Visions of India Dancing and Dancing and Dancing
Nrityagram Dance and Other Indian Troupes in New York
The Gotipua Dance Ensemble, a troupe of boy dancers, in the eastern state of Orissa, India.
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Published: March 25, 2012
When an illustrious Indian dance company performs in New York, as the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble did at the Joyce Theater last week, we can take both pleasure and instruction from it. Music and dance operate in thrilling proximity; the visual sensuousness is in many ways exceptional; the levels of technical achievement and stylistic polish are high. Best of all we’re given a window into a culture far from our own.
New York hosts several first-rate Indian companies or dance soloists each year. From April 9 to 15, when the Indo-American Arts Council presents its annual Erasing Borders festival of Indian dance, the opening dancer will be Sujata Mohapatra. Like the Nrityagram dancers, she is a leading exemplar of the Odissi style of the eastern state of Orissa. In June Shantala Shivalingappa comes to the Joyce for a week; internationally celebrated for her work with Pina Bausch, she is an exponent of the Kuchipudi style from the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh.
In visiting India last month my main aim was not to see dance performances but the setting from which Indian dance derives. The great temples of the southern state of Tamil Nadu and in Orissa were all I had hoped: temples as singular but multifaceted worlds, most of them still in intense daily use and studded with imagery of bodies in motion. Dance forms all over Southeast Asia stem from the Natya Shastra, the treatise on the performing arts written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200; more than 100 of its dance positions are illustrated in a centuries-old bas relief at the temple at Chidambaram, a number of which are precisely the same as those we see in some Indian classical forms today.
When I watched the Nrityagram performance last week, many of these positions fell into place in my mind in a way they had not early in my visit to India, when I saw the same choreography in rehearsal. Henceforth it will be interesting to recognize them with other Indian dancers.
In Orissa, while the devadasis (female temple artists, both musicians and dancers) used to perform within the temples, a version of their art was also practiced outside the precincts by the gotipuas, boys who were trained to dance female Odissi roles before puberty. Most of us would assume that theirs too has become a bygone art; but no. I saw two gotipua troupes rehearse on successive days.
They grow their hair long (pulled back in ponytails when I saw them); their training brings with it board, lodging and nondance education. (A number of them stay with the Odissi art in adult life, as musicians, dancers and teachers.) Their applause-winning specialty (not evidently feminine) consists of acrobatic feats and tableaus.
What impressed me more, however, was the boys’ youthful mastery of the basics of Odissi style. Hardly had they made their processional entrance, in single file, than in unison they demonstrated a tribhanga — a celebrated Odissi S-bend position in which dancers create a series of upward curves at knee, torso and shoulder — and contrasted it with the sculpturally square position called chowk, all amid a swaying dance of ritual invocation.
These and other features make it tempting to declare that the traditions of Indian dance are in good health. When I got off the plane in Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital city, I was gratified to see that the main poster image for the state featured Odissi dancing. Dance and religion are still vitally connected. While in Tamil Nadu I attended the celebration ofShivaratri, the night when Shiva, god and dancer, is honored with open-air dance festivals at the temples of both Chidambaram and Thanjavur, each running for five nights. Watching the marathon of dance I felt honored to attend and in awe of a culture where dance and worship fluently interlock.
But there are ways in which it seems obvious that the virtues of Indian classical dance are threatened. Though I saw much beautiful work in rehearsal, much of it is vitiated by the practices that surround live performance, especially at the festivals. I attended four programs at three different dance festivals: many of their features were too dismaying to pass without comment.
When Indian dancers use taped music in the West, I’ve always assumed it is only because the economics of global travel made live music prohibitive. But at Thanjavur and at Bhubaneswar taped music was the norm. Worse, at those and at Chidambaram the music was carelessly overamplified. You don’t need to know much about Indian dance to recognize that you should sometimes hear the slap of the soles of the dancers’ feet on the floor and the jingling of their ankle bells. And yet it was impossible to hear any such thing.
More frustratingly, you frequently couldn’t even see the feet. Why? Because it is the norm for a dozen or more photographers to be lined along the footlights, barring the general audience’s view. Meanwhile it’s standard for members of the audience to use cellphones during performances. Even members of the press took calls and sometimes texted while there was dancing onstage.
More problematic, there was a sense that classical dance is being adapted for tourism. Too many of the dances I saw in performances seemed to have been packaged like son-et-lumière entertainments. Some Indian dancers later told me that they now prefer to perform abroad because the local conditions are so irksome.
Within a culture changing as drastically as that of India today, how will the Indian classical dance forms adapt? I hope to return to find out. In Chennai I visited the celebrated dance school of Kalakshetra, which specializes in Bharata Natyam, Tamil Nadu’s own classical dance idiom. Five minutes of watching a second-year group class practice pure dance demonstrated to me how taxing but exhilarating it can be; a fourth-year class showed how absorbing the more expressional form, Abhinaya, can be.
A young man in the first class and a young woman in the second struck me as outstanding. Their stylistic assurance gave me the impression that Bharata Natyam was their inheritance, but I was mistaken. The man was from a Tamil Nadu folk-dancing family of a completely different idiom; the woman was American, of a family of Sri Lankan extraction. Yet here they were, dancing the style they had recently acquired as if it were in their DNA. This new generation’s commitment to the classical genres of India gives hope that they are well set to endure.
The Erasing Borders festival of Indian dance runs from April 9 to 15 at locations in New York City; www.iaac.us.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 26, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Visions of India Dancing.