“Sweat. Pain. Badges.” (Sruti Magazine)

Reproduced with the permission of the author, from the blog of Sruti Magazine.

By Akhila Ramnarayan
Dance India Asia Pacific
 / September 4 2012

Dance India Asia Pacific participant Sivakami Ananthanarayanan from the Temple of Fine Arts, Singapore, thumps herself enthusiastically on right and left shoulders as she darts in and out of the Apsaras Arts office at the Goodman Centre during a break between sessions.  I look up, quizzical, from frenetic typing and she repeats: “Sweat. Pain. These are our badges, Leela Akka said. So now, when we’re tired, we’re telling each other that!” The advice is timely; the participants need all the grit and collective goodwill they can muster on Day 3, the most grueling thus far.

The intensive training sessions continue apace, with the dancers coming (sweatily, painfully) to grips with the pieces they are learning: in Leela Samson’s advanced class, Papanasam Sivan’s Anandanatam idum padam (Kedaragowla) choreographed by the late Kalakshetra stalwart Venkatachalapathy, in Priyadarsini Govind’s intermediate class, the dancer’s signature sadakshara kauthuvam on Murugan (Shanmukhapriya).

Shantha Ratii’s lec-dem on Kuchipudi follows.  As they did with Kathak and Odissi in the introductory workshops with Aditi Mangaldas and Arushi Mudgal earlier, students learn basic Kuchipudi stances and moves, also developing an understanding of the dance form’s roots and history.  One of Singapore’s own, Shantha Ratii is a faithful presence at Dance India despite illness, with comments and contributions always insightful, always pertinent to the session at hand.  Her poise and erudition shine through, as does her absolute commitment to Indian art and culture.

In the afternoon, Leela Samson and Priyadarsini Govind swap classes for a one-time, full-blown interaction with each others’ cohort.  There is no let-up in dance instruction, or dancing.  But each icon of Bharatanatyam does, in her own distinctive way, take the time in these concurrent sessions to reflect on the growth of her practice and art, on teaching and learning methods, while the students listen enthralled.

Leela Samson’s choreography workshop follows immediately after.  She unveils not only the creative process—from initial concept to embodiment in time and space —but also vagaries of stage and technology (lighting, stage layout) that affect actual proscenium performance on a given day. The demonstration part of the session involves pointing out choreographic choices and decisions—movement, melody, rhythm—in video excerpts of her work.

Tall, always smiling Sruti Pegatraju, a student of finance, classical music, and Bharatanatyam, is thoughtful as she considers the impact of the session: “Leela akka’s analysis of the term choreography made me think beyond the conventional definition. Before this talk, the alarippu was just the first piece I had learnt after adavus. I never stopped to appreciate that it maintains our centre, introduces us to the audience, and lets us offer salutations to the Lord. As Akka was talking about her own previous projects, I was in awe that everyday thoughts and inner philosophies can be transformed into such exquisite pieces of art.”

The day isn’t done yet.  We move to a panel discussion—spearheaded by Milapfest director Alok Nayak, the Esplanade theatre’s director of programming JP Nathan, dancer Shankar Kandasamy and I—moderated by Aravinth Kumarasamy.  As apprehensive as we panelists are about the stamina of the participants in the late evening, they surprise us with spirited rejoinders to our deliberately provocative, no-holds-barred salvos on what should continue and what should change in dance. JP Nathan shares frankly his perceptions of what crosses over, and what remains a source of eternal bafflement, to uninitiated audiences in Singapore, culturally curious but with little or no background in the Indian classical arts.  Alok Nayak expresses his earnest wish that Indian dance become a “global export,” discussing the roadblocks Milapfest often encounters in making it so.  I speak of my experiences as an actor in Gowri Ramnarayan’s JustUs Repertory, from the perspective of someone who has worked with many dancers and musicians—including Priya Govind, Sheejith Krishna, Mythili Prakash, and Anjana Anand—in theatre, a forum that garners new audiences.

Questions immediately bubble up about experimentation, commodification, how to retain the “purity”of the art form, and innovation’s relationship to tradition.  Though the students get heated at times, black and white dissolve into finely shaded greys, into messy, complicated, real-world exigencies. Dancers, theatre workers, scholars, festival organizers, and venue heads all realise we are working from a common impulse to create pools of beauty and awareness in a complex, fast-changing world, whose presence we cannot ignore, much as we try.  The air is still buzzing as we conclude the session with a call for reflective practice through reading, writing and socio-political consciousness, and for ethical practice on the part of each individual in the room.   Funnily enough, we come to see that, in a continuously evolving, commerce-driven world, it is perhaps artistic integrity that is ultimately recognised and prized.

On September 4, the last day of Dance India Asia Pacific 2012, each class spends the morning session under the persistently hawk-eyed supervision of Leela Samson and Priya Govind, practising the piece it learnt for the video-filming session to follow.  Watching the advanced session, I am struck anew that the act of performance, putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable to others through your art, is an act of courage, an act of giving, in itself.  Each student attempts the task at hand with complete sincerity and faith, from seasoned professional Shankar Kandasamy who performed at the welcome ceremony, to the youngest, most inexperienced dancer in the room.  When I talk to him during lunch, I get a sense from Shankar Kandasamy of how important the immersion that Dance India offers is for the artistic diaspora, how vital to creative survival.  His sense of mission about the work of the Temple of Fine Arts, Malaysia, where he is faculty, is palpable.

We move to a short presentation about Sruti magazine, which allows us to continue thinking through some of the themes initiated during the panel discussion the previous evening.  I ask students to consider reading, researching and writing on the art form as integral to individual creative practice, and together, we brainstorm ways in which Sruti can provide an entry-point for aspiring dancers into the creative and critical conversation. By this point, all participants have become aware of the need to learn about the history and present-day context in which they practise and perform their art.

The decision-model based workshop on synopsis writing by scholar Shobha Vadrevu which comes next is interactive and boisterous, with many valuable inputs from Shantha Ratii, Shankar Kandasamy, and  Aravinth Kumarasamy.  They each draw on their experiences of presenting work internationally to suggest what does and doesn’t appeal /convey to different audiences. I propose considering various kinds of synopsis writing as one kind of exercise in a whole host of available writing practices ranging from informal to formal that dancers might incorporate into their creative approach.  Alok Nayak and Archana Shastri describe some of the communicative hurdles they face in liaising between Indian classical artistes and potential sponsors/ cultural organizations In the UK.

After the dancers put their best feet forward for the filming and sharing session with their gurus, the final lec-dem on abhinaya is by someone who is considered Bharatanatyam’s leading exponent of the same.   Since 2007, I have had the unalloyed luxury of watching Priya Govind rehearse her portrayal of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s legendary dancer-heroine Sivakami in Gowri Ramnarayan’s play Flame of the Forest, and know as a result the capacity for self-surrender, the resoluteness and strength, she brings to her practice, day in and day out.  But the students at Dance India—having now glimpsed her iron insistence on perfection and absolute attentiveness in the classroom— have no inkling how visceral it can be to watch her perform up close.

With none of the appurtenances of the stage (she is in her practice costume, wearing minimal makeup and next to no ornaments), Priya Govind takes us through an entire emotional gamut, from jilted lover to bereaved mother, in the span of two hours.  The walls are breached between inner and outer realms, self and world, as, again and again, with one dismissive gesture, one quiver of the eyebrow, one toss of the head, one tremulous look, she makes us laugh, rage, scold and weep with each character she presents.  Her iron discipline, her ability to shut out all extraneous thoughts and impulses to create moment after bejewelled moment of wordless communion between artiste and audience, is the most valuable lesson the students could possibly receive.

The awarding of certificates, thank you-s, and speeches all go by in a blur after that, as Alok Nayak and Aravinth Kumarasamy  joke during the closing ceremony. Past meets present as, in a poignant final address, reticent, dignified Apsaras Arts founder Neila Sathyalingam commemorates the work of her late husband in the arena of Indian dance abroad.  The students drink in the voices and words of their mentors commending their hard work, spurring them onward in their practice—their sadhana and sadhakam—one last time.

As part of her solo performance on opening night, which now feels like it happened an age ago,  Aditi Mangaldas intones: “I seek the beloved,” letting the words hang softly in the air as she sits still on stage, a picture of perfect repose.  Is this search for the beloved (whoever, whatever that may be) a dewdrop falling on a leaf, or a storm unleashed, she asks, before letting loose a blizzard of breathtaking movement and sound that spirals slowly into silence.  Those who only vaguely grasped what that moment meant then will surely now arrive at deeper, more complex understandings of the daily physical, psychological, intellectual, metaphysical striving constituting artistic endeavour:  the elusiveness, the tantalising nearness, of the goal.

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