Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bharatanatyam and its content

The existence of a form of dance, that shows some resemblance to what we now see as Bharatanatyam, has been shown through literary evidences. Silapadikkaram a sangam period literature work describes in great detail the arangetram of a courtesan called Madhavi. Around 6th century AD during the rule of Kalabhras, a separate idea of belief was rising, as seen in Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as a different religion took its shape and Bhakti margam spread this across south India. Bhakti traditions celebrated life in contrast to Jainism and Buddhism and propagated their ideas of love towards the supreme soul through music and dance. Hand in hand movement of performing arts with Hinduism grew in the Bhakti Period. It was the Bhakti period that created the rich lyrical content that gave the backbone for the narrative element in dance.

Earlier called as Devadasiattam and then as Sadirattam, a form of dance seems to have existed which has evolved in different time periods. Bharatanatyam in its present format took its shape under the Tanjore quartet in the 19th century patronized by the Martha rulers of Thanjavur. The sequence of basic movements called as Adavus, and the items of the margam that are taught today and performed took shape in their hands. In the 20th century it was the work of Rukimini Devi Arundale and other like-minded people who gave it respectability so that anybody could practice it. The content of dance seems both secular and sacred from the period of Tanjore Quartet, as there are pieces describing both the King and the Gods .
Narrative Structure of Content
Dance as a form of expression has always existed in human civilizations. It serves the purpose of a language that translates thought and words in a beautiful manner. The visual imagery created through dance has an aesthetic appeal which is subjective to the culture. An image translated into a movement slowly leads to building of the vocabulary of dance, and the process continues to evolve into a dance form. The term classical when associated with a dance form reflects its rich history from which it has flowed. Does this mean that a form of dance does not exist which has no narrative element? This we know is surely not true. Dances have existed and evolved new grammar which may just explore a thought without a narrative structure to it, which may or may not be the same as perceived by the audience. Did the content richly contribute to the physical form of dance or did they exist separately and came together when required? The answer to this question I feel is important, as it will help in understanding how far Bharatanatyam can be ‘the form’ that we associate it today with.
In Bharatanatyam Abhinaya plays a major role. Abhinaya means to convey an idea. So the dance form tends to always convey a thought, an idea or an image preconceived in the narrative aspect. It does not give scope to read your own image in the dance, at least in the way as it is practised now. People are exploring different content away from the margam .I saw a video clipping of a production where the dancer based in UK uses Bharatanatyam to show football match, it was very interesting. It showed that the place where she lives is full of football lovers and that has rubbed on to her creativity, she does not deviate from the physicality of the form and yet creates something that relates with the audience. Still the narration existed. But in contrast when I see a work of Chandralekha where the narrative content is not there, it is more like a thought explored. It is in a way giving universality to the art as one is open to read their own meaning and not restricted to that of what the choreographer feels. At the same time it is also very personal and individualistic that it can also make an audience feel lost. When you look into the form it is no longer Bharatanatyam nor claimed to be. So in trying to explore the content in an abstract manner she had to move herself away from the physicality of the form. In these views I am in no way trying to say one is better than the other but just trying to explore how the narrative content and form in a Classical dance moves. In Indian classical dance with Bharatanatyam in mind the form seems to have evolved along with the narrative content so closely that it is a little difficult to perceive them separately.
Classical Nature
Since the time Bharatanatyam has been seen as a classical form we have always tried to trace its roots to Natyashastra, which explores many aspects which are a part of dance today. I am not sure whether the dance actually flowed down like a river absorbing through different ages or the scholars and practitioners created a form with all these aspects of Natyashastra to give it its classical nature. Richard Schechner from an essay on Restoration of Behaviour say : “They saw in sadir nac not a dance in its own right but a faded, distorted remnant of some ancient classical dance. That ‘ancient classical dance’ is a projection backward in time: we know what it looks like because we have Bharatanatyam. Soon people believed that the ancient dance led to Bharatanatyam when, in fact, Bharatanatyam led to the ancient dance. A dance is created in the past in the order to be restored for the present and future.” This has made me think that the idea of giving a platform of classical, traditional , national pride to a form could have also led it to follow ‘ a’ structure in its presentation and hence giving it ‘a’ shape to present it.
The whole understanding of performance art in the world of culture today has a new meaning, boundaries are expanding and there are no clear outlines but grey areas. Bharatanatyam is losing its patronage the way it was practiced. Hence people are trying to explore different ways for it to reach the people. I wish I could predict the future, but anything in a civilization has to evolve for its survival and betterment. It is not a matter of grief that a form might die, as it is giving space to something new. Bharatanatyam might not have existed if people would have stuck to Devadasiattam. The type of evolution is different in each age. Maybe some now feel that the physicality of the form is itself in some way restrictive and want to use it as a base to evolve something which they relate more to. If an art form is something more personal yes it can survive in its exclusivity but when you are trying to reach out, it needs to encompass a more universal feeling to it. It is ultimately for an artiste to decide and use their creative sensibilities in the fullest and know at personal level what they are trying to create.

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