Recently while travelling to Mumbai, I met a professor from IIT and we got talking. As usual, I was dressed in my Kanchipuram saree with the usual bindi dot on my forehead. He complimented me on my saree and when I introduced myself as a classical dancer, he actually asked me if it was necessary to dress the way I did. I had never thought this out and his query set me thinking whether there needed to be connection, or rather a continuity between what we said/did/created on stage and our own lifestyles outside our careers. Not just in terms of dress, style and attire, but in the mind, the values, the ethos and so on.
In a world that is fast becoming globalised, and where jeans and tank-tops are the new passports to equality of peoples, India’s Bharatanatyam dancer, resplendent in Kanchipuram silks and traditional temple jewellery, seems almost anachronistic. A slice of history; a symbol of the past many of us would like to forget. Instantly.
As culture morphs slowly all over the world and new forms of electronic communications replace the older and more mature modes of human expression, elements like classical dance are rendered redundant, unless they are able to join the world of saleable commodities. And since classical dance can never be a commodity, it will be one of the first to be obliterated from the future economy.
There are historical reasons why Indian classical dance resists the market place. Its origins in the temples as an offering make it intrinsically a “seva” or bhakti. And the best dancers even today consider the aspects of sadhana and bhakti as the key leitmotifs in their art. That is why even though dance entered the proscenium arch and is presented as a performing art, there is never a contract that dancers sign, often never any sizeable amount of money that they are offered and there is no product that they create except the dazzling moment when their art comes throbbingly alive. And time cannot be sold; nor intangible human experience.
Because that is what dance really is. It is an art form that entwines viewer and artiste in a sacred bond of time, space and memory. You cannot “can” a dance performance and watch it at your will. The aesthetic experience demands your time as sacrifice, and the dancers’ art as theirs. It is this combined sacrifice of dancer and viewer that melds to create the unique experience of Indian classical dance. And every dancer is different. Each time an accomplished artiste presents even the same number, it is invested with new energy, and because it is presented in a different construct of time and space, the aesthetic experience is also invested with renewed freshness. The personal memory of the dancer, her impulses of the moment, her physical fitness, her creative fitness during a performance are unique and are variables. This mercurial aspect of classical dance makes it resist all restrictions of the market place.
The laws of the market are predictability, saleability, quality control and constant availability. Classical dance cocks a snook at each one of these and pooh-poohs all attempts to get slotted in a comfort zone of homogeneity or conformity. Dance zindabad!
The writer is founder-president of Natya Vriksha, Delhi. She is both a performer and teacher.
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