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The goddess is green-hued, and the dancer resorts to metaphors to enhance the visual effect. How? The gestures and movements are of nature—leaves, trees, birds. Okay. Indian classical? Yes, ‘stock movements’ from Bharatanatyam. Well, thereafter, the artiste goes off-beat. He dips his hand into green dusted powder, which goes on to mingle with the sweat of the dancer. He continues to perform; ends up adorning himself with green marks. Where all? Torso, head and even face.
The effect of Navtej Johar’s innovation is that of a “startling transposition of the spectator’s focus”, says fellow dancer Justin McCarthy. The purist may not agree, but then Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India doesn’t stop any from sharing what one felt on seeing a stage production. Artistes too have views. That way, Navtej looks clearer when it comes to writing. In his account, Locating Autonomy, De-policing Ambition, the dancer comes up with an interesting paradox: what has come down as ‘tradition’ is “beautiful, profound, fine and uplifting”, while its understanding is “oppressive, fabricated, insidious and mind-numbing”.
Tilt Pause Shift is a compilation of ten dance essays and 12 choreographic portraits to “show the diversity of practices and methodologies that comprise the movement ecosphere we inhabit”, according to culture researcher Anita E. Cherian, who has conceived and compiled the work. The effort is least to delineate a field; instead, it is to “offer the reader the savour of possibility”, the professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi, writes in the opening piece. It’s an investigation of movement and, in particular, dance as a marked subset of it.
The book keeps its word by maintaining a balance/counterpoint to several reflections and analyses. Breaking the involuntary impression one might have that a work like this would largely tend to slot contemporary dance as a potential weapon for social change, it accommodates views to the contrary. In an essay bluntly subtitled ‘The Failure of Contemporary Dance to Become Political’, JNU’s Brahma Prakash states, with inputs, how the genre—unlike theatre and several musical streams—“is not perceived as a threat to neoliberal politics”, despite having “addressed political issues such as questions of body, identity and subjectivity”.
Pune-based Kabir Kala Manch, formed in 2002 after the Gujarat riots, has engineered a choreopolitics that offers two kinds of critiques: on elite abstract art and on everyday life.
Yet, Prakash speaks of a Maharashtra revolutionary cultural group, connecting its activism practices to a broader socio-political movement. For, Pune-based Kabir Kala Manch, formed in 2002 in the wake of the Gujarat communal massacre, has succeeded in engineering a choreopolitics that simultaneously offers two kinds of critiques: on elite abstract art and on everyday life. Steeped in protest poetry and slum plays, the Manch’s works offer “a new site of reimagining the question of contemporaneity”.
Possibly, the Manch’s spirit is uninhibited, given that its young performers generally have no history of learning a classical form. That isn’t the case with most contemporary dancers in present-day India. Right from septuagenarian Astad Deboo (trained in Kathak and Kathakali) to the newest in the crop, quite a few have had their classroom brush with one traditional form or the other. Just a look at the four mentioned in Tilt Pause Shift is point enough. A work by middle-aged Maya Krishna Rao features a “play of gaze and breath inspired by Kathakali”, notes reviewer Arushi Singh, while much of the movements of Manipur’s Surjit Nongmeikapam stem from “diverse dance trainings (Kathak to Kalaripayattu) he encountered during his formative years”, points out Abanee Dutta about OneVoice (2011).
Chennai’s Preethi Athreya’s works, observes critic Parvathi Ramanathan (who is herself exploring other forms of movement and expression), tend to trace both her lessons in Bharatanatyam and subsequent training (under Padmini Chettur) to “unlearn the strictures that these classical forms have placed on the body”. In the performance of Nimmy Raphel, who learned Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam before working with Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam, “we see multiple strains of training stripped down and abstracted”, going by her production Nidravathwam.
The ancient Sanskrit theatre of Koodiyattam has a millennium-and-half-old female solo offshoot, Nangiarkoothu, which finds inclusion here. Its innovative exponent, Kapila Venu, shows wisdom beyond her age when she “believes it is important for some of the performers to be rooted in tradition, interested in history and rigorous in performance techniques, while some others create new choreographies and experiment with the structure”.
Ranjana Dave’s take on Odissi as a continually evolving form focuses on three modern-day practitioners, but none of them (Sharmila Biswas, Ramli Ibrahim and Surupa Sen) “necessarily identify themselves as ‘contemporary’ artists”. Dave goes into some of the labyrinths of the 1960s Jayantika movement that resurrected (based on sculptures and scriptures) the eastern Indian form. Yet, its leader, Kelucharan Mahapatra, the essay notes, banked on “careful observation of human behaviour” as a key source of raw material.
Isn’t that what contemporary dancers today are doing, too?