In a dark backdrop

Subtle message: Navtej Johar in “Tanashah”

Subtle message: Navtej Johar in “Tanashah”  

As protests sweep the country, the classical arts community’s voice is conspicuously muted

India’s winter of discontent deepens, and citizens cutting across the social spectrum continue to throng the streets, determined to reiterate before the government their allegiance to the Constitution and an inclusive democracy. We have seen poets and popular singers, actors and comedians in the crowds. At these planned and peaceful protests powered by students, women and other regular citizens against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, the proposed National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, one high profile group seems conspicuous by its thin attendance. The country’s classical artists, normally placed at the top of India’s cultural pyramid, are noticeably few and far between.

Most of those singing and performing at protests sites are either hobbyists or young professionals with spunk and commitment. But where are the public figures, the thought leaders of the classical arts community? It’s not as if they are all recluses. Large numbers of India’s leading classical artists use social media to publicise their awards, achievements and new work. But looking at the blithe social media posts of many artists highlighting their Margazhi season performances, one would have thought this annual cultural blitz in Chennai was in a different universe from the CAA-NRC-NPR storm. Ironically, the performance season has been running parallel to the series of protests that erupted across cities after police stormed Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia campus.

In the January 2020 edition of her widely accessed newsletter, Anita Ratnam touched on the issue: “Amidst the chaos of daily protests and arrests across India due to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB),” wrote the performer and choreographer in her editorial, “a month of singing and dancing seemed at odds with the reality of our daily lives. But then the Chennai Margazhi season chugs on...” (Ellipsis in the original.) This one sentence effectively sums up the extent to which the work of classical artists is sealed off from the general condition of the society in which it is created. For those who don’t want these arts to atrophy and die, this is cause for concern.

Admittedly, performances, whether politically aware or otherwise, don’t spring up in a day. But as public figures, sometimes artists take other approaches, like Bharatanatyam dancer Nrithya Pillai, who read out the preamble of the Constitution from a Chennai stage recently, ending with “Jai Bhim”. Otherwise, for the larger part, it was business as usual for the classical performers. Stones and bullets rent the air even as dancing Krishna flicked a pebble cracking a harried milkmaid’s clay pot. Marauders broke the bones and hearts of innocents, but in the auditoriums, Ram slew Ravan, and Shiva’s tandava was applauded.

Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna performing in Delhi

Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna performing in Delhi   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

It is another question how to weave an overtly political theme into a composition of raga music or a form like Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam or Odissi. This is an aesthetic challenge, relating to form and structure, says eminent classical vocalist T.M. Krishna. “That is something we have to keep trying. We may fail, we may succeed.”

Political and aesthetic

But to say unconventional themes are not part of the classical ethos would be to assume the ethos is monolithically unchangeable and perfect, a premise blatantly false, he notes. His project of a few years, “Poromboke Paadal” that aims to raise environmental awareness and reclaim the term ‘poromboke’ (which originally referred to resources for shared use but gradually has taken on pejorative connotations) was an example of something “so political that also worked in an aesthetic way.”

Krishna was in the Capital on January 1 to perform for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust’s annual event in memory of assassinated theatre director Safdar Hashmi by political goons in 1989. The anti-CAA stirs were in high gear, and he sang, among other pieces, the parts of “Jana gana mana” that are not included in the national anthem. With lines appropriate for the prevailing mood of the country, this portion includes the words “India that was asleep is now waking.” As part of his response to the current political scenario, Krishna says nowadays he includes this song in his concerts and also has started talking to his audiences, which wasn’t his practice earlier.

Krishna says one of the hurdles preventing artists from being outspoken is the need for recognition and acceptability. “They may believe in something but they’re also scared.” India is “a feudal world” where artists believe they are “serving, in some fashion,” entities like zamindar, bureaucrat, politician, corporate house, event manager, audience. “So you don’t want to disturb the status quo,” says Krishna.

Bharatanatyam and Contemporary dance exponent Navtej Johar, a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient, demolishes the oft-heard plea that the classical arts are an ‘apolitical’ space. “Indian ‘classical’ dance has been nationalistic from the very inception,” says Johar, known for his socially aware works of theatre and dance. “It would be naïve and delusional, even deceitful, to say that classical dance is apolitical.”

Aadya Kaktikar, trained in Odissi under Guru Mayadhar Raut, says, “All arts illustrate a particular political ideology and therefore to claim the classical arts are apolitical is to claim they have no history, no past, no affiliations, no aspirations — nothing! It is as if they are devoid of any human touch! Is the form separate from those who practice it? Can the moving body be separated from the beliefs of the human being who performs? Is it possible for a human being to live within social structures and claim to not be participating in them? By claiming these arts are apolitical we are doing them a great disservice. The power of the classics and the classical lies in its capacity to speak to and relate to the present. And the present is by no means ever apolitical.”

Saddening silence

To present “something that is immediately political and affects many lives,” is the hope of Delhi-based Kuchipudi exponent Abhinaya Nagajothy, daughter and disciple of Gurus Seetha and Nagajothy, but her parents, disciples of late Vempati Chinna Satyam, “don’t seem quite convinced.” Abhinaya perseveres, since she feels, “The silence of the artists in this current political turmoil is saddening,” and wants her mother to choreograph the poem “Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge” by screenwriter, lyricist and stand-up artist Varun Grover.

How to respond may be a personal choice, but being oblivious is not an option, these artists assert. As Johar fumes, “Artists don’t live on Mars,” Aadya asks, “Is there a way to be human without responding to the world around you? As a community can we not find the courage to articulate and engage with the knotty issues that surround us rather than continuing to perform valorous deeds of mythical beings? What stops the classical artist from engaging in the world around them?”

Carnatic vocalist Nadhi Thekkek in “Broken Seeds Still Grow”

Carnatic vocalist Nadhi Thekkek in “Broken Seeds Still Grow”  

Bharatanatyam dancer Nadhi Thekkek, born, raised and trained in the U.S., says, “If artistry is supposed to reflect who we are and if who we are is being challenged, how can we not respond?” Nadhi, with costuming that only dispenses with some of the glitter of classical dance aharya, regularly weaves her ideology into choreographic works that include all the elements of raga music, percussion, nritta and abhinaya.

One’s choices proclaim one’s politics to the rest of the world. As public figures, “all artists should know what their response or lack of response says to their audiences and the communities they live and work in,” adds Nadhi.

Johar states, “Of course, we need to view ourselves, our views, and the positions we take within the current contexts that we inhabit. I’ve been saying for decades now that Indian dance reeks of cultural-chauvinism.”

As India continues to debate the future of its founding principles, a question for the classical arts community, often considered ivory tower-bound, is whether it too is ready to take a dip in the mainstream dialogue or remain in its niche.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:03:52 AM |

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