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The challenging dance repertoire: A teacher’s perspective

Being a self thinking woman first and a teacher second I find it a challenge to pass on the dance repertoire to the next generation in the same fashion as it has been offered to me by my Gurus. Broadly speaking the dance repertoire can be classified into two broad offerings, one, based on religious devotion to God or Bakthi and the other dwells on love. Let’s take the former, Bakthi or religious sentiment towards God. As most krithis or songs are composed on Hindu Lords it does become a challenge to take these dance pieces to people of different origins. The art form comes bundled with a free sample of religion. With borders blurring all over the world a strong religious sentiment does distance the art form and reduce its accessibility. Rather than being available to all, it does acquire a ‘classic’ (read rigid) status. Taking a step back and addressing the repertoire challenge at the home front. “Why does Lord Muruga have two wives?” “How can Lord Krishna be blue in color, is he bloodshot?” “How can Lord Ganesha travel around on a mouse?”I didn’t have convincing answers when young shriya asked me these prudent questions while I was teaching her few items from the dance repertoire. Listening to these stories when your mother or grandmother tells them is one thing; it is completely another thing expressing it through dance. One has to believe in them to express the meaning of these pieces as the poet construed it to be. One does face a challenge when the pieces are either morally or practically adverse.

The next is the theme of love or singara. For hundreds of years, it seems poets and painters remained pre-occupied with this theme, subtly and with feeling: exploring psychological states, establishing attitudes. Whole texts - many in Sanskrit, others in Hindi, still more in regional languages, were devoted almost exclusively to the subject. Initially danced by Devadasis, the dance numbers were penned always with the woman as the protagonist. Eight predominant states of mind were classified being ashta vida Nayikas. Briefly listing few of them, Vasakasajja is the one who waits, with the bed and herself daintily prepared for the arrival of her lover, Abhisarika is the one who sets out in the middle of the night to meet her lover at an appointed place, Vipralabdha is, however, the nayika whose love remains unrequited , Proshitapatika, she whose husband/lover has gone away on some journey, Khandita is the angry one venting upon him all the wrath of the betrayed one. Kalahantarita, however, is the heroine who is struck by remorse after having quarreled with her lover

Let’s take a step back and look at the ethos behind the origin of these dance numbers. It was an accepted social custom for a high society male to be married to his wife yet have a Devadasi as a ‘social companion’. It was believed that the Devadasis being trained in music, dance and worldly matters brought the much needed intellectual companionship to these men. Thus in a highly male dominated society, married women were taught to accept this need for intellectual companionship as a societal norm. Husband, wife and the ‘other woman’ was an accepted fact. However, even though accepted at one level, it did not escape its share of brickbats from the wedded wife. Stepping back into the repertoire, we see that most of the popular dance numbers dwelled around the man, woman and the ‘other woman’. There seems to be a very low social status attached to women in these dance pieces. It is interesting to note that even though the Devadasis were the ones showcasing and performing the pieces in front of the audience, these pieces were penned by male lyricists. Thus the Devadasis were merely acting out the ‘female point of view’ of male lyricists.

Now this is a delicate equation to explain to a young teenage student and also self deprecating of our custom when taught to a non Indian. It is difficult to make a probing mind understand the lopsided social conventions hundred years back and expect them to enact or bring out the singara or love, Viraha or separation in these pieces. The pining, longing, seeking of the illustrious male seem to be portrayed in all these pieces. “How come the men don’t seem to pine for their women?” another logical question from another young student definitely makes me share their bewilderment. The rationale of these pieces seem absurd to the current generation who are sometimes appalled by the tolerance of these heroines and many a times aren’t able to empathize with them.

Maybe foreseeing this predicament Rukumini Devi Arundale, founder of one of the premiere educational institution for dance and music had cleansed the dance repertoire of all its singara and transformed it into Bakthi or devotion to God. Singara is known to be the queen of all emotions. The basic stayi Bava or predominant expression of Singaram has the unique ability to transgress into other moods such as anger, surprise, jealousy etc in its portrayal yet seamlessly find its way back into singara. Singaram being a personal favorite, it is difficult for me to not introduce it in my dance numbers. So the issue is not with the rasa but the compositions that use this rasa, the dance numbers are written for a different audience and we are in a different setting now. Popular dance javalis like Indendu vachitivira in Surutii, Adhuvum solluvaal in sourashtram, Netrandhi nerathile in Huseni, Ariven Aiya in atana, vagalaadi bodanache in Behag, Parulanna maata in kapi, all work under the background of the man, wife and the ‘other woman’.

Having said all this I would also lay down a caveat that I completely enjoy dancing these numbers, in fact the humor and wit in these pieces make them one of my favorite. However passing on or explaining the moral standards established in these pieces to both Indian and non Indian students, is the challenge in front of teachers like me. I did not ask my teacher these questions even though I might have had them in my head, going forward one can’t expect such implicit obedience.

Every challenge comes with its set of solutions. The repertoire is no exception. It is true that the traditional repertoire even though widely performed has attained the ‘classical’ status. However as the old adage goes – Necessity is the mother of Inventions. Thematic presentations are one such solution and are becoming more popular. Several performers venture into generic themes and social issues rather than adopt a religious tone. Performance about nature, human struggles and triumphs seem to be attracting rasikas. Rather than picking random songs both on love and religion, weaving these songs around a purpose or theme seem more meaningful to both today’s performers as well as viewers. Many performers are researching and building their own repertoire of dance numbers that are more appealing to the current generation. ‘Nirantara’ by veterans like C V Chandrasekar, ‘Kaavya’ by new dance sensation Mythili Prakash, speaks volumes of how the challenge of the repertoire has been handled by people from both the current and the older generation. Thus for every challenge art has been posed with the same artisitc creativity comes to the rescue and makes art live beyond time.

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