Dec 15, 2008

Lifestyle - Classical Dance;Bridging the Gap


The Hindu held a seminar recently on the gap, if such exists, between the artist and the audience for dance and music. This threw up several related issues in my mind, for, such an observation is subjective and changes from artist to artist and from audience to audience.

What relationship is there in the first place between these two groups? What reputation does the particular artist enjoy? How often have the members of that audience heard or seen the artist in question? How much art do they follow per se? Is it an ongoing relationship or can you judge a performance on a single viewing?

In cinema, we tend to follow the fortunes of an actor, enjoying some films of his and not others, but tend to grow with the actor’s work depending upon who is directing him and the storyline. This happens with painters and musicians too, but not quite, with dancers. Many dancers are doomed on one showing!

Audience taste

Have audiences yet to develop a taste for dance? Since they are not quite groomed in the styles and the nuances of the various dance forms in this country, members of the audience tend to veer towards the opinion of the person sitting nearby.

As for the critic, this is a dying breed. In India the art scene is vast — the number of dance forms, the various gharanas or banis within each style, the numerous performers of those banis: young and younger to old and older, the various disciples of illustrious gurus whose gurus are beyond reproach and therefore if still alive, put a damper on their judgment etc etc. Who, therefore, is the critic taking as a standard? Who are they comparing you to? Is that comparison from the experience of performances running in a single season or is it from their memory of dancers and dance gone by?

We all know that memories are both hazy and nostalgic. So, how biased is their viewing even of the same artist? I’d wager a guess that with the classical dancer they are not looking for a renewed spirit in the same dancer, but nostalgia for a time gone by. In such a scenario, a new or “different” work is suspect because they have little to compare it to.

Audiences are generous. They have, if you like, “the child” in them when coming for a concert. They wish to be drawn into a world of beauty and enquiry. They are not worried about “the gap”, if such exists. Their only quest is to leave fascinated by some extraordinary technique and abhinaya. They are usually heard commenting on form and expression. In drama, the dramatic element seems to be appreciated perhaps more than the subtle. This is true of their evaluation of solo dance as well.

Time for subtlety

It is time now to look for subtler translations in dance of the text. The symbols of art in India have to be disseminated once again. There was obviously a time when the aam aadmi, since I do not like the expression “the common man”, understood the symbols and so, these became mere representations in art. The dhvani or resonance of the symbol was perhaps common knowledge and a cultured society held in itself the resonances of that symbol, due perhaps to their wider understanding of literature, sculpture, music, drama, the scriptures, temple architecture and dance. Now, 300 years or so later, we have no idea what these symbols stand for. For instance, the mudra of a shankhu or conch shell is held by the dancer. The dancer has a pleasant enough expression on her face while doing so. This registers as an important symbol of Lord Vishnu, the Protector. But does the dancer understand what the shankhu stands for, or the numerous stories and references that support that one symbol? Does the audience, in that split-second that the dancer holds the conch-shell, see or notice it enough to understand why it was held and the resonance of the mudra vis-À-vis the larger idea of the composition being handled? And the even larger reflection that one gesture has upon our particular culture and upon who we are and the way we think?

For a satisfying experience

I daresay “no”. Is it necessary for us to understand this? Yes. It would make the experience of the performance and the subtle appreciation of the text far more satisfying. It would bring to life “the deadness” we now experience in performance and in observation. For, it is not enough to simply know the composer, or even the choreographer of the piece, to know the names of the raga and the number of beats of the tala, not even enough to know the nayika being performed or the passage of music being negotiated. It is time we moved our experience as artists and as rasikas up a notch. For, it is the moments in between that make for a true experience of the art. In this, the artist and rasika are on equal footing and one of them can gain more from the experience than the other merely by what they are looking for and the connections that they are making through the same art experience.

The author is a well-known danseuse and Director, Kalakshetra, Chennai.

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