Friday Review

Inspired enquiry

OF GRACE AND POISE Navtej Joharin performance. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

One might consider the path chosen by Navtej Johar as one of contradictions. But a closer look reveals his deep understanding of the holistic nature of artistic pursuit – fearless, ceaselessly investigative and non-confining. Though known for his dance theatre and works of contemporary choreography, for which he has just been named as one of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award - 2014 recipients, his heart carries a deep imprint of Kalakshetra, Madras, where he trained in Bharatanatyam.

Founder of the Abhyas Trust, devoted equally to dance, care of street animals, yoga and urban design, he says these fields are “intrinsically connected; the uniting force being the body.” As he puts it, “Indian cities are almost contemptuous towards the body. And then it is not only the human body, it is also the animals. Our living bodies are emblematic of life, and the essence of life is sensitivity.” As for the award, he’s “delighted”, “honoured” yet a part of him “has no idea” of it and he’d “like to keep it that way!”

Edited extracts from an interview with the Delhi-based artist:

What made you take the journey to Kalakshetra, cloistered as it was back in 1980, at a time when few young men from North India were interested in learning Bharatanatyam?

When you are young, you are naive and therefore free! I was studying to be an artist, a concession I was granted by my family, then I started doing theatre on the sly and realised I wanted to be a performer. During that time I got a chance to work with Badal Sircar who said that I had the body of a dancer, so the seed to become one was planted by him and compounded by my growing restlessness with theatre that I found too verbose and text-heavy. I heard of Kalakshetra, and in the summer of 1980 I took a sneak trip to Madras to check it out. I arrived there, it was summer vacation, only the front office was open, the campus deserted. It felt as though I had arrived where I had always wanted to be! The thatch huts, the banyan tree, the ponds, the sprawling sands, the foliage, the tall trees, the mirror cottage, the veena cottage, the sound of the waves, even the abutting cremation grounds, totally contained me. I think I spent the entire day there feeling the sand and the trees. So, it was a clear sense that I wanted to express with my body, and express lyrically, and the absolute loveliness of the place that got me to Kalakshetra.

What did you study in New York? How did this learning influence your approach to dance?

I guess learning of any classical art also involves a degree of brainwashing, so as much as I loved my time at Kalakshetra, I also took a lot of stories and notions about dance that were propagated there with a pinch of salt. At the Department of Performance Studies, NYU, I learnt how to view both dance and culture critically, anthropologically, politically, and the process required a lot of unlearning. And it was not easy, even if I was ready for it. In particular, I remember violently resisting against the mixing of sexuality and spirituality, or even politics and spirituality, or at least my brand of spirituality, even though it was quite evident.

While your family were not happy with your career choice, did their attitude gradually change? Also, how much have things changed for India's male dancers in general?

Yes, my family resisted when I decided to become a dancer in 1980, and understandably so. But my father also clearly recognised that “this was my calling” and eventually put me on that Tamil Nadu Express with a hugely affirmative pat on my back. Today, the family is happy, even proud, that I became a dancer, and they also recognise the importance of following one’s dream. Where male dancing today is concerned, things have changed considerably and the gender divide has diminished; no one bats an eyelid if a boy dances, so there is a growing acceptance. Don’t know if that is due to the kind of stuff that goes on television.

Which gurus/practitioners played a major role in moulding you into the kind of artist you are today? 

There are several people I greatly admire and who have directly played a part in my being a dancer. First of all it is Rukmini (Arundale) Athai and Chandralekha, both fiercely independent women who quite literally demolished norm, and I greatly admire both of them for that. Then it is Anandi teacher (Ramachandran), who was a mentor and a mother to me. She was the one to make me fall in love with Carnatic music, which is like a lifeline for me today, and also offered me glimpses into Bharatanatyam beyond Kalakshetra; Sarada teacher (Hoffman) for her love and commitment to the form and the rigour she brought into it; Leela Akka’s (Samson) imprint on me is deep and abiding, I learnt from her as a student, as an adoring spectator and as a friend; was drawn to her sensitivity, her luminosity, and most of all her sense of impeccable measure. A. Janardhanan Sir andC.K. Balagopal I learnt more from afar; incredible performers, my Rama and Krishna characters respectively have been completely imbued with their unforgettable and deeply sensitive portrayals. And then there is quiet and unassuming Ambi Akka (Buch), whose quiet support has always been with me.

I cannot forget to mention G. S. Chani, who quite literally brought me out into the streets through his street theatre in the post-Emergency era. In fact that was my initiation, and a rather bold one, into the world of performance. Each of these people has made me the performer I am today. From some I have absorbed sensitivity, complexity, adoration for the art form, while others have inspired radicalism.

There’s a lot of talk about how to preserve and propagate India’s cultural heritage....

I think this is a myth; and a hugely problematic if not self-serving one. We have to clearly realise it was the Empire that forced us to self-define ourselves. It is only in the 19th Century that we suddenly decide to reconfigure and fix our bodily forms, authenticate them, totally obliterate their lived-history and affiliate them to texts which were ironically only re-discovered by the British in the beginning of the same century. I’m pointing to the Natya Shastra and the Yoga Sutras, and we fix them by ridding them of mystery, both the Devadasi and the yogi were cleansed of their paradox, which in both cases involved spiritual-sexuality. I would say that what we call culture today is that “lie,” that point in history where we collectively decided to shift premise by ceremoniously abandoning paradox in favour of rationality.

And the upholding of culture is a desperate attempt to gloss over that shift, we wish our next generations to keep living up this boxed up concoction of what we call culture. It is quite shocking that people don’t see a fundamentalist streak in this self-righteous stance of upholding culture. The arts, like spirituality, are bigger than all of us put together, their nature is continuity, they will outlive us; we don’t have to pretend to be their custodians. To my mind to “protect” the arts is to actually throttle them! What we need is not true-believing but rigorous and inspired enquiry, historical and philosophical (and I mean non-theistic philosophy).

You teach yoga but not dance. Why?

Yes, dancers come into dance with pre-set notions, the kind I vehemently disagree with, so it is an uphill task to make them open minded.

Whereas teaching yoga is an endless delight; each class offers deep satisfaction and learning.


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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 7:38:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/inspired-enquiry/article7329831.ece

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