(This talk was organized as an initiation of critical dialogue on arts at Antara)
Thursday morning at Antara saw a dozen of people warming themselves and each other up with chai and conversations, slowly tuning the air into a talk mode. Aparna Banerji was soon giving the introduction, kick-starting the monthly series of talk for critical engagement in performance and other arts at Antara. She located the event in the larger context of Antara’s objective to be a forum which is not limited within the academic circles, encouraging the participation of the academicians, practitioners and the general population alike.
The first speaker, Sammitha, a research affiliate at Antara, engaged with those nodes where the philosophical and the cultural in her research intersect. Drawing on the age-old aesthetic debate between form and expression, she articulated the limitations of perceiving dance as a purely formalistic art form. Dance, according to her, cannot exist but in its practice and performance. While as a theory, formalism has been tackled and exposed, a large part of dance-teaching in contemporary India treats dance formalistically as it has become very prescriptive and text book dependent. This formalistic understanding of dance flourished in post-independent India when dance became institutionalized. For correcting this over-formalistic perception of dance, she proposed that we explore that culture of India which was deeply oral and performative. The absence of the “written word”, encouraging criticality in practice. Hence, apart from practicing dance she is engaging with aesthetic concepts from Indian tradition of thought such as Nrtta, Bandha and Anibandha as potential substitutes of Western formalism.
Vivek Vijayakumaran, the second speaker, journeyed us through his intellectual and an emotional life as an actor. His story embodied his philosophy, slowly revealing to us the continuous interiority of an acting-self despite taking on different roles. The modern - urban “self” became the locus of his story as he recounted his experiences of learning traditional Kudiyattam in Kerala (near Trissur) and taking acting classes from Kanhaiyalalji in Manipur. Through these experiences he explored his body as a repository of memory as he gave us vivid descriptions of the changes he underwent psychologically while he learnt and practiced various bodily exercises. While speaking about extrapolating the criticality built in these traditional art forms into contemporary theatre practices, he held the ritual of surrender of “self” in these art forms as a critical practice for himself. The talk ended with discussions and sharing experiences of the ritual of surrender in different dance practices and in other performing arts.
Aparna, the final speaker, tied up the event by pulling strands from both the previous talks. While she insightfully articulated the history of dance in general and Odissi in specific, she also spoke of body as a site of knowledge, memory and heritage. Dance is not simply moving bodies but is a “culturally structured moving system”. For Aparna, the weight of history that a dancer’s body silently bears is one of the many aspects embodied in a dancing subject. She spoke of the dancer’s body as a many-layered subject which is simultaneously a recording, transmitting, reflecting, performing and a miming body. Drawing the historical and the practicing aspects of dance together she focused on the need to develop pedagogical techniques that nurtures a reflexive attitude towards understanding one’s history and also one’s own body as a multi-faceted system.
These talks triggered varied responses in the audience as they honestly expressed their opinions that were shaped through their mode of interaction with performing arts. As the gathering dispersed, everyone carried a piece of the event as a potential beginning of meaningful dialogues on critical practice and theory in performing arts. As far as Antara is concerned, this event is the beginning of what will soon culminate to be a monthly event of critical dialogue and discussion.