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 wikipedia.com, "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 Kamaj...an 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 (http://groups.google.com/group/nycindiandance) 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.