Asian Music and Dance

A Critic’s Reflection – Creativity

Leela Venkataraman, India’s foremost dance writer and critic, shares with readers some transformative moments in her thirty-year career of viewing dance. In her enigmatic words, creativity is “not originality as much as a deeper sense of home-coming”.

Having seen countless performances over the last thirty-five years, I have cultivated a mind that does not have preconceived notions on what creativity represents. Taking varied forms, recognised by the sensitive viewer, creativity can lie in the treatment of a theme and in the out-of-the-box thinking in interpreting it. Often, over the years, classical dance creativity has meant not newness or departure but an enhanced awareness concealed in an internalised, long journey representing, as a poet said, not originality as much as a deeper sense of home-coming.

“…not newness or departure but an enhanced awareness…”

Thus the varnam (item combining technical and narrative) one may have witnessed countless times suddenly assumes an entirely different tone, transporting one to a space of consciousness outside daily life experience. I have felt this once, while watching Bragha Bessel while she performed a Tanjore Quartet varnam in Kamas (Utah). I also recollect an extraordinary experience pertaining to legendary guru the late Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. This was at the Abhimanch Theatre of the National School of Drama (New Delhi). The feeble guru, aged over 80, was helped onto the stage from the wings by two students. With face slightly made-up, he wore the short dhoti draped in koodiyattam mode. Staring into the flames of a burning torch held before him for minutes, he seemed to be concentrating on something. The packed auditorium expected little more than some mukhabhinaya (facial expression) in the seated position from the elderly veteran. After several minutes of silent contemplation, he suddenly heaved himself onto the top of the small stool about a foot-and-a-half high and, taking the plié position as if half his age, began the scene of Ravana lifting Mount Kailash – playing football with it, as it were, with a terrified Parvati seeking comfort in Shiva’s arms. All know the myth of how Ravana’s arrogance is humbled. After twenty-five minutes of the most impassioned performance, when one felt that any moment was going to be the last, the possessed actor, miraculously unharmed, stopped and had to be again helped off the stage by students. The dancer had become the dance, this ‘becoming’ for me representing the very acme of creation.

“The dancer had become the dance…”

A similar experience occurred with Birju Maharaj once, presenting thaat, the starting-point of kathak, which today is a perfunctory couple of minutes. The dancer, absorbing the repetitive musical refrain, the lehra, allows it to flow through the entire body/mind being, and through minimalistic gestures and felt but not expressed rhythm, freezes in different attitudes on the sam (first beat) of the tala (time cycle).* Maharajji one day just took off – he kept improvising on the musical line for over thirty minutes; the fertile creative imagination in innumerable attitudes revealed unfathomable creative brilliance. Among younger dancers, I have seen Prerana Shrimali do this with layakari (play with intervals). With the abstraction of rhythm through footwork, sounds are created evoking a host of mental images – different from the usual peir-ke-kaam (footwork) wizardry one is treated to in kathak.

Through kathak grammar, Birju Maharaj, over thirty years ago, created a hilarious production wherein his senior disciples visualised the theme of a dance film being edited. The fast moving, the sudden halts, freezes while a movement was being executed, were all cleverly captured. But the most creative part was the rewinding in which the parhant (reciting the rhythmic syllables) had to move backwards!

“…(reciting the rhythmic syllables) had to move backwards!”

Creativity can find its triggering point in a situation far removed from what it inspires. If Ruth St. Denis, looking at a cigarette ad in Egypt, could think of designing dance that represented India, the great Valmiki, a low thief, witness to the mourning cry of a chakora bird whose courting mate has been killed by the hunter’s cruel arrow, was inspired to create the great Ramayana epic!

The choreographer out-of-the-ordinary is Sharmila Biswas, the odissi artist. She uses a story of Vedavati, who is reborn as Sita, to create a production called Aparkaya for a textile exhibition. Using the warp and weft of the weave of the textile that portrays the story, Sharmila creates a wonderful odissi work. Her work on Charukesi raga showing the slow expansion of the raga, inspiring the dance movement, is highly original. I find Mythili Prakash (the American bharatanatyam dancer) and odissi dancers Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy of Nrityagram (Karnataka) very creative. Vaibhav Arekar, the bharatanatyam dancer, in a minimalistic fashion has through the poetry of Tagore captured the child/mother interlude in a solo, which makes one cry. The music is equally original. Geeta Chandran’s creations, using traditional bharatanatyam repertoire, enrich classicism, raising questions beyond the feel-good, technically perfect dance.

*The sam is the first beat of a time cycle and also the point of completion, marked with a flourish.



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