Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dance and Animation!

So I may have been doing dance/video pieces, but this guy has done a dance/video/animation piece.


Friday, December 10, 2010

"The Dancer Within"

I am on the 8th floor of the Chicago Public Library and I never want to leave. I picked up this book by Rose Eichenbaum and it is a set of interviews of famous artists/dancers. It is fabulous. I don't know why hearing what Martha Graham teach someone or how Alvin Ailey was very respectful of the individuality of his dancers or how Balanchine didn't care who his successor was is such intriguing material to me, but it is. Hearing it firsthand can be quite profound.

Regardless, I wanted to quote some quotes from the book. Maybe I will quote more later...

“As a dancer your job is to interpret your character or, in an abstract ballet, a story or viewpoint. What’s it like for you when you feel your own identity surface?”

“I can’t really describe what that feelsl ike, but I do know that it’s what keeps me going, even through all these injuries. I can try to explain it with words like joy, fulfillment, euphoria, but these words are insufficient and inaccurate.”

“When you get into that emotionally charged place, do you try to linger there a while?”
“To try to linger there would suggest that you have some control over it. I don’t. I’m only in control of the steps that i’m doing and the training and the musicality I possess. I only have the tools to go for the ride. I’d be foolish to think I control what happens out there. I’d be foolish to want to”.


“Do you remember your first class with Martha?”

“I’ll never forget it. I came in and took a place in the back of the room. Louis Horst was playing the piano. Martha stood at the front of the room and demonstrated a contraction.” Yuriko now sat up, her eyes shining. “As Martha’s torso hollowed I thought to myself, that’s what I want in my body. Here was drama. Here was creativity. I had to find out where it comes from. In time, I understood that the contraction comes from the breath, and that its shape originates from a deep source within the body. This source extends to all the extremities in the physical body. Take for example, Martha’s famous cupped hand,” she said, demonstrating. “This is not a position or a shape. It comes from here,” she said, pointing to her solar plexus and then drawing her finger up the chest, through the armpit, down her arm to the center of her hand. “The body’s center islike the roots of a tree that sends nourishment out to all its branches. A contraction vibrates through the body and ends right here,” she said, pressing her index finger into the center of her cupped hand. “It’s alive. A shape is not alive. To achieve, this, you have to steal it,” she said, looking me in the eye.”

“Rose, it’s not really a mission. I simply realized what a transforming experience being an artist is. I wanted to share it. There is great joy in being consumed with an art form and making it your life. And it’s true of all the arts...if you are lucky enough to ‘play’ with tremendously talented people as your teachers, it is a soul-transforming epiphany...”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Palace of Illusions

I love this book -- a rewrite of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Here are some quotes I found to be particularly poignant:

"Krishna shrugged. '...Isn't that what truth is? The force of a person's believing seeps into those around him -- into the very earth and air and water -- until there's nothing else.'"
(page 49)

"Remember that, little sister. Wait for a man to avenge your honor, and you'll wait forever."
(page 49)

"Every time I spoke it, it embedded itself deeper...for a story gains power with retelling."
(page 20)

The Mahabharata in essence:
"And so I stood struggling with my ego until the brief moment of opportunity vanished."
(page 173

And in case I over glorify our tales:
" is not fitting that a celibate should think too much on the ways of women, who are the path to ruin."
(page 24)
Although, I suppose, it is arguable whether the poet means "all women are the path to ruin for every man" or "for celibates women are the path to ruin" (which would be breaking your celibate vow, in which case the implied meaning is harmless)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 5

More changes that have occurred...

It is of interest to note that since the repertoire of Indian classical dance was of solely bhakti pieces prior to this change, the pieces involving contemporary themes had to be created, another prized Western idea, “newness”. (Lopez y Royo) But rather than compose music themselves filled with new ideas and new lyrics, many of these pieces are derived from pieces of poetry that date back thousands of years. (Alarmel Valli’s prakrit and pieces “Lament for a Fallen Soldier” and “the Forgotten Seed” as well as Priyadarshani Govind’s varnam “Prahalada” are prime examples). It quickly points to a strong desire to show the relevance of ancient techniques and traditions. There is justification to be found about the universality of emotions through time when artists create contemporarily-themed pieces from poetry that was written thousands of years ago. In this way, bharatanatyam practitioners provide proof as to the relevance of traditional Indian dance today and how it will continue to be so in the future.

Another change slowly being realized in bharatanatyam is a disappearance of banis, or styles of bharatanatyam (usually based on which region they came from) and thus, a slow elimination of the regional differences within bharatanatyam. Simple globalization of the form is attributed to this, because streamlining again is easier for a viewer to digest. When an artist retains all of the subtle nuances of a form, expecting others to enjoy because they are knowledgeable in the style, the audience is immediately limited, and the artist also limits the other artists they can work with. Thus, most schools have slowly been adopting the Kalakshetra style of nrtta, with its rigidity of technique and style.

This is partially because Kalakshetra is the most well known and widely accepted style.
Kalakshetra exhibits its own hegemony on the other, lesser known banis. The other is that the Kalakshetra style is most easily appreciable by audiences because of its technicalities. This change towards a Kalakshetra style of dance is easily seen through Priyadarshani Govind (Vazhoor style) and Alarmel Valli (Pandanullur style). One look at youtube clips by the famous dancer Padma Subramanyam, who was trained in the Vazhoor style, compared to current clips of Priyadarshani Govind shows how the Vazhoor style has changed. There is now a considerable emphasis on the aramande, (the posture that most steps are executed in), with an importance placed on much sharper upper body movements and a perfect diamond shape of the legs.

This ease of appreciation of technique is also why dancers Mallavika Sarukkai and Rama Vaidhyanathan (Venkatraman**) place such a great emphasis on it. Both are well known (especially Mallavika) for their extremely fast paced jathis and obsession with nrtta technicalities. Not only is nrtta easy for an unknowledgable audience member to understand, the fast paced jathis elicit more “oohs” and “aahs” then slow paced ones. More audiences can appreciate a ridiculously fast jathi than one concentrating on the control of movement.

A great example of how this tradition has actually been changed and implemented is to look at the new generation of artists such as Mythili Prakash, or Anita Sivaraman*, whose excellent technique and fast paced jathis are what has brought them great recognition.

Now as we look to the future, one must wonder how tradition will change from this generation to the next? It certainly looks as though we are making a slow move to a contemporary or modern aesthetic. Only time will tell.

*Anitha Sivaraman, exceptional NRI Bharatanatyam dancers, and more about lokadharmi, natyadharmi and the American lasya. Anita. Rev. of Anita Sivaraman. Web log post. Bharatanatyam in Chennai. 10 Jan. 2008. Web. .

**Venkatraman, Leela. The Hindu [Chennai] Aug. 1998. Print.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 4

How do audience influence and innovation come together to change the structure?

One of the major changes to date is the alteration of the margam structure. The margam structure consists of an ordered set of pieces, wherein which each piece has a particular set of rules that a musical composer must follow in order for it to be considered as such. The order, as set up by the Thanjavur quartet, is: alarippu, jathiswaram, sabdam, varnam, a series of padams, and finally, a thillana. There is an inherent symmetry to the structure, where the dancer warms up her limbs on stage with an alarippu, then takes the viewer through the more rigorous – but still only nrtta (pure dance) aspects of the jathiswaram, introduces abhinaya (facial expressions) in the sabdam, all leading to the piece de resistance, the varnam. The varnam is explored fully over a half hour, following a jathi (chunk of nrtta) – swaram (chunk of lyrical song involving abhinaya) – jathi – swaram structure. Then the padams are performed – short lyrical pieces based on mostly facial expressions and storytelling, and finally the thillana – pure nrtta again, but still complex, like the jathiswaram. The pieces involving abhinaya are usually based around stories from Hindu mythology and involve the bhakti emotion: devotion, usually to a Hindu deity.

This margam structure has changed drastically. Even simple ideas such as the length of a margam have succumbed to the will of the people. Margams, previously having been three to four hours, have shortened to fit within the span of two, a direct result of catering to global audiences. Alarmel Valli’s most recent tour in the US, The Forgotten Seed, fit precisely within a two hour block with a nice 10 minute intermission. A quick look at the past, however, shows that this was not always the case: an interview with Valli shows her previous stand where her margams used to be “uncompromisingly long”, ranging between three and four hours. (Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web*) Yet compromise she has: audience members, adamant about the length of a performance, have created this change. For instance, the main – and usually only – complaint about Her Story, a recent choreography of mine, was that there was no intermission in the course of the two-hour show.

These are just minor changes compared to what else has happened to the margam: both the piece-wise structure and the emotional themes have been altered. Margams no longer need to follow the pushpanjali-jathiswaram-sabdam-varnam-padams-thillana structure but rather can follow the emotional structure as outlined above, that of a bell curve with a slow and subtle rise to the main piece and a drop off to an ending that completes itself on a higher note than the beginning. Alarmel Valli, again, recently displayed this change by keeping only the varnam of the margam and replacing the other pieces with new compositions. (Sambamoorthi) In fact, these changes to margam structure have been happening enough that even the recent choreography Her Story was deemed completely traditional, though it only began with a pushpanjali and ended with a thillana. (Gautam**) The varnam was completely replaced by a new composition filled with speech, jathis, and a thematic storyline that was woven throughout.

These changes happen because competing artists are constantly finding ways to create “new” within the “traditional” (O’Shea). New compositions allow for artists to explore novel ways of keeping audiences interested in their performances utilizing fresh themes and innovative pieces. Interestingly enough, this exploration has also resulted in another change: that of the removal of the bhakti emotion as the prevailing emotion in a margam. In fact, all four top artists have major noteworthy pieces that have nothing to do with bhakti or even a Hindu deity, and these days rarely perform a full margam fully devoted to one deity as was done thirty to fifty years ago. The emotions throughout a margam have also taken on a much more secular tone, a direct result of artists trying to connect with audiences who are not able to empathize with bhakti, a very Indian specific and religious notion which thus limits the audience members who can feel and appreciate the dance the way it is meant to be understood.

The artists now often explore very contemporary ideas and themes in order to gain and keep a larger audience, for an audience that can empathize and appreciate is much more likely to expand and return than one that believes they are simply watching a cultural phenomena. So, themes such as war and sadness for a fallen child (for example, both Priyadarshani Govind and Alarmel Valli have noted pieces that relate to this theme), the power of women (exemplified time and again by Rama Vaidhyanathan) and abstract notions such as light and color (Mallavika Sarukkai’s expertise) are explored. Rama and Alarmel even make direct associations with the contemporary, Alarmel stating that she likes to “convey the contemporary through the traditional” (; Rama claiming that “she…intends to address several contemporary issues that all mankind can relate to” (***).

*Valli, Alarmel. "Ageless Magic of the Margam." Interview. Web log post.Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web. 27 June 2008. Web. .

**Gautam, Savitha. "Pivotal moments in their lives." The Hindu [Chennai] 24 July 2009. Print.

***Rama Vaidyanathan - Bharata Natyam exponent and choreographer. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. .

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 3

So how does a tradition like bharatanatyam change?

It is no secret that bharatanatyam is perceived as an ancient tradition,generally noted by most that the roots of bharatanatyam may be traced back a few thousand years, to the temples where it is thought to originate. For the most part, people are under the impression that much of the style has remained preserved (but not unchanged) since. Most classical dances – and most definitely, bharatanatyam, refer to the Natyashastra by Bharata and Abhinavagupta’s writing on rasa theory to provide evidence of the form’s adherence to what is considered traditional. Much weight is also placed on the margam structure set up by the Thanjavur court in the 19th century, which dictates the order and the types of pieces performed during a show. These elements combined with the expected visual/music aspects are what was, in the past, crucial to being considered a traditional artist.

The present, however, is a different story. Tradition itself is ever-changing, (just as all things are) but what makes changes within tradition special is the inherent perception that it is unchanged. Thus, change within tradition must happen subtley and imperceptibly, creeping up on people without the realization of it happening. Tradition, as defined by a google search, pops up as “a specific practice of long standing”, and in Wikipedia, “tradition is presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important…”

So then, how does tradition within Indian classical dance change? Richard Schechner* proposes that this change, in Eastern theater, is based on the older performers. To summarize, a young performer spends years training under an older practitioner and repeating the pieces the way he/she has been taught them, changing absolutely nothing. Eventually, as the young artist grows, their reputation becomes associated with the form itself, their very essence deemed part of the tradition. Once they themselves have become an older practitioner, they introduce changes to structure and form that go by relatively unnoticed because of their perceived status. These incredibly new ideas are then passed down to a young student and saved into the repertoire forever altering the tradition. (Schechner) Bharatanatyam, with its guru-shishya approach to teaching and primarily solo style of performance, follows this pattern.

Because bharatanatyam is primarily a solo dancer tradition, it is the famous ones that are looked to for guidance into the future. The four major solo artists in India now, as noted by are Alarmel Valli, Priyadarshani Govind, Mallavika Sarukkai, and Rama Vaidhyanathan; and each have their way of exhibiting how global pressures have changed the solo style.

*Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. NYU. Print.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 2

Which types of audience members expect what and why?

Westerners love to watch “traditional” Indian classical dance – the kind that they assume can be traced back thousands of years. There seems to be some sort of psychological intrigue there, to watch what they perceive as another culture’s virtually unchanged identity. Whatever the case may be, the parameters of a successful performance to them are those that maintain the image of tradition. In parallel, they expect these performances to run within the parameters of certain Western standards such as time and structure of performances. With an eye on expanding into this unexposed market, artists are watchful of these desires.

The Indians within the global diaspora, however, control the economy of the artist: they are the ones who sponsor the tours that in turn bring artists the money to live comfortably in India. (O’Shea*) To these non-resident Indians, known as NRIs, the Indian classical arts speak enormously to their heritage and reaffirm and preserve their cultural processes. (Lopez y Royo***, Pillai**) As such, they, too, demand traditional performances with as little change as possible to the norm that they are aware of. A conversation with the Indo-American Council and Religious Foundation in New Jersey confirmed this. The board members stated that one of the few times they brought a dancer and her troupe from India with a recognizably contemporary style, patrons returned to them afterwards complaining of the show’s lack of traditionalism and hoped the IACRF would no longer bring such artists. With the amount of money and performance opportunities these wealthy patrons provide, performers of Indian classical dance again find a strong tug towards the traditional framework.

NRIs also make sure to train their children in the classical arts, who themselves cite that they cherish the form not because of its aesthetic beauty but for the simple means of keeping in touch with their heritage. This is not enough, however, for first generation children to continue patronage of such arts as they grow up, apparent from the aging audience at classical dance shows these days. So artists must address this issue in their performances as well.

Indians within India also run along the same thread of thought. While modern and contemporary dance is becoming more accepted, many Indians still view hybridity of forms and innovation within the field with suspicion (Lopez y Royo***). For instance, at a recent viewing of Tejas by Malini Srinivasan here and Manhattan, the troupe changed into some mohiniattam style clothng that was wound around their front and tied in the back, revealing a decent amount of skin. While still modest, it was more revealing than patrons were used to and I immediately herd some elderly ladies make some judgmental comments about the costume. So while people seem to enjoy innovation, it is a very fine line artists must tread.

As Lopez y Royo*** states, there is a great deal of contemplation as to what will happen to the form without this allowance for more modernity within the field. This polarizing duality makes for artists who struggle endlessly to place bharatanatyam firmly in a globalized context with new innovations and ideas in order to create sustainability while remaining within a static framework to continue to receive patronage.

This is the major influence shaping the way this tradition is perceived; the attempts to reach broader, larger, and more diverse audiences by remaining "classical" while still "innovating" directing the course of the changes. It is a fact that outside pressures will always create a change in tradition, and in this case, I posit that it is the struggle for sustainability and relevance in this globalizing world that are the determining factors.

* O' Shea, Janet. At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage. Boston: Wesleyan, 2007. Print.

** Pillai, Shanti. "Rethinking Global Indian Dance through Local Eyes: The contemporary bharatanatyam scene in Chennai." Dance Research Journal. Print.

*** Lopez y Royo, Alessandra. "Issues in Dance Reconstruction: Karanas as Dance Texts in a Cross-Cultural Context." Dance Research Journal 36/2 (2004): 64-79. Print.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 1

I've spoken about this before: how fifty years ago, the Indian classical dance scene became inextricably linked with India’s fight for independence. How the ensuing nationalistic fervor blossomed into a massive cultural overhaul with Indian classical dance at the forefront. Suddenly, Bharatanatyam** found itself in the middle of a huge reconstructionist and revivalist phase. Indians who had never thought twice about the devadasi establishment were now ardent supporters of the art and it quickly came to be that every well-cultured girl trained extensively in classical dance. Attendance for performances skyrocketed and the new government supported classical dance endeavors wholeheartedly through fiscal support for classes, concerts, and festivals. This drastic rise resulted almost immediately in an overvaluation of the form (*Coorlawala), the results of which are just now rippling through the world.

This issue is this: now, as nationalistic feelings slowly fizzle and fade post the independence movement, so too is the people’s love for the form. Bharatanatyam classes are now slowly being replaced by Bollywood dance lessons, bharatanatyam performances by bhangra competitions, and so on. Yet the number of professional classical dancers are growing: as Anita Ratnam wrote once, the world is “drowning…drowning in a deluge of [Indian classical] dancers” (personal email). The sudden boom and bust bore weighty consequences: the world currently faces a glut of highly trained performers and dancers in both India and the US who look with apprehension towards the ever-decreasing market share for Indian classical dance. With no foreseeable sustainability of the art and without the same nationalistic passion associated with them, traditional artists struggle to maintain their importance and relevancy in this globalizing world.

So exactly how do they do that?

The pressures artists face are polarizing: they must keep audiences interested using fresh innovations while maintaining the image of tradition; they must expand into larger global audiences who have no knowledge of bharatanatyam while still maintaining its complexities. They must satisfy the demands of the Westerner, unknowledgeable about the Indian arts; to the Indian in India, who can no longer find the relevance in classical dance; and the Indian abroad, searching for a tie back to their home: for these are the people who rule the artists’ future and thus, the future of the form.

In order to explain this phenomena, I have broken up the theory as such:

1. Outlining what each kind of audience members expect.
2. How bharatanatyam changes as a tradition.
3. How these audience influences create a change in tradition.
4. What other changes they have created.

Some of these posts will hopefully also be useful on their own!

*Coorlawala, Uttara. "The Sanskritized Body." Dance Research Journal 36/2 (2004): 50-63. Print.
**I never know if I should capitalize bharatanatyam or not...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Nayika Reversal

Set to Aankhon Mein Tu Hai by Penn Masala.
Danced by Aishwarya Iyer, Sindhu Sundar, and myself.
Description: In this wonderful twist on the traditional padam, the dancers play men who can't seem to catch the attention of the women they adore.

The concept here was to really utilize the medium of film to explain the story line in a less stylized and more accessible manner. We'll see how that flies.

And, just to give a little credit to my dancers - we had to dance on twigs and stones in the dappled-sunlight tree scenes.  Never doing that again.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Outside my Box

Who says bharatanatyam dancers cant go outside their sphere?

Directed by Jesse Newman, composed by Elizabeth Claire Burke, featuring Mark O'Connor, and choreographed by me and Ali Schechter!


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sanskrit Manuals on Dance

A really interesting read I found online.

The quote they used to grab the reader's attention here is:

"These days, the dancers are stupid, and the scholars are not practicioners." -- Vacanacarya Sudhakalasa

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Non Being

"na asat AsIt" -- "Non-being was not"
"na sat AsIt" -- "Nor being was then"

A poignant verse from the Rg Veda, and one of the most interesting sanskrit grammatical concepts - the idea of balance.  Everything has an opposite.  If there is dharma, there is adharma (not dharma).  The devas had the asuras, who, from what I recollect about ancient scriptures, were not necessarily evil, just their counterbalance.  Sanskrit philosophers understood Newton's third law well: for each action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

Which brings us full circle: if there is being, there is not being, which is altogether different from lack of existence.  Raising the question...what was there before being and the opposite of being (non-being)?

This is probably where the concept of zero also comes from - this philosophy of balance.  If there are numbers, what is the non-number?


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Adaptations of Epics

I have recently been enthralled by the modern day rewrites of epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Vedas.  After reading The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a rewrite of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view, I immediately began gobbling up similar books.  I moved onto Ka, a retelling of the Rg Veda, which manages to capture the abstraction, philosophy, and beauty of language that is in the original Sanskrit. (Though I haven't read the Rg Veda in Sanskrit, just heard excerpts from professors).  Then, I finally began Ashok K. Banker's Ramayana series - a full, 7 series book that reinterprets, adapts, and personalizes the epic.

I was disappointed.  Not to say it wasn't a fun, accessible read, but I didn't really think of it as the Ramayana.  The author injects his extremely polarizing opinions into the novel to the point where I questioned whether I could think of this as similar to the great epic altogether...more or less, questioning the "essence" of the novel.  It made me wonder, is it possible to take a storyline and mould it around your own opinions and thoughts so much that it no longer represents the original epic?

This brings up an important question: can a work have an "essence" to begin with? One that, when changed enough, or in the right manners, makes it a different work altogether?

I thought about why I felt this way specifically when it came to the Ramayana and it was the combination of a few things:

1. The story prose itself was kind of "eh".  I am usually not the biggest obsessor when it comes to prose within books.  For instance, I love Harry Potter and couldn't give a damn about the writing. In fact, I didn't even notice the construction for the most part.  Yet, in this book, it was something I grabbed onto immediately.  I wonder if the lack of some sort of ode to the original Sanskrit within the prose nagged at me a little bit.

2. The story itself was altered immensely.  I have read, translated, and heard direct translations of many scenes within the Ramayana and the subtlety of right and wrong is pretty huge.  However, Banker's series is obvious: Kaikeyi is an evil queen. Manthara is a psychotic, Ravana-loving asura worshipper. Ravana is a terrible demon. Dasaratha, Kausalya, Bharata, Shatrugan, Lakshmana, Rama, are without reproach.  Scenes that never happened were inserted into this series.  Does that make it bad? No. Each artist must reinterpret as they see fit.  But I have never seen an Indian epic so cut and dry when it comes to right and wrong.  And to me, this is huge when rewriting manuscripts as these stories were meant to be vehicles for ideas such as dharma and karma.

3. The lack of Sanskrit philosophy.  Sanskrit grammar and prose come with enormous philosophical questions - and this book abandoned such intentions of the Ramayana completely.

I suppose this is just a poor adaptation in my opinion.  But I must take into consideration that each time the Ramayana was re-written by a major writer (Tulsidas, Kamba, etc) it went through it's own seive.  Tulsidas made the epic quite religious, and Kamba removed much of women's original voices.  If I had been Valmiki and read the second and third versions I probably would have been aghast as well.  So perhaps this is simply along the lines of such alterations.

And definitely a fun book regardless!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nitin Sawhney

This artist can definitely be hit or miss sometimes but he is one of my absolute favorites when it comes to inspiration for dance.

This is an album I absolutely love and want to note that it inspired one of the pieces I am currently choreographing: The Rhythm Within -- a piece about relationships, using the idea of the nayika/nayaka.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Aristotle's Poetics -- An analysis by Stephen Halliwell

On page 37 of this analysis, Halliwell says:

"...It is...the primary purpose of the Poetics to establish a philosophical framework for the understanding of poetry in general, and to do so in a way which entails the statement and advocacy of criteria of poetic excellence. The treatise is in this sense both theoretical and prescriptive. But it has sometimes been believed that it is also prescriptive in a stronger and more pragmatic sense: that it sets out to instruct poets or would-be poets in the methods of composition itself."

I wonder if the Natyashastra and rasa theory as analyzed by Abhinavagupta is somewhat the same. Most historians agree that the Natyashastra was NOT prescriptive but rather described the arts as it was performed when it was written. (Theorized to be 500 BC to 500 AD, if I recollect properly). However, I think it is extremely difficult to analyze such methodology in detail without ultimately becoming also prescriptive.

The Natyashastra nowadays is definitely a prescriptive text. But if you think about it, it is comparable to a book like Aristotle's Poetics. Which allows for more leeway than one would think - it is now a text actually written by someone, who, for all intents and purposes, can't be right about everything. Is there anyone out there who would analyze, and above all, challenge the Natyashastra?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Language of Puns

Sanskrit grammarians and poets loovveee to create puns. The creation of a good pun was the height of intelligence along with logical rhetoric.

I'm quite sure that it's no coincidence that punning within dance is a derivation of this. One great example is a particular thillana I came across that employed this meaning to great effect. The raga scale in Indian music, as we know, is made up of Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ne...

Now, these seven basic svaras have also been known as Nishada, Rishaba, Gandhara, Madhyama, Pajja, Daivat and Samjamam in Sanskrit. These svaras were supposedly visualized by the ancient rishis who did research in music in forest universities. They observed the animals and birds around them and ascribed each svara to the tone produced by particular ones.*

Ancient scripts describes the svaras thus:

Shadja: It is based on the cry of peahen. It is called Shadja because it is produced from six places in the body – nose, throat, top of palate, base of palate, lips and teeth. It is sung by Agni (Fire). It has the color of a lotus petal.

Rishabha: It makes a sound like the cow. It has the color of the parrot. The sound strikes against the throat and head. It is uttered by Brahman.

Gandhara: While producing this note, the breath touches the throat and head and eyes from the nose ( hence it is called Gandhara from gandha). It is in the color of gold. It is sung by the moon. It is derived from the bleating of goats.

Madhyama: Resembles the tone of the kraunka bird. It is produced from the chest. Its color is that of the white jasmine. The gandharvas (celestial musicians) level in it. Vishnu sings the madhyama.

Panchama: Sounds like the cuckoo. Its color is black, produced from 5 places in the body – navel, heart, lungs, throat and head, so it is called panchama. Narada the noble one sings the panchama.

Dhaivata: Has the tone of the horse. It is produced in the forehead. It is produced in the fore head. It has a yellow color. Tumburu, the rishi sings Dhaivata.

Nishada: Sounds like the elephant. It gets its power from the sun god. Tumburu sings the Nishada. It is multi colored because it gets tinged by all the other svaras.

Now, this thillana (of a ragam I am unable to recollect), during the charanam, the lyrics were "Nishaba, Rishaba, Gandhara,..." where the pitch of each note corresponded with its namesake. But as a dancer, you had to interpret it as the animal the meaning of the word represented. So for the first note, Nishaba, where the singer is referring to the pitch of the note, the dancer refers to the elephant through her movements.

Just goes to show how all these subjects mesh together to create this incredibly complex, layered works of literature, art, etc.

*I did get this information from a website but can't seem to find it again...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A common mistake

Have you ever heard the phrase jivamukti? Has someone told you that the meaning of it means release or liberation within your life?

That person is wrong. Yes, jiva means life, and mukti means release...but sanskrit has conjugations that tell you exactly the relationship of "jiva" to "mukti" within such a compound.

"Jiva" is the form of the word life that means "from life". Thus, jivamukti means "liberation from life"...aka...death.

What people really mean when they say jivamukti is "liberation in life", or "jivanmukti"...

It's quite odd to see people running around with the title of their business as "Jivamukti Yoga" or some such when their goal is to clearly allow for attainment of liberation within everyday life...not from it completely :)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Movie I must, must see

No,it's not Step Up 3-D, though I really should go see that. I'm convinced that 3-D dancing is going to change the dance scene in much the way that CD's changed music.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ne...

The Indian scale and raga system is a great example of endless amounts of variations within a strict set of rules.  It has, just like the Western system, 7 basic notes or "swaras" from which you can switch octaves, create flats and sharp notes, etc, but note where it differs:

As defined by Nazir Jairazbho from the ethnomusicology department at UCLA via, "ragas are separated by scale, line of ascent and descent, transilience, emphasized notes and register, and intonation and ornaments." 

This means it matters not only which notes you can use, but the order and stylization with which you use them.  For instance, if you have the usual Sa, Re, Ga, Pa, Ne, Sa as the scale upwards, and Sa Ne Pa Ma Re Sa as the scale down, you cannot within a song really "alter" this order or the register of the notes (Eg: You can sing Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Pa, Ga Ga Pa Pa Ne Ne Ne Ne but you can NOT sing Sa Ga Pa, Ga Ne Sa- and the way you slide from one note to another also affects what raga a song is considered to be in.)

Each raga can even connote a mood, a time of day, a season, so on and so forth.

When the monsoon season comes, certain ragas are recommended.  When the sun rises, you have yet another.  When you are singing a lullaby, it is yet again a different raga.

Now, in my Western music class, as we listened to Bach, Brahms, and Wagner, we'd write papers on why they were able to achieve the effects that they did.  "The oboe in the background makes you feel as if you are in a field of sheep.  The sharp notes indicate aggression, the minor chord sadness."  In Carnatic and Hindustani music, it's the other way around: people came up with these ragas with the effects in mind: we do not need to analyze a song, tempo, style, to understand it's meaning.  We simply identify the appropriate raga.  We are essentially given the end result of previous research, and told what ragas to use to achieve the particular effects we are looking for.  Thousands of years of honing, beginning from the 8 basic "svaras" starting from the earliest Sanskrit slokas became a system with thousands of ragas and millions of categorized and systemized combinations.

When composing, ragas naturally fall into their expected roles.  While working with composer Elizabeth Burke on The Rhythm Within, we'd find that the songs she had written - when we tried to add more classical Indian influences - would correspond appropriately with the recommended ragam.  A song about change, the mood of fall, musing, ended up being perfect with the raga early evening raga.

And guess where the complexity and brilliance of ragas come from? The earliest strains of language and the development Sanskrit.

"Sarvam sarvatmakam" I say. Everything is everything.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mash ups and beautiful sounds

I love hearing mash ups of eastern and western music. And by mash up, I mean, literally, songs that sound one half English and sound one half Indian...not like the beautiful impenetrable mixes Nitin Sawhney creates. What do you think of this one?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Can We?

This has vague ties to my blog but felt it was important to post:

The artist, Malini, makes a really valid point here. This country was built on immigrants. Honestly, what's more American than being from another country? (As oxy-moronic as that sounds).

What's even more interesting is the debate I had with myself about posting this. Does this count as "South Asian performance art"? The only thing reminiscent about South Asia in this song is in the beginning when she proclaims that she's brown. Oh, and her name is Malini.

It just brings to light the borders of identity being erased. I make no judgement on this one way or the other, just that...perhaps in a generation or two, my non-profit for the South Asian performing arts will perhaps be defined more by the arts it propagates than the background and birthplace of its art forms.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

You Define Bharatanatyam

Last week at New York City Indian dance community meeting ( we came back with great gusto to an age-old debate.

What can you define as bharatanatyam or Indian classical dance?

(On a side note, I wonder if musicians ever struggle with this identity crisis.  I feel it is far more accepted for them to experiment with their instruments than it is for us to go outside our box of technique).

Many, many classical dancers burn with an unmistakable fury towards troupes that claim training in a classical form and do not execute basic steps with any accepted sense of technique.  To understand better, imagine if you saw someone who said she was a classically trained ballet dancer but didn't really point her toes.

Multiply that fury by a zillion if they are a popular troupe.  Exponentiate that by a bajillion if they are not only popular but also a Bollywood troupe.

But why?  As a classical dancer, it's difficult to remain calm in the face of people we believe are misrepresenting the form, often in a way that's neither true to the style (as defined by qualified exponents) nor aesthetically pleasing to watch.  It's no small fact that there are hundreds of poorly trained dancers around the world under the impression that they are professional level (and as far as I know, I might fall under this category!) and thousands that think they have some knowledge about the form and can haphazardly add it into any dance piece.  Throw that into the mix with a diminishing and uneducated audience and you can understand how much of our community feel that these dancers and artists are to blame for some of our marginalization.  A younger version of myself would have written 35,000 posts by now on the unacceptable nature of such antics.  However, I now subscribe to the following statement

Rajika Puri made a very valid point in our meeting: it is up to us to define bharatanatyam - or any other classical dance.  Really, one of the only things you can do is put your work up, espouse your beliefs, and the people will decide.  Each of us puts our own definition of bharatanatyam out there and eventually a consensus is come to.

I think that's part of why dancers get so upset.  For every person who has good classical technique in their claim to fame, there are ten who could generally be said to have an unacceptable level of technique.  So, just by pure numbers, dancers with fabulous technique get less of an audience.  With the greater bulk of people in the world believing that classical dance is best danced by those without technique, and often shunning classical dance due to this, there is a fear that the consensus - and definition of bharatanatyam - will change in a less desirable direction.

I don't believe that the frustration towards this phenomena is not justified or wasted, as it is partly what changes the definition - when educated artists get fired up and passionate about what it is or isn't and share that opinion with others.  I do believe that we cannot cut ourselves off from what we do not like within the South Asian arts field or belittle it as the best way to change it is to support each other and accept that people will watch what they like, while also making sure to expose them to as many different works as possible - and then let them decide.  Because frankly, troupes lacking technique are popular because people simply don't know much better.

Education, education, education!  It's like when you used to like boxed macaroni and cheese or boxed potatoes until you had that truffled mac n cheese and rosemary scalloped potatoes at that French restaurant down the street that's been there forever but for some reason you just never tried.  You finally realize what you've been missing!  Yes, you'll still eat that boxed food - but your mouth still waters just thinking upon the memory of those perfectly sauced ingredients.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Interesting Ties

Kathak is the precursor to flamenco.

To be more specific, kathak as it was practiced in the 11th century (when the gypsies are thought to have gone to Spain and created flamenco along the way by grafting other cultural influences) is the precursor to flamenco.

If followed the trail of those gypsies, would we be able to pinpoint the changes in kathak and understand the methodology of changes in tradition better?  Would we find specific ruptures or generation to generation fluidity within the modifications?  Was it one band of gypsies that popularized it or several who made similar changes across space?  Why and how did the guitar come into play? The shoes? The change in costume?

To that end, what of the Mughal era in India where kathak as we note it now came into existence?  I wonder if kathak had the same rupture from its past as bharatanatyam did during the British takeover, from changing the form quite significantly to even changing the name...

It would be extremely interesting if someone did a comparative study of the Mughal and British eras to see how these two cultural takeovers affected the art around them.  I'm sure you would find some sort of patterning or similarity in the way kathak and bharatanatyam was created.  Of course, there are the obvious ways where the government sponsors political art that lauds their system, and art that comes out as a means of protest (Hedayat's book The Blind Owl or much of Picasso's work).  But can we expect that the oppressed in the Mughal era were just as conscious of the change and similarly protested against the changes in the traditional aspects of their form each time?  In short, did kathak artists also do their best to resist change and as a result stagnate and codify their form for a bit?

Or perhaps, as is my usual M.O., I am overestimating the significance of the changes that occurred.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death and its effect on tradition and history.

It is the phenomena of death that creates change.  Have you noticed how major changes seem to only happen generation to generation?  It is true that older persons are more set in their ways and beliefs, and when the mid-liners of a generation (20's, 30's, etc) start to come into their own, differently opinionated mindset, the changes and acceptances really take place as the children of this generation grow up.

In the same way, traditions really spike and change generation to generation - as the same mid-liners become older, they also become experts of certain subjects or traditions.  And with their slightly different mind-set, they are bound to change and innovate (for different reasons from artistic innovation to repugnance of certain bits, etc - it all depends on the person, the time period, what is accepted, etc) within the tradition.

With their expert status, and no older generation to challenge them and stagnate the changes, the younger generation perceives these new introductions as inherently part of the tradition.  And so, with death, traditions have the ability to change quite fluidly and without protest.  I believe Richard Schechner elaborates upon this phenomena within his book, Between Theater and Anthropology.

Maybe this is something everyone knew already but I had to write down this connection because it brings up the idea that perhaps it's not individual people who change and accept something new but literally the environment you grow up in, making it more a community phenomena.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Did you know why bharatnatyam dancers move back and forth in straight lines?

The reason that bharatanatyam dancers beat their feet and move up and down the stage for a full 8-10 seconds or so after a jathi (pure dance sequence) was for a few reasons:

1. To move in the procession when they were dancing outside in a parade like setting.

2. To move back to hear the musicians (who, unlike now, where they sit to the left of a dancer on stage, used to stand and play behind them).

Now you know.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The bubble gum of the dance world

It hit me just the other day, SAT analogy style: So You Think You Can Dance is the bubble gum pop of the dance world just as pop is...well...pop of the music world.  There's talent, there's fun choreography, but it's "lightness" as only Milan Kundera can describe it.

The topics are often a plebeian love - relate-able, but also very, very run of the mill, which makes sense, because the songs are so very often top 40 pop hits as well.  The length of time: less than it takes to go to the bathroom.  The target audience: 16 year olds.  Which is why so many scenes end with either a heart wrenched girl or guy being left behind to crumble on the dance floor, Twilight style; or end with a sappy kiss.  (Since when did kissing become an interesting dance move? If I wanted that from a show, I'd just watch anything else).

It's hard to read this without feeling like I must harbor anger in my heart towards this show, but this is simply how I think it is.  I'm also not ashamed to admit I still listen to Britney Spears just like I'm not ashamed to admit (as I've said before) that I find So You Think You Can Dance enjoyable and sometimes quite clever.

The fact remains either way: I love me my bubble gum pop.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 4: The Indian Interpretation

So now we know to a certain extent: why are we Indian artists so obsessed with reinterpreting epics, why women characters, and why especially Sita?

Which brings us to the interpretations themselves.  Each interpretation is vastly different from the last. 

Nina Paley, the director of Sita Sings the Blues, made a decision in her movie to completely exclude main characters such as Laxman on the basis that “Ram and Laxman were of one mind.”, especially because her interpretation was solely about Rama and Sita’s relationship(9).  She went on to telling the viewers that she chose the Valmiki version of events because it best suited her story. In the production of Her Story, however, the KambaRamayana was used because it was written in Tamil on the basis that regardless of which version of the Ramayana was used, the inherent reasoning and theorizing behind the choreography remained the same.

Most importantly, however, is the idea that neither Nina Paley nor I is wrong. Our evidence is based on highly regarded books, our interpretations simply offering different viewpoints of the same story. And there are hundreds more interpretations out there, each as different from the last as mine was from Paley’s.
This kind of proliferation and acceptance of such vastly different theories and tales is something that is the result of what is dubbed as “The Indian Interpretation”(10)

Indians, throughout time, have found license to reinterpret just about everything differently and still claim its legitimacy. From one set of Vedas, there are thousands of interpretations of what is being said in them known as the Upanishads, which to some extent are realized as “corollaries to the Vedas”.(11) From Valmiki’s one Ramayana there have spawned several other rewrites, such as Tulsidas’ Ramachitrakaranas and the KambaRamayana, etc, with at least 6 completely different books in 6 different languages with 6 different stories to tell. One Natyashastra afforded at least 4 different styles of Indian classical dance. In a land with over 200 regional languages, it comes as no surprise that such a phenomenon would occur. Thus, to reinterpret a story is simply to act as a “traditional” Indian would. When a dancer is reinterpreting stories in a 20th century fashion, this may be pointed to as proof for trying to spread a non-traditional idea: on the very foundation of Indian tradition itself.

Interestingly enough, just as we rewrite the stories for our day and age, the people who rewrote Valmiki’s Ramayana also changed the story and storytelling aspects around completely to reflect the attitude of the time. With each rewrite, Ram’s character slowly evolved from man to demi God and Sita became less and less truculent. For instance,
In Valmiki’s Ramayana, when Rama tells Sita he has to go into exile, and she asks him to allow her to go with him, he refuses outright. At first, Sita pleads with him and cries earnest tears, but when Rama remains adamant, she grows angry and rebukes him in shockingly harsh terms. She refers to him as a ‘woman disguised as a man’, says that ‘the world is wrong when they say that there is no one greater than Rama’, calls him ‘depressed and frightened’, ‘an actor playing a role’, and other choice epithets. It is one of the longer scenes in Valmiki’s Ramayana, almost equaling in length the entire narration of Rama’s early childhood years!
Tamil poet Kamban retells this incident in his more compressed, volatile, rich style, reducing Sita’s objections to a couple of brief rebukes: ‘Could it be that the real reason [for Rama not taking her into exile] is that with me left behind, you’ll be free to enjoy yourself in the forest?’
By the time we reach Saint Tulsidas’s recitation, Sita’s rebukes are reduced to a few tearful admonitions and appeals.(12)
So to add yet another layer of intricacy, when a dancer goes back to the original version of Valmiki, showing the strength of Sita in this version (as relayed above), by doing so, the dancer is implying a perversion of the other written versions at the same time, that they are somehow portraying Sita in an inaccurate manner. This becomes a paradox because by choosing one of the versions of the Ramayana as the “right” version there is a denunciation of the ability to interpret the stories in one’s own manner at the same time.

It is with this volatility that Indian Classical dance reflects the very nature of such epics. Indian classical dance remains at the center of arguments over traditionalism and culture and so too does Sita. The argument over the age of Bharatanatyam (50, 200, or 2000 years?) and its traditionalism can be paralleled to Sita herself. Who is Sita? Is she simply the woman from Valmiki’s Ramayana from thousands of years ago or is she a fantasy character evolved over time, no longer reflective of books but of the current female ideals? 

And with that, Indian Classical dance has truly proved itself to be ever changing as the ideas it extols.

(9) Sita Sings the Blues. Lecture with Dir. Nina Paley. May 2, 2008.
(10) Dubbed as such by me.
(11) "Vedas." Wikipedia. Apr. 2008 .
(12) Banker, Ashok. "Retelling the Ramayana: Author's Note to the Indian Edition." AshokBanker.Com. 2005. 15 Apr. 2008 .


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 3: The Backlash and Traditional Values

If you're new to this blog, this is the first of a 4 part series of posts trying to explain why there has been a great deal of performances in the Indian arts community from the female perspective starting from around the 80's.

In the last post, we alluded to the idea that some of it may have been the second wave of feminism.  However, the global trend of feminism does not explain why so many of these re-tellings concentrate on Indian epics, especially pinpointing Sita in the Ramayana...

This is something that I believe to be a combination of “the backlash effect” and “traditional values”.

The “backlash effect” is a constant in the world of trend analysis.  In every subject, whether it be music, dance, academics, math, or even socially, there is something I shall dub “the backlash effect” – the destruction lurking at the edge of every trend, the implication that its impending doom will result in the opposing idea becoming the new trend. As trends become more popular, the “backlash effect” comes in the form of opposition that becomes stronger and larger until the trend reaches an extreme and the opposition group reacts so vehemently that the trend crumbles and the opposition group becomes the new rising trend. Some come sooner than others (which can be as simple and small as the backlash in fashion over a year or two: in the 1990s high waisted jeans were the fashion and now it is super low waisted jeans) to something much more long and enduring such as the use of women’s bodies to tout Indian morals.

Gasp, what did I just say?

Women have been the subjects of much oppression in India; the rising feminist trend finally allowing for the backlash it was due for. Their subsequent rise in their oppression came during the fight for independence, where the trend became to fight the war over control for women’s’ bodies. People heading the conservative movement, also called the “traditionalist movement” -- opposing the British, and fighting for independence -- actually, in many cases, led the oppression of women.

Eg: The British tried to instate laws banning child marriages, and often spoke of the barbarianism of Indians for allowing things such as sati to happen.(7) Indians reacted by referring to their ancient texts such as the Vedas and the Manu Smriti to find proof that these acts were in fact Indian and banning them was an insult to Indian tradition. Many of these laws were fought over how women were to be dealt with: child marriages were young females to old men; sati was the act of a widowed women throwing herself on a funeral pyre under the pretense of unconditional love for the husband; dowry deaths were along the same line of thinking. And Indians were finding proof in ancient texts proving the essence of such acts to Indian culture. The government would even look to women within ancient Indian texts to use as role models for the country. The most significant figure of the women’s cultural and Indian nationalism movement during the fight for independence was the government’s use of Sita in the Ramayana. Lauded as the perfect wife and female, women were told to act and be like her.

Which leads back to the original question.  Why do so many of these reinterpretations deal with the Ramayana?. The reason for this is more than its popularity and lies in an inherent backlash against Sita. Sita, who threw herself into a fire when her husband questioned her purity. Sita, whose image could have been pointed to when a connection was needed to sati. Sita, whose image was pointed to when a woman decided to speak up in order to silence her. Sita, for all she was supposed to be an ideal of women, was in fact an oppressor during the independence movement. How can females of this age not blame her for so much of what happened to them during the independence movement?

Yet, when the backlash effect occurred, it didn’t happen as simply a rejection of Sita. It was a transformation of Sita outright. Just as African Americans in the U.S. changed the word “nigger” from a racial slur to a brotherly term (albeit amongst themselves) women turned Sita from a figure that signified oppression, victimization, and timidity to one that signified power and strength. Yet Sita’s transformation was for different reasons. An outright denunciation of Sita was akin to a denunciation of India and Indian values. The seeds of nationalism had been planted just a few years back and their resultant blooms had not ceased to flourish. Just because there was oppression doesn’t mean women resented the feelings of cultural pride being instilled in them. Nationalism is a pervading power all its own and the oppression of the British was far worse in their minds. So while many disliked Sita, rather than rejecting her outright, they tried to find a way to rationalize her.

This is also reflected in the duality of using Indian Classical Dance as a basis for these reinterpretations. It was, at this point, now considered a high art, the pride and joy of Indian traditions. So using "traditional" classical Indian dance was both a means of keeping the culture in tact while also using the art form to extol very non-traditional ideas. This methodology not only gave their arguments more acceptance, but also an argument technique: dancers were able to utilize the same lyrics, the same books, and the same music the conservative/independence movement used and find a completely opposing meaning to it.

Why was this argument methodology used?  Why not just create new characters, or use other mythological stories?  Again, the nationalism and pride people have in their own culture is not to be overlooked.  The beauty and importance of these books in Indian culture is something I - and many others - have fierce pride in.  By using the other side’s evidence in support of our own ideas we are able to both negate what we didn't like about their interpretation of the mythological Indian women and even praise them at the same time while exalting Indian literature, culture and art.

Very clever indeed.

(7) Maju, Daruwal. "Central Sati Act - an Analysis." PUCL. July 1988. Apr. 2008 .

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 2: Global Trends and Feminism

So, a continuation from the last post: why, since the 1980's, has there been such an explosion of art and literature telling the great epics - in particular, Sita's story - from a feminist point of view?

We explore here the idea that it is due to simply the global trends of the time: the spread of the feminist point of view. All over the world, the idea of the strong female has slowly been coming to the forefront, the trend bubbling over to bursting point since the late 1960s/early1970s with the advent of women’s studies within academic institutions.(3)

It has hit the performance arts particularly hard, with several innovative and influential ideas, foremost amongst them the1975 publication of Laura Mulvey’s article on “the male gaze”,(4) completely catching the world by storm. This, coupled with reinterpretations of Greek mythology by Martha Graham from the female point of view became a platform for others to pursue the same ideas in other works.  I feel like the trend has even hit the mainstream, hitting extremes with hyper-feminist artists such as the Pussycat Dolls and shows like “Sex in the City” catching everyone’s attention, portraying their strength as females in the command over their sexuality and dismissal of men. India, with its close ties to the Western world, was, and still is greatly influenced by this rising trend and more specifically by Martha Graham, affecting artists such as Mrinalini Sarabhai and Chandralekha by self admission.(5) And, of course, with much of the second wave of feminism addressing inequalities and sexist stereotypes in performing arts, Indian Classical Dance was one of the first types of forms to take heed. Oddly enough, the trend left Bollywood untouched, its portrayal of females in films continuing to be from an entirely male perspective.

But perhaps this was because Indian classical dance is no longer in the hands of men. The great gurus during the Indian Renaissance, men as they were, passed their knowledge along to women. The global feminist movement that has been taking place since the 70s found their outlet through the now female dominated classical dances of India, with the newly-empowered Sita at the forefront.(6)

The fact that the female dominated dances are the only performing arts form that have taken steps in portraying the feminist point of view is a direct result of being one of the only female dominated profession in India. This trend has not been identified in the Kathakali or Sattriya forms of dance, which are exclusively male classical dances, simply proving the point further. Bollywood also continues to be dominated by men, with its most famous choreographers, directors, and composers all being male. As such, the trend has been lost upon the field, the female body continuing to reflect the male gaze.

And so we gain a little insight into the beginnings of the obsession with sight...but what of the obsession with Sita?

(3) "Feminism." Wikipedia. 15 Apr. 2008 .
(4) Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
(5) As mentioned by Prof. Uttara Coorlawala, PhD
(6) From here on in, references to the Indian classical dance forms will be specifically in reference to female dominated forms.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Obsession with Sita and Sight, Part 1

I’ve always had a great interest in women and feminism in dance and Indian mythology.  But a few years back, two things happened.

1) I took a course called South Asia: Continuity and Change taught by Professor Uttara Coorlawala and read several articles about the "male gaze".
2) I suddenly took note of the a ridiculous amount of performances/artwork obsessed with retelling stories, particularly from a female perspective.*

*(Her Story by Srinidhi Raghavan and Sahasra Sambamoorthi; Stree by Mythili Prakash; Sita Kavya by Krithika Rajagopalan; Shakthi, The Power of Women by Mallika Sarabhai; Sthree by Ragamala Dance Theater; The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Sita's Daughters by Mallika Sarabhai; Sita's Story (unverified title) by Chandralekha; Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley; Sitayana by Srinivasa Iyengar to name some of the more popular few that I knew of)

What was this artistic obsession with giving women a voice through art? Where was it coming from? The final straw occurred when I saw Sita Sings the Blues at the Tribeca Film Festival.  The topic was everywhere I turned, essentially inescapable. And so I became intrigued.

It is a vast amount of subject material I have undertaken and a difficult topic to explain completely, and years of research can only really do justice to it. However, I have attempted to offer an analysis based on the evidence I have found (much of it observational) in the hopes that it might spark later discussions.

As I have pointed out, there is a clear and rising trend of the feminist point of view being touted and extolled by the dance world.  This has been particularly true of the Indian community, retelling its ancient lore through the mediums of art and writing, from simple ideas such as removing it from poetry form and into prose to more complex ideas such as telling them from a different perspective.

This global trend has concentrated on much of the same subject matter over the past 20 years, growing in size every year. The greater bulk of them are of the performing arts variety, concentrating on retelling it from a female point of view and furthermore retelling the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. It all leads to one question:


Though there are a vast multitude of reasons and probably hundreds of influences; many of them boil down to or are derivatives of four simple ideas. These four reasons I have named as “The Feminist Trend”; “The Backlash Effect”; “The Indian Interpretation”; and “Traditional Values”; are also all connected themselves, intertwined in a way that makes them difficult to separate and explain...

Hopefully you're intrigued enough to check back over the next few weeks as I've attempted to clarify it over a few separate posts...enjoy my fumbling attempts :)

Sitayana: Epic of the earth-born = Sitayanam

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hidden Messages and Plato

NPR reports on the discovery in Plato's works that shows a passage about music in every 12 lines, indicating, to the researcher, a connection between math and music, science and religion.

Read more about it here.

Coordination and The Over the Top

So I received my usual Lincoln Center summer concert brochure the other day and was struck by this awesome structure that had musicians sitting one on top of each other in rows and stacked side by side in columns in lit up box structures and was completely fascinated. I immediately had to see this production, "The Manganiyar Seduction".

After my initial excitement, I slowed down. What was so special about this concert? The fact that it was visually stunning? But, theatrically, can a stunt with flashing boxes really elevate this whole experience without substance? My hypothesis is this: that the music is probably great, but not necessarily enhanced by this visual structure. I think the flashing lights will probably drive me insane and I will be forced to conclude that I wish I had heard just the orchestra so I could really immerse myself in the music. I bought a ticket anyway with the scientific purpose of discovering if this would be true for myself or not, and I've been hearing such great reviews that I'm hoping dearly that my instinct is wrong on this one. I will report back later in September with said conclusion.

The same is true for this youtube clip I came across: 1,000 sitars and a great big bunch of tabla players. What was the use for all these sitars? You'd think that if you were going to use that many instruments you'd take a page out of orchestral music and introduce variation and complex instrumentation into the score and make use of their numbers.

Again, I'm forced to wonder if this is "a stunt without style" even though I find it entrancing to watch these hundreds of people in synchronization. It really was incredible to see close ups of the exacting coordination of the sitar players as their hands flew over the fret; playing this song that would sound the same musically if it were played by a six person orchestra using one set of drums, a vocalist, pianist, tabla player, violinist and sitar player.

So the question remains: why does the grand and big hold such wonder and amazement for us? Is rasa and spiritual experience being traded for entertainment in these endeavors or does the entertainment allow for a once in a lifetime experience? Will you remember how the music took you somewhere else after the show or only remember the lights flashing gaudily up at you? I am both incredibly motivated by such creativity and slightly hesitant. I guess this ambivalence remains in all the questions I ask.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Shameless self promotion...

After months of agonizing and re-editing and searching and stalking of various persons, Jesse and I finally completed Art Is...

And then promptly lost our re visioned copy in a massive hard drive crash. Since I have no idea if the completed version will ever be recovered by this data recovery company, I am putting up our first version of this video. The music too will be available on iTunes soon! Yay!

For those of you who are interested in the process, about a year ago I wrote a poem I entitled "Art Is..." during a time when I was searching for reasons as to why I had fully entered the dance world. I decided to make it a film piece and translate the poem into solo movement and then re-translate it with "subtitles" on the film. And because I felt it was a universal thing for a dancer to struggle with why they dance full time and reason it all out within a studio, I wanted to utilize the film in such a way that it was 3 distinct solos proclaiming the same idea to the world. A few month's later I came across Liz's song, but wanting a more global feel, we asked Arun to join her on the record. Six months later I got the recording. And for two weeks while I was in India last year, I stalked a street artist and filmed him doing his job in front of the Mylapore temple. (I think it was Mylapore). Finally, in January, we filmed the dancers at the Sukha Yoga studio and Madison Square Park and premiered it at Navatman's one year anniversary. So this simple, six minute piece took about a year and a half to complete.

I hope you enjoy it!


I just wanted to post this link - a choreography I was a major part of from my college days that still brings a lot of emotion to my being each time I watch it. Just for memory's sake.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yet Another Clip Showing The Power of Dance

Whether it was the medicine that cured her or if there was significant physical help from the dance itself is always a point to ponder but what you cannot question is that it was the focus and positivity she brought to herself through dance that gave her emotional stability:

A beautiful, inspiring story that was brought to my eyes by a member of the NYC Dance Community

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The "So You Think You Can Dance" Formula

The most interesting pieces from So You Think You Can Dance - and usually, the most popular - all follow the same piece wise structure, like a pop song does (quiet beginning, add instruments, catchy verse, loud hook and end).

For hip hop:

Beginning: Allude to storyline, usually a guy and girl in love.
Middle: Break out from the introduction of the story/characters with a series of complex movements in synchronization.
Next: Do a series of individual complex movements and/or duet stunts.
End: Resolve the story with some sort of "quip" ending alluding back to the characters here.

For contemporary:

Beginning: Allude to storyline
Middle*: Separate out to do your own thing, then allude back to the story line in a count
Next*: Break out stunts
End: Resolve with no resolution, alluding back to the storyline.

*The two starred steps may intertwine...and this is far less structured than the hip hop pieces, but there's definitely a pattern to it.

Example: (And don't get me wrong, I think this is brilliant anyway):

Stunts are lost without style

I think I don't need to say much more than that, but you can't appreciate technique and jumps and leaps without connecting to the audience first, and that only comes with style, flow, choreography, and some hook - some reason why the dance matters to the audience.

It's why so much of the choreography in "So You Think You Can Dance" can't hold an audience for more than two minutes and bhangra gets so incredibly repetitive after a singular performance.  There are those who would argue that classical dance is equally repetitive but the catch is that the more you know, the more you are intrigued and are able to uncover about the dance.  The same is not true for bhangra or these dance TV shows.

That's not to say there aren't great choreographies.  I vaguely remember Zee TV's competition a few years back where Phul-orida won with a hip hop battle scene which is why it's stuck in my head for so many years.  Much of Mia Micheal's choreography in So You Think You Can Dance is also wonderful because you're caught wondering what's happening, connecting words to movements, making up stories, enjoying the playfulness, and most of all: finding ties back to memories and desires, which I think is so much of what dance does.