Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Food, Dance and Tradition

A year or so ago, I read the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and was fascinated by our gathered food knowledge. Before science, how could Mexicans have possibly known that corn supplemented the one nutrient that black beans could not give them? Yet, they ate the two together religiously, as if they knew one without the other was useless.

In fact, it's only recently that we've tried to base our food knowledge on science, which seems to be ineffectual. Our obesity rates and trend diets that change every year or two confirms just that.

As usual, I've related this to dance. In my discussions on traditionality, I touch upon the question of dissecting traditionality. Like deconstructing food, does deconstructing the parts that make up bharatanatyam or classical Indian dance, and then putting them together in new and unexpected ways add up to the sum of its parts? I often wonder if this deconstruction - where we analyze the form, decide that we'll keep pieces of it and discard others to our liking - is a bit like separating the black beans from the corn and deciding to throw away the corn. We've just lost something essential to the dance form, the process, the choreography, and we have no way of knowing it's importance for sure.

Essential to what? That's a good question. I suppose if we go to rasa theory (and my own belief) that you won't ever get to experience truth or that "I've-got-chills-but-this-is-more-than-just-that" feeling by choreographing or dancing in this manner.

The tradition problematic

"Bharatanatyam is thousands of years old."

This is the statement I grew up hearing, embedding itself deep into my consciousness. Bharatanatyam, as I was told, was the most wonderful, traditional, beautiful art you could practice. It had strong ties to Indian culture (particularly important to me, an Indian growing up in the US), encompassed the deeply spiritual ideas that had come to define India, and likewise (according to those around me) had subtleties and complexities that raised it above any other art form in the world. I walked around proudly boasting of the style to others, fascinated with the long standing ritual of it all. Though I personally loved all art forms, none seemed greater to me than bharatanatyam.

And it was from this seed that confusion stemmed. One sharp look at history skewed all I knew and loved about the form.

Imagine my shock when I found out the costume I wore was no more than 50 years old, the broken lineage a result of India's war for independence. The word bharatanatyam itself was created was in the 1950's to separate and cleanse itself of its connections to sadir and prostitution. Scholars, now, put bharatanatyam under the category of invented traditions, noting it as a reconstruction from a past Indians could not know much about rather than a sacred tradition passed down from generation to generation. Worse still is that 99% of teachers will tell you that bharatanatyam has an unbroken lineage going back 3000-5000 years. The Natyashastra, the treatise to which dancers look to in order to determine traditionality, is only 1500-2000 years old...

I am aware that this is something addressed time and time again by other researchers and artists (Avanthi Meduri's "Bharatanatyam - Where are you?" article is a fantastic example) but it is still an issue entangled so fiercely into my questioning that I must restate it again. In fact, this phenomena is probably why I became so obsessed with dance research in the first place. As such, it is an appropriate first topic for me to write about, and one that I will write about several more times, if only because it results in questions that just won't go away no matter how many times and from what angles I approach them.

The more I learned about the history of our "tradition", the ideas I held so dear soon became part of a constant questioning process: if we're going back 2000 years to books about rasa theory and, more specifically, the Natyashastra, to prove that we are following tradition, why should I bother with what I've been taught? Why not work purely off the treatises written then? And then, why is it so important to retain this imagery of tradition? If Rukmini Devi, a significant revivalist of bharatanatyam, had so many codifications and restrictions to the form as to remove it from the way it was originally practiced why did no one notice and speak up about it then? Why are we so obsessed with calling it ancient and tracing it back thousands of years? Is there a way to make a decision as an artist without considering the idea of traditionality, and without imposing yourself as "for" or "against" tradition? What of the costuming, the glitzy symbolism of ages past - is it simply empty symbolism, devoid of meaning? If so, where does its importance lie? Why do we find that we value so highly a knowledge of the past in our dance? Why does it matter if I innovate? What exactly is tradition? - as it is obviously ever-changing and based on a perceived truth of the past.

Often, I have no answers to these questions. But you begin to see how all of them are rooted in what I like to call, "The Tradition Problematic". For many, it is easy to ignore and claim that it doesn't require a closer look, or that it doesn't require such intense analysis. For me, though, I must root away and poke and prod until I've satisfied my curiosity and determined the who, what, when, where, how, and, most importanly why. Blame the mathematician in me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I am starting this blog

I had a lot to say about dance. Some of it inane, some of it pure speculation, some of it highly personal. That was when I stumbled across Sanskrit, the study of which has quickly become one of my favorite things to do.

Thus, this blog is about the amazing things I learn about the two, a lot of it inspiring random theories and ideas that I'd like to keep track of. And believe me, the word random doesn't even come close to describing the weird connections I make with these subjects and seemingly unrelated ideas.

I am not grammatically correct all the time, my writing could use more eloquence, (hey, blame writing technical papers for 6 years) but I will eventually get my point across. To be perfectly honest, I don't know that I'll be 100% correct about every fact I put on here, but I will try my best, give references, and will absolutely fix any mistakes if I am informed of them! Take it with a grain of salt, as this blog is an outlet of passion and I'm just starting out in my research. But with a little luck it won't hinder you from understanding it and/or garnering inspiration, and if you give it a chance, you'll probably love this stuff too!