Asian Music and Dance

Igniting the Imagination – Creativity

“There’s no dearth of scientific research about the state of the brain when it’s operating creatively – that is, those times when the metaphorical light bulb suddenly turns on and a flash of insight illuminates how we can best proceed. Some call it the ‘ah-ha!’ or ‘eureka!’ moment. However you choose to label it, it’s about finding a solution or a way forward or, flipping around, when the solution or way forward finds you.” 

Donald Hutera shares the thoughts of five leading South Asian dance artists on what creativity means to them.

Creativity, it could be said, is in the brain of the beholder. There are probably as many definitions of this innately human activity as there are of beauty. The Maltese physician, psychologist and author Edward de Bono (who also originated the term ‘lateral thinking’) says that creativity entails ‘breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way’. Albert Einstein, meanwhile, declared that it involves ‘knowing how to hide your sources’ but at another, less cheeky moment admitted: “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” Along the same lines the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury advised: “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”

 A close friend, the visual artist and thinker Lilia Pegado, has waxed eloquent about how ideas and creative impulses often seem to be passing through her. When she’s absorbed in a drawing or a canvas it’s not Lilia doing the work but rather as if the work itself is effortlessly guiding her how to do it. This Zen approach is grounded in a non-linear mode being that allows her to strike just the right balance between the clinical and the intuitive.

Lilia understands what could be called ‘the connective tissue’ of creativity. For a while she was sending me a daily quote via email, one of which contained the memorably wise words of the Austrian pianist and composer Artur Schnabel: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes…ah, that is where the art resides.” Decades later Steve Jobs was on a similar wavelength. As the Apple co-founder once said: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things.”

“…connecting the dots.”

So creativity is, in part, about spotting and then connecting the dots. Studies have shown that it’s the right side of the brain – the part that has hunches, takes risks and is daydream-friendly – that is most adept at gathering the ideas, realisations and insights that the more orderly left side – the governor of logic, rationality and analytical objectivity – can then usefully catalogue and utilise. Apparently, too, those who allow their gatekeeping frontal lobes to have a snooze now and again are on the right track, creatively speaking. It’s good to have a wandering mind; the kind, that is, that can be let off the lead and allowed to roam where it wishes until it’s called back home to account for itself. This is essentially how the unconscious and conscious mind work together to bring about dot-connecting creative action.

“…a wandering mind.”

 Is creativity tied to emotion? According to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma: “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something then you’re more willing to take risks.” The author Kurt Vonnegut waxed more poetic on the relationship between this wonderful c-word and risk: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs, and developing our wings on the way down.”

“…jumping off cliffs, and developing our wings on the way down.”

In researching this article I’ve scarcely allowed myself the time to pin down just what creativity means to me, but I do know it’s an essential, even ineradicable ingredient in the making of art. In this regard the notion of playing with as uncensored an imagination as possible seems to be key. A virtually insatiable curiosity is another must. I recall a newspaper article on education in which it was stated that it’s the most curious youngsters who want to learn, not the most talented. In a similar vein, apparently Walt Disney once remarked that the creative lynch-pin of his astoundingly popular cultural empire was down to head-scratching forward thinking. “Around here we don’t look backwards for very long,” he said. “We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

“…as uncensored an imagination as possible.”

In undertaking any creative action I believe it’s important to claim your ignorance or, perhaps a better word, innocence – the ‘I know what I don’t know’ syndrome – and be ready to capitalise on it. Fear and doubt can be additional motivators. For some it’s no problem to do that which scares them the most, or makes the heart skip a beat. When faced with a particularly challenging task I’ve sometimes found myself asking why am I wanting or needing to do this? And can I do it, meaning am I capable? As for failure, well, you can learn to view it as far more of a friend than a foe. Who was it who said that nobody makes anything good without risking making something bad? As a reviewer I know that I may actually learn more from a flawed piece of work, or a work-in-progress that’s still trying to figure itself out, than I will from a polished so-called success.

“A virtually insatiable curiosity…”

As one of the most creative people I know, my dear friend Lilia recognises the value of discipline. So, too, does Twyla Tharp. During an interview on Woman’s Hour I once heard this veteran American choreographer assert: “I don’t believe creativity is off-the-wall, or a matter of mood or whimsy or indulgence. It’s a practice.”

“Fear and doubt can be additional motivators.”

 Practice. Now there’s a word that anyone who toils professionally in any field of dance can relate to, including those making work either steeped in or springing from South Asian styles. I spoke to or emailed several of them, wondering how they might define creativity and where it best manifests itself. Can it be calculated, or does it strike  suddenly as a light bulb-above-the-head moment? Is it individual, or can it be a collective experience? What kinds of environments most help to foster it, and can it be taught? Their replies are informative, nuanced and revealing and as varied as creativity itself.

What is creativity?

SHOBANA JEYASINGH: “I would define it as having a concept and realising and communicating it via one’s medium. I guess this is a professional definition.

Of course one can be creative in everything one does, from making tea to leading a country! This means using one’s imagination to think outside the box and feeling a sense of personal ownership over the action, rather than approaching it as an instruction or habit to be executed.”  

BALBIR SINGH: “Seeing things nobody else does. Finding connections between memories and life experiences via curiosity and arriving at concepts. Creativity is how my brain functions. Night is the most creative time, when the day’s duties are done and it’s just you and your mind.”

BISAKHA SARKER: “An intimate play with imagination. An exciting adventure into the realm of the unknown. A deep connection with one’s inner self.”

“…creativity is a way of thinking and being.”

SEETA PATEL: “Although the word is linked to the creating or making of something, for me creativity is a way of thinking and being. Some of the people I consider to be consummate artists no longer make work, but they still think like artists. It’s about thinking creatively, sensitively, curiously.”

SONIA SABRI: “It’s very hard to pin down. Creativity lies in the measures one takes to search for ideas beyond one’s reference points, and an amalgamation of lots of information one absorbs which sits in the unconscious and comes to the fore when needed. It jumps out at you! You can’t be afraid of taking risks because if you keep bouncing off the same safety net, ideas get stale.”

When are you at your most creative, and can you give an example of when this was especially evident?

SHOBANA: “As a choreographer I hope to be creative at every stage. The most taxing is being creative in the studio with a group of dancers; making instant choices and directing other human beings who can’t see what’s inside my head. A different example: going into a church and looking at possible places to stage the dance piece TooMortal. I decided that I wanted somewhere that imposed some limits and chose the pews. Creating the right kind of limits can be the first creative act.”

“Creating the right kind of limits can be the first creative act.”

BISAKHA: “Creativity is not something that one can put on or take off. It is an integral part of one’s existence and thinking process. There really is not a particular time when it is present. It can come into play whether I am cooking or telling a story to a child. However, the most recognised and public part of my creativity is perhaps evident in my artistic work, particularly when I work out the structure of the production, or the overall shape and the details that communicate the subtle feelings I want to share or evoke. The dementia-friendly professional performance Fleeting Moments was a true creative challenge. When I decided to produce something not based on the deficit model and not dwelling on the horror and the hardship of the condition but instead concentrating on uplifting the collective spirit of the artists and the audience (and that includes people living with the condition, their care-givers and the general public), I had no idea what the theme, contents or the format of such a performance would be. Bit by bit they fell into place. The first idea came from Love, Loss, and Laughter, a book of photographs by Cathy Greenblat. It was an image of a couple under an umbrella with a caption which read something like ‘Just as umbrellas protect us from rain, we need to create virtual umbrellas with love and care to protect people with Alzheimer’s.’ I suddenly saw a connection between the picture and the traditional Chinese umbrella dance, and so we made an umbrella dance which by all accounts proved to be a moving, engaging part of the production.”

“I suddenly saw a connection…”

SEETA: “Right now I feel a deep sense of creativity as I perform my solo bharatanatyam work. Though much of the structure and music is set, I try to play with the expression and musicality; the immediacy of working with live music allows a creative dialogue that excites and inspires me. My two nights at the Lilian Baylis last year were very special, as working with such incredible musicians opened me to a new level of creativity within myself.”

SONIA: “A stimulus like a piece of music, looking at a painting or even a chance remark from someone can be the start of a great moment. From my own experience, working on a piece like Kathakbox has been an interesting and creative exercise. We pioneered the idea of what a successful collaboration looks like, demonstrating the difference between a ‘fusion’ and ‘dialogue’.”

BALBIR: “I’ve always had a passion for swimming; when I swim I have an empty mind. For my work Synchronised I made a connection between kathak arm movements that needed to convey the resistance that comes in the water, and the mythological significance of the Ganges flowing through Shiva’s locks.”

Does creativity arise from study and research, or is it more a case of hitting upon a ‘eureka! moment’?

BISAKHA: “All the connections may be present in front of your eyes all the time, but they’re not made until that moment. Study and research can support the realisation of a creative idea, but it does not arise from that.”

SONIA: “What occurs in the moment has to come from somewhere, and for me that is the information one has absorbed. Or perhaps it’s an ongoing search for creativity. Sometimes it’s an internal feeling, a gut instinct.”

“What occurs in the moment has to come from somewhere.”

SHOBANA: “Both are needed. The ‘eureka! moment’ can only be communicated and given shape through research.”

SEETA: “This is difficult to pin down. Study and research can often, but not exclusively, lead to a richness of creativity, but equally I’ve had times when my gut instincts have been the most sound and exciting origins of ideas. How much of these instincts are intertwined with experience and knowledge isn’t something I can define, but I don’t think the answer is one or the other.”

BALBIR: “Ideas suggest themselves to me, and then they take over (which is probably the ‘eureka! moment’). But they have to be tested. There’s a painful period in the R&D when I may hit a brick wall. Then I have to blindly, instinctively find new paths. I read very widely and do a lot of research on YouTube, and try to have conversations with experts.”

What kind of environment best supports creativity?

BISAKHA: “One that is appreciative and trusting, and where there is a collective investment of artistic interest and a free flow of ideas amongst all concerned.” 

SHOBANA: “A supportive one where nourishment is balanced with limits, like deadlines. There is freedom to take a risk but with an understanding of rigour.”

SEETA: “I like to talk to people about things – ideas, life, work. It doesn’t often even have to be about work. I draw the most from being with and around people.”

BALBIR: “I work collaboratively. Finding the right team is half the work done. It’s delicate. You need people around you who are on your wavelength. You need a strong concept and then people who buy into it. The concept is mine, such as in the project The Roundness of 12. (My scrapbook for it contains quotes from Einstein – ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving’ – and references to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.) But the team helps me to flesh the details; I tease it out of them by asking lots of questions. Also, I get bored easily, and so use boredom as a barometer. How do I hold the audience’s attention?”

“Finding the right team is half the work done.”

Is creativity down to the individual or can it be supported collectively?

SHOBANA: “I think it can be a collective activity.”

SONIA: “It depends. Sometimes it’s a case of having a very strong idea, and so taking feedback from the group is more about cross-checking. With Occasionally We Skype we had no picture of what we wanted to create. All we had were responses from interviewees, and so the collaborators were key in the process. It was the result of a collective belief in the spirit of the work. The work is an entity in itself and will dictate which way to go.”

“…a collective belief in the spirit of the work.”

BISAKHA: “Perhaps it starts with an individual, but in my experience it is definitely realised by combining collective creativity – one idea or suggestion supporting another one that leads to another direction. All my productions are collective journeys and a collaboration of extraordinary creative minds.”

SEETA: “It can be collective, though my own experience is that an initial idea is sparked within someone and then can be added to, changed, teased and given life by one or many.”

Can creativity be taught?

SHOBANA: “Perhaps one can promote conditions that encourage creativity, and support it when it happens rather than teach it? You can teach people the technique within which creativity can be expressed. There is also the matter of craft, which is closely linked.”

BISAKHA: “Creativity is a way of perceiving, of seeing and connecting. It cannot be imposed, but it can definitely be nurtured and sharpened.”

BALBIR: “You can imbibe creativity through osmosis, and help people find their own creativity and style. And remember, the body has a creative intelligence.”

SEETA: “I’m not sure. Craft and technique can be taught, and these can most definitely aid creativity by equipping one with tools to work with. But no, I think creativity comes through thinking and then doing.”

SONIA: “You can give guidelines and set creative tasks that may ignite the imagination. I have complete beginners in my class who, in the way they think and question, show inherent creativity.”



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