Beyond linear learning

The pandemic has forced a reimagining of how we consume as well as present classical art, says danseuse Swapnokalpa Dasgupta.
Last Updated : 17 October 2020, 20:15 IST
Last Updated : 17 October 2020, 20:15 IST

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The pandemic has forced us to imagine the world in ways we never thought we would or could. Words like social, public, crowd, audience etc., now look for alternate definitions. A drastic change has occurred in the consumption of art, with little or no preparedness for the kind of digital encounters we are witnessing today. Art genres that were particularly designed for site-specific performances have been reimagined for the immediacy of this consumption. Albeit unfortunate, the moment is historical as it challenges pedagogy, breaks down the nuances of connoisseurship, foregrounds the question of accessibility and subverts the character of the aesthete.

In this light, we caught up with Odissi dancer and the Head of Programming at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, to understand these changes within the world of performing arts, especially Indian classical dances. Swapnokalpa’s own journey as a dancer has been a mixed pot of aspects she encountered with her many teachers. After observing a young Swapnokalpa at a workshop he had organised, Kelucharan Mohapatra (Kelu babu as he is fondly remembered), the architect of modern Odissi dance, asked for her to be brought to Bhubaneswar. Her mother took her to Bhubaneswar every vacation; she stayed at his place and learnt dance.

“He made video recordings of my dance, while I danced with either Sujata didi (Sujata Mohapatra) or someone else, so that I could see the comparisons later. His classes extended much beyond the designated time, even going up to 3 am. I received the National Scholarship in senior category under him when I had just turned 18. I was one of the youngest to achieve that. All these things meant special classes full of intensive practice,” says Swapnokalpa. She later went on to learn under Poushali Mukherjee, Sujata Mohapatra and Ratikant Mohapatra. Kelu babu was quick to notice the singer in Swapnokalpa and urged her to pursue music too.

Unconventional training

“An unconventional dance training like this has opened things up for me beyond the linear learning that happens under one teacher. Knowing the songs is crucial; it flows through your body. Your voice modulation tells you how the energy would be distributed in the body, from one posture to another,” she adds.

As the Head of Programming at the NCPA for the past seven years, Swapnokalpa has administered and curated many festivals and hosted some of the best performing artistes today. She says that the key to understanding good arts' administrative work while being an artiste herself is finding a balance between the two. “Administration is a part of being an artiste, management is everyone’s life. If not at the NCPA, it would my dance school. This is what life is, you cannot just be doing one thing. As an administrator, one of the first battles is to remain unbiased, it is something I am encouraged to do every day by our director — to place yourself one step back and look at things like a candidate. There is a great deal of conscious calculation that is deployed in the first stage and the organic selection only comes later,” says Swapnokalpa.

Digital stage

An all-pervasive concern today is the life and livelihood of artistes across the globe. Especially for art forms like theatre and dance, the proscenium remains central to the choreography of the work, which artistes have now been forced to reimagine. What we are now witnessing are a series of digital concerts and conversations on different social media platforms, along with a change in the reception/consumption of the arts. Says she, “Right now, I will not judge a new platform, which is the digital stage. I cannot compare it to the proscenium, with arts being specifically crafted to suit it. It is a young stage, efforts have to be put in to nurture it and design new works. For example, I am told that the abhinaya (expression) aspect of classical dances could be more suited because the camera can capture nuances. I will come back to you in 20 years with an answer on how we are dealing with it.” But, the digital stage does not come without its share of criticism.

A recent debate within the dance world was about the 'aesthetics' of one’s room or house that one is dancing in, with some artistes and critics blatantly dismissing these videos as 'bad dancing' because the camera quality is not good enough, or the space did not seem aesthetically pleasing.

This dismissal, of course, takes little into account the class, caste and other socio-economic divides that artistes have been fighting for years. Swapnokalpa responds, “We won’t be able to critique ourselves if we bring in the class divide; we have to move beyond that. But, there should be a minimum standard. One can always hang a saree in the background, now whether or not I like that saree is my problem. I like to look at it as the performers taking care of the performance venue. Covid has given us the opportunity to appreciate the labour that goes into maintaining the venue. We thank organisers and never the sweeper. That realisation is coming because it is being critiqued; it is a good learning but nobody should be judged for it. My drawing room is where I practise and when I am ready, I ditch the place and go to an auditorium. We are looking at a class divide of space here.”

Notions of purity?

While it might be true that the imagination of a space is being challenged in the pandemic, it does not take away the obsession Indian classical dances have with notions of purity. This notion also makes one wonder about those historical tools of analyses and measurement, which have, for decades, talked about good and bad dancing, scrutinising bodies, spaces and artworks alike. The bright side here is that a number of young dancers are having conversations on various social media platforms and news portals, breaking down these tools of measurement to bare essentials.

Perhaps, the one good change we might see during and post the pandemic could be an enhanced notion of inclusivity and sensitivity with regard to both the art and the artiste.

Published 17 October 2020, 19:37 IST

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