Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Original Screenplay

How do you make Bharatanatyam’s content interesting and in a way that audiences across India – including someone in a dusty village in Uttar Pradesh – appreciate and respond to it? Savitha Sastry says she knows how…

When my husband A K Srikanth and I started our concept of what we called Bharatanatyam Dance Theatre, we faced challenges from two opposite ends of the audience spectrum. On the one side, were the traditionalists, who enter a show expecting the Pushpanjali-Varnam-Padam-Javali-Thillana routine and would cry hoarse at anything else. The farthest end of the spectrum had another - potential - audience that would make a face and walk the other way at the mere mention of a classical Bharatanatyam performance. The latter perhaps accounts for a vast majority of India and the reason for their behaviour stems from the convictions of the former.  

Everything has a time and place. Bharatanatyam delivered beautifully in the age where it belonged.  In the times of the devadasis, this dance form was used by those ‘wedded’ to the Gods to solicit patrons or maintain their exclusivity over them. The raison d'être has faded away. Therefore, synergies are created to equate the dance form to divinity, thus giving it a cloak of invincibility and continuance, for no one would like to be seen critiquing the Nayika constantly pining to seek union with the Gods. It's a different matter that the God had no problems engaging in voyeurous escapades with all and sundry!

Okay, so we have a weak story with the rationale of the devadasis clumsily substituted with the name of the God.  So we turn our attention from the content to the standards of delivery.  Every critic and his/her critiques follow a mandatory four paragraphs extolling the Aramandi, the geometric shapes, the mathematical footwork, the Nrtta and Abhinaya and perhaps one point about a missed step in the thirty-eighth minute of a forty-minute Varnam! The dancers began to dance for critics, teachers, students, and other dancers.  A self-sustaining audience base grew out of it.  And the tradition lived on forever.

I believed this too. For the longest time, I would blame a lack of audience or the lack of interest to some issue with my technique till I came to cities in India that did not know Bharatanatyam. It took a Punjabi lassie to point out "Forget about your footwork, the show is boring any which ways.  I would rather go see a movie!"

The traditionalists and the practitioners of the art form would, more often than not, respond to the call for change by retorting that classical show can still get full houses.  They still get standing ovations and meet an audience that wipes away their tears utterly moved by the depiction of the leelas of the Gods.  If a renowned artiste was to travel to a dusty town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and present this to the locals there, I wonder how many tear-stained audience they would encounter.  If this art form is divine, then why those in that dusty town be precluded?  Doesn’t divinity surpass geography? 

What is beautiful about Bharatanatyam is its innate ability to narrate any story. Get the story right and the audience will flow in; forget their cell phones, and follow you much like they do a good cinema.

Audiences, across the length and breadth of the country, have validated my beliefs following my experiments with truth.  After every performance of Soul Cages and Yudh, two productions from my production-house, the audience echo the words over and over again, that they are left speechless. Whether it is a Sardar in Chandigarh, a Parsee family from South Mumbai, an intellectual in Kolkata, a trader in Surat, or a chicken farmer in Coimbatore, they all managed to understand an original story, not borrowed from mythology or religion, and yet deeply philosophical. And this, despite being their first Bharatanatyam show! This, in a sense, is the true glory of this dance form. Hip-hop and Salsa can never. Bharatanatyam can.

The way to preserve a tradition is to morph it to be relevant in the present age.  If tradition is preserved without a connection that is relevant, then it is not preservation but destruction. We agree there is a population that would watch art for how it is delivered, rather than what is delivered. Catering to its needs is a large group of Bharatanatyam artistes perhaps larger than what this clique needs. In order that the art form grows, it needs to be understood and relished by the common man, not live in an ivory tower of codified elitism. It is a strange brew of democracy indeed that these very performers seek the validation from the common man without ever bothering to look beyond themselves. 

In my personal journey as a dancer, I have been through the path of the traditionalist and have journeyed to a post in life where I have realised I am nothing compared to those whose validation I seek – the audience. I am happy that I was trained to be perfect in my technique.  It is imperative that a dancer perfects technique.  But only so he or she, can deliver content effortlessly, and not for its own sake. Using novel stories is not a departure for the sake of departure. It has to be a story that will engage the audience and will seize them by their throats and allow them to react viscerally and savour the beauty of the narrative. When they walk out at the end of such a show, they need to have had sensory, intellectual, and emotional fulfillment. Miss any one of these and the experience is incomplete. As a performer, obsession cannot be about technique. It has to be about one thing only – how do I astound my audience today?  

The writer is an Indian dancer and choreographer best known as an exponent of