I watched a traditional chhau performance today. Having gone through half a diploma in dance now, and acquiring rudimentary knowledge about bharatnatyam and chhau, I found the performance pitiful.
Chhau is a recent addition to the 6 original Indian Classical Dance forms, previously practiced as a martial arts form. There are different variations of it, and todays performance was the aspect of dance concerning plebeian village life, as is a common theme in folk dances. It had 5 parts.
1. Was the invocation and salutation to the diety, as is a usual starting point. It starts off slow and is a warm up for the dancer as well as for the audience. This conforms to most pieces of dance, music or theater as they start slow, zenith somewhere and end either on a high energy note, or a dramatic note.
2. The part of a boatman ferrying across his beloved – Depicting everyday village activity, except that the part of the lover was played very obviously by a shorter man. In effect it looked like a manly woman wooing another mans potbelly.
3. Radha and Krishna – Throwing in what a classical piece is incomplete without
4. Shiva and Shakti – Right side dressed as Shiva, Left side dressed in Parvati.
5. Fisherman – Who looked like he was going hunting for either a lake or an airborne fish.
Most parts of the above-mentioned were clumsy, lacking spontaneity or creativity. A lot of people would say that it was good, but I’m sure that would be out of pity, and comparing this to an underdog performance when put on the same pedestal as an international level performance.
I think its time we stop excusing mediocrity in the name of tradition.
Why I thought it was pathetic?
1. Redundancy: I understand that this artform is centuries old, and the audience back then had the patience to receive information really slow. Also, as a friend pointed out, each character could be established over a long time with very little happening on stage. But in today’s context, where people are used to digesting a lot of information all at once, and where redundancy is seldom tolerated, I found the beginning just plain pathetic. Except that I was greatly entertained by the idiocy of it, am probably going to be giggling about it to myself all weekend, karma which i’m sure will be justly returned to me when I perform.
2. Visual Appeal: Indian Classical Dance relies greatly on the visual, with adornation being one of the 10 most important aspects of a dancer. But unfortunately too many Classical Dancers rely too heavily on it. Its just as irritating to watch a really good looking actor do a botchy job of acting. A lot of Indian Classical Dance training, such as Bharatnatyam, is more about co-ordination of the arms and legs, completely ignoring the body consciousness aspect of dance, where you are really dancing, and not just imitating someone else.
3. Lack of Facility: I also understand that most artists in India don’t have the facility, (studio, wooden floors etc) exposure or faculty to train their bodies like they do in the west, and that the sense of aesthetic is entirely different.But I just don’t understand how a potbellied guy twisting and turning with little sense of control or line, can be a guru and be appreciated. I also find that the movements themselves are childish, and not conducive to add strength or control to the body. Even though Indian art forms date back many centuries, its sad that enough research has not been done in the right direction to really understand the internal aspect of the dance, rather than what it looks like externally.
4. Done-to-death themes: It is extremely cliche to have a part of the performance as “The eternal love of Radha and Krishna”. As Indians, that information as redundant as cows being sacred. It might have exotic appeal to gora audiences in broadway who like to draw simple associations, but it is most insulting to an Indian Audience’s intellect to have to talk about that. It would be far more enriching if a specific incident between Radha and Krishna would be played out, with the artist adding his own bits to the story.
Through the first part of the performance, it is endearing to note that Indian forms acknowledge publicly that the stage is a sacred space, as is to every artist, whether or not they believe in god. When you dedicate your whole life to your form, your stage is your sanctum.
To me dance is an expression of the body.
Fortunately: I have a teacher who has had the exposure in athletics and gymnastics to understand the body aspect of chhau, and not just the visual aspect. With a bit of research one finds that it is surprisingly similar to ballet, which is also an evolution of a martial arts form from Italy.
Unfortunately: I have to alongside go through the rigmarole of “traditional” Bharatnatyam training. It breaks my heart to see so many people being brainwashed into doing this worldwide without knowing why they are doing it, except as a desperate attempt to hold on to their culture. Is stamping my feet about in different directions, while I sit in aramandi really dance for me? Not at all. It is infact torture to my fragile knee joints and back.
Rukmini Devi, a revolutionary dancer in the early 1900s revived Bharatnatyam as a form and established the Kalakshetra school, where she did away with the erotic aspect of the danceform, which had originally brought about its decline. It was the need of the hour. (roughly speaking). What is easily overlooked is that she started training in Bharatnatyam only in her late 20s, after having been trained in Ballet, and having a deep understanding of every muscle in her body. What is passed on to generations below, like chinese whispers, is just the rote movement aspect of it, without the curvy temple dancer juice, and without the knowledge or understanding of the body. It angers me that most Indian Classical Dancers in their 50s are fat, with knee and back problems and blame it on arthritis.
But yet we must ‘respect’ the Indian Traditional Art form because of its linkage to the divine. Really? Blame it on the supernatural? Sometimes you need to see things for as they are, and not make justifications based on culture, divinity, history, heat, diet, poverty, politics and so on.
I wish more people like Rukmini Devi would emerge to suit the need of today, this hour in 2011, and reform the bountiful plethora of intricate and complex Indian movements, study it from the inside, to put it up on a truly international pedestal. To find ways to challenge the body in its capacity of agility, flexibility, strength, internal connections and respect its sensitivity. There are people doing work in pockets, and I really hope that it is a pivotal time for the Indian Contemporary Arts scene in India.
P.S. My apologies to Varun Nair who is the only dancer who can bring out the sexy quotient in Chhau. Inappropriate but skilful.