Understanding dance Friday Review

Convention versus contemporary in dance

A file photo of Padma Srinivasan and her group performing in Thanjavur. Photo: M. Srinath

A file photo of Padma Srinivasan and her group performing in Thanjavur. Photo: M. Srinath  

Before innovating, say in presenting social themes, classical dancers must tap into the core of tradition, research it and realign it with aesthetics intact.

The latest mantra is that the traditional or alternatively mythological dance repertoire is getting drab for the new audiences who can only relate to ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ content. Not that the audience have voiced this to any particular classical artiste! A step further and we come across ‘theatrical production’ as if the combination of song, dance and story-telling (through dramatising) is not ‘theatrical’. The entire Natya Sastra pages are devoted to theatre; so a new nomenclature doesn’t change the basic precepts of dance.

Any deviation from established norms of a dance genre can pass off as ‘contemporary.’ As if tradition did not evolve from its own contemporary period of time! As scholars rightly say, ‘It is not the outward trappings of the dance but the enduring qualities of the art form with the underlying guidelines of structure and discipline that establish it as classical.’ A classical piece of work, be it literature or dance, is essentially its relevance across time and period; its universality and its applicability at all times. Its worth is estimated by it being a referral point through the ages. And what more, it should be worthy of propagation. Once this is understood, classical dancers will think twice before they initiate transient themes in the name of topicality or meddle with the structure to cater to the contemporary.

If novelty has to last as an eternal work of art, well it has to tap into the core of tradition, research it and realign it with aesthetics intact. If the latest issues in society are ‘rape’, ‘female infanticide’ ‘concretisation of towns and cities’ and the artiste gets highly perturbed by these and starts a work of art with these subjects, how far can these sustain? The simple fact is that art is aesthetic, it taps the finer sensibilities, not social evils. Newspapers and social organisations are there to focus of such issues; it’s not the dancers’ domain. To fall back on Natya Sastra, such topical issues cannot come under ‘Loka dharmi’ (literally) either.

Illustrious innovators like Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Uday Shankar have re-created classical dances which have come to stay since their content and creation have survived till date. While Rukmini Arundale modified and sophisticated the ‘sadr’ (temple dance) in keeping with the times and acceptability levels and in doing so, adopted many a technicality of the Russian Ballet which was her main inspiration to set foot in the dance world, Uday Shankar had made an amalgam of the techniques of all Indian classical dance forms along with the Western Ballet since he was part of the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova troupe. Uday Shankar’s India Cultural Centre had the maestros of classical dance and music like Shankaran Namboodiri (Kathakali), Kandappa Pillai (Bharatanatyam), Ambi Singh (Manipuri), stad Allauddin Khan (music) as gurus at one point of time just like Kalakshetra carved out by Rukmini Devi had the best of dance and music legends, the likes of Mysore Vasudevacharya and others.

She had not only stylised the technique of dance but also re-named the ‘Dasi Attam’ as ‘Bharatanatyam’ a name that has come to stay for this genre. She established the Kalakshetra to institutionalise this contemporary (of her times) dance for future generation. Not to be left out were the Tanjore quartet (brothers: Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Vadivelu, Sivanandan), who redefined and formalised the repertoire of Sadr which got incorporated under the Bharatanatyam label today. Kelucharan Mohapatra, inspired by temple frescos, merged the Gotipua and Mahari traditions into a classical, disciplined, aesthetic form which goes by the name of Odissi today with any number of proponents.

Cross cultural currents are the rule rather than an exception; as far as art forms go, they should be sieved prior to absorption.

Our cultural core is not to be uprooted as it is the source of our identity as all the past grandmasters in dance have done and proved so far.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 10:39:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/understanding-dance-convention-versus-contemporary-in-dance/article8413841.ece

Next Story