by Ramya Manikam
Often, the most exciting aspect about discovering something about an art form, is how the exchange between its various genres can surprise and enrich your understanding of it. Universally it is accepted that art transcends boundaries and connects diverse people. Art does not hold you towards political obligations and encourages you to stay open to healthy debate. But, we do exercise the freedom to be biased towards our favorites, biases that heavily shape our perspective. Often the culture that inspires us is independent of our heritage and social conditioning.
As an Indian who chooses to dance classical ballet and listen to heavy metal, I can testify to that! I admit, despite my very Indian upbringing of being exposed to and even being selectively appreciative of a broad context of Indian art that I am capable of feeling deeply empathetic towards, my actual knowledge of its classical forms can be termed dismissible. However, I have always been distantly appreciative of Indian classical music and dance. By distantly, I mean I still can’t put a finger on why I didn’t last longer than a month in Bharatanatyam classes, though I have always found the movement striking and unquestionably beautiful.
With that not so brief introduction, it might be apparent why I scrambled to make sure I didn’t miss LshVa’s event: A talk on Marius Petipa’s classic “La Bayadere” by eminent Indian classical dancer Rajika Puri, held at Shoonya Centre for Art and Somatic Practices on December 15th, 2018.
East and West
I was most intrigued about the angle an Indian classical dancer would have to share about a Western classical dance form, so contrasting in its movements, physicality and sense of aesthetic that has been till date, so absent as a significant influence in Modern Indian culture which has otherwise found a lot to adapt from every other form of Western art and entertainment.
Rajika Puri herself was exquisite in her presentation that she had meticulously put together. An exponent of Bharatanatyam and Odissi, her perseverance and dedication not only as a dancer but in upholding the values and the ethos of her art was evident from her impassioned delivery. She has been an aficionado of Classical ballet for many years and has had the good fortune of having been spectator to productions of popular ballet repertoire, performed by acclaimed ballet companies across the globe. But her most impressive association with the artform that had me bowled over to learn, was that she had been invited by the venerable Alexei Ratmansky (who in turn is a lover of Indian classical dance) to assist him in interpreting the original mime sections for his reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s great classic, La Bayadere for the Staatsballet-Berlin!
I was surprised to learn of the few but impactful exchanges in the past that Indian classical dance had with the Western world. From the first troupe of Devadasis who performed for European audiences in 1838 to the legend Ana Pavlova advising a future legend Rukmini Devi Arundale, on pursuing dance and seeking inspiration from her Indian roots.
La Bayadere (The temple dancer), since its premiere in 1877 has enthralled western audiences, not just for its bittersweet plot spun around forbidden love, but more so for the exotic ancient Indian setting – a culture largely unknown to the West, mystified with gold idols, swamis and musicians with droning instruments accompanying beautiful Devadasis – a community of dancers devoted to the Gods, who’s status within Indian society itself was debatable, but not without sensation.
By the words of Theophile Gautier ‘The very word Bayadere evokes notions of sunshine, perfume and beauty even to the most prosaic and bourgeois mind… and through the pale smoke of burning incense appear the unfamiliar silhouettes of the East…’. Such was the amalgamation of fact and fantasy that inspired Marius Petipa to create this masterpiece.
However, to the Indian audience, the context of the ballet itself becomes a bone of contention, viewed with both love and disdain. While the choreography is unquestionably one of the finest creations in classical ballet repertoire, the construction of the story and portrayal of its characters has widely been accused of ignorance, racism and cultural appropriation. In fact, when you look beyond the surface layer, the ballet seems less Indian from most angles from the almost unrecognizably distorted Sanskrit character names to the inappropriately assigned harem pants that are mostly a symbol of the westerner’s misguided fantasies of women from the orient.
But it would be hasty to assume that such a detailed work of art could be borne out of complete ignorance. Many surprising facts were brought to light by Ms. Puri, facts she had discovered working with Ratmansky who had unearthed a treasure of Petipa’s original notes, archival lithographs and photographs along with Stepanov notation. There was evidence of a clear effort made by Petipa in appreciation of the Devadasi art and lifestyle, to familiarize himself with Indian society, religion, even Sanskrit vocabulary and to carry home in his memory this brief enchantment he experienced during his short visit to India.
I admit, this new knowledge softened my judgement, and that changed my perspective to be more empathetic of a genius so inspired by fragments he had experienced of a culture completely alien to him, and that could not have been easy at a time way before the internet became a thing. Yet, he weaved a magnum opus based on a passionate interpretation of his experience.
Ms. Puri reminded us that the foremost definition of art is the expression of human imagination, it is fantasy made bold. To confine it within strict rules and convention would dissolve its purpose. We extend an artistic license for an artist to take liberties so we have the opportunity to experience different perspectives. To agree or disagree is a gamble an artist extends to his audience, but culture isn’t preserved by claiming it but by sharing it.
Ballet in India
This observation also made me very aware of ‘us’ – first generation classical ballet dancers from India, trying to make sense of a movement completely alien to everything else that we’re culturally exposed to. I have always struggled to understand how, in a country that has managed to adapt and excel in every form of western music, had left western dance technique so far behind. I’m not sure if it was the extreme demands with physicality or perhaps the skin tight leotards and tights that might have at a time been considered inappropriate for ‘good Indian girls’ to identify themselves with. But again, there was a time when Indian classical dance was not considered a respectable realm for good Indian girls to be associated with either. Decades past that struggle, I’m still confronted today with the confounded statement, “surely, you can’t continue dancing once you get married!”.
I admit though, with today’s acceptance of a global culture, the accusation against Urban Indians “aping the West” is slowly disappearing from common vocabulary as society at large is becoming more familiar and accepting of foreign art and expression. The establishment of a strong ballet culture here is still at a very nascent stage where most of us are only still learning and that journey will be marked with us having to interpret and appropriate a foreign culture before we find a way to make it feel at home.
Dance in all its genres aims to bring to light the various dimensions of human ability and emotion, while provoking thought and I think La Bayadere achieves that. There is a beautiful term “abhinaya” used in Indian classical dance – “leading the audience towards the experience of a sentiment.” It isn’t mere acting or mimicry, but the dancer embodying an emotion in order to communicate the heart of a performance to an audience without using words. And it is the successful communication of that intent that is the mark of a great performer, a great work of art.