I would like to share few articles I wrote in 1983-1984. Those were the years of the first 'East-West dance encounters", discussions and seminars about tradition, need of changes, stagnation and innovation, and new directions in Indian dance were starting to emerge. Some of the questions put forwards in the articles may be obsolete now, but some maybe still relevant.
Odissi: a flower without the fragrance?
Iwas talking to an old devadasi of the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri. She told me that all the people who were now proclaiming to have been the ‘first’ just took of the Odissi dance what they saw, understood, experienced or absorbed and went away to sell it to the world. But that was like to pick up a flower and think to possess its fragrance too, or to copy the recipe of prasada in the temple; it would not have the taste of the original one. In this way, they may have taken away the outward structure of the dance but not the core. This belonged to the temple dancers and would die with the last of them.
We have come a long way since the time when Odissi dance was a matter of life-long training and dedication of a few girls, secluded from the rest of society and fully oriented towards giving pleasure to their Lord residing in the temple. The dance performances of today are totally intermingled with mundane values like ambition, competition, politics, money, showmanship, individual prestige and so on.
But in whose hands does reside the art nowadays ? Each Guru teaches in a different way to maintain his own stamp and property-rights on the students; the students perform items which have been purchased as you would any kind of goods in the market. With the result that the present repertoire of Odissi lacks variety and originality. Leave aside the younger ones, even senior performers don’t know or at least don’t try to compose anything on their own.
In Delhi a dance critic once asked me why, instead of the round bindi with the white petals around it, I did not draw an oblong one while performing. That would suit my oval face better. I stared at her and said “ I do not know, this is what my Guru draw the first time I went on stage and it is supposed to be the right one.” Back in Orissa I brushed up my notes taken during my meetings with the old devadasi and I found that their bindi was not at all round: it was oblong like a drop, with a black spot at the bottom and a v shape supporting it all.
So from where did the round bindi with white petals come? If it was just a convention decided some years ago for the sake of uniformity, then why should I not change it according to my taste and wish?
And here we are at the crucial point of the famous guru-shishya relationship of which India is so proud. Faithfulness and complete submission to one own’s teacher; no right to decide if he is right or wrong; no complaints; no deviations. I admit that for sometime it was all right. Coming from the experience of the 1968 students’ revolutionary movement in Europe, with all the rebellion against rules, authority and boundaries, I could not believe that I had at last found someone to whom I could hand over all the responsibilities of my existence.
There were no alternatives: if I wanted to learn the dance I had to bend down to the rules. And this gave an alibi to that part of myself that was constantly searching for some substitute for parents in spite of all the revolutionary declarations of the other part that was fighting for an independent identity.
But is this really in tune with the times? In this epoch of interchanging disciplines is there really any meaning in belonging to and depending on a single person as the sole repository of all knowledge?
Is there any sense in the way different Guru feud from the boundaries of their styles as if what they are dealing with was born with them and will die with them?
It seems that everybody has forgotten that once, at the dawning of the dance revival, they were all sitting together, putting together all the different experiences they had had, and confronting them with whatever had been handed down by the written tradition..
So at that stage the discipline did not belong to any of them, they were just instruments, serving the cause of the transmission of the art, Maybe this phase lasted for too short a time and , before a real structure could be laid down, they were already competing with each other over who was the purer or the nearer to the original even though the ‘purest’ or the ‘original’ has never been determined or discovered.
And if it is now impossible to bring all of them together again because individual ambitions come in the way, would it not be proper to at least codify the differences into well-defined and scientific gharana? So that the picture is not left only to the imagination of the poor student to be sorted out with all the attendant risk of incurring one or the other’s anger.
This will possibly put at the disposal of the dance practitioner a clear panel of variants, ortodox in style but at the same time open to different ways of utilisation. And it will give the dance style the possibility of growing into new combination instead of just repeating itself in closed and stagnant patterns, linked to the creative genius of a few isolated masters. For what will happen when these few Guru are not there any more?
I wrote an article on Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s life; his training in dance and abhinaya included a twelve years stay with his master, learning the art of singing, playing drums,, stagecraft, make-up, literature on Krishna and Radha, besides the direct experience of performing in all the different roles of the repertoire. His childhood fantasies were full of the world of Radha-Krishna and the different leelas .He did not have or need not to have any further or broader education; this is what his world was made of.
On the other side the old devadasi was telling me that her childhood had not been like that of her other classmates. Back from school she was not supposed to mix freely with other children and go and play in the streets or along the river. She received at home, from her own mother, teachings about the Radha-Krishna cult, Oriya and Puranic literature, dance and its meaning.
Her food was always the prasad brought from the temple and her dresses, except for the occasion of seva in the temple, were humble and sober. In this atmosphere, totally engrossed in religious feelings, Jagannath was the only emotional and psychological landmark of her existence.
Nowadays Jagannath’s murti is on the stage, but the dance is done for the public. The same themes are conveyed but the situation is artificially recreated during the two hours of the performance and it dissolves in the background of the audience daily occupations and preoccupations.
Is this the ‘fragrance’ that is missed which according to the old devadasi will pass away together with the last one of them?
The stories of Radha and Krishna talk of the universal feelings of love and separation. But if the stories have lost their metaphysical reality and are just themes within the reach of human psychology, they surely don’t need to be the only ones to be used in the dance compositions of today. This I say without trying to take away anything from the greatness of Jayadeva’s Geeta Govindam or any of the beautiful songs of the Vaishnava literature.
The question is: are we able today to render them with the same unquestionable faith and universal implications endowed upon them by their authors and reproduced in the lives and in the dance of the ‘servants of God’? Or are we just getting the flower and leaving out the fragrance?
During the evenings of the East-West Dance Encounter (which took place from 22nd to 29th January 1984 at National Center for Performing Arts, Mumbai, sponsored by NCPA and Max Mueller Bhawan.) on the stage the gap was striking; the Eastern dancer all dressed up, ornamented and protected, the Western one naked, exposed, vulnerable.. The latter with wide-open eyes expressed uncertainty, anguish, desperation in relation to the unknown; the former, with devoted and submissive eyes, expressed a longing for her beloved.
In both cases long years of training lay behind the conditioning of the body. The best among the Western dancers, for all their physical fitness, cannot move the neck, the torso or the fingers the way the Indian dancer does. The best among the Eastern dancers, for all their training, cannot raise the legs, keep balance or conceive a step out of the rules.
A conditioned medium for a conditioned human being! Many questions, doubts, proposals, emerged during the closed sessions; is the form or the content to be changed? Can a free dance exist in a traditionally settled society? Can the dancer keep out of social context?
One of the first discussion I had with my Guru at the very beginning of my arrival in
Faced with this contradiction, what should a woman do: change her life or change her dance? I changed my life. In my own experience at that stage it was more revolutionary to accept a tradition than to be against it. I had already been naked and exposed during the years of vagabondage, of experimentation and political struggle, during the year of rejecting and rebellion that have been part of my story as well as that of a full generation of young people in the West. The present choice is not imposed on me and I am ready to go beyond it as soon as become unrelated to whatever I project into it. If you have found yourself once you
But what does the symbol of Sita mean to a woman who in life has to follow the example compelled by her surroundings and not by her own choice? And again what does it mean for a woman who rejects this model in her personal life but is still using it as a content of her artistic expression?
On the other side there is the complete abandon and freedom of the Western exponent. In the process of alienation from the old and the traditional everything has been discarded, the bad and the good, with the result that often the artistic expression has become too abstract, too technical or too extreme and abstruse, in one word, too “void”. True, it reflects the aridity of our modern life, but that should not be an excuse for not trying to convey through the artistic medium an emotional alternative.
At this point we could say that the broad categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ are no more to be referred to because, as cultural contexts, both can lead to one or an other kind of conditioning of the individual and his expressional needs.. The focus should shift towards the artist as a human being, the genuineness and sincerity of his involvement and dedication, the trueness and coherence in his life and his work. Shiva is eternally dancing his cosmic dance; it is not Odissi or Bharatnatyam, it is not of the East or of the West. It is the universal dance of creation and destruction, life and death, that modern man can understand in terms of energy, atoms, particles, magnetism and matter. It is sometimes joyful, sometimes wrathful, sometimes water, sometimes fire, sometimes at peace, sometimes full of tension.. Can’t we be inspired by this example of dynamism and freedom instead of only trying to copy iconographically his postures and depict stories and anecdotes?
Is a universal dance beyond geography, languages, costumes, themes and denominations no more possible? I know it may sound as an ‘utopia’ but I just want to take a large breath in the stratosphere before coming back again to our atmospherical reality of Gurus, styles,, modern, traditional, concrete, abstract, religious, profane,. I am sure if we dancers, with different technical experiences but animated by the same honesty towards our search, could work together, a sort of rejuvenated and universal dance could emerge comprehending the old and the new, the East and the West, the discipline of the body and the freedom of the mind.
In the present reality of multinationals and intercommunication between states and disciplines, art in general and dance in particular, are still too linked to regional idioms and divided by geographical borders. The horizons should be opened and the cult of the ‘prima donna’ should be replaced by the cult of truth and essential.
This first East-West Dance Encounter should open the doors to more and more encounters among dancers where, more than shows and talks, there could be experiences of life and work together. Theatre workers have already taken several steps towards this getting together, sharing experiences beyond any difference of style and tradition. Can’t we dancers too have regular International Dance Encounters, organised every time in different parts of the world, as a common platform of research and understanding?
The continuity between life and art which, in the past, has always been responsible for the formation of any artistic expression seems at present to be lost behind empty schemes and repetitive formulae.A tribal man uses his art to talk with God, whom does the modern man address when he repeats the same gestures on a modern stage? And whom does he speak to when he creates new gestures that nobody understands?
Both risks are there: from the East the same and mechanical repetition and deception, from the West, the abstruse and , at any cost, new or the empty displaying of technique and perfection. And, in the middle, is a common ground of the coming together of artists as human beings, open to each other and ready to give and to take not for the benefit of any bank account but for a kind of mutual, spiritual and human enrichment.
(Published in NCPA Quarterly Journal, June 1984, Mumbai)
Is Tradition A Burden?
Traditional values are like the double-faced God of the Latin mythology, Janus : on one side benevolent or enriching , and on the other evil or oppressing .
I grew up in an orthodox and traditional environment , where things of religion and life were given to me as granted and unquestionable . Later on, as I became conscientious , I began to realize that what I was asked to do was not exactly what I was feeling to do . And I started to disobey , to go against the rules , without knowing exactly why and what I was searching for. It was just that I could not do otherwise . It took ten years from those early days before I could pacify myself with another set of traditional values belonging to another culture in another part of the world.
So what happened during those ten years that made me recognize the positive face of tradition and get rid of the oppressive one? What does it mean to have refused Christ and have found Krishna ? And how is it that after having gone through revolutionary movements against rules and authority I found myself so at easy interpreting the submission of Radha. the tenderness of Sita or the devotion of Hanuman?
I do not wish to deal here with the subject from an intellectual point of view but just give an answer that comes out of genuine experience. In life , as a woman who wanted to live as fully as possible any experience , free to choose and reject according to her own choice , it was rather the male more than the female components of my personality to come forward in many circumstances .
Being alone along the way, one has to struggle and defend oneself without being allowed to submit own responsibilities in anybody else's hands. In private , as in social relationships, the need to distinguish and impose oneself takes the upper hand on the need to be gentle and submissive.
When now a days , through dance, I am able to identify myself with a feminine 'archetype' full of grace, tenderness, devotion and submission , it is because through these values I can experience a part of my personality that probably up to this moment had not much chance to emerge. In the same way , I am equally ready to taste the excitement to be Kali , fire , demon ,or destruction. And again , I am able to enjoy playing with Krishna , dealing with his mischievous deeds and challenges because the experience is so different from the sense of oppression and guilt to which I was used while relating myself with the christian God.
Having gone through life, through all its heights and depths without fear of the risk and unknown , I am no more slave of values but free to relate to them as personifications of my total way of being. The content is mythological ,the form or medium is dance , a coordinated discipline of body and mind. It could have been poetry, literature, ritual , painting or any other medium of expression.
The medium like the content has not been imposed but found at the end of a long and dedicated search. And as I found them , I am equally prepared to lose or to substitute these safe anchorages as soon as they would stop to give me back what I project into them . If you have found yourself once you know that you can not be lost any more, even in a period of darkness and temporary absence of land marks . When the moon is completely dark, the new one starts to grow, says the Chinese philosophy . If you are open to this kind of dialectical approach , there is no question of old or new, traditional or modern: it is just a matter of being yourself.
But being in India , and particularly in Orissa , for almost 5 years , and living side by side with girls and women who are learning like me the same artistic form but have at their back a completely different experience of life from mine and a different attitude towards the art itself , I ask myself “Is tradition, for them , enriching or oppressive?”
Or putting the question differently : what does the symbol of Sita mean for a woman , who has to follow this example in life, compelled by her surroundings and not by her own choice? And what does it mean for a woman who has rejected this model in her personal life but is still using it as a content for her artistic expression?
For somebody , evidently , the myth still works. They don't find discrepancy in accepting the role assigned to them by the traditional social assets. They don't feel the urge to question . They are still happily living like puppets in somebody else's hands. But more and more girls, who are coming to learn dance, are nowadays getting exposed, outside the class, to the contradictions of life , to the process of breaking of rules and values, to the hypocrisy and corruption which governs the society around.
In this context, does the traditional training based on blind faith and silent execution help them to live their life in a conscious and responsible way? And does this sophisticated and untouched world of art reflect at all the needs and urges of the world outside?
I am not here to suggest a pilgrimage to the West to anybody in crisis. I don't think the West has much content to offer. In fact we have been lucky to have had the possibility to come towards the East and to find here alternative values . But from the East , where to go? I think what the West can teach is perhaps how to be honest towards one’s real quest, without arresting the search in front of any risk or compromise. When one has lost the way, he starts searching for his own directions, he himself becomes his own religion.
"Leave everything behind and follow me” is no more a voice from outside but from inside . The call comes from the total 'Self’ and not only from the rational and conditioned part of the psyche alone. At the end or at a certain point of the process one may come across the old symbols again and find oneself acting as a docile Sita or a fighting Kali, but at this stage these characters will be integral elements of one’s own expanded personality and not only part of the mythology. Or one may find that this language is not at all meaningful for him and he may discover to be more at easy with other kind of identifications, as a social worker or a political activist for example
Classical dance, among all the artistic mediums, is maybe the one which has remained the more untouched as far as form and content are concerned. That means that the dancers and performers of today are all equally conscious and aware of their choice, or simply they are just executing without questioning ? As a dancer who has found such a well of wealth in the tradition of this land I put these questions to another dancer , who may take things for granted losing in the process the very essence of it.
(Published in Indian and world arts and crafts, 1984, New Delhi)