PERSPECTIVE DANCE AND ROHINI BHATE
Yes, it’s hard to believe
it, but Rohini is already sixty.
It is time for a looking around, a looking in the round.
Let’s start with Kathak; after all that’s what Rohini is all
Kathak is a form of dance, and what a form!
Kathak is only a for of dance. It may have been a form of telling
a story (katha), but that’ not the point. It is a form of dance. Kathak finds its peers in other forms of dance, not in forms of theatre, not in other
forms of story-telling. Indeed,
as Kathak-dancers keep telling us, it doesn’t even have to tell a
sotry, Kathak can take the form of abstract dance (nritta).
The business of dance is to be dance-like.
What is it to be dance-like.
What is it to be dance-like? Before one answers that
What is it for dance to be?
What does dance consist in?
What is the stuff, the material that dance is made of?
The question is an easy one, but not on that account to be
lost sight of. Dance is body movement for us to see. Dance is movement; still postures are certainly
available to a dancer, as punctuation marks so to say; but still postures
with no context of movement are only tableaux vivants, live pictures;
they are a form of theatre, not of dance.
Dance is body movement; not just any movement, but body movement;
dancing dolls or Alexander Calder’s mobiles are moving bodies, forms
of sculpture, not forms of
dance. In dance what persists in time, what occupies
space, what offers a spectacle is movement, not bodies. At the same time dance movement is body
movement; the movement of a warm, throbbing human body, and so
a movement that draws us into empathy.
We not only see dance, we inwardly dance ourselves.
We see dance not only with our eyes, but wit our whole bodies—that
is, if we really see it. (Rohini
once complained to us that too often we fail to see Kathak and that
we merely hear it. To put it more strongly, for some Kathak dancer
is only a percussion instrumentalist whose feet rather than fingers
play on the drum surface, so to say.) why does one say then that dance
is not only a visible art, but an audible art?
Audible sound, whether made by the hands or feet or by musical
accompaniment, will certainly enhance the spectacle, but music is
here only so much additional raw material that is expected to submerge
itself into dance. Dance persists
in time, it is temporal art. Music,
because of its capacity to make us feel time in a chosen manner, helps
to mark dance time. Nothing
more. (certain forms of gymnastics, the ones that
go well with musical accompaniment, come closer to being dance-except
that stop short of being a form of art.
Body movement never ceases to remind us that it is the movement
of a warm, throbbing human body.
It is never merely movement; it is gesture; it says
something. When dance gesture
show close kinship to theatre gestures, we speak of dramatic dance
(nritya) as distinct from abstract dance (nritta). But
this is not the whole picture. Even abstract dance is made of gestures, gestures
that say things. Even the
non-theatre gestures that go into dramatic dance, the non-abhinaya
movements of nritaya, say things.
And these are things that presumably abhinaya- gestures,
cannot quite say. That’s why the non-abhinaya gestures
are these, whether in nritta or nritya. In short, all dance gestures, theatre gestures or otherwise,
say things, convey certain modes of feeling and making and doing.
Do you feel like feeling fine?
Have you forgotten, because of persistent ill-health, what
it is to feel fine? Watch certain forms of dance; they will let you know once again
what it is to feel fine. I
hope I have made my point by now that dance, being a form of art,
has not only a characteristic material, namely, body- movement-for-us-to-see-and-empathize-with,
but also a characteristic content.
If dance sometimes tells us a story, it does so because that
provides it with an occasion to covey its content.
If dance sometimes tells us a story, it does so because that
provides it with an occasion to convey its content.
The story, like the music, is incidental to dance.
When the dancer lingers over a moment in a story, we enjoy
that, and do not feel like saying, hey, get on with the story.
(Most probably we already know the story anyway.) if there is a moment of suspense in the story,
dance will let us savour it, convey to us what it is to feel suspense.
Did I say that body- movement-for-us-to-see-and-empathize-with
conveys a certain characteristic content?
Sorry, I shouldn’t have said ‘conveys’, I should have said
‘embodies’. (The pun is entirely intended !) Dance, being a form of art has not only a characteristic
sort of material and a characteristic sort of content, but also
a characteristic medium that not only fuses the material and
the content but also creates a world to draw us into.
What sort of a world is this dance created world?
It is a world that persists in time, it is a world of rhythm-marked
time. It is a world that occupies space, it is an
arena. (the music world),
it will be recalled, has rhythm, but no arena.)
But above all it is a world of force, a world of forces acting
I an arena through rhythm-marked time.
Dance never lets us dwell over appearances.
(Like music and like the story, the visual elements in dance,
the colours, the textures, the lighting are incidental; that’s simply
the arts of painting, sculpture, architecture lending a sisterly hand
to dance. They, the visual arts, certainly let
us dwell over appearances, dance constantly reminds one of the forces
behind the appearances. (Dance
is not only a spectacle to look at but to empathize with.)
Forces of evil? Possibly. Forces of good? Probably. (The incidental
element of story telling helps these forces to get a foothold in the
dance-created world.) But
even abstract dance embodies for us such forces.
Recalcitrant forces, docile forces, overwhelming forces, soothing
forces, overwhelming forces, pulling together, pulling apart, pulling
at a tangent. Rhythm, arena,
forces together constitute the medium of dance.
The dance-created world is world of virtual power.
(Susanne Langer had the right insight.)
We have answered two questions.
What does dance consist in?
And what does dance consist in?
In answering these questions we hope to have also said what
it is the business of dance to be like, which
was our original question.
Kathak is a form of dance.
Being a form of dance, it is a form of art. (that’s what led us to ask
those questions about the material, the content, and the medium in
the first place.) Being a
form art, it is a form of life (to use to Wittgenstein’s classic phrase). What sort of a form of life is Kathak? What is the peculiar language that Kathak speaks
and that allows us to distinguish it from its peers, namely, other
forms of dance, such as Bharatnatyam, European Ballet, Lavani, or
Modern Dance? Kathak Scholars never tire of reminding us
of its courtly ambience, the ambience of a decadent court at that;
or of its early association with the kirtana in the temple. But what matters to us twentieth-century lovers
of Kathak is not its history, but what potentialities that this history
has natured into Kathak, what sort of language that history has left
for us to exploit and understand.
Briefly, Kathak is a language of freedom and order.
Sometimes it is freedom that lets us draw sustenance from order.
Some-times it is order that lets us be truly free. (The evolution of Kathak from temple dance to courtly dance is in
some ways parallel to the evolution of Dhrupad and Dhamar, the temple
music, into Khayal and Thumri,
the court music. There is
the same infiltration of freedom, khayal, individual exercise of imagination
into a very orderly, restrained form of life.) Mind you, this is not a tame
reconciliation of freedom and order. At its best, Kathak is a very passionate form of life, holding freedom
and order in high tension.
We should all be very grateful to Rohini for letting us see
this in perspective…see what Kathak is truly all about. She rescued it from its historical encrustations. Live history enriches art; dead history merely
smothers it. How could she
do it? Could she do it because,
being a university-educated dancer, she was aware of history as history
and of Kathak as art? Could
she do it because she put us in a time machine and let
us see Kathak in its kritana days?
Could she do it because, being equally inward to Hindustani
music and the sahitya, she wanted to integrate these more fully
into her dance? Could she
do it because, also being a dance teacher that took the teaching very
seriously, she had to make Kathak speak to her young citizens of twentieth-century
India? All of these are certainly true answers in
their own ways. But all these
answers ultimately flow from a singly answer.
She could let us see that the language of Kathak is a language
of freedom and order because for her Kathak was not just a form a
dance, but a form of life. The
way of Kathak spoke to her because it was congruent with her way of
life, or rather because it helped her to see what her way of life
was really like. It was a way of freedom and order reconciled
in high tension. It let her
see that the apprenticeship in the Mughal Court with an audience unaware
of a stylized language of gestures freed Kathak
to improvise much more readily. It
let her see that, in spite of its long stay at a decadent court later,
Kathak had not totally lost its temple austerity.
It let her see the intimate way in which music and sahitya
could enrich Kathak. (Like music, poetry too can serve as material.)
It let her see that the best way in which Kathak
could flourish in her dance academy, Nrityabharati, was by
creating an ambience of freedom and order among her pupils.
But, what is more to the point, it let her create her own choreographic
style in Kathak which not only embodies temple content, courtly content,
and twentieth-century content, with equal ease but also let use see,
once again what Kathak is all about. Hers is a style that combines a taut and often complicated rhythm
with a free-flowing obinaya. I suspect that she is only beginning to see
what Kathak could truly be like in future.
No matter, after all she is only sixty!
This was published in Arohini: in honour of Padita Rohini Bhata,
Pune: Rohini Bhata Gaurava samiti, 1984, p.83-6 A Marathi version
in Anupubh Mon-June 1985.