I was fortunate to attend the fabulous Purush Conference at Kartik Fine Arts in Chennai, meticulously curated by my good friend, dancer Anita Ratnam. The ideas and thoughts it catalysed were copious and would continue to feed creative fires of all those who were fortunate to participate in the mega event.
However, I was intrigued by two lectures that focussed on how the West viewed two fabulous Indian dancers—Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar. Slotted as beacons of the “exotic orient”, the academic discourse that analysed their performance viewed them primarily from the outside as the “different other”. Their sensuality, flagrant sexuality, their other-worldliness, spiritualism all became reasons for adulation. But their art remained probably un-understood and the cultural context that propelled their creativity went largely unremarked upon.
Why do I raise the subject of orientalism today? I do so because as a viewer of the scene, I fear that we may be falling wily-nily into a similar trap!
And I am even more mortified to raise the point that even our hallowed classical dance space is not free of the pitfalls of such orientalism. At the Purush conference when two amazing young soloists–both young men—danced with gusto. Yet in both their performances, critical elements of Bharatanatyam had been definitely sacrificed at the altar of the “body” and movement for the sake of mere dazzle seemed the preoccupation of both. The larger subtleties of Bharatanatyam were completely lost to the haze of “orientalism” that they both seemed to willingly don.
But they are not to be singled out. No way. In many group choreography efforts that are welded today for large festivals, choreographers are falling in the same pit. In Odissi, probably more than any other style, this breakneck speed at the full cost of the stylistic pleasure seems to have become the new rubric. Bharatanatyam too is prey to similar pitfalls.
Of course, classical dance like any other art can never be static. But art forms need to evolve organically through a historic process. I was intrigued to find these very concerns reflected in a gem of seminar summoned recently in New Delhi by Harsha Dehejia entitled Rasas of Modernity. Addressing that event dancer/guru Sonal Mansingh made valuable critical observations. According to her, the object of the Indian dance experience was “to be” and not “to try to become”. She mourned that nowadays, contemporary had devolved to contempt! She said that dance had disintegrated to merely being a mere pile of patterns and designs, whereas the rasa construct led artistes up a different path. Today mere physicality dominates dance rather than rasa. She said that the pressures of the marketplace had forced dance to embrace mere geometry, pattern and timing. This had robbed the classical of its “aha” moment. In an astute observation, Sonal said that the texts and mythology that gave Indian classical dance its rasa probably burdened its transformation to a contemporary space. Using different words, Sonal too was in fact bemoaning the resurgence of “orientalism” in Indian dance!
This neo-orientalism prism should trouble all of us deeply. Especially because it is being forced on us by our own! Is there a new all-round willingness to embrace alienation from our cultural roots? Have the dance and the audience become the “other” to each?