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Constructing the contemporary: an experiment with Mark Frankos notion of (Re)construction

Revanta Sarabhai Paradigms of Performance I eJournal Submission

As a young dancer trained in the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam, and having had intensive training in a variety of styles ranging from Indian and African folk forms to American modern and contemporary dance, I am placed among a larger fraternity of dancer-choreographers with polymorphic practices. In this essay, I would like to give shape to the notion of the contemporary dance practitioner as (having) a polymorphous identity and simultaneously engage with Mark Frankos ideas on construction as an alternative means of performance practice. Since my core practice revolves around Bharatanatyam, I have chosen to focus on this particular dance tradition as the basis for my analytical reflection. The polymorphous identity addressed here is not the result of the cultural logic of globalization1 that is to say it is not simply about being in possession of a multiform performance vocabulary resulting from transcultural influences. The terminology is adapted from Mikhail Bakhtins use of the words polyphony and heteroglossia as narrative features.2 It involves a dialogic process acted out in the real present, emanating as a compound wherein many languages merge to constitute a single utterance. Therefore, the polymorphous identity is about truly becoming a composite vessel for multiple voices. It involves a bodily swallowing rather than a mimetic gesturing and therefore results in a cultural continuum that is rooted within the self. Unfortunately, the notion of a polymorphous identity is easily replaced with the notion of hybridity. While these terminologies appear similar, they tend to have a very different impact in relation to the enactment of performance codes and dance vocabularies. Hybridity has much to do with working within a globalized performance context and amidst increasingly connected spheres of cultural engagement. The hybrid is associative and yet it engenders homogeneity. The term also remains


strongly contested, embroiled in discourses of cultural politics and narratives of (neo)imperialism.3 Whether within hybrid or polymorphic practices, contemporary performance works created with their basis in, or using elements of Bharatanatyam are presented in what has generally come to be recognized as the genre of Indian Contemporary Dance.4 In my own journey, along side my fifteen plus years of ongoing training in Bharatanatyam, I have simultaneously developed a diverse contemporary vocabulary through close association with an international dance company that includes frequent collaborations with world-leading choreographers/directors. As a young dancerchoreographer, I find it crucial to consider some very basic questions How can a performer with a polymorphic practice/approach (a) meaningfully contribute to the development of an ancient classical dance form, and (b) create contemporary performance work that is representative of this polymorphous identity? Often, when deconstructing performance works that present themselves as Indian Contemporary dance, I find that they primarily consist of disjointed fragments of one style, thrown together with movements of another, leading to a fractured aesthetic. Rather than leading to a beautiful marriage of different styles, this kind of work often tends to lack coherence in form and comes across as an illegitimate child with an identity crisis. When interviewed in a short film by Lisa Chandarana (2001), London based contemporary dancer Liz Lea, who has also trained in Bharatanatyam says, I was interested in working initially in two different dance forms: the contemporary and the classical Indian. Its less about the cultures and its more about the dance. So it may appear that Ive just taken a single hand gesture and stuck it on the end of my arm, but if thats what it looks like then Im not doing my job very well (cited in Grau, 2008). As a young choreographer in pursuit of new contemporary vocabularies, I feel a constant restlessness to find out what exactly it is that causes my aversion to this kind of choreographic work. One of the primary differentiating factors that separates the Indian dancer from the Western dancer is his/her relationship to the ground. The Indian dancer is grounded firmly on the floor, and the focus is on maintaining symmetry within the frame. In contrast, the Western dancers constant endeavour is


to move skywards and achieve a lightness in movement. Kapila Vatsyayan in her writings on the Theory and Technique of Classical Indian Dancing beautifully pinpoints this difference when she says [t]he Western dancer is reaching out into space, vertical and horizontal, in order to arrest a moment of perfect dynamic movement in space [ striving] for a point of time in spacelessness [The Indian] dancer is constantly trying to achieve the perfect pose, which will convey a sense of timelessness. (Vatsyayan, 1967: 233). Perhaps it is this dichotomy that creates a sense of incompatibility between the two forms and causes the fragmented, fractured aesthetic. Is it then not possible to create a dance vocabulary that evolves out of a fusing, blending, mixing or juxtaposing of such different styles that is congruous with itself? My personal interest as a choreographer lies not so much in the mixing and matching of dance styles and techniques, but in finding new directions for the contemporary in Bharatanatyam. This leads me to another question: What other approaches can be taken to arrive at a different kind of contemporary Bharatanatyam? Of course, contemporary exploration rooted in the Bharatanatyam language is nothing new. Mrinalini Sarabhai in the late 1940s and 50s and Chandralekha in the 60s were pioneers in using this ancient classical dance form to go beyond its traditional usage in depicting stories from the Hindu epics and mythology. While Sarabhai used Bharatanatyam to address contemporary subjects and made bold experiments by stripping down the highly ornamented costume and playing with silence, Chandralekha brought in elements from Yoga and Indian martial arts and sought to expand the physical vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, rejecting completely its strong links with classical texts and mythology (Kothari, 2009).

(Re)construction and beyond Mark Franko, in the epilogue of this book Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body talks about reconstruction as a form of scholarship in performance that strives to revive, revisit, or recreate a lost performance. While recognizing reconstruction as a valid practice for anthropological or academic purposes, Franko discusses several issues with this process, and proposes construction as an alternative means 3/10

of performance practice; one that, in the words of Hal Foster, finds the new in the old, and attempts to pinpoint the radical historicity of former work while consciously avoiding a mere simulation (Foster, 1985, cited in Franko, 1993 and Franko, 1993). In the 1930s Rukmini Devis revival of Bharatanatyam was in itself a reconstitution of the entire dance tradition. The dance, solely performed in temples until then was brought, for the first time, onto the stage. Flowers hanging on the backdrop and a bronze idol of the lord of dance, Shiva Nataraja symbolized the temple, creating a semiotic stage for cultural performance (Meduri, 2005). This construction and recontextualization of the ancient dance form constituted an alternative classical modernity, and it is this format that has for almost a century now, been passed down as the traditional (Meduri, 2008, 1988). While one cannot ignore the complexities of using the 1930s as a marker in the history of Bharatanatyam, let us for the sake of this essay, accept the format established during this period as the original, as it has been in the world of Bharatanatyam from the middle of the 20th century. This was also the time when Bharatanatyam acquired a superior position in comparison to the many other traditional dance forms of India, becoming one of the most popular cultural exports and thus, circulating as a form that was recognizably Indian. While this conscious exercise in reconstitution and re-imagination has been documented and assessed by several dance scholars, the issues surrounding the current production and circulation of Bharatanatyam have been much less considered.5 What is presented as Contemporary Bharatanatyam often plays itself out as a patchwork of borrowed movements spliced into a convoluted treatment of the classical form. It is here that the hybrid and the polymorphous go distinctly separate ways. For, Bharatanatyam is not found simply in sophisticated eye movements, a particular starting posture (Aramandi) or a recognizable lexicon of mudras.6 It is all this and morea complex of gestures, movements, postures linked with myth, song and ambience. A hybrid performativity typically involves the fusing of varied elements that act as an amalgamative creation. The polymorphous identity is by definition not purist and therefore, it does not subscribe to a rigid rule-based methodology. However, it does imply that a dance tradition is constantly in a state of evolution and therefore, involves performing in and being made of the contemporary. It means


carrying radical historicity within you whilst being a mobilizing agent for potential futures (of a performance tradition). A Bharatanatyam dancer, by the very nature of his/her training, starts off by learning set pieces from a traditional repertoire that have existed for at least two centuries. S/he is therefore, by virtue of the established form, constantly re-performing history. In a sense then, since the original work was never lost, the Bharatanatyam practitioner is performing a sort of evolutionary reconstruction, adding subtle layers to the meta-historical work. How then, can one construct a dance work from this heritage that is a leap ahead of this slow evolutionary process, and contemporary in the true sense of the word? Can Frankos notion of (re)construction be used as a means to arrive at a different kind of contemporary in Bharatanatyam?

Constructing a new Pushpanjali and Alarippu The Pushpanjali and the Alarippu are two items that have existed as part of the Bharatanatyam repertoire since at least the 1800s. The Pushpanjali, literally meaning the offering of flowers with joined hands, usually commences a Bharatanatyam recital. The dancer enters the stage with flowers in his/her hand, either real or mimed, and offers them to the idol of Nataraja on stage. S/he then goes over to the musicians who sit on the stage, and bows to them to pay respect, before coming to the centre of the stage and performing the namaskar to the audience. The Alarippu (literally meaning blossoming) thus begins with subtle movements of the neck and head, shoulders, arms, legs and then the whole body, starting with simple rhythms and ultimately leading to more complex rhythmic structures. Kicking off the programme, the Alarippu is, metaphorically as well as physically, the blossoming of both the dancer and the dance. It is a way for the dancer to warm up the body and focus the mind to prepare for the remainder of the physically strenuous and mentally challenging repertoire (Vatsayayan, 1997). Consider the following description of a performance by Sooraj Subramaniam7, of a piece created as an experiment in (re)construction:


The stage is empty as a recorded soundtrack starts to play. Traditionally there would be a full live orchestra sitting stage right, comprising of a percussionist, a singer, a flautist or a violinist (or both), and most importantly, the nattuvanar conducting the orchestra and keeping everyone in synch with the dancer. But the lack of funding and resources that a young independent dancer in todays world has to live with makes it nearly impossible for one to be able to have a live orchestra. The music on the CD track however immediately allows a seasoned listener/viewer to associate with the traditional setting of the Bharatanatyam stage the musicians sitting to the left, a bronze idol of Nataraja, on a small pedestal in the front right corner, flowers often ornamenting the backdrop simulating the faade of a temple. As with the traditional Pushpanjali, the dancer enters after the introductory musical passage, but instead of being dressed in the traditional silk temple-sari costume adorned with jewellery and bells, he appears dressed as the average London pedestrian: jeans, jacket, a muffler around the neck, gloves, shoes and a bag slung over a shoulder. Entering the stage as if by walking through a door, he takes off his shoes and takes his place in the centre. Taking off his gloves, he distinctively drops them to the floor behind him. In typical fashion of the ritualistic lighting of lamps, the dancer goes to the four corners and through a quick flick of the wrist holding the kapita mudra in his hand, performs a gesture as if turning on space heaters in the corners of the conceived room. Freezing in the cold weather, he blows hot air into his hands and warms his body, as the rubbing of his hands together make the namaskara, the gesture traditionally used to greet and pay respects to the audience at the beginning of a performance. Dancing to the rhythm of the mridangam, the dancer encircles the stage as if surveying the room as he throws his bag to the floor. Several other accessories all ultimately find their way to the floor creating a circular perimeter within which he will dance. Out of the bag, comes an apple, which he starts to eat. Everything that follows in the description is enacted in the traditional language of Bharatanatyam mime, with depiction through mukha abhinaya (facial expressions) and angika abhinaya (expression through gestures and the body). Where traditionally a dancer would bow down and pay respects to the Nataraja idol, here, he indicates a television-set, which is switched on and operated with a remote control. Utter respect for the live musicians and the guru is replaced by the 6/10

casualness of the eating of an apple, and fiddling with a mobile phone as the dancer watches a video on the TV set. Reflective of the now almost diminished guru-shishya parampara,8 the dependency on technology in learning and relearning dance works and the change in relationship dynamics between the student and the teacher are subtly conveyed. An invocation to Lord Ganesha is performed, in the traditional style, with near strict adherence to the classical form of the adavus9 of Bharatanatyam. Yet here the dancers scarf takes the form of an elephant trunk, and the flaps of his jacket, the large ears as the elephant god is worshipped as the granter of auspicious beginnings. As the invocation ends, the scarf and jacket find their way to the floor too and the dancer begins the Alarippu, again staying mostly true to its original form. The warm-up aspect of this first item in the Bharatanatyam repertoire is reinforced and heightened by the addition of movements like the seated hamstring stretch to the naattadavus10 from the Alarippu. Through a number of such devices, the dancer recontextualises the Pushpanjali and the Alarippu to the realities of our modern times. The simulacrum of the temple-stage as created by Rukmini Devi is thus shifted to that of the studio-stage. The templedancer performing the ritualistic commencement of the Bharatanatyam repertoire is replaced by a young male dancer in the studio; a video recording replaces the guru. Yet the Pushpanjali and the Alarippu as the opening items on the Bharatanatyam repertoire stay true to their essence in several important ways. These new renditions of the Pushpanjali and the Alarippu, in Frankos terms, I believe, come across as a successful exercise of construction in performance. Staying true to the original works intrinsic nature by maintaining its defining factors, this construction departs from its historical, cultural and geographic context and brings it home to a modern contemporary audience with a kunstwollen11 that relates back to its significance in the Bharatanatyam margam dating back to the early 1800s.12 By opening up a dialogue between forms and periods on the basis of style, vocabulary and theory rather than history alone, this construction, as Franko would suggest, results in a new choreographic work that is contemporary, while simultaneously drawing a direct relationship with its past.


In the course of this essay, I have attempted to (re)construct and reanalyse a dance piece that I learned and embodied when I was eight years old. Performing Bharatanatyam has always been about negotiating an identity. The Bharatanatyam dancer today is the product of a global modernity, his/her culture, directly affected by centrifugal and centripetal influencing forces. By assuming and accepting a polymorphous identity, one carries the radical historicity of the dance form within oneself, and can find a meaningful way into the future.


While the phrase the cultural logic of globalization is borrowed from Marwan Kraidys book of the same name, the purpose is solely to differentiate the notion of the polymorphus identity from that of the equally complex notion of the hybrid identity that Kraidy discusses at great length. 2 For an explanation of Bakhtins use of the words polyphony and heteroglossia see James Zappens biography of Bakhtin in Twentieth-Century Rhetoric and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources published by Greenwood Press, 2000. 3 See Kraidy, 2005, for discourses on hybridity and Performing Hybridity edited by May and Fink for more on hybridity and its relation to performance codes. 4 Contemporary dance in the Indian context is itself a rather broad and somewhat problematic term. Alessandra Lopez y Royo in her 2003 paper Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircars work: redefining the terms of Indian contemporary dance discourses discusses in some detail the cultural and historic connotations of and the complex issues revolving around the term comtemporary dance in India. 5 In 2005, Akademi (earlier knows as the Academy of South Asian Dance, UK) organized a day long conference titled Negotiating Natyam celebrated and debated the classical dance form of Bharata Natyam from the past to the present day. For details, read the report by Ann David available at http://www.akademi.co.uk/development/negotiating-natyam.php 6 The Aramandi or Ardhamandali is the basic bent-knee starting positions in Bharatanatyam, similar to the pli in Ballet. Mudras refer to a vocabulary of hand gestures used as a language of visual communication in Indian classical dance. 7 The piece was originally conceived by London based dancer Sooraj Subramaniam. It was reworked in conjunction with myself for the purposes of this experiment in construction based on Frankos ideas and has been videoed to go along with this paper. 8 The guru-shishya parampara refers to an ancient Indian tradition of spiritual learning wherein, based on the generosity of the teacher (guru) and the respect, commitment and devotion of the disciple (shishya), a mutually beneficial relationship is established through which knowledge is imparted from generation to generation. 9 Adavus, roughly translated to steps in dance, are the basic units of composition in Bharatanatyam, categorized into sections based on the body parts they employ. 10 Naattadavus refer to a specific category of steps that require bending. 11 Umberto Eco, cited in Franko, 1993, in the postscript to his book The Name of the Rose, talks about describes the term kunstwollen as a way of operating, or a postmodern mannerism of sorts, what I understand to refer to a certain sensibility in a performance work. 12 The margam refers to the structure of a solo Bharatanatyam recital, established in the early 19th century. It consists of a coherent progression of independent dance pieces arranged in a specific order to display the various distinct components of the dance form and its repertoire. The entire suite of dance pieces performed together is the margam.


Works Cited Chandarana, Lisa. Dancing Divinities. 13 minute film submitted as part of degree in Film Studies at Bournemouth University, available online at http://media3.bournemouth.ac.uk/cgi-bin/tvarchive/search.pl?mode=all Franko, Mark. Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body. First published by Cambridge University Press, 1993. Grau, Andre. Dance and the Shifting Sands of Multiculturalism: Questions from the United Kingdom. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi ed Dance: Transcending Borders. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2008: 232-252. Kothari, Sunil. New Directions in Indian Dance, An Overview 1980-2006. In C. Stock (Ed.), Dance Dialogues: Conversations across cultures, artforms and practices, Proceedings of the 2008 World Dance Alliance Global Summit, Brisbane, 13 18 July. On-line publication, QUT Creative Industries and Ausdance, 2009. http://www.ausdance.org.au. Meduri, Avanthi. 'Temple Stage as Historical Allegory: Rukmini Devi as DancerHistorian' in Peterson, Indira and Soneji, Devesh eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, (2008): 133-164. . Bharatanatyam What are You? Asian Theatre Journal 5 (1) (1988): 1-22. . Rukmini Devi and Sanskritization: A New Performance Perspective. Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986): A Visionary Architect of Indian Culture and the Performing Arts, edited by Avanthi Meduri, New Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2005: 195-223. Vatsyayan, Kapila. The Theory and Technique of Classical Indian Dancing. Artibus Asiae, Vol 29, No. 2/3 (1967): 229-238. . The Vastu Purusa, from The square and the circle of the Indian arts, 2nd ed. Abhinav Publications, 1997: 81. First published by Roli Books International in 1983.

Works Consulted Baudrillard, Jean. LHistoire: Un Scnario retro in Simulacres et Simulation. Paris, ditions Galile, 1981. David, Ann. Report on conference organized by Akademi titled Negotiating Natyam. Supported by The Arts Council, Dance UK, the South Asian Dance Alliance and the Royal Opera House. Report available at http://www.akademi.co.uk/development/negotiating-natyam.php (accessed 16/01/11). 9/10

Joseph, May & Natalya Fink, Jennifer, eds. Performing Hybridity. University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Kothari, Sunil. Revolutionising Sadir. Collection of articles on dance and music at URL: http://www.narthaki.com/info/profiles/profil44.html published August 7, 2004. (accessed 21/01/11). Kraidy, Marwan M. Hybridity: or the Cultural Logic of Globalization. Temple University Press, 2005. Lopez y Royo, Alessandra. Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircars work: re-defining the terms of Indian contemporary dance discourses. First published in South Asian Research, November 2003, Vol. 23, No. 2: 153-169; 039249. Copyright SAGE Publications, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London, 2003. Meduri, Avanthi. Bharatanatyam as a Global Dance: Some Issues in Research, Teaching, and Practice. Dance Research Journal. Vol. 36, No. 2 (2004): 11-29. . Rukmini Devi Arundale, 1904-1986: a visionary architect of Indian culture and the performing arts. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2005. Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. Globalization and Culture: Global Mlange. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003 Raman, Pattabhi. What is Bharatanatyam? Collection of articles on dance and music at URL: http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article35.html published September, 2001. (accessed 19/01/11). First published in Shruti, Issue 203, August 2001. Schechner, Richard. "Restoration of Behavior" in Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Seshan, A. Neo-Classical and Modern Dancing and Margam in Bharatanatyam. Collection of articles on dance and music at URL: http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/art262.html published January 10, 2010. (accessed 19/01/11). Zappen, James P. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975): A Biography. Published in TwentiethCentury Rhetoric and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources. Ed. Michael G. Moran and Michelle Ballif. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000: 7-20.