Sankirtan from Manipur, Gayan Bayan from Assam, Buddhist chanting by monks from Karnataka and Shaurya Raas and Maniyaro from Gujarat. In many of the conversations that followed before or after the performances, the distinction between classical and folk was raised — where does folk end and classical begin? Is it possible to draw these boundaries or even desirable to do so? As we all know, many of these distinctions are deeply colonial.
Besides, ritualistic art forms have a strong community character. They are nurtured and supported by the community. Dutta used the word janashray in her opening address. But that is perhaps changing too. The monks from Uttar Kamalabari Satra Sankardeva Kristi Sangha, Majuli, who came to perform Gayan Bayan (a ritualistic and devotional performance of Sattriya tradition) told us that they now largely rely on their performances for survival. Besides, they practise agriculture and engage in other occupations such as journalism to earn a living. Most of them were video recording their performances and sharing on social media.
Traditions evolve over time but the absence of women from these ritualistic performing arts ought to be discussed. On the whole, Sarngadeva Samaroh gave us a lot to think about and a space to witness and interact.
(Kunal Ray writes about the arts in India. He teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)