What new meanings can the structure of classical dance accommodate as a new generation of artists try to find their own voice?
It feels surreal to be writing this in the afterglow of 6 September, after the long-overdue Section 377 verdict. The 495-page judgement makes for stunning reading. To me, it reinforced ideas of nationhood and citizenship. To have the court state unequivocally that no section of society is small enough to have their rights ignored shifts something in how you relate to the Constitution. I thought back to civics classes in school, where I struggled to make connections between the individual and the nation. The judgement did that for me. I came away from my reading with great respect for the treatment of the Constitution as a living organism. Page after page stressed that the Constitution would lose its relevance if it were to be treated as an inflexible manual. To dismiss or ignore the new meanings and situations that society produced would then be against the spirit of the Constitution, a failure to recognise the transformative and evolving nature of liberty and equality.
This affirmative emphasis on dynamism and change in our interpretation of the Constitution takes me right back to classical dance. How do we locate change and transformation around the fundamental principles of a form? How do we interrogate its relationship to contemporary society? Are notions of 'purity' and 'authenticity' of value in our imagination of classical dance as living organism? Must we emphasise the rigidity of the form, or should our conversations cluster around its fluidity?
Right before I read the 377 judgement, I read Dance as Yoga: The Spirit and Technique of Odissi, written by Odissi performer, choreographer and researcher Rekha Tandon. Currently based outside Auroville, Tandon studied Odissi with various teachers in New Delhi and Odisha before completing her PhD at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This is a clip of Tandon dancing with one of her teachers, Madhavi Mudgal, over two decades ago. At Laban, she was introduced to Choreological Studies, a system of studying dance movement that opened up for her ways of 'embodying Odissi's technique as a conscious witness'. Rudolf Laban, who contributed key ideas to the founding discourse of Choreological Studies, imagined the dancing body as drawing circles in space. Tandon proposes a resonance between the patterns the body draws in space in classical dance, and the yantras and mandalas that come from traditions of tantra. She goes on to apply approaches from Choreological Studies to some basic postures and movements from the Odissi vocabulary, breaking each movement down into an objective, the usage of the body explained in terminology associated with Odissi, the sequence of structural and anatomical shifts required to execute the movement, a choreological analysis of the dominant lines and curves in space suggested by this movement and a 'mental component' " a particular visualisation of energy and space associated with the movement, which reinforces one's imagination of the body working in space and time.
These visualisations are simple, personal, yet deeply powerful. In a 2011 workshop by Tandon that I happened to attend, she articulated the lateral torso movement in Odissi as a rope slithering along a pulley, sliding to either side with the application of effort, an image that has stayed with me. The book revisits a history of Odissi, describing its consolidation as a classical practice in the late 1950s, and elaborating on the key components of the repertoire. But Tandon uses this history as the context for her investigation of the technical and metaphysical aspects of the form. She describes the internal logic she arrived at, beginning to examine how movements felt, as opposed to how they looked. Between 'looking' and 'feeling' lies a spectrum of learning, from the imitative to the embodied. From her yoga practice, she derived the objective of finding 'stillness' in her dance, allowing for a clarity of line and form.
Tandon's book asks key questions of classical dance while inviting present-day practitioners and viewers into metaphysical and philosophical terrain. She frames the dancer as 'witness', where observation is not rooted to a centre in the body but is more pervasive, offering a broader view of how things work. The skilled dancer, she remarks, 'allows the dance to unfold through the body without the sense of being the doer'.
What one comes away with is an understanding that transcending the ego needn't mean being unquestioningly subservient to a greater idea or diktat. It is by the process of asking questions and finding one's own internal rationale for classical practice does one arrive at a stage where the body is comfortable enough to let go of the sense of being a doer. I also value Tandon's treatment of the philosophical aspect of classical dance as an embodied concept that serves to build internal awareness, treating the chakras, for instance, as focal points for the initiation of movement. The classical dancer is then in conversation not only with larger-than-life entities that populate the landscape, but with ideas of force and energy, initiation and trajectory, within the body.
Last week, my students in an MA class, most of them unfamiliar with classical dance, watched a video clip of a Bharatanatyam dancer breaking down the embodiment of a particular movement for her student. My students' hands unconsciously flew up to follow and thus experience the movement as the sequence unfolded on screen. Later, their responses gave me a sense of how valuable it was to them for classical practice to be accessible in that manner. Classical dance forms are detailed systems of movement that negotiate embodiment in very particular ways. As dancers and viewers, how can they become accessible to us, and how can they be demystified? Just like the Constitution, how can classical dance respond to society, accommodating the ways in which artists derive new meanings from it?
Ranjana Dave is a dancer and writer based in New Delhi. She tweets at @chaltipatang