Asian Music and Dance

Natya Kala Conference 

The Natya Kala Conference was conceived in 1981, by the late Shri R. Yagnaraman, secretary of Krishna Gana Sabha, with a view to providing Indian dance with a platform to discuss and debate issues. It takes place at an appropriate time, during the December season when artists and rasikas gather from all parts of the nation and abroad, to partake in a feast of music and dance. 

Since its inception, the Conference has adopted the practice of appointing a new Convenor every two years. It was the second opportunity for scholar and performer Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant who, in the latest Natya Kala Conference Dance Matters, set a hugely ambitious agenda to cover a panorama of dance in India over sixty years, and to conjecture on its place in the India of tomorrow. 

She describes the thinking behind the Conference structure: “To curate this conference, I first created a matrix, of styles and performances, individuals and personalities in art, traditional paradigms and fresh approaches, the soloist and the choreographer, male and female dancer, the scholar, writer and critic, Gurus and students, all media, print and electronic, TV and film, alongside issues of relevance, livelihood, sustenance, copyright.”

One of the key strands of the Conference was the discussion on form: the gurus who established the forms; those who passed the forms on and those who use the forms as a departure point to create variations. The breadth of history was summed up on the opening day, by the selection of three dance artists with rare footage shown of Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi and Chandralekha by Dr Sunil Kothari. This was followed with demonstrations by exponents of Balasaraswati style nritta, the Kalakshetra school and Vempati Chinmaya (kuchipudi) tradition. 

Dr Ananda Jayant writes: “Nritta, or the kinetics of dance, is what essentially identifies a classical style: movements, rhythm, speed, vigour, verve, grace, lyricism, energy, space, time, etc are elements that permeate the evolution of each style. Each performer and teacher brings their own stamp of uniqueness and distinction to their art. Taking bharatanatyam as the most widely practised style and to fathom what changes have taken place over the sixty years, three dancers were contrasted at either end of the spectrum: Hari Krishnan and Srividya Natarajan who retain the vintage choreographies of Shri Kittappa Pillai, and Chennai-based dancer Priyadarshini Govind. The latter presented features which she has adopted such as aerobic leaps and jumps, poses amidst nritta, and usage of space. This session suggested that tradition was in constant evolution.”

  Still on the subject of form and content, the Conference shone a light on those artists who are bursting boundaries, finding new partners and parameters, and treading fresh grounds of artistry. In moderated conversations Anita Ratnam and Astad Deboo, Geeta Chandran and Ramli Ibrahim gave insights into their thought processes and working methodologies. 

Four very different dance companies, who have their foundations in traditional training and have used that grammar and idiom to evolve a new vocabulary, presented short excerpts of their latest works: Madhu Natraj from STEM showcased Vajra, while Samudra, Arangham Dance Theatre, presented some of their works. 

One of the highlights of the Conference was the recognition of the role of film and television in spreading dance. “Today, the whole of India is dancing to film music and film choreography,” noted Dr Jayant. Yet it was her bold step in inviting Saroj Khan, the legendary choreographer of hundreds of Hindi film dance sequences, to the citadel of classical dance that deserves special mention. She created the ground for an unforgettable moment of dance history when two polar opposites were fused in harmony: ‘Bharata nrityam’ creator, icon Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, rushed onto the stage to give a hug and congratulate Saroj Khan, saying that a particular movement of hers (Saroj Khan’s) was from the charis of the Natya Shastra, proving once again that there are only two kinds of dance, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. 

 A fascinating account of the role of ‘reality dance programmes’ in popular viewing was presented by Radhika Shurajit, the creator and Programme Director of  Thaka Dhimi Tha. The latter is the only game show that revolves around classical dance, setting up unusual ways to engage the classically-trained youngsters, through dance puzzles, exercises and creative tasks. This model is now replicated by most regional TV channels in India. 

In the programme-rich six half days some of the other important issues covered were the discussions around documenting dance by Ashish Khokar, who manages the legacy of his father Mohan Khokar, India’s best-known dance photographer. He is also the editor of India’s dance annual Attendance

V. Ramnarayan, Editor-in-Chief of Sruti magazine, asked as to why “The vocabulary of dance criticism is at best inadequate, at worst superficial and adjectives-ridden?”  He questioned the woeful lack of coverage, space, knowledge, understanding and sensitivity towards dance and passionately campaigned for putting into effect courses in school curriculum on arts writing. 

It would not be possible to mention the name and contribution of each and every individual who presented or commented at the Conference. Suffice to say that the Natya Kala Conference took a broad sweep at dance, hitting some targets at bull’s eye but perhaps only skimming over others. Issues of earning a livelihood, for instance, would need further probing. Another question that comes to the fore is the absence of representation from kathak dance (Kumudini Lakhia was invited as a speaker, but was not able to attend). 

However, the energy, enthusiasm and scope of the 2009 Conference are to be commended by all who are in any way connected to dance. 

The review of Natya Kala Conference is based on extensive notes provided to Pulse by the Convenor, Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant.

Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant is a renowned bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and contemporary dancer. A well-known choreographer, teacher and arts activist, she has been honoured with many awards, including the Padmashri. 

Ananda trained under Rukmini Devi Arundale at Kalakshetra, and holds a Masters Degree in Archaeology and History, an MPhil in Art History (Development of Bharatanatyam – Role of Kalakshetra), and a PhD in Tourism. 

Her choreographies and productions have toured widely in India and overseas, and include the much-acclaimed Navarasa – Expressions of Life, Dancing Tales…Panchatantra, Budham Saranam Gachchami, Thyagaraja Ramayanam and Gitopadesam

She lives in Hyderabad, India. 




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