A piece I wrote for the dance page of the Asian Age newspaper, May 25, 2012
An oft-narrated story about the dancer Chandralekha talks of the alienating experience she had during her arangetram in the 50s. Its proceeds went to the Rayalaseema drought relief fund. One of the pieces she performed was Mathura Nagarilo, describing the abundance of water and its free-flowing nature, as young women frolicked in the river Yamuna. Describing what went through her mind as she danced this ironic contrast, Chandralekha wrote, “Suddenly, I froze, with the realisation that I was portraying all this profusion of water in the context of a drought. I remembered photographs in the newspapers of cracked earth, of long winding queues of people waiting for water with little tins in hand.” In later years, as a narrative of the triggers that propelled her towards finding her own movement formed, this incident would take on great significance.
Recently in Mumbai, at a private screening of a film on the Gati residency for emerging choreographers, the guests found themselves mulling over the space of the classical and the contemporary in dance. Some dancers in the film spoke of moving away from the classical forms they had trained in for long years to find their own expression. Did this then mean, the viewers wondered, that in contemporary dance they found a freedom that classical dance had denied to them? In not holding them back within structures and rules, contemporary dance must liberate them, they reasoned.
Launching into an imagination of contemporary dance, one is compelled to pose the trick question —how does one define contemporary dance in India? In her paper, Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircar’s work, Alessandra Lopez Y. Royo tries to unpack the word “contemporary” in the Indian context. She explains that “contemporary”, when used in western contexts with reference to Indian dance, is taken for “non-traditional” or “anti-traditional”, giving rise to an oppositional relationship where “traditional” — stable and archaic, is set up against “contemporary”, which comes with a suggestion of temporariness. She adds, “...there is a conflation with ‘contemporary’ in the sense of ‘western contemporary techniques of dance’ and this further complicates the issue, equating as it does Indian ‘contemporary’ with ‘hybrid’.”
Dance artist and teacher Mehneer Sudan feels that classical structures, by way of being older, may seem more rigid — perhaps because they have a certain historicity. “As an artist, you often begin your journey within a structure. It takes some time to understand that freedom doesn’t come from the form; it has to do with your nature, what juncture you are at in life. There can be things that bind or free you in any form. Within its ethos, contemporary dance carries a sense of experimentation – that is why you see so many ‘techniques’ emerging in contemporary dance. The spirit of change is inherent to it,” she remarks.
That several drastically different styles are bundled under the contemporary umbrella only exacerbates the situation. Contemporary dance, in the west, may be said to represent a historic progression beginning with a break from classical ballet. In India, “contemporary” is an agglomeration of several western vocabularies and the works of artistes who are grounded in classical dance but seek to push its limits. And this is not always out of frustration – it is not oppression by classical dance that drives them towards the contemporary.
Vital to the imagination of the ‘contemporary’ as a freeing space is the absent idea of rigour. Some may visualise a dance vocabulary unimpeded by structure, and often, technique. Those who allege that contemporary is flippant and half-baked point to its purported absence of rigour. By ignoring rigour, an essential element of any serious dance practice, both groups fail to recognise the process through which a contemporary dance vocabulary is catalysed and distilled.
All dance can be flippant – be it an under-rehearsed classical piece or a mindless flailing of arms and legs that masquerades as contemporary. A classical dancer cannot learn everything by imitation; she must work towards understanding how movements look on her body and internalising emotion. The famous classical dancers we admire today are not just shouldering a legacy, but have also spent a great amount of time in making the dance suit their personality, and vice versa. They must work within the boundaries of a form, but there is no lack of freedom; rather, there is too much to explore. The contemporary dancer works with reference points that shape her movement vocabulary over time.
Perhaps in contemporary dance, there is an honesty of the body, whereas classical dance prides itself on transformation. Bald men become damsels, and wrinkled ladies play warriors. That is why irascible dancers who wildly gesture to their musicians on stage are often ridiculed; yet their refusal, implicit or not, to treat the stage as an artificial space, is endearing. They visibly adhere to the notion of performance as lived experience.
Balasaraswati, who personified the improvisational freedoms of classical dance in her abhinaya, delivered a famous speech in the seventies, where she emphasised the need to find rapture through discipline. She said, “...if she humbly submits to the greatness of this art, soon enough she will find joy in that discipline; and she will realise that discipline makes her free in the joyful realm of the art.”
In the end, dance is as subjective as freedom is fraught.