Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

While Kathak dancer Prathiba raises many valid questions and highlights very valid points, there are a few that put a smile on my face. 

What she meant to say is this:

I hardly ever bother to watch any outstanding classical dancers who never make it to the USA as I may start questioning myself where I truly belong and what the hell I have been doing in Texas, and, more importantly, why I learnt the Persian classical dance Kathak instead of the classical American dance of Salsa.  In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, pants-wetting modern performances in Dallas and Houston by visiting Indian dancers who, being old enough, still aspire to look like some teenage American ballet dancers. Their academic presentations made me feel like the classical (shastriya) Indian dance has now been made to sound scientific enough to be taught at the Faculty of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas. The problem for Kathak still remains: to call it classical, we are yet to write a shastra (or “discover” some fake antique book) based on which it would be called “shastriya”.

I have left the auditoriums giggling, jumping and throwing pieces of potato chips around like a teenager who smoked pot on a first visit to Disney Land. Today’s PR specialists, even those who promote themselves as dancing under the traditional labels, incorporate interesting, simple and entertaining MTV-style movements  in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of devolution, inborn inability to learn anything from Natya Shastra or to perform even a few stretches a day to accomplish what most American teenage ballet dancers or gymnasts achieve with ease and little pride. At the same time, there also seems to be something, such as use of those pretty useless and meaningless hand gestures, that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold. I feel I am entitled to be bold and question everything because I have an American passport.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala, Anita Ratnam and Michael Jackson seem to have taken evolution to a new level far away from the place they started from, questioning the concept of evolution  itself, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas and not on their church affiliations or sex preferences? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero (my daughter always goes to a date in the same torn jeans she wears in her bedroom), the one distressed by separation (everybody knows that once you become separated you are relieved as the costly divorce litigation is near its completion), the one having her husband in subjection (only perverts put their husbands in handcuffs in Texas), the one separated by quarrel (quarrels are needed to show that we have the right to have different opinions), the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover (cheating on one’s boyfriend is absolutely the norm here), the one with a sojourning husband (who came back from Iraq), or the one going to meet her lover (on a blind date).

What about the NRI woman who thinks she is an intellectual or equal of Sigmund Freud? What about the woman who brings home the bacon, sushi, electricity bills, sanitary napkins, the Tea Party leaflets, and condoms? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent, a single woman or a lesbian in a same-sex marriage? May I remind that many women in Texas marry 4, 5 or 6 times and many don’t even remember who are the actual fathers of all their children?

May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every NRI dancer should avoid reading, it is religiously believed by all Texan rednecks to be written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women and statistics are as outdated as some of our old American texts that classify humans based on their US visa status or propagate the theory of creationism that contradicts the Bible or the beliefs of the Faculty of Physics at the University of North Texas. Why are we, the modern women driving expensive cars and wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie, clinging to it for dear life if some of us are in danger of being classified by the 14th Chapter not as Goddesses, Gandharvas, Humans but as belonging to other types, such as Pigs, Horses, Buffalos, Goats or even Dogs? How can our democratic society classify people as noble, mediocre or lowly?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts and conformed to the MTV standards. As an atheist and a member of the Republican party who thinks that everyone, not just Spiderman, must wear one’s underwear over one’s pants, I wish we overcame the limits of beauty and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance, and promoted the same-sex marriages in India. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for someone who resembles one of my ex-husbands. For the Muslim purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for the impersonal and vague truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for years of imagination since the Prophet consummated his marriage with the 9-year-old Aisha?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept not as a reference to some unscientifically genderless godhead, Ida and Pingala, or to American women who are indistinguishable from the American men, but as the oldest example of gender equality and the only instance where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair.

Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure, which is absolutely unrealistic considering how much every American woman has to yell, scream and shout every day. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. Considering that most American women ballet dancers are excited about lifting their legs as high as possible in order to demonstrate the stylishness of their underwear, what about this really shows gender equality?

Showing that the male is all male and the female is all female is outrageous. Showing that the female does not exist without male enhances the wrong and irrational concept that the Universe that manifests in time and space comes from some unscientific Brahman that exists beyond time and space and is independent of the US Government.

Despite all the good values of Indian culture and its cuisine in particular, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question your mom.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions, and the more foolish questions come into our heads, the more we evolve in the eyes of the US Government. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam even beyond the limits of salsa. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I have no choice but to witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard that we find in the old school of the American ballet. As a dancer who dances at home every week, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes instead of sending them to Madras?).

As an economic migrant who came to the US to earn money, I see all NRI and the visiting gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion or investing in real estate but I believe in Statistics and Citibank where I have my savings account. Neither am I traditional to the point of being able to appreciate anything other than rock-n-roll. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals and iPods in auditoriums that are not built according to Natya Shastra. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard as if we were at a GOP meeting. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every plain jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the the glaring evidence of absence of any dance described in 4th Chapter of Natya Shastra.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Once our barriers start feeling free, we stop reading books and begin investigating the crucial issues: which of the current US party does Nataraja belong to, and why he is not depicted as the top American bodybuilders?

Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many quasi-traditional or semi-traditional or newly-traditional items they can get their children to believe they learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam. I am here to do business with you, and not to establish some Gurukula.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to believe they already became dancers in the true sense by sending them to Madras, they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian who can do lecture but not demonstration.

Challenging someone intellectually is, after all, easier than doing it physically. PG and RV became expert lecturers not by following status quo or by practising stretches, but by learning Business Administration, Marketing, PR and carving their own niche in the American market. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few who became proficient in their business promotion.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs as if they come here just to earn money and invest it in Chennai properties? Three reasons exist. I live abroad and got burnt in the US sub-prime mortgage scam. I cannot comment about the current practices in India for fear of being thrown into an open manhole in T.Nagar in the rainy season. While many of them hate to read books, NRIs have the financial resources to take the risk and push the boundaries beyond the limits of the ancient Indian aesthetics and sensibility. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as strip dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences (or rather experiments?) even more until we start frying our dosas on Shevron engine oil instead of ghee. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such, although the popularity of McDonalds in Chennai seems promising. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the money and the cunning to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights in the eyes of Michael Jackson fans?” remains unanswered to me still.

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Ananda Shankar Jayant: the chief pirate in India and Anita Ratnam’s special friend?

Although I am a contributor to Narthaki’s “Roses and Thorns”, I rarely check it out.  This time everyone was sending me their comments (edited and unedited bits of which I will mark in blue) and asking for my reaction to a recent post by Ananda Shankar Jayant. This is  a hilariously brilliant suicide attempt that deserves praise and encouragement 🙂

There is a heated debate among those who are discussing this article. Some comments are pretty inoffensive: “Many of the videos hosted in the site are at least a decade old. There is no other way that youngsters like me would get to watch these videos, but for dancing india“.  A couple of people complained to me that their comments were censured out.

According to a message of  one commentator (Mahesh), his response to Ranjana Dave’s comment (“the misconception that if they [dancers] post videos of their work online, no one will watch them live“) was apparently cut out.

So, what was there that Anita Ratnam could not bear? (Was it her frustration that her most popular video on  Abhinayastore.com priced at $2.99 was bought as many as…. 3 times since… 1 April 2008 ??? 🙂

The main points of what Mahesh sent me deserve to be expanded.

All dancers, despite their paranoid apprehensions of “what if some students record me on their VHS and learn the full item without paying me???”  or, perhaps more frequent “what if people laugh at my crappy dancing?”,  historically strived to be featured on DD because it was some kind of a “status symbol” and marked their entrance into the “elite” of the classical dancers regardless of the quality of their dancing.

The slots for broadcasting classical dance were few and are still sold out like hot cakes. But no commercial TV channels have been interested in total crap like this DD video of Anjana Banerjee even if Anita Ratnam on her site writes that Anjana Banerjee’s “dance forms entirely a part and parcel of India’s cultural heritage“.

And suddenly, all this crap (along with some good stuff) is uploaded onto DancingIndia to be sold to dance junkies, and appears alongside homemade Bharatanatyam videos on Youtube. The “senior” dancers are outraged and scared.

Of what?

Of not being asked a permission for posting their videos online?
Or rather of seeing how few people are watching their videos online while many younger classical dancers receive literally millions of views? The “senior dancers” feel their ill-gotten “status” is threatened. The decade-long artificial hierarchy is challenged and is on its last legs.

One of the comments posted on Narthaki’s Facebook page deserves a special attention.

 Some visitors may have suspected that Ananda is promoting her own videos on Dancingindia. But the posting stirred something in my memory and put a smile on my face.

It was around 2004 when I was searching for Bharatanatyam videos that had not flooded the Web back then. Specifically I was looking for a few Doordarshan broadcasts, and to my immense pleasure the tapes were being sold on ranidevi.com. At steep prices of $25-$75 for a VHS tape or a DVD. Now I can no longer find them there on Rani Devi’s official site, but the “unofficial page” at http://www.geocities.ws/ranidevi/index.html is still active and seems to be doing brisk business! Rani Devi, though, presents her selling these Doordarshan tapes as her social mission of popularizing classical dance in the US and worldwide, almost in a non-profit spirit.

Ananda Shankar Jayant’s suggestion is that “These videos are being made available to DancingIndia unofficially from Doordarshan itself from every Kendra, by a group of people“.  And if she wanted to know who these people are, why didn’t she ask Rani Devi herself?

It was long time before a DVD of Volume 2 (no one knew when or where Volume 1 was released) of Bharatanatyam broadcasts from Doordarshan Archives was officially released. And it was long before the publication of Padma Subrahmanyam’s interview where she said she was urging Prasar Bharti to release the classical dance archives. With announcements like on http://www.friendsofprasarbharati.org/Recent%20newsYA85.htm, some dancers were elated. Dance students were trying to get the Bharatiya Natyashastra DVD and were frustrated. What do they do now? All the full episodes of Bharatiya Natyashastra are offered on Dancingindia for quick download, and for a dollar or two they can download almost anything. Since the times of Rani Devi’s selling the Doordarshan VHS tapes for $75, the prices have gone down so much, and now people don’t even buy DVDs as much as before.

But this is not the point. The point Ananda Shankar Jayant makes is about “piracy”. But when you hear one of her closest friends telling you that Ananda has more pirated software on her computer than most dancers, you start thinking. Thinking if she is planning to start a Pirate Party in India, to join the worldwide movement that is gaining strength. We all know that the intellectual property rights is a concept alien to our culture.

This comment, however, was not posted on Narthaki.com for obvious reasons: Anita Ratnam’s friend is loath to admit that she herself is one of the biggest software pirates in India. She is too shy: “Some of you have also responded with uncalled for belligerence, and personal comments, irrelevant to the topic under discussion. I would love to respond to them too, and will do so if you mail me“.

Piracy it too private to be discussed publicly. Even if some railway clerks have a Dr. title before their name, they risk being prosecuted. 🙂

Did Shiva dance American rock-n-roll? (a response to “Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord”)

This article is a response to Shivaya: An ode to the dancing Lord

Priya Raman tells us that Malathi Iyengar’s ‘Shivaya’ an ode to the NRI American Dream, was somehow “so special that it would have in all its true essence reached the Lord at the earliest”. Quite an ambitious statement, isn’t it?

Every now and then I stumble across some imbecile salsa or classical Persian dancer of Kathak either prentending of “offering their dance to Lord Shiva” or, worse still, trying to make us believe that Shiva himself was somehow doing those crappy dance moves while wearing a garb of the medieval Persian shopkeeper that Murali Mohan tries to sell us. In the first case, Shiva, even in his infinite compassion only accepts what is offered with absolute sincerity. Since it is the quality that is almost unheard-of among the “professional” dancers, Shiva simply ignores their “offering”. In the second case, the dancers get cheeky and try to push their imported subhuman vulgarity upon the Divine. They automatically get cursed for millions of years and will surely be reborn as frogs or worms, thus reducing the human over-population on the earth.

So, what kind of dancing does Shiva do, and why?

This is the question that bothered, for instance, two sages, Vyagrapada and Patanjali, who decided to meditate on a hilltop near Chidambaram and were really sincere (and, thus, successful) in their endevour. Priya Raman from Hyderabad took a different approach. As she “did not find an immediate answer”, she came up with a clever and abstract philosophical nonsense that made her “feel Shiva danced so that he could commission blessed messengers like us to dance in life”. Just like a drunk cheri priest in a dirty temple, she wants us to believe that every strip dancer is somehow Shiva’s messenger who wants to “make an eminent living” (which, according to her, includes “yummy breakfast and foreign chocolates”).

Shiva, the lazy Lord who only responds to the devotee’s absolute sincerity and determination, along with Parvati performed free of charge for the sages (certainly not for the intellectual Priya Raman), and they enjoyed watching it with their third eye (which Priya Raman does not have, so she decided to substitute it with some rational speculation). Natya Shastra tells us that these two sages were not the only ones who saw how Shiva actually dances. Shiva was “reminded” of his dance moves for example by his assistant Tandu whom we see in Mahabalipuram. Patanjali went on and installed the 108 karana statues in the Chidambaram temple. Vyagrapada, who became the founder of the South Indian martial arts, made use of certain karanas in a different way.

While a Cuban salsa or Persian Kathak dancer would argue that their moves, like any other moves, fall within the 84 lakhs of the body positions shown by Shiva, they can’t answer why only 108 of these positions are seen in the Chidambaram temple. The reason is very simple: even though Brahman is everywhere, even in a piece of dog poo, there is a difference between dog poo and an avatar. This is the difference that the hierarchy-averse brain-dead western dancers can’t get. They experiment with their bland “abstract choreography” potpourri of meaninglessness, while the dance of Shiva was as concrete as it can be and created the 8 Rasas.

Priya tells us that “The team travelled all the way from Los Angeles to collaborate with dancers from Chennai and Bangalore to pay tribute to the Panchakshara Mantra and to the five elements, to stillness and to movement”. If the Panchakshara Mantra has nothing to do with the five elements it doesn’t matter as long as you can sell it to the dumb American audience who understand what is water or fire but don’t understand what is rajas or tamas. Since akash (ether) was too impalpable, Malathi decided that it should be presented to the American audience as “Sky” (something that every American butcher can see). After all, American butchers don’t read books, do they?

The tamasic Priya informs us “of how group work can be re-defined, of what technical brilliance is all about and what it takes to have intricate, nerve wracking choreography”. Their nerve-wracking choreography, I assume, is partly responsible for the fact that California’s rate of schizophrenia and other mental disorders is the highest in the world, so everybody goes for counselling after a nerve-wracking dose of cocaine that every American artiste sniffs before attempting some “new artistic production”. Their group work fell far below the Pindi formations mentioned in Natya Shastra. Their “technical brilliance” was supposedly demonstrated by Renjith Babu Choorakkad who, according to the photo, was struggling to keep his foot up. For some reasons, the proud “professional” dancers thought they were better than the dancer in the video below (see the passage at 1 minute 11 seconds):

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJczIpsICFg&t=1m11s]

“Attention to detail was something to watch out for” although we are yet to see where that “desired ‘wow factor'” was supposed to be. Malathi Iyengar “brought in a strange discipline adopted from the west to make things as simple as they can get”. In this simplification process, the artistic sophistication and excellence were discarded as unnecessary. The Recakas, which formed an intrinsic part of Shiva’s dance, were discarded by the westernized “dancers” too. While it took our ancestors years of practice before they performed a piece, it took Malathi Iyengar’s team “a whole two days to get into the groove”. McDonalds would be proud of this record achievement.

“Malathi Iyengar had the best people in the business (yes, it is merely business, not art) work together – Rajkumar Bharathi, Embar Kannan, Praveen Rao, Gurumurthy G, Srihari Rangaswamy and other traditional composers”. How traditional these composers are if they can’t compose in the 22 srutis to which Shiva actually dances, and didn’t even read what music can be used with which angahara?

Rukmini Devi in Sudharani Raghupathi’s TV series in 1981 tells us that some songs “were composed by Divine inspiration”, while Malathi’s team decided that it’s better to have “brain storming sessions of ideas” that mutilated Adi Shankaracharya’s Nagendra Haraya beyond recognition. The fact that music used to be (according to Natya Shastra) composed for a particular piece of dance (after it was choreographed!) and not the other way around is something that the debilitated dancers didn’t get. Rukmini Devi says that true composers (not Malathi’s businessmen) “had actually the Pratyaksha, a vision” of the Divine and they “saw everything in a divine form“. Whether a composer really had a true vision or not is debatable, although we can safely say that Adi Shankaracharya did have it. The enlightened and even the not-so-enlightened composers keep confirming that Shiva’s favourite music is Sama Gana, while what the composers offer is of much inferior value (just as Malathi’s dancing is inferior to the dance fully based on the 108 karanas and choreographed in accordance to Natya Shastra). Unfortunately, to render even such inferior songs properly, the music arranger and the musicians too must tune in to this divine vision.