Saving the lone dancer in the pool of light

Eminent gurus, who have nurtured solo artistes, give us an insight into the state of the anchoring feature of most Indian classical dances

The raised curtain reveals an individual body of a dancer standing in a pool of light. There are no fancy lights or stage sets. The musicians play and sing the opening sounds, gradually the flowering of the dance allows the audience to travel a journey. The solo dancer is like a magician weaving multiple dimensions of the art of dance into a long scarf with varied threads of movement, rhythm, and most of all bhava and rasa. The woven scarf swirls enjoining the earth with space, igniting the flight of imagination. Claps intersperse as the audience recognise the creative inputs. It is the dancer’s victory and the audience’s resurrection. Both know they travel to know who they are.

The anchoring feature of most Indian classical dances is the solo dancer. In Kuchipudi and Manipuri, it is gradually evolving. The visibility of a large number of dance festivals and the presence of the Indian classical dance on social media make it appear that the traditions are healthy. Additionally, there are scattered community and individual efforts and belief that the solo dance will remain. However, the lack of qualified cultural administrators have led to the pressure of succumbing to popular forces of group performances, recorded music and a malady of pay to perform. The solo has to survive to conserve the Indian classical dance.

Saving the lone dancer in the pool of light

Responding to the emerging threat, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan observes, “The Indian classical dance form is largely an Ekal Nritya (a solo dance form). It is in sync with our philosophy that we come alone, and die alone. Even the theatrical and group synergy is about the individual journey; its tradition is like a honeycomb. Each bee works independently and yet together the bees are perceived as a community, a unit. By not investing in the creation of solo dancers, the very foundation of the tradition of Indian classical dance is rattled. Whatever the challenges, this central character of the solo dance needs to nurtured, protected and promoted.”

Padma Subrahmanyam

Padma Subrahmanyam

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, renowned scholar-dancer, says, “Dance like Hindu practice is individualistic and not collective devotion. It is a one to one journey of realisation. In the Natya Shastra, solo is one form among the ten categories of drama. The emphasis in the Indian dance is on nurturing individual creativity and not factory productions, or cloning as evident in the process of group productions. The objective is bhava and rasa (intrinsic essence, sublime emotion).”

The question to save the solo dance form has multiple aspects – cultural economics, policies, and politics of performance displays, patronage systems, and attitude of students, gurus and transmission methods. Responses to a series of questions by committed, successful middle generation gurus, who have nurtured already established soloists or have students who are strong potentials, provide hope that the solo will survive.

Pay to perform

Apart from the vibrant month-long ‘Dance Season’ in Chennai, continuous efforts by Spic-Macay and a few emerging initiatives such as the Raindrop Festival in Mumbai, there are few platforms for solo dancers. It is rampant that solo performers are made to pay organisers to perform. “It is a disease that needs to be eradicated,” says Manipuri exponent Priti Patel.

It does not matter how long and how good a performer is, ironical as it may seem, the legitimacy of dancers in the market is accepted by the hierarchical grading empanelment by Government agencies such as ICCR, and the Doordarshan (National Television). Keeping this in mind, the Government continues to be the driving patron and manager of Indian dance and other performing arts.

The establishment of the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi was a welcome step in ratifying the importance of individual talent. Hence, when the Ministry of Culture, for instance, impanels dancers under solo categories, but demands from them group productions for the Festivals of India, it undercuts the idea of the solo and inspires private organisations too to support large group productions.

Cultural economics

Live music, diminished by the complexities of cultural economics, is essential to solo dancing to bring out the signature identity and individual creativity in movement, rhythm, abhinaya, and other levels of dance deliberations. Good musicians are few and their cost is perceived as high. However, the prevailing ‘market’ trend is about creating dance performance spectacles; the spectacles aim to replace solo with groups and live music with glamorous packaging comprising most times of recorded music, designer lighting, costumes, sound, and multimedia.

Such trendy, re-positioned displays of classical Indian dance are products of the capitalist market-making dance performances more expensive and quite often camouflaging mediocre dancing. Those students who do invest in solos need to self-motivate themselves.

Kuchipudi expert Anupama Kylash wonders that if a Kathakali dancer is still able to hypnotically hold a large crowd for several evenings by performing in open space between oil-lit torches, why can’t a proscenium solo performer not assert his/her high-level content/talent in a simple performative setting?

Of course there is a reality – both the publicity and the technical wizardry are essential to draw in the contemporary audiences, but a balance needs to be struck such that neither the content nor the space for improvisation (live music) so essential for the solo performance is compromised.

Making of solo dancers

Solo dancing involves the initiative of students within the larger dynamics of long, sustained personalised teaching. This is in contrast to the growing phenomenon of virtual teaching through videos, internet, and television and workshop modules. It is about carving individual styles. “Transmission of Indian dance like other subjects is a journey into the universe of the knowledge system and beyond craft, technique, and items. For instance, the 11th Century philosopher Ramanujacharya came to learn the Ramayana from his Guru but was told to first memorise the text. The former returned five years later and was then taught the text from 18 perspectives.

“Students, after initial years of essential training, require personal attention to recognise and foster their forte. For example, my student Pujita Krishna is an accomplished English writer and speaker, while Usha Kiran is proficient in Telugu. The grooming for Pujita incorporates her writing/speaking power in her performance; while with Usha, I encourage engagement with Telugu literature for abhinaya.” says Kyalash.

Jai Kishan Maharaj

Jai Kishan Maharaj

Kathak guru Jaikishan Maharaj avers, “The student comes first with a dream that she/he wants to dance. They later realise that they need to do the penance . It’s about learning, committing, developing internal focused energy, discipline, and opening to receive knowledge. I too completely involve myself while teaching them to comprehend, for example, the way dance syllables are structured, woven as compositions and movements to create rasa.”

Jaikishan has to his credit trained several other potential soloists. For example, Anukriti Vishvakarma’s talent in nritt where one can observe her creativity in clear, sharp movements. Ridhima Bagga, who also trained with Malti Shyam and Deepak Maharaj, brings to her performance her engagement as a theatre actor.

The group performance too is useful as part of training and motivation. Padma Subrahmanyam is of the view that “when teaching a large number of students, group performances allows an opportunity of performance for all and thus becomes motivational to align with dance.” While Jaikishan Maharaj says that the group allows students to learn and experience performance space, lights, and costumes. The training to be a complete dancer requires after-all several skills such as music, percussion, performance space management and costuming. Odissi exponent Aruna Mohanty asserts that since financial sustenance as a solo dancer is difficult, “I suggest to my students not to negate participating in groups. That too is an opportunity. Sometimes, a special talent can be spotted in a group and can be part of public memory.”

Spreading wings

It is important to critique the clichéd celebration of the perfection of the Guru-shishya parampara in the present environment. Students cannot be expected to invest full time only in dance/music education. Mainstream education is the requirement that allows dancers to think, question, critique “and for supplementing incomes,” observes Aruna Mohanty. Gurus feel that the limited time to teach, and the student’s lack of time, do not permit the immersion to happen. “But, it is the talent of a guru to motivate students in such a way that they continue to gradually commit to dance, and keep returning to pursue training,” says Kylash.

Priti Patel admits that she has categorically chosen to perform and choreograph over teaching, “since honestly, both teaching and performing are extremely demanding and justice is rarely done when doing both.” Nonetheless, her student Karuna Devi who came to her for higher training believes that Patel has contributed much in making her a soloist through her experience as a creative soloist and choreographer.

Jaikishan Maharaj has committed himself completely to teaching, composing music and even writing. “Teaching requires deep contemplation on different levels: imparting the basic technique of one’s style, constantly creating new dimensions that adds to the tradition and finally thinking of individual students, their talent, and potential.”

In this discourse, locating Bharatanatyam expert A. Lakshman is fascinating. He is not only a talented performer but an extremely successful Guru as well. He has chiselled the likes of Priyadarshini Govind who he taught for around three years, Priya Venkatraman, Urmila Satyanarayan, Jyotsana Jagannathan among others. Lakshman says, “Understanding the freedom for creativity within tradition on my own body has helped me to mould individual students. I am extremely selective in the choice of students.”

Priya Venkatraman observes, “Lakshman Sir is unique. He is selfless, generous and believes in qualitative teaching. He invests, nurtures on a one to one relationship.” Such is his motivation and commitment that Kalaisan Kalaichelvan from Canada comes to learn annually for several years.” Aruna Mohanty expresses that the dancer as a performer and a teacher needs to consciously develop not to compete with the student and remain large-hearted. Bijan Kumar Palai, a student of Mohanty, started as a Gotipua dancer and is one to watch out for as a strong emerging male soloist.

Positive churn

The solo is the ‘centre’ of the Indian classical dance. It has to sustain. Spic Macay’s Nav Pallava is a recently launched counter-movement against pay to perform and to reinstate the solo form. Ashok Jain, who is spearheading the initiative, says, “Like any cycle, the solo has to re-emerge.” The platform brings prominent Gurus and senior dancers to collaborate in different regional cities and present promising solo performers. Audiences are encouraged to donate at the entrance which goes to pay the performer. The movement is gradually taking shape and is becoming popular.” Youngsters without any connection, money backing or lineage are still courageously investing in the solo. Of them, some are Janhabi Behera, Lipsa Sathpathy in Odissi, Arunima Sengupta, Sangeeta Chatterjee (Kathak), Himanshu Srivastava, Arupa Lahiry (Bharatanatyam), Ayana Mukherjee (Kuchipudi)

Secondly, the Government needs to play its role well. Eminent poet, cultural administrator, and patron of arts Ashok Vajpeyi says, “While there is the popular pressure/demand for the group, it is in the solo artist that the individual genius is seen, and the traditions of dance secured. The Government has to rigorously promote the solo artist in dance. That said, there is an urgent need for the Government to bring management and subject knowledge experts into the government cultural institutions.”

The story of the making of a solo dancer is a commitment to travel to the deepest level to develop creative signatures. That individual character of the solo dance is a process which is as much a surprise to the performer as it is to the viewer. In the sojourn, there is a realisation of knowing the ‘beauty’ and experiencing insight that goes into the performance. It comes from the training of the guru and not through a well-designed course.

The intense examination reveals that the tradition of the solo is too integral to the Indian classical dance for it to disappear. “The dance is not about performance, it is about becoming. And being so intrinsic to the Indian tradition – yes, the solo will reign!” sums up Guru Kamalini Dutt

Guiding the flow of tradition

The training of solo dance brings with it the responsibility of nurturing a new generation who will ensure the flow of the dance parampara. Students may grow to contribute in various roles as performers, teachers, scholars or even administrators. Concerning both Kuchipudi and Manipuri, an interesting point was the fact that these are primarily group performative traditions.

Priti Patel and Anupama Kylash admit that the format of the solo is still evolving in both traditions. Kylash says that initially, the solo identity was defined in the female Dasi traditions. “Kuchipudi was an all-male theatrical format. The dramatic lucid aspects of the dance compositions were imbibed by Bharatanatyam performers like Yamini Krishnamurti and Swapnasundari (who also brought into limelight Vilasini Natyam). I have for example tried to create a formal format keeping in mind that the theatrical aspect of the form is retained.”

In Manipuri, the building of the solo format started with Guru Amobi Singh and Bipin Singh. Karuna Devi spoke about Priti Patel’s contribution in bringing in the Tandava aspect into the solo repertoire that has contributed to a more compelling performance.

Jaikishan Maharaj says that even as Kathak is equated with speed and overuse of pirouettes (chakkars), he is working to blend stillness, sustaining circularity of movements and grace in his style of teaching. He observed that several percussion instruments, for instance, have a specific repertoire marked only for the left hand. A different world of sound effects and patterns are produced. “Inspired, I realised, perhaps as a left-handed person, I can work to contribute to an aesthetics that revolves on the left section of the body adding to the Kathak tradition.”

A. Lakshman has built on the aesthetics of several teachers. For example, inspired by Muthuswami Pillai’s aesthetics of using eight directions for adavus (to integrate cadences of movement into dance patterns), he internalised a variety of ways to mediate space and gravity while exploring vertical planes. “My teaching explores holding a stance. It also probes the idea of grounding and simultaneous searching to create an illusion of floating.”

Odissi exponent Kavita Dwibedi speaks of Aruna Mohanty’s manner of executing movement extensions, and amplifying aesthetics and beauty of performing with the back stance is exciting as much as her courage to engage with contemporary themes and express it in the Odissi dance language.

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