Asian Music and Dance

Alaap and Alpana/Erhebung

‘If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable,’ wrote T.S. Eliot in the opening stanza of his poem Burnt Norton, published in 1936. Proclaiming the past and the future to be perpetually bound to the present, performance artist Ansuman Biswas and collaborative group ATMA enacted this concept of time and its irredeemable transience in their respective works. Shown as part of the Alchemy Festival celebrating South Asian culture and cuisine, both art works were on display at London’s Southbank Centre. 

Alaap and Alpana, a ritualistic, durational performance of dance, sound and feasting by Indian artist Ansuman Biswas took place over twenty-four hours during the festival. Biswas cultivated an ephemeral drawing from grains of white rice on the floor of the Royal Festival Hall. Evoking symbols of nature and the rhythms of agriculture, the artist continually altered, modified and developed his artwork for the duration of the performance. The climactic point came after twenty-four hours had elapsed. The fasting artist and participating dancers swept up the rice, whereupon it was then cooked in front of the audience and distributed to anyone willing to participate. 

Alaap, from the title, means both ‘a conversation’ in Sanskrit and describes the gradual unfolding of sound. Alpana describes a floor painting from Bengal. Biswas successfully encouraged participants to construct their own Alpana with rice alongside his own. However, he could not awaken Alaap in his audience. Accompanying musicians sang meditative songs of rice fields, seedlings and harvests, attempting to evoke the rhythms of nature and the landscape, but his audience resolutely declined to contribute to the contemplative music being performed. They found they were unable to step outside of themselves and participate as the artist had hoped. 

At the entrance of the durational performance, adjacent to the Thames, a different sensory experience of rhythm and time was there to be experienced. A corporeal encounter with sound, sculpture and dance was combined in the installation Erhebung, a German word meaning ‘rising’ or ‘elevation’. The term was again derived from Eliot’s Burnt Norton and appropriated to signify this unusual collaborative endeavour of Indian dance, transformative sound and abstract sculpture conceived by choreographer Mayuri Boonham, composer Bill Fontana and sculptor Jeff Lowe.

The polished metal structure, installed for the festival, became the site of performance for two female dancers and the reverberating, dramatic soundtrack. Lowe’s sculpture, consisting of bold angles and geometric patterns juxtaposed with thin, interlocking, flowing curves, was absorbed and echoed in the movements of the dancers, who reacted eloquently on top of and through its form. The sound shifted from waves to wind to rhythmic chimes, evoking the passage of time and the transience of nature. For thirty minutes, Archana Ballal and Hian Ruth Voon contorted their bodies in their highly-regimented routine. Their movements were beautifully controlled but, disappointingly, each dancer did not react with the changes produced by Fontana’s dramatic, immersive sounds. There was little chemistry to be felt between the two performers; the single moment they embraced seemed out of synch with the rest of their individually intense performance. 

Each project, Alaap and Alpana and Erhebung, chose to title their works not in English but as multi-lingual homages to other art forms. The ritualistic exhibit by Biswas and the combinatory performance dealt with duration and the desire to experience the moment in unique ways. Each performance, although not without its flaws, forced their audience to stop and appreciate that all time is eternally present and that all time is, in fact, unredeemable.



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