Is it possible to experience classical dance in one’s lifetime? This was a lament often echoed by the parents of my students. Parents in their late 30s, perhaps, who wondered if this unfulfilled dream was only possible in another lifetime. It rankled with me no end that the beautiful art of classical dancing seemed like a faraway world, nay planet. Was it not possible to build a bridge, or create a chink space in the door? These parents did not ask to don glorious costumes, they did not ask for a performance platform, nor did they seek applause; they only wanted to experience moving in the classical dance way.
Nritya Uphaar – The Gift of Dance, was born as a via media, a workshop first tried out in 1999. In making possible a way to fulfil this desire to let them experience classical dance and thus bring closer this hallowed world, I approached my colleagues, the late Bireshwar Gautam in kathak and Shubhada in odissi. Together, we let the kite fly in the open sky, the age barrier was surmounted – anyone from 10 to 60 could enrol – and a local college was kind enough to donate its tiny hall space for next to nothing, for this was a test-run of sorts.
To our amazement, men and women of all ages (children as young as 10, right up to adults in their 50s) came from all corners of the city to attend the workshop. The test-run was an eye-opener. Three dance styles in three weeks – an incredible task when one considers how it takes a lifetime to learn (master) one single style, let alone three.
The workshop continues to receive this mixed response as, on the one hand, people are ecstatic when given the rare chance to experience each classical style in a short time. On the other, there is doubt in their minds – is this possible?
Since its inception in 1999, Nritya Uphaar has been repeated in 2002 and then again in 2010, after a hiatus. Each time, the students are ecstatic on the last day when they present the three dance styles before an audience. Modern dance pioneer Astad Deboo, culture columnist Shanta Gokhale, and Terence D’Souza, ex-director of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in Mumbai, have all witnessed this encouraging effort.
In these times of fast use and throw, media comes as a necessity and boon. Not all learners are interested in performing classical dance and not all have the time needed to master the form. This marginalised section comprises a future audience, to say the least; connoisseurs need this via media. Today the support from corporate entities keeps this mission going, as well as the enthusiasm of the students themselves and the continued support of my esteemed colleagues Keka Sinha for kathak and Shubhada for odissi, who themselves are busy in their own spheres as performer-teachers.
As the internet revolution swept in in the eighties, mindsets towards classical dance began to close up. Western dance, especially Shiamak, took over cities like Mumbai and quickly became a trend of the hip and happening; classical dance training appeared long and arduous in comparison. If a student wanted to only barely begin to understand it, like simply getting a dip into a swimming pool, there was just no scope to do that; it had to be all or nothing, it seemed. For the regular classical dance class dealt with hard basics at the outset, which often made the student scamper away. Dance-related cultural contexts needed to be spelled out to this new breed of students, who seemed to be aligned and living an alien culture on home turf. The cultural shift brought a gap in the student-teacher equation: the student was armed with modern language, technology and global outlook, while the teacher seemed to have been caught in a time warp.
Of course, there were questions that could not be answered and attitudes that could not be understood, which Westernisation, as a panacea, swept under the carpet. Classical dancers and teachers alike were caught in the dilemma: to hold on to the hand-me-down ideals, or to shake off the shackles of authority through the use of modern technology?
Some ideas suddenly seemed warped and outdated but one question remained: how do we make a traditional movement language relevant today? In this mire of confusion, the audience seemed to have drifted further and classical dance continued to be pushed into the background. Audience allegiance shifted rapidly and soon the lament of ‘no audience’ could be heard. Nritya Uphaar seemed like manna for the uninitiated.
Recently, a student who completed the workshop wrote in to say that she enjoyed a classical dance performance, despite initially feeling alienated by the concept. She managed to follow some of the hand gestural interpretations quite easily; thus a new door had opened for those who completed the workshop. They felt better informed with a new classical dance perspective which, with technology and the like at hand, they could further explore in their own way, enjoying the process in their own time.