See the music, hear the dance

Return of Culture

See the music, hear the dance

Bharatanatyam dancer Alrmel Valli.

In a year dominated by talk of economic recovery, terrorism and climate change, the arts, never quite centrestage at the best of times, might have slipped unnoticed into a fatal silence. And yet, this last year saw a few distinctive experiments with a more assured expression of individuality, from those who delved deeper into the resources of their field to bring new and intelligent work, bringing meaning to the variable fabric of Indian culture in the year signaling hope for deeper and more thoughtful cultural engagements in the future.
   
Curiously, it was an event which took place in December in Bangalore, which would provide a framework for taking stock of and recognising a pattern in the outpouring of these individual creative energies through the year. The two-day conference on ‘Arts Education: Contexts, content and practices in schools’, in Bangalore jointly hosted by the India Foundations for the Arts (IFA) and the Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan was a culmination of a pilot training effort of school teachers called ‘Kali Kalisu’ which had trained 500 teachers across rural Karnataka.

The conference brought together poets, theatrepersons, painters, social scientists and teachers to discuss how best to teach the arts and give students a lifelong feel for them.

Social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan who launched a blistering attack on the stranglehold of inept officialdom in education which sought to straightjacket many cultures into one while ignoring the realities of Indian pluralism saw hope, “provided we can reject officialdom and celebrate our differences.”

Present at the conference were Bangalore-based artists like CF John, who has created thoughtful installations and paintings which show the artist making viable connections with his local environment and culture through a spirit of universal humanism.

Mumbai-based poet, painter and playwright Gieve Patel, whose poetry classes with Rishi Valley students over 13 years, led to a book of poems ‘Poetry with Young People’ published by Sahitya Akademi, shared his experiences of sharing and discovering poetry with students. Dadi Pudumjee’s Ishaara theatre group put up a moving show, and was a reminder of the power of  the imagination.

Scene from Ninasam’s ‘Vennissina Vyapaara.’KV Akshara from Ninasam in Heggodu, which has a vibrant travelling theatre group Tirugata, apart from a theatre school and publishing venture, was part of the exercise to increase the scope for the arts in education. This year apart from its regular activities, Ninasam as a distinct organisational effort, also took poetry and culture workshops into rural Karnataka colleges. “The hunger for knowledge and for the arts in particular is very real,” said Akshara.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, the year began with a large multidisciplinary arts festival ‘Anubhuti’ at Mumbai’s leading cultural institution the NCPA, that included a wealth of high profile artistes.

High note

Later in the year, NCPA launched Sangit Chintan, a new programme devoted to understanding Indian classical music through its gharanas and named after Tagore’s seminal work on music, is a serious engagement which has won itself a strong and committed audience base without any dilution of its proposition. Experts from the Jaipur Atrauli gharana and the Gwalior and Kirana gharanas came together over the last year to play rare recordings and share a history of their musical legacy at well attended and in depth shows, a clear indication of the latent need for undiluted experiences of the arts, even today.

Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award (META) the annual theatre awards from the Mahindras in March, in its fourth year, awarded plays like Hindi film lyricist Swanand Kirkire’s Ao Saathi Sapna Dekhen, and Rajat Kapoor’s Hamlet the Clown Prince which was judged the best play and also fetched the best director award for Kapoor and best actor award for Atul Kumar.

Committed to promoting standards of excellence in theatre and a welcome entry on the cultural scene, META has over the years acquired attributes of smooth officialdom with its awards and nominations following a predictable pattern. Thus far, the exercise has stayed away from a more rigorous involvement and investment of itself into the processes of theatre making, or indeed anything else which could test META’s long term vision for theatre.

The benefits of singular focus in the arts were visible in Natya Santati, a three-day festival of rare classical dances performed at the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre in Mumbai jointly organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the NCPA. The exquisite dance theatre form of Koodiyattan from Kerala, the lyrical Shattriya dance from the Vaisnava monasteries of Assam and the rousing Chhau performances from Seriakela, Mayurbhanj and Purulia showed the artistic brilliance of dance forms which have only recently been included in the classical canon and given special support by the SNA through specially constituted regional centres.

Grace, all the way

Noted Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli presented a thoughtful and delightfully different performance on padams and javalis titled, ‘See the music, hear the dance’ at the same venue a few months later in Mumbai. “In an age when Bharatanatyam seems to focus increasingly on overt dramatisation and sensational physicality, this was an attempt to return to what I believe is the essence of this dance form — its rich musicality, poetry, and the magic of subtexts, where subtle shades of meaning are suggested, through the sway of the body, turn of head, twitch of the eyebrow, glance of eye, flick of the wrist, ...” explains Valli. Padams and Javalis are intensely subjective; these love songs are as difficult to sing as they are to dance to and require the most subtle expressions from a dancer.

Alternating between the more leisurely and emotionally complex padams where the dancer seemed to hold tremulous and pure emotion with a deep sense of involvement and grace in her movements and the faster paced javalis where she showcased a range of more temporal emotions with the same grace and joyousness, Valli’s dance showed the powers of a highly evolved dancer and intelligent performer aware of the cultural import of her art.

The Q Theatre  group comprising young theatre professionals from Mumbai brought an unabashedly urban sensibility to raise awkward questions about serious development issues like land acquisition, corporate growth and the fate of endangered tribes in Project Strip.

This was an intelligent production which brought argument and deadpan humour together in a freewheeling script which although written by Ram Ganesh Kamatham owed its substance as much to the contributions from cast and crew, including its director Quasar Padamsee who came together for intensive sessions spread over weeks to devise the script.

Another well received play which melded various arguments linked to an important issue was Sex, Morality and Censorship directed by Sunil Shanbag and developed by noted writer and critic Shanta Gokhale and Marathi theatreperson Irawati Karnik. Taking off from the problems faced by Vijay Tendulkar’s powerful play Sakharam Binder which earned the ire of various groups that led to its ban in 1972, the play owes its success to its structure. Skillfully put together by Gokhale who uses her long years as a cultural commentator and writer with very close links to Marathi theatre, the play uses the particulars of this case to raise questions about censorship in the arts especially in a country of myriad and differing cultural and regional identities like India.

This powerful play of ideas showed a rare readiness to make connections between events in the past and unfolding issues which govern the state of our culture today. Disappointingly, the production tries too hard to be entertaining as if unable to believe sufficiently in the force of its own argument. Nevertheless this was one of the best plays of the year.

Theatres of India

For fans of the annual Prithvi theatre festival, it was a good year. Titled ‘Theatres of India’, the festival celebrated the plays and styles of Nirman Kala Manch from Patna, Ninasam from Hegoddu and Adishakthi from Pondicherry. The plays from Patna use local legends and history to create a theatre dominated by straight storytelling and a robust mix of theatrical styles. Neelkantha Nirala, a play on the poet Nirala was impressive. Ninasam’s plays in Kannada included a Yakshagana performance and a fine adaptation of Merchant of Venice in Vennissina Vyapaara as well as Aakashabuti based on Jayant Kaikini’s stories.

Adishakthi ,which uses practices linked to the traditional arts to create a visually perfected form which somehow retains a suggestion of the changeable, presented several plays. The Hare and the Tortoise, its most recent work is an attractive mediation on rival pairs, while Rhinoceres based on Ionesco’s play successfully brought together the unique play of music, text and movement in a visually stunning performance.      

Ending the year on a good note is the ongoing music and dance season in Chennai. Gowri Ramnarayan presents ‘Peacock Blue’, a depiction of wonder for the many forms of Krishna seen through the eyes of composers as varied as Jayadeva, Ras Kahan and Meera.

This will be performed by Bharatanatyam dancers Shreejith Krishna and Anjana Anand. SNA’s brilliant Chhau dancers will perform there as will noted neo Bharatam dancer Anita Ratnam with a new piece titled ‘Matrika’, a depiction of quintessentially female energies. Next year, literary critic Ganesh Devy is organising a march of dying languages in Baroda before organising a bigger march to Delhi later in the year. Perhaps culture will begin to matter again after all.

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