Bharatanatyam dancer Shivaangee Agarwal discovered a depth of riches in the immersive training of Dance India 2017.
It is one thing being able to learn from the innovators and legends of dance, but it is completely another to be able to learn from them in the day, discuss their choreographic approaches with them in the afternoon, and watch them perform live on stage in the evening. Followed by a post-show discussion over breakfast the next day. For seven days! This intensity of contact time allowed a rare 360-degree intimacy with these artists, revealing more about their creative processes, personalities, approaches and journeys than I had imagined I could know.
“…an engagement with the present…”
I had the privilege of being tutored by Rama Vaidyanathan and Bragha Bessel and the delightful opportunity to pick the brains of Dakshina Vaidyanathan. The Vaidyanathan duo performed at the Indika Festival on Sunday, 23 July to an audience that leapt up for a standing ovation. The show was named Dhwita, featuring choreographies that all spoke of duality; in the opening piece the mother and daughter expressed the interdependence of Lakshmi and Saraswati and their double act was a neat fit. But this was just the beginning – the audacious interpretations and innovative compositions that one has begun to expect from Rama Vaidyanathan were delivered one after another with bold precision. Most of all, I was struck once again by her achievement of a contemporary bharatanatyam practice. Although the word ‘contemporary’ elicits a cold response in traditional bharatanatyam circles, not least from Ramaji herself, to me ‘contemporary’ refers to an engagement with the present; an engagement that is intelligent, rigorously created, and demonstrates the beautiful capacity of a classical form to adapt to new matter.
“…felt closer to lived experience than to abhinaya.”
One manifestation of this is in Vaidyanathan-choreographed characters, who I find to be more human than any other I see on stage. While most audience members and perhaps every bharatanatyam dancer is familiar with the story of Krishna revealing the universe to his mother, Dakshina Vaidyanathan’s Yashoda in Momuja Pura felt painfully real. Her bewilderment, anxiety and awe all leaked into each other and her authority faded and reappeared in subtle shades in a way that felt closer to lived experience than to abhinaya. To move beyond the archetypal significance of such familiar mythological figures and portray their humanity feels like a contemporary innovation that has become a Vaidyanathan trademark.
“…Ramaakka unintentionally addressed my heartache…”
Blurring the traditional boundaries of performer and protagonist in the final piece, Rama Vaidyanathan expressed the journey of motherhood, while Dakshina featured in dreamlike apparitions, growing cinematically with each sequence from a toddler to a child, teenager and young woman. Lacking any culture-specific or era-specific context, the Vaidyanathans accomplished a universality in bharatanatyam that is claimed too often and demonstrated too infrequently. The piece was performed beautifully and the powerful synchronisation between both dancers evidenced their connection of blood and training. The culmination of this piece became the highlight of the evening, when mother and daughter engaged in a semi-metaphorical ball game, bouncing adavu sequences off one another with spontaneous and playful energy. Itching to join in, I watched eagerly from my seat. Absorbed in their joy, I felt suddenly aware of how inseparable these dancers were from their dance vocabulary. They weren’t dancing bharatanatyam on stage, they were just… expressing. Bharatanatyam seemed embedded into their being; a vital organ like skin. I shrank back into my seat, overcome with a desire to become just as intimate with bharatanatyam. Later that week, Ramaakka unintentionally addressed my heartache when she said to us: “Dance needs to be your partner. You need to have a passionate love affair with it. An intimate and regular dialogue with it is the only way to really understand.”
“…I felt my practice growing in breadth…”
This was my first time at Dance India and I was surprised by the insistence on a multidisciplinary education – dance sessions would be followed by lecture demonstrations by other members of the faculty, covering music, poetry, abhinaya, composition, rhythm and other dance genres. This initially felt like a missed opportunity to have more time with our dance tutors but gradually the conversations across these sessions began to interweave and I felt my practice growing in breadth; Anil Srinivasan’s session on poetry brought home to me how much I had not even begun to explore in the canon of classical Indian literature, and mridangist R.N. Prakash’s lessons in talam made me determined to incorporate rhythmic training in my personal schedule. I can only imagine that in eras gone by the guru-shishya tradition centred on this kind of holistic learning experience, and I left Dance India with a pang of regret at not having access to such an environment; I gained insights that week that I felt could only come from being in the constant company of experienced performers and artists and I wondered how different things would be if I had grown up with that.
I have no respect for regret though; I’m continuing to stitch whatever I can from wherever I can into the patchwork quilt that is my dance training, but I do so with a renewed appreciation for the necessity of immersion.