Between new and old

Stating a point Swapnasundari.

Stating a point Swapnasundari.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S.S. Kumar


What is new choreography? Does creative choreography only mean adding polish to an old tradition?

The term “creative choreography” evokes curiosity and requires analysis. Dictionaries describe the word creativity as originality, imagination, inspiration, ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness and vision while choreography is explained as composition, dance-routine, sequence of steps, step-design and step-arrangement.

So what is meant by “creative choreography” in Indian classical idioms? The process of development of these dance traditions into their present state reveals that the term “creative choreography” would certainly merit inclusion.

Today, Southern solo dance traditions are represented through a sequential presentation called margam, comprising items drawn from earlier temple rituals and court dances. Margam was specifically designed for royal entertainment. When dance shifted from the temples and courts to the concert stage, the devadasis and rajadasis who were hereditary practitioners of the performing art, were replaced by dancers from non-hereditary backgrounds. Traditional dance adapted to the proscenium stage and catered to those who witnessed its stage concerts. Revivalists recast pre-existent dance material into a “sequence of steps” such as today’s “dance routine” of Bharatanatyam, the tatkar step arrangement of Kathak or the aavu-saamu of Vilasini Natyam. The present step design of Odissi and the solo compositions of Kuchipudi are all outcome of the revival process which began around half a century ago.

Every Indian dance system, whether group or solo, underwent reorganisation. As a result of the “resourcefulness, originality and imagination” of the dance proponents, a margam-like repertoire emerged for most forms of classical dance. Solo traditions still find best expression through items which were ‘invented’ earlier from artistic ‘vision’. A wave of gurus and performers have since continued to enrich their repertoires with artistic ‘inventions’ born out of ‘inspiration’ and providing an extension to dance traditions.

Often, what was termed ‘original’ was based on limited information rather than fact. For instance, the formulation of a Margam is popularly attributed to the Tanjore Quartet whereas history reveals that a margam was being danced in times preceding the quartet in the royal courts of Gadwala, Venkatagiri, Karveti Nagaram, etc. in Andhra Pradesh.

Incorrect perception

Due to the unavailability of correctly recorded dance information, many incorrect perceptions became institutionalised over time. If left unaddressed, this trend will continue.

In a recent festival held in New Delhi to showcase new ‘choreographies’, many artists presented their new works. Though this is a laudable initiative, artists and organisers are expected to be responsible in making claims about the ‘innovativeness’ of the works.

I quote from a review which appeared in The Hindu: “Notable was the use of the brass plate in the varnam. The dancers performed the charana swaras on the plate. Once seen, this innovative idea seems waiting to be tried ……”

I reiterate my concern about creating incorrect perceptions due to inadequate information. Dancing a sequence of a varnam on the brass plate is neither new nor original. It is well-established and documented that the Telugu devadasis of Chittoor and Nellore areas were adept at dancing on the brass plate and that they danced the charana swarams of a varnam in this way. Apparently, the ‘innovative idea’ in this case is the borrowing of the varnam with the inclusion of the brass plate by the Kuchipudi choreographer in question.

As hereditary practitioners of an ancient dance tradition, the Telugu devadasis practiced their art as they inherited it. They had no knowledge of intellectual property rights.

It is bad enough that for the past fifty years their artistic tradition has provided ready material for plagiarisation. It is worse still if resourceful choreographers resort to the easy formula of borrowing freely from historically established artistic features of lesser known traditions and proclaim these as their innovations!

Rightly, the review lauds, “...juniors who stood out as vibrant, fresh, voices with a deep feel for their chosen mediums…” But more important is the concluding remark: “A lot can be done within the medium too.” So, what’s new within the medium?

(The writer is a well-known classical dancer based in Delhi.)

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