Becoming Un-Classical

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Photo Courtesy: Maya Kabir

 

by Manishikha Baul 

I often wonder. Where are the young Odissi dancers in this city? Are they ever performing? Or maybe playing with the form to create new? Where are the stories that are their own, telling of their lives and journeys? How is it that I never get to watch them or hear their stories?

As my mind lingers, the morning newspaper brings another festival for classical dance; this time for the new generation of young dancers. I am excited to see the line-up of artists. But of course. Not much has changed. The age old stalwarts of classical dance take stage yet again. The gimmickry of calling it a festival for the new generation of dancers was perhaps a strategy to attract new funders. I am heart-broken and disappointed but allow myself to sit with these thoughts and reflect deeply instead.

So why are we, the classical fraternity, petrified of the new? What is it that holds us back and keeps us regimented within the boundaries (which we have created)? What is the great fear of loss that paralyzes us to go beyond the known and established? Does new threaten the old? Does neo threaten the classical? What is classical (if not strictly a post-colonial phenomenon in terms of dance forms in India)? What is contemporary? Can classical be contemporary? I attempt to respond.

Cities invite migration from across borders and boundaries in search of livelihoods. An influx of bodies across class, caste, community, ethnicity, faith, language, gender, habits, practices and rituals are on the move. So am I and many other practitioners – a city-dweller and an Odissi dancer. Both co-exist and inform the body. Meanwhile, one is equally torn by the ambiguity of these identities. In negotiating and navigating through these parts, one constantly discards and wears a new identity each time. Through this process we are able to find new perspectives to talk to people, understand them, embrace differences, learn about the world, make informed choices, fail, falter, introspect and gain knowledge. These entail stories through live bodies.

When bodies move in infinite ways a million stories are born, every moment. Having practiced Odissi for more than two decades, it continues to bring a new story each day to me. Meanings, expressions, gaze, nuances, knowledge and context, are ever evolving. To arrest a body, codify it, homogenize it and freeze it within the framework of tradition, history, lineage and legacy is therefore criminal. The need is to perhaps take a step outside of that framework to dive into the well of one’s body and other collective bodies, in the quest for new stories. A body tells a new tale compelling one to go into forbidden territories, to question beliefs, to follow the path not taken, to not abide blindly, to tread the dark alleys, to look for the key to the lock (or break the lock), to listen fearlessly, to trash what is jaded, to overcome nostalgia, to build emotional rationale, to not feel obligated, to not compulsively act out of loyalty, to challenge the status quo, to trust instincts and to seek beyond what is taught. The body in its fluid state of being is a thinking body. Unfortunately as I observe more each day, the present methods of teaching, practicing and performing Odissi negates this very nature of the body.

This is not a new theory at all. In fact, unknowingly we are most inspired by dancers (Gurus) who created themselves through questioning their teachers & pedagogy, defying instituitions, seeking knowledge of the body and following the path which was unchartered. They are the ones who we remember, revere and aspire towards. Each of them brought not just the dance of their teachers but also a huge body of work that is their creation, distinctively different. They developed bodies of movement and narratives that remain as repository of knowledge and experience. They didn’t stop to be inspired by their socio-political environment, people around, everyday experiences, influences from other forms of art and practitioners. They engaged with and embraced their bodies and used it to search and seek. Fearlessly. Not all was good even within these systems, legacies and instituitions back in those times, but an extensive amount of individual creative work fruitfully saw the light of the day. Many of these Gurus created a healthy environment that enabled disciples to nurture their own language of the body; creating a thinking body. The understanding of the relationship of Guru-shishya essentially was based on dialogue, questioning and collectively seeking knowledge. What has become of it today though seems to be a uni-directional oppressive power equation that limits the shishya from engaging further than what is instructionally taught in bi-weekly classroom sessions. The space to question one’s teacher or the form in itself or create something that is expressive of an independent opinion or language ceases to exist. A student almost never finds the opportunity to perform on stage or share his/her dance in the twenty years of training, being stamped as “not-ready-yet.” This precisely cultivated method of ‘shaping’a dancer (body) is severely acidic and ironically gives birth to an army of representative semi-cloned bodies. While the old repertories are transferred from one generation to the next, the magic is never to be rekindled. Within the structures of conformity and submission, the old choreographies lose their charm. Auditoriums pale out. Movements stagnate. Bodies cease to touch souls. Odissi starts to decay. These dancers evoke, sadly, a feeling of pity bereft of any rasa.

Bodies are shaped by our food, language, homes, schools, cities, cultures, rituals, beliefs, literature, languages, art, music, roads, climate, sexuality, people, politics, experiences and much more. Each has a different identity and story. As urban nomads our days start and end with movement; from home to auto rickshaws, from metro stations to trains to subways, from highways to crowded streets, from studios to auditoriums, from tea stalls to coffee shops, from staircases to escalators to elevators, from rehearsals to jobs that pay the bills, from sweat pants to jeans to sarees, walking with the masses and running against time. This is far away a life from a temple dancer’s or a gotipua dancer’s. This is the life of an urban classical dancer across cities and spaces. And this stimulates as well as informs any practice. How a body moves is reflective of its daily chores, what it creates is born out of this very reality, the stories it weaves belong to common persons from everyday walks of life, the costume it dawns is what makes for comfort and the persona it holds is an amalgamation of fragments of identities. A body cannot be bereft of any of this. In fact this is what enriches one’s dance, elongates the spine, and grows into the muscle to germinate a new movement, gesture or an idea. And this will in turn certainly shift what is known to have been traditionally Odissi. It will push boundaries of its vocabulary, grammar, content, music, postures and formations. It will mandate one to confront and question the politics of viewership, of its classical status, of its system of lineage and legacy, of its priviledge and non-accessibility, of its religious nature, of its exclusivity, of its hierarchy and power, of its gender equation and of its long-standing parampara.

What if we unravel these galaxies of stories, movements and gestures through the known form of Odissi and enrich it? What if we use the traditional as the point of departure for the present and contextual? What if we create new mudras, bhangis, chaaris, gatis that tell these stories instead? What if the chouka and tribhangi are different on different bodies? What if each spine holds a different tale? What if sringara or roudra does not fit the conventional expression? What if ashtapadis are love-stories between women or men or others? What if every man is not framed under the masculinity of Shiva, Rama or Krishna? What if every woman is not abiding by the feminity of Sita, Radha or a Nayika to a Nayak? What if we speak of the ordinary mundane life of the very dancers & non-dancers who strive to make their everyday extraordinary? What if each class of students under a guru was a thinking body in its own? Would Odissi be un-classical? Would it lose its rich, diverse and profound entity? I doubt.

It may on the contrary teach us to be accepting of other bodies. It will push each dancer to create a body of work that is unique in its language. It will open spaces for dancers who want to break free to explore. It will keep us humane. It will find new viewers and audience. It will find new sources of money and funds. It will be ambitious. It will bring itself back onto the urban maps in its present context. It will raise curiosity and awareness. It will test the grounds. It will be relevant. It will be contemporary. It will evolve. It will be alive. It will be thriving. And it will still be Odissi.

To dance is to express ourselves through our bodies. That is what my body and practice teaches me. A thinking body is one that holds its spine beyond the odds.

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