Friday Review

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AN EVOCATIVE AMALGAM Zakir Hussain in performance  

In an age when many young exponents of Indian classical dance are on the lookout for contemporary themes, moving away from the mythological material that informs the repertoire of classical artists, Bharatanatyam dancer Zakir Hussain’s choices seem to stand out for remaining closer to the conventional.

Fundamentally, Bharatanatyam is meant to express feelings through dance, holds the Chennai-based artist. The crucial element of a performance, for him, is its ability to hold the audience — the “entertainment” factor.

“Whether you are crying or they are crying, it’s an enjoyment for them. From that point of view I have to entertain them with my kathakar (storyteller) approach,” he says.

Zakir performed his solo work “Yethiraja Vaibhavam” at New Delhi’s Tamil Sangam recently. The production is based on the life of Ramanujacharya, the Sri Vaishnava philosopher and theologian traditionally believed to have lived for 120 years, across the 11th Century.

Not only “Yethiraja Vaibhavam”, he adds, all his other pieces are based on a similar storytelling approach.

Narrative is key to his choreographic productions. Abstract work, where the movements don’t necessarily tell a linear story, does not attract him. However, not all his chosen themes are related to the Sri Vaishnava philosophy in which he specialises, or even expressly devotional. He is also proud of his production of the timeless tale of Cinderella, in which he has used various Asian dance styles as well as Bollywood dance.

His productions include “Seethayanam”, “Mathura Meenakshi”, “Sudharsanam” and “Dasavatharam” among others.

“I believe each person is born to do something. Take M.S. (Subbulakshmi) Amma — it was as if she didn’t know anything but music. Similarly, Padma Subrahmanyam is born to dance. Everyone gets an intuition as to what they are meant for. We have to accept this,” says Zakir. If he were to try to run a business, he says, he would fail, and similar would be the result if he tried to hold down an ordinary job.

It’s another matter that the Sri Vaishnava scholar was trained in fibre technology before he became a Bharatanatyam dancer. He found his guru Chitra Visweswaran only as a young adult, but, even if late, he realised he was “born to dance.”

And, having been on the professional stage for over 22 years now, he understands what he wants to do within the profession, and that is adhering to conventional modes of presenting Bharatanatyam. “I can’t do anything else,” he says.

“There is some shakti that has selected me to dance,” he feels. If he didn’t accept it, he would be a misfit. And each dancer has an individual viewpoint, he continues.

He was born into a Muslim family in Salem, relates Zakir, but when he was hardly two years old, he was adopted by an aunt, Alamelu Manga (the wife of one of his uncles). “They were a Telugu Naikar family. So I grew up in that atmosphere. But at the same time I continued to practise Islam. I can read the Quran in both Urdu and Arabic. I got a view of both the religions. And I couldn’t see a difference between the two.”

And so, he says, “I decided I wanted to find God through dance. I’m searching for my meaning of life. We can call it Vaishnava Sufism.”

“Yethiraja Vaibhavam” includes lyrics by Revati Sankaran. “But I cut her two or three pages to about 20 lines,” he says a tad ruefully, as if bashful about editing another artist’s work to suit his medium. There is a reason for it though.

Natya (abhinaya used in classical dance) opens out meanings encapsulated in verbal language, thus expanding a single line or word into myriad connotations according to the ability of the performer.

By way of example, he says, “If we take the line ‘Nee inda maayam seida nyaayama’ (where the nayika asks the Lord, is if fair on your part to play such tricks on me?), we can show maayam in many ways. And also nyayam. You use your imagination to expand it. You need to have studied literature for that. All kinds of literature.”

The more a dancer has read, of different poets, as well as mythology, history and geography, the better will that dancer be equipped to perceive varying shades in the words.

Also, as a kathakar, he can’t simply be setting the words to movements and mudras in a straightforward ‘translation,’ because that would be like a prose statement. “It would be like giving a lecture or presenting a documentary on the topic,” he remarks.

“Now I have started doing upanyasam, two hours per day. Is it easy? You have to have read many scriptures and modern literature as well, otherwise how will you hold the attention of your audience? I always say people who are seeking bliss have to read a lot.”

Extensive reading is also what he recommends to his students, of whom he takes very few. “Whether you want to agree or disagree with an idea, you have to read. You have to question each and every action. For that you have to read. Otherwise, the art will stagnate and you cannot create anything.”

Take the margam (conventional Bharatanatyam repertoire as set up by the Tanjore Brothers). “Many have performed margams. It’s a great thing, but the margam is not the only thing in dance. However, to create a new margam, you have to read. You need to know the a-b-c and then move on. You can’t say I won’t do the a-b-c but I’ll create something new.”

Research is right up Zakir’s street. Apart from his dance-drama scripts, he is recognised for having introduced the tantric mudras from the Pancharatra Agamas into his Bharatanatyam works.

Finally though, what to present is an individual’s choice. “No one has the right to say whether this is right or not. As long as you don’t hurt anyone. That’s my feeling,” he says. “For example, I use a lot of colours. That’s my style.”

Zakir, who says he loves pilgrimages and goes regularly to centres like Srirangam and Tirupati where he feels recharged, inspired and protected to carry on his work, admits to feeling sad at the divisions within society. Rifts between religions, communities, castes, seem to have no end.

Zakir puts it this way. “If you grow up never going to Shaiva temples because your family taught you to shun them, you can’t help it. It’s a kind of ignorance. It’s not innocence. Innocence is when you see god everywhere! So I don’t have that ignorance, I have innocence!”

He is grateful that he has received acceptance. “I found that people never hesitated to teach me although I came from a different religion. I’m thankful to the acharyas and audiences. When I perform they openly say they learnt something from me.”

But the world needs all kinds. “Without Ravana, Rama would not have been praised. Differences, questioning are needed to induce new ways of thinking. Bad things only bring you good things.”

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 4:24:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/Always-something-good%E2%80%A6/article16667512.ece

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