This Thing Called Culture Dance

The dance of Freedom

Mrinalini Sarabhai and many other dancers of her time dovetailed their artistic concerns with patriotic ones   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

Indira Gandhi asks Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, “How does India look from above?” He was docked in orbital spaceship Soyuz-11, courtesy the ISRO-Interkosmos initiative of India with Soviet-support and she on planet earth, as Prime Minister of India. The year was 1984. And Sharma simply said: Saare Jahan Se Achcha ... A poetic, poignant moment; patriotic too.

This patriotic theme comes to surface every time our Independence Day, August 15 comes. Of all the artists, dancers seem most patriotic publically, putting up shows on the theme, even festivals. Odissi dancer Ranjana Gauhar has mounted a festival on the theme every year, without fail for last 13 years, at Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Each year the offering and content are impressive.

Mahakavi Subramania Bharati’s many political songs, some like ‘Vidhutalai’ immortalised by D.K.Pattamal; Sivaji Ganesan’s many film roles and songs (like Kappalottiya Thamizhan); Muhammad Iqbal’s song ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’ and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Vande Mataram’ are not only nostalgic but an important reminder of those times, especially to the Wikipedia and YouTube generation. Add many regional songs and reinterpretations, or remixes today.

The dance of Freedom

The dance of Freedom

Many seniors feel youngsters today have no clue about what happened just 71 years ago. 71? In this age of nano second updates, few perhaps even care for sacrifices and sufferings; hardships and history of how we even got our freedom. Why, we are still often reeling under laws created by colonial powers 100 years ago and sometimes playing upto the same colonial powers, seeped in our layered colonial complexes.

It was while in jail, Jawaharlal Nehru penned his tome the Discovery of India, which later became artistic fodder for many in a young country. It also became a propaganda tool and many dance-dramas were staged in the 1950s based on it. Who can forget a handsome Prabhat Ganguli coming out of a life-sized ace card of spades on stage in Shanti and Gul Bardhan’s ballet The Discovery of India? Freedom struggle was a pet theme not only in many school and college productions, but also in professional dance-theatre companies.

In East and West India, the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) was a leading left-oriented artistic-cultural-intellectuals movement which did yeoman service in that era and its alumni were a veritable who’s who of Indian cultural elite of the 40s through the 60s.

In South, Nataraj Shakuntala took up the cause of Independence in a big way through many productions such as Kannagi and Velu Nachiyar. Their main patron wasthe late Karunanidhi. His pen inspired many scripts. Anand Shivraman was inspired by Kathakali’s dramatic powers and dovetailed his artistic abilities with political concerns. Yog Sunder, who learnt from guru Gopinath, did many shows on the freedom struggle; post-Independence he continued his good work.

Elsewhere, senior Odissi dancer Kiran Segal, daughter of Zohra Segal, also a pillar of the IPTA movement, continued the mission of entertaining soldiers posted in border areas. Many dancers and musicians have contributed their work and worth to the spirit of Independence and continue to do so.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s 1881 novel Ananda Math, infact, first alluded to Vande Mataram, which later was composed into the most-loved and-sung patriotic song, by Rabindranath Tagore. From him to A.R. Rahman has been such a momentous and long journey.

Bengal’s contribution is major, especially Calcutta being both the first capital of British India and the political-intellectual hub. No wonder, many eminent artistes enriched with their works.

The forerunner of this trend (of mounting social-themed shows) was pioneering legend Uday Shankar, whose ‘Labour and Machinery’; also included an iconic film Kalpana, whichwas about British exploitation of India and its resources. The map of India when Mother India weeps is the most touching sequence in the film. Then there is Sadhana Bose. Her ouevre was vast, and her voice, an important one, especially as few solo women artistes were on stage or in public domain.

And can mainstream films be far behind? Too many to recount. From Mother India to Do Bhiga Zameen, the theme of socio-political discourse remained a red thread. Why, Jai Ho! is almost a new National Anthem, sung and danced at every forum, especially at glitzy film awards shows.

India and Bharat. Perhaps the best definition came recently from diva Sonal Mansingh, now also a nominated MP of the Upper House, when she said at Bharat Festival: ‘Bharat’ is different from India. For me Bhava, Raga, Tala that we so ascribe to in dance is actually the first three letters that make Bha-ra-t. This discourse and panel discussion is a must see on YouTube.

Dance dramas in the 40s and ballets in the 60s took up this theme of ‘Bharat’. Choreographers such as Shanti Bardhan, Sachin Shankar, Valmiki Banerjee and before them, star dancers like Madame Menaka, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and Maya Rao had dovetailed their artistic concerns with patriotic ones. Second generation star dancers-choreographers Kamala, Sitara, then Dhananjayans, C.V. Chandrasekhar, Yamini Purnatilakam (Krishnamurthy) took this up in a big way.

Today, 50 years thence, do we have a single big production on the theme of ‘Saare Jahan Se Acha’ that can travel worldwide? Haven't I just given a million dollar idea for free? Please send my royalties to any charity you deem fit but first, let charity begin at home!

The writer, a critic and historian, is the author of several books and edits attenDance, a yearbook

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 9:46:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/the-dance-of-freedom/article24705800.ece

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