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IPL and bharatanatyam: Agility is getting the better or artistry

The shortened performance time in classical dances such as bharatanatyam has had the same effect as the reduced playing time of the IPL has had on cricket.

opinion Updated: May 22, 2017 12:48 IST
Sharanya Chandran
Sharanya Chandran
The shortened performance time in classical dances such as bharatanatyam has had the same effect as the reduced playing time of the IPL has had on cricket.(Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times)

Classical dance and cricket – is there indeed anything in common among the two, apart from the fact that they both start with the letter ‘C’?

I was recently watching a match from the Indian Premiere League (IPL) after almost two years and observed uncanny similarities in the way cricket has evolved (devolved?) over the past decade and the changing trends in Indian classical dance. As a classically trained dancer-performer, economist and cricket enthusiast, I couldn’t help but find these trends fascinating.

The first obvious similarity is that both are shorter than ever before. A traditional bharatanatyam performance, previously performed at a leisurely pace for 2-3 hours, now lasts for only 30 minutes (50 if you are lucky), and is quite often sandwiched between a music performance or then another short classical dance performance. Similarly, with the T20 format kicking in, one finds a typical match completed in just a couple of hours, where traditionally, a one-day match would actually spread over a full day. Moreover, these few hours are not dedicated to cricket alone. There’s a DJ playing music during every break in play, cheerleaders dancing away, some Bollywood celebrities waving to the crowd – and the match is positioned in the midst of all of this. These trends are perhaps nothing but a reflection of the fast pace of urban living where everyone is perpetually running out of time, patience, and is constantly in the ‘what’s next’ mode.

You also see a frenzied approach: a cricket match is a do-or-die situation where you find aggressive batting and fielding, fast running – you either hit out or get out! A similar frenzy is apparent in classical Indian dance today, where you find dancers desperately trying to fill their short performances with frantic leaps, jumps and circles (chakkars) to capture the attention of their audiences, often attempting to showcase everything they know in the limited time they get to exhibit their talent. Consequently, fitness, cross training and vigorous body training is not an option any more, it’s pretty much a selection criterion for entering – and staying the course – in both these professions. This is good in many ways. Cricketers have become fitter, stronger and faster. This is good for the sport. And the same holds true for dance.

This increased athleticism in cricket and dance has the potential to create an enhanced visual experience for audiences, but this often doesn’t happen because it is most often not complimented with a better use of the mind. As cricket analyst Freddie Wilde points out, “Games are now analysed in real time, producing probabilities and predicted outcomes. That data is fed during matches to the players, who can then focus solely on execution. It is not so much that knowledge is power as that numbers are power.” In dance too, one finds that the guiding source is no longer the dancer’s mind and creative exploration. Pre-rehearsed items (often performed to pre-recorded music) are so common now, where the choreography is set, even the silences and the number of breaths to taken to recover are pre-determined.

This was not how classical Indian dance used to be a decade or two ago. The body was of course important, but only in that it communicated the dancer’s mind and idea-scape. There used to be a lot more improvisation on the spur of the moment (manodharma as we call it), with subtle nuancing that came with spontaneity and with the live interaction between musicians and the dancer. This was in fact, a characteristic that distinguished classical Indian dance from all other dance forms.

As a result of these changing trends, we find certain art forms dying. For instance, cricket has traditionally been a battle between the bat and the ball. Now in T20 it seems to be all about batting, and as a result, bowling as an art form seems to have completely died. So too in dance, while the agility quotient has energised the nritta or pure dance, the subtle abhinaya or art of expression, is languishing for want of creative sustenance.

As is often cited in cricket, “form is temporary, class is permanent”. We must inspire Gen-Next (and there is no dearth of students wanting to learn cricket or classical dance) to enjoy the process of learning these creative pursuits, and help them develop a style of their own. We should look at building institutions, formats and frameworks to help students build their skills and talent and most importantly, help them innovate, while still retaining the core elements of these beautiful forms.

Sharanya Chandran is a bharatnatyam dancer and development-policy professional

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 21, 2017 13:31 IST