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.