Asian Music and Dance

Mavin Khoo – Aesthetics of Bharatanatyam

The first in a four-part series, Pulse reports from Critical Writing 2, held at the Hat Factory, Luton in August 2013. 

Mavin Khoo shares his views on how to approach a classical bharatanatyam concert and raises issues around quality and value. He makes a case for long-term investment to support the creative development of the form.

Mavin places himself within the dance world

I am an artist working in a solo form, and most of my work is outside India. The context of Indian dance in the West has changed. It is no longer marginalised within a specific cultural community and more often than not, when I perform, it is at international dance festivals. I shared the platform last year for instance in Sydney, with Raphael Bonachela (Spanish-born British choreographer appointed Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company).

On approaching a bharatanatyam performance

The first thing is, do not try to think of anything; respond with your emotion, because ‘critical understanding’ needs to be invested in over a long period of time. If you feel that you don’t ‘get it’, it is possible that the dancer was not very good. The notions of good quality performance transcend genre.

In a classical performance you are looking for ‘artistry’, the component of choreography is incidental. A large part of that ‘artistry’ is the ability to translate the text, music and understanding of the context into a cohesive whole. There is a strong tradition of research into texts on which dance items are based. The art form is inter-disciplinary: music, literature, linguistics all come into play. In Chennai where I was a student (under Guru Adyar Lakshman), I was constantly being referred to scholars for different interpretations of the same text.

There is nothing ‘easy’ about bharatanatyam. As an audience, am I able to get involved with its complexities? When I do my improvisational performances where I am seated and simply emoting, even in India I have to warn audiences that they have to make an investment. (Mavin illustrates with singing the Krishna nee Begane Baro [where mother Yashoda is calling child Krishna], repeated three times with the inflections of rhythm and melody change each time and would require the dancer similarly to vary their interpretations accordingly.)

Bharatanatyam and story-telling

One of the misconceptions is that bharatanatyam is only about storytelling. Even though the dancer plays different characters, it is at the metaphorical level that dance works. There can be very little ‘enactment’ of the story from a literal perspective. Subtext is the interpretive framework by which the artist creates and improvises whilst maintaining the rigour and precision of form, content and context.

The universal theme of love

More often than not, the theme enacted in bharatanatyam is about ‘love’- not the pink candy floss Barbie-doll stuff but sacred and secular love or, more bluntly, sex and spirituality. The ability to be subliminal but with a physicality that is raw, is the quality a dancer, for instance, Malavika Sarukkai displays. In our present cynical times we may not have the sensitivity to receive such emotions.Indeed, we often limit our ability ourselves from the experiential. 

Evolution of bharatanatyam

In the fifties, solo bharatanatyam subscribed to the ideals of a voluptuous female form. Its emphasis was on femininity. The dance also emphasised musicality and improvisation (possible through live accompaniment). In thirty years the changes are discernible not only outwardly in the physicality, for instance, of Balasaraswati in contrast with the slim figure of early Malavika Sarukkai, but also in content and interpretation. Ideas of virtuosity have shifted and perhaps even become global…a dancer like Mythili Prakash possesses a certain articulation that is aesthetically more ‘worldly’. Of course, the innumerable international work that Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai did in the 90s to take bharatanatyam into the mainstream international festival circuit helped diminish ideas of aesthetic and cultural specification and relevance.

The place of bharatanatyam in Britain

When I came to the UK in 1993/94, there was a movement pressing for innovation within bharatanatyam. The question addressed was: how were we going to negotiate bharatanatyam in the context of Britain, without it becoming an appropriated form?

 There was an intense need to ‘de-construct’ bhratanatyam to develop from solo to ensemble forms and inject Western choreographic structures within the classical vocabulary led successfully by Shobana Jeyasingh through the 90s, over two decades.

However, today when we have British-born and trained odissi and bharatanatyam dancers, how do we embrace Indian classical dance within the British dance scene? Can we say that this form of dance has no value because it ‘lacks choreographic structures’? Is this not a form of marginalisation? In saying so, are we not marginalising British-born artists in our limited ability to consider innovation within classicism?

Investing in the long-term future of bharatanatyam

Lastly all forms of dance are capable of creativity and innovation if they are valued and invested in. Look at how McGregor or Forsythe have shifted ballet because of the investment made in them. But we cannot just blame the funders, the performers have a responsibility too.

Mavin Khoo maintains an international career as a solo bharatanatyam performer. He is renowned for his command of the two classical styles of East and West – bharatanatyam and ballet, which he has deployed in his choreography. Mavin holds an MA from Middlesex University and enjoys academic discourse. He is currently on the faculty of Dance at the University of Malta.



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