All our discussions on how to contemporise our classical arts have focussed on two main sets of arguments: one being how movements can be cleaned up to reflect contemporary taste; the other on how dance can be made more spiffy, using new stage technologies. Both, unfortunately, have been triggered by our need to make the classical palatable to the western eye!
We should add a third dimension: the need to generate new myths to make the classical attractive to our own home-grown, young and new audiences. This is not rocket science! In the arena of philosophy, among many others, Swami Chinmayananda demystified opaque texts like the Bhagwad Gita, and made it relevant for our times. And in his tradition, Swami Tejomayananda wrote a new birthday song in Sanskrit that reflects birthday greetings in our Indian context and which is definitely so much more evocative than the bald ditty of ‘Happy Birthday to You!’: Janma-dinam-idam ayi priya sakhe/Sam tanotu te sarvada mudam! (O dear friend! May this birthday bring joy and auspiciousness to you forever!)
Part of the criticism faced by classical dancers today is that they perform old tales and myths whose relevance in our times needs to be questioned. The challenge for dancers, thus, is how can we create new myths that reflect the issues of our times? And can this be done without sacrificing the aesthetic construct of our classical arts?
Let me share a personal example. A few years ago Rasaja Foundation commissioned a performance to tackle the issue of female foeticide through classical Bharatanatyam. After much discussions with several scholars, we decided that the performance would take inspiration from the tales of several goddesses from our mythology. But mythology does not yield stories of foeticide – which is held as “sin” in
So against the panorama of Devi myths, creatively, we inserted a section with a new myth in which a community decides to construct a new temple for the Devi, and when the ground is broken, to everyone’s horror, it throws up innumerable female foetuses that have been surreptitiously buried there! The moment of that discovery was presented in the classical bhava of utter horror. Consequently, the temple project is
abandoned since the Devi cannot be homed in a site where she has been already violated. This new myth for our times struck a high note of acceptance amongst all audiences.
More recently, my work threw the spotlight on the dilemmas faced by another hero from another epic. This time it was a focus on Mahatma Gandhi playing the role of hero in the epic of India’s freedom struggle. But in this project I rejected the strategy of biography or its worse cousin, hagiography, opting instead to tread the path of Gandhian concepts, leaving the analysis to the audience. The resultant abstractions obtained by representing these concepts through dance, created the possibilities of raising multiple questions that had perturbed me personally: issues of religious intolerance, for one. Also, in the highly sexed-up media environment which accosts us constantly from all sides with images of sex as product, I was totally intrigued by Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy! Included also were Gandhi’s experiments with social engineering by making the upper castes aware of the indignities they were heaping on the dalits. The current confusion over defining sustainable development was another catalyst and the performance evoked the Gandhian concept of small and sustainable, and his experiments with khadi.
These have been two very humble experiments with new myths. But there is little doubt that if our classical world sets its energies on writing new myths that are relevant for our times, we will see a renewed spurt of interest for our classical dances.