Sweeps and swirls of the seven dances

The survey of what are considered seven classical dance forms comprises a brief history, and yet a detailed description of events.

books Updated: Feb 05, 2003 12:12 IST

The survey by Leela Venkararaman of what are considered seven classical dance forms – Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, Manipuri and Kuchipudi – comprises a brief history, and yet a detailed description of events relating to patronage or lack of it during the last 200 years or so, consequent impact, present situation and a quick look at technique and repertoire of each of them. It is complemented by photographs of contemporary dancers by Avinash Pasricha.

Leela Venkataraman’s text takes note of academic research by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, Dr S.K. Saxena, Lakshmi Vishwanathan and others along with her own discussions with the great gurus and some of our ‘thinking dancers’. The text is precise, crisp, supported by evidence and written with obvious involvement with a tradition in flux. Experiments within the parameters of traditions are mentioned but those who use tradition as a take-off point are left alone for good reasons.

Commenting on the current situation in Bharatnatyam, the author observes that because of overexposure, much mediocrity is in evidence among islands of excellence and large performance spaces have killed the subtleties of the dance. This could apply to other forms as well. One can only wish that a concerted effort is made to educate audiences and organisers for demanding the best, given that today market forces determine trends in the arts.

Another interesting comment in the context of Kathak is the proliferation of the dance-drama genre to accommodate the increasing number of dancers. While lively discussions go on vis-à-vis the direction in which the dance form is heading, the great and good dancers continue their search within to tap their creative sources.

Odissi also has the same problem but innovative work is not received too well by many of those who were instrumental in forging a distinct identity for it about 50 years back.

However, few can distinguish the different styles of the all-male form of Kathakali, distinct by their varying emphasis on technical virtuosity or slow elaboration of the text, where rasa is savoured to its full. The prospect of rigorous training combined with increasingly less performance opportunities now attract a lesser number of students. The demand for shorter performances cut off the very basis on which the art receives its sustenance.

An interesting comment with reference to Manipuri is that the form so closely linked to the temple finds the proscenium sensibility challenging. The author quotes a Sankirtan exponent: “No matter what one may do, there is no God on the stage – and while trying to evoke the same presence, I feel different.”

The last chapter on Kuchipudi refers to the transition of this traditional theatre form to a solo/duet form danced mainly by female dancers now. Under the pressure of dancing for national and international audiences and who do not understand the nuances of the regional languages, the text becomes minimal and technical bravura takes over. However, a short introductory discussion on what binds these divergent forms together and what in essence is the ‘Indian-ness’ of these dance forms, and what is ‘classical’ in the Indian context would have been welcome.

Also, while interweaving of text, song and rhythm, linkages with sculpture and painting and abhinaya are mentioned but general comments about their shared ethos and aesthetic principles, indicating differences in approach for the uninitiated reader, may have been in order.

Another larger question that arises is about the categorisation of forms. While Kuchipudi may be now classified as a dance form in its solo/duet format, can Kathakali be called a dance form. Would it not be more appropriate to call it traditional theatre or dance theatre considering its structure. If the solo/duet format is an indication, then would Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau with their sophisticated dance vocabulary be termed as classical dance forms. But a deeper discussion is perhaps required before the accepted categorisations are changed or tampered with.

The publication naturally tends to be Delhi-centric as the author has been closely associated with the dance scene in Delhi as a critic for over two decades. At the same time, photographs by Avinash Pasricha are by and large of Delhi-based dancers or those who have had their performances in Delhi. But then, Delhi is the hub of the dance scene in the country, or is it?

The magnificent photographs are a visual delight, especially of older masters such as the late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mahapatra and Vedantam Satyanarayan Sarma. This reiterates the fact that though body is the medium of dance, the dance is not of the body but in essence beyond it. Yamini’s controlled energy, the spatial sweep of Pung and Dhol drummers of Manipur, Uma Sharma’s abandon and intensity, Kalanidhi Narayanan and Laksmi Vishwanthan’s Abhinaya, the perfect lines of Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukki, the heroic stance of Sadanam Balakrishnan, Pratibha Jena’s sculptural poses in Odissi are some great moments of this effervescent art. The still photography scores here since it provides strong and vivid images to contemplate at leisure.

Buy bestsellers online

First Published: Jan 27, 2003 11:02 IST