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Contemporizing Natya: Choreographing for the 21st Century Audience

(Part 2 of the previously published article)


Today’s natyam is a result of various stalwarts like Rukmini Devi Arundale who deserves credit for popularizing Natyam and elevating it from what was a vulgar and cheap form of sensuous dance to a divine and sophisticated classical dance. She also is credited with transforming what was always a solo dance-theater into group dance-dramas, thus creating a bridge between dance and theater. Natya today is also heavily influenced by post-modern external influences from globalization, Information Technology, not to mention cultural osmosis from Bollywood and Western pop culture. Thanks to the enthusiastic practitioners of this art form, we now have a wide range of standards, styles and statements in the field. On one extreme, there are conservatives that staunchly and stubbornly cling on to their traditional form and content; on the other extreme, there are postmodernists who play with the technique and theme, incorporating and infusing new ideas, movements, thoughts and processes into the age-old art form.

While Arundale’s Kalakshetra style of Natya employs slow and simple movements in the abstract portions giving more emphasis to perfect execution of lines, rather than flamboyant display of movements, today’s younger crop of dancers from the same school like The Kirans in Bangalore and Narendra Kumar (Chennai) are re-phasing the older slow jati (pure dance sequences) with brisk fast, intricate, mathematical footwork, leading to a hybrid form of natya which blends the old-school style with fresh cosmetics. Influenced by modern fast life and technology, perhaps? Couple dancing (husband-wife duo popularized by the Dhananjayans, Narasimhacharis, Radha Raja Reddy) with its own share of glamor has also come into vogue from the 1970s onward and audiences now would rather see a male-female duet than a male solo or female solo, even if they were performing the same repertoire.

In the acting department, exaggeration is the old style of dancers like Balaswarasthi, whereas gurus of today like Kalanidhi Narayanan and her excellent students like Priyadarshini Govind employ subtle imagery and subvert gesticulated storytelling in Indian dance. Even mime in Indian classical dance which used to be blatant about fifty years ago, is reduced to realistic, yet stylized acting. And on the other extreme of the spectrum are artists like Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai who with their western theater training infuse ideological approach to their craft where they are breaking through all walls. Sarabhai has exploded borders in using natya as a medium to address social, political and current issues. She turned monologue performance pieces into dialogic exchanges with the audience. Sarabhai has created a niche for herself by embarking into a theatre that almost resembles Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Through her theatrical creations “SVA Kranti” and “Sita’s daughters”, she reaches out to urban slums and rural illiterate populations of India to educate women and help them discover their rights. Anita Ratnam with her company Arangham, creates totally contemporary dances on the foundation of her Bharatnatyam training superimposed by her western theatre and television experience. Her solo operatic work Seven Graces and Tara are departures from Indian theatre as they analyze feminism from mythological to modern – without using any text (only thru pure music, mime and movements).

On one extreme, there are conservatives that staunchly and stubbornly cling on to their traditional form and content; on the other extreme, there are postmodernists who play with the technique and theme, incorporating and infusing new ideas, movements, thoughts and processes..
In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when Natya left the precincts of the temple and entered proscenium stages, it started catering to diverse audience. Until around 1990s, Indian classical dance was regarded as an icon of heritage and culture for Indians. Then things changed with the advent of western influences on Bollywood. Added to that, the new millennium saw television’s obsession with reality shows like Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, which incidentally has its own Indianized versions (Dance India Dance, Jhalak Dhikla Jaa). The Indian dancers and choreographers, who would otherwise only use Indian folk, bollywood and classical movements, now incorporate new concepts into their choreography hop-hop, jazz, salsa, samba, and ballroom. This brings us to the aspect of commercialization, sponsorship and the role of public voting in reality shows. And now the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Slum Dog Millionaire’s victory in the Oscars, has escalated the process.

On one hand we have classical performing arts as a permanent standing icon of India’s rich ancient heritage and culture practiced mostly by the upper and middle class families. On the other hand, India’s global identity as a nation today, reveals a staggering lower class population in slums. Thus we have a strange paradoxical situation of poverty and prosperity existing side-by-side! So does that reflect on our performance scenario? Though I don’t have the answer to that, one thing is certain. Our artists’ economic situation seems to reflect what is happening in the county. Performers have a rich performance background, but no funds to promote themselves. And the ones that do climb the ladder of success and fame are doing it through a strong network or buying power. But then that’s a topic that calls for a separate discussion.

To be continued...

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