Friday, May 28, 2010

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

"The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground... The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?"

~Milan Kundera

Doesn't performance do both? The emotions one goes through while performing are most certainly burdens - you are taking the deepest depths of your being, of perhaps your impression of other people's beings and try to communicate them by dredging them up again through movement, song, whatever it might be.  But the act of performance itself, if you talk to any performer...allows us to feel extreme lightness/elevation/deep spirituality only by depicting and emoting and feeling these burdens.  Odd, isn't it?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has recognized Mr. Chatterjee's efforts!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Shut Up and Dance? Really?


          I read a quote somewhere that was attributed to Samuel Beckett: “Dance first, think later.” I do not know if he really suggested that sequence. But I wonder if it works that way all the time. He might even have used “dance” in the sense of celebration, revelry, letting go. But dance as art practice, even as it has all of these, is hardly just that. It may not be truly possible to separate dance and thought into two neat, separate boxes. Thoughts can dance their way into our heads sometimes; thoughts can impede movement at times.
          So we may not be able to put aside thought for later after all. Specialized thought, particularly academic and intellectual discourse, may have huge impacts on an activity like dancing. It could freeze you momentarily; lurk around the corner you are about to turn and cast a petrifying charm on you.       
          Despite these seemingly discouraging effects, theorizing is an exciting process for me; as much as dancing is. A commitment to theorizing essentially means allowing self-reflexive ruptures into practices - having small and big explosions of insights into one’s performance of, adherence to, and association with social, political, cultural and economic practices (this is the unpacking of the term self-reflexive. Let us use the terms even as we unpack them). Some of these ruptures could take the form of epiphanies that change the course of a person’s life and practice of art into brilliant directions at once. Some might find theory and politics immediately empowering. For many others, an engagement with theory could sharpen the edge of self-reflexivity and drive it as a wedge between the self and its practices, the body and its performance, the individual and her/his self-narrative. Here’s my experience!
          I started learning Bharata Natyam when I was 6 years old, on the Vijayadasami day of the year 1988 in my hometown, Kumbakonam. Initially, it was just plain, unadulterated joy to be dancing; the kind of unreflective joy that is a prerogative of childhood – the kind of exercise where you hear a huge “YES” in your head every time you think about it. Kumbakonam has a strong presence in Hindu mythology and south Indian history as a pilgrim site and a business centre for the Cholas. The Iyengarcommunity I come from also has an embedded history in this space. My family could demonstrate, with great ease, its link to the town and its temples for several generations, notwithstanding the fact that a few generations before us had not lived there. Therefore, there was an easy coherence to my childhood self-narrative - the way I thought of and spoke about myself - dancing included.
          However, such innocence was not to last. Dance became a zone rife with questions of self-identity during and after adolescence, because of the gender inflections it began to receive. It was an issue for the boys in the classroom and hence became an issue for me. As an activist now, I may reclaim “sissy” and wear it on a pink badge, but the intensity of such reclamations usually says a lot about the strength of the wounds. Despite these issues, there never was an impasse, or a deliberation of quitting dance. In fact, the same dance that made life as a boy complex and rife with everyday negotiations of power in school also became a therapeutic space. But dance, I started realizing, was going to be a difficult space. It was not going to be the romantic forget-your-worries-and-dance kind of a space. This was because dancing was singling me out from the boys of my age. This alienation and the anxieties it provoked were to last into adulthood.
          Much later, something else, that initially appeared innocuous, made dancing - dancing Bharata Natyam specifically - very hard for me. It was the exposure to scholarship that historicized and theorized Bharata Natyam2  that dealt the major blow to my emotional affinities to it that I refused to scrutinize. But it was not the revisionist understanding, per se, of Bharata Natyam that was difficult for me to deal with. That Bharata Natyam was not an ancient art form but was one constituted by ruptures with tradition was, in itself, not a disconcerting fact. But the fact that these ruptures were located within the politics of caste, nationalism, gender, sexuality and religion was the specific locus of quiet but disabling anxiety for me. For almost all of these categories already had a not-taken-for-granted aspect in my life: a brahmin boy from Kumbakonam, with parents who had strong anti-brahminical and anti-casteist personalities, a boy who was beginning to understand that he desired boys, a boy who has been called "sissy" in three different languages, a Hindu boy with strong misgivings about religion.
          One result of all this exposure was a deeper and defamiliarized look at different aspects of Bharata Natyam. For instance, the nauseating claims to spirituality that were being made (I quite literally grew up among these voices) were making "spirituality" itself a term and domain in need of active reclaiming. If I am now a spiritual person and a Bharata Natyam performer, it is also true that I am a sexual person and a Bharata Natyam performer. In fact, my sexuality is more in the public domain, as a visible problematic, than my spirituality. Also, once I could clearly see the strong hetero-patriarchy permeating the texts and practice of Bharata Natyam, it became an absolute necessity for me to see what subject space I could claim within it. I needed to know if I could be feminist and queer and still find a location within Bharata Natyam to “speak” from, without feeling compromised. I also needed to know if I could find a way to happily marry off aesthetics and politics in a relationship that constantly sustained the tension between them, without attempting, naively, to "resolve" it.
          Adrienne Rich, American poet, talks somewhere about the importance of announcing one's subject position; to be aware of and make clear where one speaks from. My dilemma has been in recognizing my subject position with all its limitations and simultaneous centralities and marginalites – caste, class, gender, sexuality, etc. Announcing/ declaring it is a simultaneous concern. I will not sequentialize them. I don't think the (re)cognition and announcing of one's subject position are sequential acts. Most of the times, I have known my own positions only in the stating of them.
          Modern scholarships on Bharata Natyam, history, casteism and politics have made access to a lot of things suddenly very mediated and anxiety-ridden for me. They have made me see the complex links between identity and performance, both as everyday modes of being in the world as well as specialized and staged performance. And that I think is quite excellent. As a gendered and sexualized subject with a caste and class identity in modern India, I see that Bharata Natyam is not just dance for me. It is a practice I engage in, that is at once crisscrossed by several histories; histories that have also written themselves over my body. These are histories not just of community, art and excellence. They are also, very significantly, histories of gender and caste oppression, notions of masculinity and sexuality, even the history of the idea of the Nation.
          Theorizing my relationship with Bharata Natyam, hence, amounts to theorizing myself from a few perspectives. It is an instance of acquired knowledge playing upon one's notion of the given. It offers new ways of re-imagining oneself. But it has taken sometime to be able to attenuate the edges of my anxiety with the understanding that I can re-fashion and re-imagine my selfhood; that the seemingly innocent prefix "re-" powerfully questions the givenness of the givens themselves. Until learning to live in and appreciate liminal zones and interstitial crevices, until learning to willingly make myself vulnerable (for I now think that a true way for me to relate to another is by dis-covering my vulnerabilities), I felt both dancing and speech had been made difficult for me. I thought every movement I executed and every utterance I made were screaming my location to the world - what I saw as the incongruity in being a Bharata Natyam dancer/ Brahmin boy and an anti-hetero-patriarchal, same-sex loving self, social worker, activist, etc. But to this day I find myself ‘doing’ Bharata Natyam, attempting to find new ways to sing my own songs, dance my own dance, as it were. I am thankful for the existence of these etceteras; they allow me new and unknown possibilities of being.

(1) People of the Brahmin Vaishnava (worshippers of Vishnu) community in this part of the country are called Iyengars. The priestly caste in the Tamil region have Iyers and Iyengars as broad sub-groups, with several sub-communities under each, with various levels of interior hierarchization. 

Bharata Natyam has a history of discontinuity from that of Sadir, the dance form performed by devadasis and rajadasis in the temples and courts of south India until the early decades of the twentieth century. This history is located in the politically charged space of colonial reformist movement that sought to end dancing in temples and the dedication of women to temples. This culminated in the passing of the Devadasi Bill in the Madras Legislative Council, spearheaded by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. The revival of  Sadir as Bharata Natyam is attributed to people like Rukmini Devi Arundale and E Krishna Iyer and to institutions like the Madras Music Academy. For more on this, see Srinivasan, Amrit. 1985. ‘Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and her Dance’. Economic and Political Weekly, 20: 1869-76

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A small chat with Ania Loomba, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Shankar Mahadevan, Unnikrishnan, Priyadarsini Govind, and Namit Malhotra: Wharton Economic Conference part 2

So now that I've told you of the gist of this conference, I would like to tell you more about the panel itself, or at least my observations of it.  It all stems around the question I asked to the panel in general:

"We all accept that tradition has an ever changing value system.  But what I would like to know is, of the tradition you see changing before your eyes, is there anything in particular you would warn us of losing, any aspect that you see dying that you'd prefer to preserve or aspects that you are excited to see go?"

The question was not answered properly, and I received some fairly generic answers in return, more or less hearing that change would always happen and not to worry if it did.  For instance, Unnikrishnan brought to light the point that the violin, an undeniable force of nature in Indian classical music, was only added to the genre in the 18th century or so.  However, this was a change that was an addition, and not a removal - all was gained and nothing was lost!  So I think there was some confusion as to my question as well.

What was far more interesting though was what I gleaned from listening to this panel and speaking to Ms. Govind a bit more afterwards:

Artists (and perhaps I am iterating the obvious) who have made art completely financially viable for themselves with no issues - do not seem to worry about their form at all.  Example number two: in a later conversation with only Priyadarsini I mentioned how dancers use abhinaya less and less these days and there was no worry.  There was also most certainly a vehement "no" when I asked if she was concerned about gradual diminishing of abhinaya in the classical arts today or if she thought there was a
diminished nature at all.  To summarize, her point was: Change will happen as it does and nothing serious will be lost.

Yet, many, many artists - including Kalanidhi Kuchipudi and Nrityagram - have admitted to leaving out abhinaya pieces or doing less of them as "Westerners do not understand them".  Further, an enormous number of the lesser known artists I have spoken to wonders at some level what is being lost or question the changes that are happening around them.

I wouldn't say that financial success makes an artist complacent, and I definitely don't claim a right or wrong view here, but the evidence seems to show that if you are making money off your art, you are less likely to question the change that is happening in the world around you....

I do realize this wasn't the most in depth analysis (er...really? People who make different amounts of money off their profession think differently about it??) but hey! it had to be noted.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Aural Bandage: Reviving Music in Afghanistan


Perhaps it is that one cannot attribute any absolute meaning to it, or that its vibrations awaken within us senses that are otherwise dormant, but music has, for centuries, united communities, expressed woes, retold history, sparked great social movements and more intimately, restored our own inner balance. “Religion and music are the main anchors of any society. You take either away, and you get chaos,” says Samir Chatterjee, a teacher of Indian Music in New York. Pandit Chatterjee has been working passionately to revive musical traditions in Afghanistan–a nation wounded by decades of conquest–after the Taliban banned all art in 1996.

Most musicians fled to Pakistan while others found in possession of musical instruments were imprisoned or put to death; their instruments buried. Contrary to the Sufi belief that music is a link to God, the Taliban interpreted music as the language of god, and therefore impermissible to humans. Their threat reverberated in the stark desert landscape: “those hands that played music will become devil’s hands.” As a result, there was a rapid decline both in musical masters as well as skilled students to carry forward this complex art form. The spirit of the nation deadened as its silent streets gave way to sounds of artillery, gunshots and bombs when it was invaded by the US in 2001. Humayun Sakhi, master of the rubab, (a triple-stringed, double chambered lute and the national instrument of Afghanistan), says, “To make music, you need silence, which didn’t exist anymore”.     

After waiting four years for the government of Afghanistan to sponsor him with no avail, Pandit Chatterjee realized that time was running out. Assembling his own resources, he embarked there himself. There, “[he] witnessed people struggling. They knew what they needed, but didn’t know how to get it.” With the support of the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan (which has taken significant steps in revitalizing music), Pandit Chatterjee formed an organization called Chhandayan, which aims to restore musical traditions by collecting instruments, books and recorded music and re-introducing them into school and university curriculums. Chhandayan will also adopt musically inclined orphans to enroll in the conservatory that they plan to inaugurate on the 21st of March, for up to 1500 students. “This will also prevent them from joining the Taliban,” Chatterjee says, “If you don’t care about them, they rebel and the result is violence, the opposite of music.” This past December, he performed with two musicians, Shirin Agha on the rubab and Fateh Ali on vocals at the studio of the National Television of Afghanistan. Shirin has studied under Ustad Urfan, Director of Program, RTA and Fateh Ali was initiated under a local teacher after which he has been studying under Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan and Ud. Rasid Khan of India. "Our efforts are to bring their own music back to them so that they don't have to travel abroad, on the contrary they will soon be in a position to accommodate outsiders interested in their music".

Afghani music is characterized mostly by ghazals, Persian poetry sung above a variety of instruments, primarily the rubab and harmonium rhythmically accompanied by tabla or dhol. It is filled with mood: it is emotional and reflective of the nation’s sorrows and triumphs. Chhandayan aims to foster “spiritual hearing”, and in its earnest goals, has received generous donations from individuals in the United States and India. A few have been especially motivated after observing President Obama’s trajectory: political hope lends itself to artistic upheavals. “No one can live without music, not even the Taliban,” says Pandit Chatterjee, “art is a reflection of society.” It is when we stop creating art that we know that the human kingdom has met its end.

A ghazal is a form of poetry that originated in pre-Islamic Arabic verse around the 10th century. Several Indo-Persian poets utilized the structure of a ghazal in their writing, amongst whom, the poet, Ghalib and Gulzar are masters. It consists of five to twelve rhyming couplets and a refrain. Sans enjambment, the ghazal is a lyrical and lucid poetic medium that traveled throughout Asia due to richness of its content and the brevity of its form. Though each line must have the same meter, the ghazal progresses from expressing a deep sorrow over a loss of a divine or earthly love and transforms into finding the beauty in pain, the beauty finally resting in the act of singing the song itself.