Articles

O mind! Why do you wander outward? The eternal resides in your heart. Look within. Awaken the chakras and in the emptiness you will find the sun, the moon and the stars. If you control the senses you will find eternal bliss.
Kabir

An Education devoid of the Arts is not a true Education
Going by the standards we set for our children these days, I am pretty sure I would not have been able to cope if I was born post the seventies. It is a lot to deal with Read More

An Education devoid of the Arts is not a true Education

Going by the standards we set for our children these days, I am pretty sure I would not have been able to cope if I was born post the seventies. It is a lot to deal with – both in the school and at home. Fortunately, I was born to parents who worried little about these things. With no diffidence I was sent to a ‘different’ school that encouraged the study of Indian art and served as a focus for the regeneration of all that was vital and eternal in our country’s culture. It suited me to a T and I have never looked back. Yes, a bit awkward with intellectuals and smarter students, but not out of joint with any other group or kind of individual. I just wonder how all those kids out there with an ‘other’ attitude manage to stay in jog with the smarter ones and live up to Indian society’s very severe standards ‘learning.’

Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakshetra, believed in the essential unity of all the arts. She also believed that to work for the arts was essential to individual, national, religious and international growth. When she called her arts school ‘Kalakshetra’- it did not in any way trivialize the importance of world art or world culture. It merely emphasized a belief that creativity is born of a certain personal acumen, in local conditions, woven into a very particular and traditional culture. An appreciation, she said could be universal; but art creation must be indigenous - so basic is it, to who one is.

In my own experience as a student and a teacher, what matters most to a student is the motivation of a teacher, his or her parameters of tolerance, an apparent or visible love of the subject and of course, ‘how’ the knowledge is transferred. I do not believe there is much wrong with what we learn, but how we learn it. What remains, what is gained, is the knowledge of course; but much more is lost because of the manner in which it came to one. Who delivered the goods and how.

In the traditional arts of India, especially in the early stages of learning, a high premium is placed on ‘repetition’ and on ‘copying’ or ‘parroting’ a teacher’s instruction. A non-questioning, simply absorbing attitude helps. This is contrary to all modern thought on education. Learning by rote is not the same thing though. It matters whether the student is also being taught the ‘how’ of it and if not immediately, then at some point of time this must be transferred. Also important, is the nurturing of individual thought, of the expression of the individuality and keeping the creative processes open through the long journey of repetition and mastering of form and composition. Doing something again and again is what half the world does - with greater and sharper skill every time it is done. Honing ones talent, sharpening ones skill, doing regular riyaaz, practice, work-out – these are not to be brushed aside merely because they tend to become mindless exercises. All repetition, all exercise must become meaningful. But it is not always possible to find joy in the repetition. These are processes though and important ones. You miss and hit. You fall to find your feet. This is normal. Expecting newness in every step must come from within the learner. A discovery of the personal effort required to ‘taste’ a thing, to partake of it, is the responsibility of the learner. This cannot be underscored by the parent or by the teacher. Assuming complete responsibility is not necessary. Every individual has to be given the space to discover the intrinsic beauty of a thing.

I quote Rukmini Devi, when she said, “Without art, no education can be a true education. Art should not only be a subject in school curriculum. Its spirit should pervade every other subject.” It is perhaps true to say that there is far greater influence on the development of the character of a child from sources other than the subjects taught in school. A child responds naturally to rhythm, to music, to movement, to color, to animals and flowers - to every thing that is beautiful in nature. At first the reaction is unconscious, but gradually a conscious understanding takes over. The problem with all teaching and adult attitude is the insistence on form. Form is in fact not important at all! What is, is the spirit of that form. Learning or experiencing art, can be so much a thing of joy that we are not quite conscious of the amount or depth of the learning that is taking place. This is the best form of teaching and the greatest way to learn something, especially if it is valuable.

The value of art in education cannot be underestimated. Art reflects an interest in the varied expressions of life and nature. The power of observation - like that of a painter or actor has to be encouraged in every child. The varied expressions of nature, the feelings of people, the nature of discord, the differences between men and the love of man for the world around him – this is the preoccupation of art. You cannot separate art from life. And a child will express himself freely, without norm, in ever-new ways if given the opportunity. Digression from norm has to be enjoyed, not merely tolerated, however strange it may seem. For a child is an inspiration, nearest to all that is natural, unconscious, joyful and free. In fact children are nearest to what we know to be divinity. It does not always seem so, but it is true! If only for the shortest period of their lives.

Perhaps it is a grace of being that has gone out of our lives. How do we inculcate this in children, especially if it is non-existent in our own lives? We - teachers and parents are bad examples. Nature screams out its sense of harmony, its tolerance, its grace of being. But we want exceptional children, in spite of ourselves. We have a tradition of the highest culture. It is not enough to pass exams, to excel in various skills, to be able to keep up with a world culture. It is also important to be a cultured person - to be tolerant, to be able to see a unity in all human aspiration. To have a sense of dedication - the backbone of religious impulse and necessary for a creative life. We, in India need to rediscover ourselves, without embarrassment or self-consciousness. The future may not be burdened by the past, but surely it must be informed of it. Continuity is of the essence of life and children will understand this if we do.

Celebrating Excellence
Small beginnings, made in India's rural heartland, produced her most illustrious men and women. Rukmini Devi Arundale was born on 29 February 1904 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu to Neelakantha Iyer and Seshammal. Her father was an engineer with the public works department, and his work ensured that Read More

Celebrating Excellence

Leela Samson

Small beginnings, made in India's rural heartland, produced her most illustrious men and women. Rukmini Devi Arundale was born on 29 February 1904 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu to Neelakantha Iyer and Seshammal. Her father was an engineer with the public works department, and his work ensured that his family travelled extensively around the country with him. Of their eight children, Rukmini was the sixth-born.

As a child she was shy and introverted, but neither attitudes would be associated with her in later life. Her sister Visalakshi remembers her as a placid child, a clever mimic, an imaginative storyteller, and someone who loved to laugh. She was compassionate from an early age on, particularly towards animals and the meek or socially ostracized. During the family's travels through the Indian hinterland, as they halted at tiny villages to break journey in the evenings, Rukmini's father would read to her from the Ramayana. She would listen carefully, absorbing every detail, and began to take great pleasure in listening to the intonations of Sanskrit verse. Her mother's gentle voice in the kitchen influenced her love for the classical strains of the music of the Karnataka region. Her mother's knowledge of music was not shallow, and she sang raagas with a faith that had resonances in traditions beyond the audible.

When Rukmini was sixteen, her father moved to Adyar in Madras to spend his retirement years near the Theosophical Society. He was deeply influenced by the thinking of the leaders of the movement, and stirred by their spirit of nationalism, investigation and change. He was also interested in their reinterpretation of the Hindu scriptures. In the years to come, Neelakantha Iyer's family would give several generations of leaders to the Theosophical Society. His eldest son, Sri Ram, became the president of the Society, and to this day it is his granddaughter who heads it.

Among Sri Ram's many colleagues was the Englishman George Arundale. Brilliant, popular, jovial, and a theosophist like Sri Ram, he was one of Dr Annie Besant's most trusted lieutenants. Annie Besant, a heroine in the country of her birth, was a force to reckon with on the national scene in India's freedom movement as well. Before she left for India in 1893, there was no movement in the political and social life of England that she was not a part of, or in which she did not play a prominent role.

George Arundale's interest in Sri Ram's sister, Rukmini, created a scandal in the community. Nevertheless, he proposed and she accepted. When George and Rukmini decided to marry in 1920, he was forty-two and she was sixteen. An Englishman marrying the daughter of a vedanta scholar and high class Brahmin—as expected, it raked up a storm. The controversy stirred the passions of the conservative Brahmin community of which she was a part, and became a public issue. The couple's decision was difficult to support, both for Annie Besant as well as for Rukmini's recently widowed mother. Opposition to the marriage was vehement, and Sri Ram too found it difficult to back his sister, as he admired Annie Besant greatly.

While the support of her family was crucial to the young girl, the difficulties she faced brought out her determination. She had lived in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, only just lost her father, and recently moved to the city of Madras. Besides, she was only sixteen years old. Yet she had it in her to brave the storm of tremendous opposition to her intended marriage, especially from within her own family. The couple went to Mumbai, and on 27 April 1920, in a simple, quiet ceremony, Rukmini and George Arundale were married by the Registrar of Civil Marriages.

Like many a storm, this too subsided as quickly as it had begun. It seemed like destiny had brought them together. He was a devoted husband, a natural teacher, both caring and youthful in spirit. Her education in Western and Indian culture had just begun, and she was a quick learner. The couple were deeply committed to the Theosophical movement—he was interested in education and involved in the practical and administrative work of the society, while she was attracted to the philosophical dimension. Before she married George Arundale, Rukmini's knowledge of English had been minimal. Besides the language and etiquette of the new, upper class society they now lived amidst, there was much to learn in the intellectual sphere in which he worked.

The early opposition to her marriage seems to have been a sign of things to come. She would have to face many such hurdles in her life, and in facing each of these she was guided by a philosophy—an 'inner spirit' is how she described it. While talking about her marriage in 1936, sixteen years later, she said, 'No matter what our convictions are, we cannot judge people, cannot expect them to live by our understanding of life. The real spirit of marriage is an ideal. You must immerse yourself, your spirit in it, in order to know what it is. We must each live according to our own ideal, something apart from the law of the land, which makes marriage the result of one's inner life. We must live the life which is beyond the physical, which finds its true expression through the physical.'

After they were married, Rukmini and George lived in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, where Maharaja Holkar had asked George to take charge of education in the state. George had first come to India in 1903 at the request of Annie Besant. She needed a professor of history for the Central Hindu College, Benares, where he taught until 1912, after which he left for Adyar, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. 'If education were for living and not merely for livelihood; if education were for joy and happiness and not merely for temporal success; if education were for self-expression and not so exclusively for imitation; if education were as much for eternity as it is for time; if education were as much for wisdom and truth as it is for so-called facts; if education were as much for the soul as it is supposed to be for the mind; then indeed would the younger generation be well-equipped for life.' It is with these words and this philosophy that George took up his task in Indore.

A few years later Annie Besant called them back to Adyar, where they worked relentlessly and vigorously for the reconstruction of the country. Annie Besant spoke out for independence from British rule, and worked hard to influence the British government to give it back to the people of India. Her voice was a force that Gandhiji understood well—he knew its influence upon England. She had trusted workers, both within the Theosophical movement as well as in the rest of the country. C. Jinarajadasa, Sri Ram, Telang, Trilokekar and several others, apart from numerous followers all over the world, were involved in the movement with her.

In 1923, George Arundale helped start the Young Theosophists Movement in India. Rukmini became the president of this society, and with this her work in the theosophical sphere began. There was much to be done in the areas of education, art, philosophy, politics, social work and animal welfare. Annie Besant believed that the Theosophical Society could do much to contribute towards these various facets of freedom at this crucial time in India's history. She also believed that the Society could influence the other nations of the world against the British domination of India.

In 1924, Annie Besant sailed for England with the Commonwealth of India Bill, the result of three years' laborious work by a number of Indian patriots who desired to have it placed before the British parliament. It was meant to be a Constitution for India, by the Indians. This coincided with a remarkable public meeting at the Queen's Hall, London, on 23 July of that year to celebrate fifty years of Mrs Besant's contribution to public life. Rukmini was only twenty. It was her first journey across the oceans, and must surely have been a memorable one, travelling as she was in such illustrious company.

The Theosophical Society was itself in the throes of huge change that year. Jiddu Krishnamurti, his deep love for Mrs Besant notwithstanding, had denounced his belief in religion and the spiritual masters, and had described all rituals as 'crutches'. A split was imminent among the followers of the movement. Power equations were changing, and despite the fact that the members were followers of both Krishnamurti and Mrs Besant, it was inevitable that they would take sides. Rukmini and George Arundale were no doubt caught up in this turmoil. In fact, George Arundale had tutored Krishnamurti and his brother, Nityananda, while they were studying in Europe.

The effect of the split in the Theosophical movement as a result of Krishnamurti's departure and later the death of Annie Besant can never be fully assessed. Many feel it broke the back of the movement, and that it was never quite the same again. Nevertheless, within the broad parameters of the work of the Society, Rukmini's responsibilities had become more defined. She enthused members of the Society with her love for artistic expression and her youthful spirit. Several of them got together and formed a theatre group called 'The Adyar Players'. They wished to promote the artistic and creative life of the Society. Proceeds from their efforts went towards animal welfare work, which was dear to them all, and especially to Rukmini. As a member of independent India's Rajya Sabha, she helped formulate the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Bill, the pioneering legal guideline that would serve to protect animals against their 'protector', man.

Annie Besant would enthusiastically participate in the artistic efforts of the Society, once even rendering a portion of Tennyson's epic poem Idylls of the King. For a while their dramatic rendering of Longfellow's Hiawatha and Sir Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia became much anticipated features at the Society's annual conventions. These forays into the magic and intricacies of the stage were an important phase in Rukmini's learning curve, who was the soul of these presentations. She experimented with Egyptian, Hungarian and South American dances, using what talent was available among the members, often choosing the most unseemly members of the society to act in these performances! It must have been terribly amusing, for those chosen were selected more for their temperament and demeanour rather than any acting skill. They were Theosophists first, and what they sought to express on stage was an articulation of their ideals, not mere entertainment.

It was in 1929 that Rukmini, en route to Australia with her husband, found herself occupying the cabin opposite the legendary Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova. Her life was to change as a result of that meeting, and although Pavlova was elusive, her own curiosity about this graceful Indian woman led to a lasting friendship. An attractive Englishman with a beautiful, young Indian wife by his side—the couple were as much the cynosure of all eyes onboard the ship as Pavlova and her troupe of forty dancers were! Their admiration for each other grew. In Australia, Pavlova arranged for ballet lessons for Rukmini, who was fascinated by her performances. When she returned to India, she sought out dance recitals in Madras. She saw every good dancer of the time perform and in December 1932, she witnessed a Sadir performance by the renowned Pandanallur sisters, Rajeswari and Jeevaratnam. Bharatanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, was then known as Sadir. She determinedly sought her way to their guru, the doyen of the Pandanallur style, an upright and elderly gentleman called Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai.

In September 1933, Annie Besant passed away. Nine months later, George Arundale was voted president of the Theosophical Society. He was fifty-five and his wife only twenty-nine. The Society was by now a forceful body of thinkers with a worldwide membership. Its publications were (and still are) among the best on philosophical thought. In 1934, George and Rukmini started a school based on Theosophical principles in Adyar, in memory of Annie Besant. With it began Rukmini's work in the field of education. Attached to it was a cultural centre, which together with the school began imparting the kind of education that people now dream of for their children. It grew simply, with the highest ideals, bringing together the best of Indian thought and philosophy. It eschewed the worst traditions of British education like punishment and the well-known lack of attention to the great traditions of Indian learning. Fees were kept low. Vegetarianism was made compulsory. No punishment, in any form, was allowed to be perpetrated. 'Self government' was the principle adopted by one and all.

Meanwhile, Rukmini Devi had begun to excel in Sadir. On 30 December 1935, she invited doubters, sceptics and the interested alike for a performance of the dance. E. Krishna Iyer, a Brahmin gentleman who was responsible for the revival of the dance we now know as Bharatanatyam as well as for the rehabilitation of the traditional performers, devadasis, into respectability, found an ally in Rukmini Devi. He encouraged her to become one of the first women of their community to perform the dance, which had fallen into moral disrepute. What followed was a revolution. Even the ultra-conservative were converted, and those who had no idea of the dance's worth began to look at it as a truly beautiful art form; from a fresh perspective. The tide of prejudice which had existed against Sadir was to turn after her performance. The confidence and conviction with which she simply did what she saw as beautiful and pure, with absolute resolve and without a trace of apprehension about the potential stigma, was her lasting contribution to the culture of south India. If Bharatanatyam is accepted as one of the most important classical dance forms in India today, it is in no small way due to her contribution and participative support. Her performance was acclaimed to be outstanding in its aesthetic appeal, its altered presentation and choice of items. She was dedicated, and sought to express a 'spiritual' or 'inner' connection with her art, till then not attempted by her contemporaries.

On 6 January 1936 she started another cultural revolution. She put her mind to teaching children about the beauty of the arts and crafts of south India. Alongside the Besant Theosophical High School, she built a cottage to teach Sadir to anyone who would send their children to her to learn. At first the arts school was called the International Academy of the Arts, but very soon it was renamed Kalakshetra. She persuaded her own guru, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and other stalwarts of dance and music to come and teach in Kalakshetra. Many of them had been neglected by society, and happily accepted her invitation to do something they had never done before, that is, taught in a school. They were traditional gurus, legendary figures who almost no one in nationalist India knew or cared about. They became Kalakshetra's first teachers, and she their first pupil.

Her enthusiasm and vision were constantly expanding. Nothing seemed out of place in her world-view of 'connectedness' to the whole. When she saw the traditional craft of weaving in despair, she started a crafts centre for weavers so that they might revive the traditional Temple sari. In 1939 she and her husband invited Madame Maria Montessori to India, bringing the possibility and promise of alternative systems of education, something Indian nationalist leaders were not even thinking of at the time. Apart from her involvement in dance and the school, she was a vociferous advocate of vegetarianism, and would go to the surrounding villages with her small band of followers in bullock carts, singing bhajans against animal slaughter in temples.

Her mission was clear. But many others in the Theosophical Society were not sure whether these activities were truly 'theosophical' in nature. There was also speculation about whether they were not bringing one person too much attention. She was the president's wife, and perhaps she ought to pay more attention to the duties of that post, said some. A feeling that the president indulged her was not least among their grudges, and soon a policy of disassociation with Rukmini Devi and her activities began to manifest itself. She was, after all, operating these institutions on land owned by the Theosophical Society, and depended on the Society for the various facilities that were required to operate these schools. The sad demise of George Arundale on 12 August 1945 put a lid on the issue. In the following years, the different projects she was involved with came to be suspected as having an ulterior or selfish motive. By 1947 the boycott of her activities became a reality, however gentle its persuasion may have seemed on the surface. This was one of the great disappointments of her life.

However, she overcame these hurdles and soon took control of her schools and situated them on lands a few miles further down the coast from Adyar. Although she continued to remain an important member of the Society till she died, the hurt remained, and she was bewildered by the hostility of her co-members. She never quite understood why good work in education or art was considered 'non- theosophical'. In her lifetime it would become clear that it was not her work, but her, that they objected to.

Rukmini Devi never allowed herself to be derailed by the problems or obstacles that came her way, and continued with her work. People would come to her with scripts that she would choreograph into what she referred to as 'dance dramas'. She became intricately associated with the development of this genre. Using the great Western ballets as examples, she became a master at the art and craft of storytelling. Her narration was accomplished with great sensitivity to the Indian context. It is often called purva janam vaasanai, or the memories or scent of a past life. For my generation these dance dramas were a work of genius—no one had done anything quite like it before. For although dramatic dance-art like Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bhagavatha Mela and Manipuri existed, choreographed versions did not exist at the time. She put her mind to bringing the solo art of Sadir on to the proscenium stage, but with a difference. She used a group of dancers to depict and connect abstract moments in the dance drama, taking the story forward on their strength and creating a new avatar of the art. The solo format was clearly another form. To this, too, she added vocabulary and made sweeping reforms in costume, presentation, musical accompaniment and text. The culmination of all these dramas, each different in character and scope, borrowing from different textual traditions and in at least five languages, was a six-part rendition of Valmiki's Ramayana. In these works she had the collaboration of several stalwart musicians of the time, such as Mysore Vasudevachariar, Tiger Varadacharya and his brother Krishnamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and a host of others. She was also assisted by a panel of scholars, each one an expert in a particular language or familiar with a particular text. Her students were by now well trained, and with her directorial touch they rose to deliver adept performances and sculpt characters that still live in the memory of a growing and devoted audience.

In 1952, the President of India nominated Rukmini Devi Arundale to the Rajya Sabha for her services to Indian culture. It was an honour she gracefully accepted. Years later, she became the first woman to be offered the position of the President of India, which was an even greater honour. This, she politely refused. Her work in parliament proved to serve the causes of animal welfare and women, the Tibetan cause and her lifelong work in the field of education more than the arts, which is the field that people generally associate her name with. She was an early supporter of the Tibetan cause, the first to take Tibetan refugee children into her schools, where they stayed until they made their way in the world through high school, college or employment. To the new art bodies she would say, 'Why do you preserve art? Preserving is useful, but preserving the artists is more useful. Propagating art is vital. Help the artists and their art will be preserved naturally.' They did not like her very much and were grudging of her special place in the scheme of things. So vital was her message that ignoring her was not possible. However, preaching was not her style—she was a woman of action.

Vegetarianism and the cause of animal welfare took her worldwide, and she fought against the vivisection of monkeys for research, the game of bullfighting in Spain, advocated the betterment of the methods of slaughter in India, and spoke out against animal sacrifice in temples. She was instrumental in passing a bill in parliament that was crucial to our understanding of ahimsa. India was exporting animals for experimentation to laboratories abroad at a time when conditions for their travel were pathetic. Hundreds of monkeys died on these journeys. Indian slaughter houses were, according to her, 'living hells'. Cattle farms, medical research laboratories, vaccine institutions, veterinary colleges, livestock and research stations, circuses and zoos— she visited them all and spoke out for a policy that would protect the helpless animals which were being used in them. 'Does man believe foolishly that animals were created for him and his pleasure alone?' she asked. 'When I was nominated to parliament I thought I would be a voice for the animal kingdom. My greatest joy has been to bring their cry of hope to our leaders.'

To her many pupils in Madras she became a mother, a strict disciplinarian who demanded the highest effort and purity of form from them. She had influential friends, but it was the creative ones whom she brought to meet the students—clairvoyants, yogis, mendicants, scholars, philosophers, scientists, artists—non-conformists of every hue became regular visitors. They would talk about their worlds. Many of them had lived very unusual lives, and it was truly amazing to interact with them. These little diversions in the timetable of school life made her students understand who she really was.

Beauty at all levels, in all forms, was a passion. She deplored 'unmindful' acts of piety, yet made ritual elegant. She was loved by many, admired by even more. All the great leaders of her time were personal friends—Jawaharlal Nehru, in whose tenure she served in parliament; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was a personal friend; Dr Radhakrishnan; Sir CP. Ramaswamy Iyer; Sri Sadasivan and M.S. Subbulakshmi; Kalki Krishnamurthi and numerous others. She was a good friend, outspoken and committed to a cause, yet pliable when it came to family and her institutes.

She abhorred the idea of asking for financial support, yet when it came from well-wishers she was grateful. Those who worked closely with her had no interest in money. They were Theosophists, and work was their life. Her own understanding of money was negligible; so too that of her constant and loyal companions, Sankara Menon, Dr Padmasini and Kamala Trilokekar. She knew the value and necessity of money for the work she wanted to do, but had no idea how to handle it. She could prove to be naive, and would often allow the wrong people to guide her.

Kalakshetra's golden jubilee celebrations were celebrated with great joy in December 1985. Having lived a full life, Rukmini Devi Arundale passed away in February 1986. She was criticized for not leaving behind a successor, but Sankara Menon, her erudite and scholarly right-hand man, an aristocrat and a gentleman, took over the institute and ushered it into a new phase of stability. Aware that many unscrupulous people were eyeing the institute's land and sensing pressure from these sources to take over the academy, he handed it over to the Central government in 1993 just before his death. Today, Kalakshetra is an autonomous organization, run by an elected governing body that assists in advising and informing its work through the expertise of its members. It has been declared an 'institute of national importance' by an act of parliament, granting it autonomy to preserve and propagate the arts for future generations, just as its founder would have wished.

Expression in dance
Dance remains largely in the visual memory of the onlooker and in the kinaesthetic memory of the dancer. In dancing, as in acting – the artist must be present and in the full possession of his personality. All enthusiasm, vitality and spontaneity cannot be sacrificed however, as some of us tend to do, for the classical ideals of clarity and symmetry alone. Read More

Expression in dance

“Man fashions as he knows.”

“Dance is a living, pulsating art – not a chronicle of techniques and forms.”

Dance remains largely in the visual memory of the onlooker and in the kinaesthetic memory of the dancer. In dancing, as in acting – the artist must be present and in the full possession of his personality. All enthusiasm, vitality and spontaneity cannot be sacrificed however, as some of us tend to do, for the classical ideals of clarity and symmetry alone. Our forms continue to be inspired by legend, by nature around us and the nature of man himself, by love and war, by man’s complexity. Abandonment and freedom of expression that is natural and instinctive – as is evidenced in folk forms, is ‘an ideal’ that the trained dancer often only acknowledges, but never experiences, for the longest time, as conforming to technique or to ideas, which is given such high priority in the learning process, all but consumes her. This is especially so, if the dancer is also a theoretician, or likes to be seen as an intellectual – something that epitomized the 20th century in the West and is so now all over the world. The road-blocks become manifold, as compared to the directness, the vigour, the simplicity, genuineness and vitality of more natural, unaffected forms like the folk and tribal.

A living art must be aware of the problems of the times it lives in and must provide answers to that time. It cannot continue to express feelings and ideals of a time gone by that has vanished now. Nor can it presume to adopt for the larger culture of a nation or people, techniques or ideals without considering their pertinence in the present time or place one is resident in.

In contemporary, socially relevant dance today – classical, folk or modern, the higher elements of dance seem to have all but vanished, leaving little that is artistic or gratifying as an aesthetic experience. There seems to be a paucity of inspirational and genuine artistic intention. Everything depends it seems, upon the taste of the dancer. Materialism, avarice, a lack of awareness and sensitivity to history, form, textile traditions, musical traditions, the nature of man, behavioural patterns, relationships – all or some of these, unhinge the dancer from the requisite balance.

Art must be expressive, but also communicative and yet, without loss of artistic integrity. Dance must be viewed as a medium of expression, and not in terms of mere entertainment. This would be reason enough for it to be taught in schools. Its value must be understood and put in perspective. It is and was perhaps never for entertainment on a stage.

Dance of course, must inspire and thrill. It must cause man to feel and to think. Technique and themes for dance cannot lose touch with life. Nor can the value of a dancer’s art be judged by its box-office success.

Along with an evolving intellectual life, our aesthetic and emotional natures, our values and tastes must also grow. Dance cannot only reflect man’s mental evolution. Experience tends to universalize the individual, so that dramatic situations and concrete emotions take on more abstract form in art expression. It is true to say that universally, ‘abstract expression’ has more relevance. However, choreographers worldwide are hard pressed, no – deeply challenged by emotional abstraction. The physical is so much easier to choreograph and to perform. The starker, the better. But is stark human? Is it reflective of the joy of life? Man feels as deeply now as ever. Feeling is constant, although some cultures, especially during and after the Great Wars and hundreds of deaths, bore stoically the burden of loss. In our own culture, the seeming indifference of the philosopher to the chaos, pain, ecstasy and joy around him is like the other side of a similar coin. Expressive movement in fact is art dance and consciously pursued for its art values.

Only form is variable. Feeling, in fact is constant.

Both the West and East know that the technique of dance has developed and profited from an increased knowledge of motion and rhythm. Physiological and psychological research has revealed the nature of the kinaesthetic sense, the kinaesthetic basis of rhythmic perception and also the relationship between feeling and its motor expression. Modern expression in all forms has made for clarity, simplicity and directness. In many ways, its honesty of thought has lead to genuineness of feeling, leaving little chance for superficiality. 19th Century romanticism was replaced by the more vigorous, pulsating and complex rhythms of our less leisurely times, which does not mean that the romantic spirit and sentiment are lost to us. Their mode of expression has merely changed to a modern idiom; the discarding of unnecessary embellishments towards a more frank and direct expression. It is believed that only such a dance expression can be the correlate of the wide-ranging, complex, intellectual and cosmopolitan character of our times. Its direction as a fine art is toward universal symbolism, much broader in its scope and meaning than the art of any age or people. It seems that dance worldwide has become deliberate creation – in which the intellect dominates the automatic and the emotional impulse. There is a gain in consciousness, but no change in the essential working of biological and aesthetic processes, with a refinement of their functioning.

We no longer expect dance to be the expression only of the more lofty and poetic feelings, but accept it as the expression of all that the heart can feel – its pangs, ecstasies, passions, moods and aspirations. This may, as it does, include the satiric, the lofty, the simple and the strange.

The simple pleasure of obeying the impulse to move and to express in ordered or random movement our responses to the forces of our nature and the environment about us remains the same in every time and place. The difference is in outer form – in period, location, temperament, education, taste and experience – which together determine the cultural values of any age. Dance concerns itself with the primary issues of life and the expression of its cultural impulse and development.

“Dance as an art, when understood, is the province of every human being.”

Although art can be explained in many ways, it cannot be reduced to the impulse to attract, or to the impulse to imitate, although this is its initial impulse. Neither does art or expression involve mere excitement – although that too is its impulse. Dance supplies an artist with the means of intensifying the feelings of the soul, and also gives to the artist an inward calm in which all strong emotions find relief. Every interpretation which does not pay attention to both of these aspects is one-sided and incomplete. Expressing all feeling endorses pleasurable states of feeling and relieves those that are not pleasurable. Even the lowest form of life moves towards stimuli that are pleasant and withdraw from stimuli that are unpleasant.

Art is creation. We create by and though expression. For the appreciator or rasika, it is creation by evocation. The real pleasure of valuable art is not so much in expressing what we see, but how we react to it. Greatness in art expression is not only dependent upon the power of the artist and his or her skill or even the skill of the form itself that she uses to express an idea, but also the richness of experience being communicated by the artist. Appreciation of the art expression by a rasika is measured by his consciousness of the concept being created. For undoubtedly, we are the sum total of our experiences and can only respond to things in terms of who we are. We also think of life as we wish it to be, we idealize. And art gives us the opportunity to realize those ideals. Our experience is thus transformed by thought and aspiration.

In no age can man live in his intellect alone. The emotional life of the human being must find some outlet and some satisfactory answers from society about him. The artist lying dormant in every one of us must be allowed to develop. Too often it is pent up within a hard and unresponsive exterior that repels rather than encourages the much desired fellowship of feeling. Mental science has revealed the nature of deep emotional tensions that arise when powerful feelings are checked within the mind, with no opportunity for expression. When those energies are understood and transferred into another channel, it becomes a source of personal power. Repressed feeling are wasted for want of use and finding no refining or transmuting release, they remain powerful and crude and continue their underground existence.

Most people are cut off from expression by their own self consciousness, which blocks any form of free, harmonious expression in the projection of an integrated person. They lack the co-ordination of body and mind with feelings that would permit them to move and act with ease. The body is a liability and an instrument over which there is little control. Every teacher faces this problem in both its forms – the fear of emotional expression and the imprisonment of the personality in an unresponsive body. Dance frees the personality to enjoy a more satisfying life.

“The history of the arts is the story of man’s love for the beautiful, of his search for the harmonies of form and meaning which will satisfy his yearning for the ideal.”

In the effort to attain unity in expression, the emotional nature is brought under control and given the strength of restraint. Every dance is born it seems of the personality of the dancer and gives back to the personality. It brings form, integration and enrichment. One is always searching for a way to become more sensitive to the many stimuli that bombard us – seeking how best to evaluate and select experiences and meaning and organise these innumerable and conflicting elements into coherent patterns of behaviour.

“Art is not responsible for its reception and quality. The responsibility rests with the state of culture out of which it arises. It is not a separate entity grafted upon a people. It arises from the qualities that characterize the society from which it stems. This is the function of art. It defines the culture of a people. By itself, art cannot change its heritage.”

Reflections of my Journey
Portrayals of a dancer's personality in films and in biographies and fiction highlight the dancer's volatility. She is shown as being temperamental, unpredictable. Dance also teaches sensitivity, grace, containment, and a philosophical strength. Why are these qualities so seldom portrayed? Read More

Reflections of my Journey

1. Portrayals of a dancer's personality in films and in biographies and fiction highlight the dancer's volatility. She is shown as being temperamental, unpredictable. Dance also teaches sensitivity, grace, containment, and a philosophical strength. Why are these qualities so seldom portrayed?

My journey as a dancer began early, but mostly after I left the portals of my alma-mater. At first it depended upon survival, as it normally does. I thought deeply about the body and how I would teach and why it would be different from the way I had learnt. Proficiency and consistency are the hallmarks of great art. Containment is a virtue in dance, as in life. But achieving these is not easy. Working on toning the body and the mind through working on the little bodies in front of me, obsessed my mind and through exposure at various levels I was able to apply reason to learnt formulae.

ARDHANAREESHWARA STUTI
Ragamalika
She, with tresses black as the dark clouds;
He - with matted locks spreading out like the rays of the sun.
She, who does not regard Him as God; He, who is every man’s God.

She adorns her ears with bright kundala’s;
He ornaments His chest with poisonous snakes.
They are - Shiva’s lover; Parvati’s beloved.

She ornaments her hair with the mandara mala ;
He marks His chest with skulls.
She wears a garment not of this world; He is naked.

She anoints her breasts and forehead with kasturi and kum-kumam;
He adorns Himself with ash from the burial ground.
She was victim of Kamadev, the God of love; He destroyed him.

She is the blue-lotus eyed one;
His eyes are open wide, like the dirt-born lotus.
She is the worlds’ Mother; He is the only Father of the Universe.

Kumudakriya Kriti Rupakam Mutthuswamy Dikshitar I offer prayers to Lord Arddhanarishvara incessantly. He is surrounded by a host of eminent sages like Atri, Brghu and Vasishtha.

He has the glory of being exceptionally decorated during for his beloved at the time of Arddha Jama. He delights Ishvari. He is Siva offering refuge to His devotees. He is adorned with the precious gem Nagendramani and is mounted on the sacred bull. He is worshipped by the prosperous Guruguha and is extolled to the melody of Kumudakriya. He is praised by all the Agama’s and is proclaimed in all the Veda’s. He is venerated by Indra and others and His form shines with the red hue.

All the compositions today have been set or composed by me over the years. I do not believe that the word ‘choreograph’ cannot be applied to solo work in the Indian context.

2. A Rig Vedic mantra describes two birds that live on the same tree. One is the bhokta - one who partakes of, who tastes the fruit of the tree, of life. The other bird is the drashta – who watches, contemplates life. In dance as in life, the bhokta is seen in numerous paintings and literary works, caught up in the web of life, in its joys and sorrows, a victim of life's varying gait. Each of us readily recognizes ourselves in the bhokta, as we portray the nayika in dance, or in a painting or in a literary work. The dancer savours life, yet constantly longs for completeness, yearning for something beyond the parameters of her self.

During a performance the dancer and perhaps the audience as well, is compelled to ask, ‘Who is the dancer? Is she the nayika she portrays? Can the two be separated? We are often taught in India, not merely to represent a god but to portray the spirit of his being. The poets and the devadasis who kept the classical dance traditions alive understood this subtle distinction. A dissonance appears when a dancer fails to recognize that thin line between representing the spirit of a concept or individual and becoming the individual itself. Does a dancer seek to link the audience to a concept of Godliness or become the God himself? In the private spaces of our lives there also lies the seed of reflection, of observation and contemplation. Although caught up in the vagaries of life, one part of us seems to stand aside, watching as our own lives mingle with existence.

My proximity to the South notwithstanding, I lived in the North long enough to fall in love with its singers and their styles. One whom I greatly admired was Kumar Gandharva and I now present his wife, Vasundhara Komkali in an unforgettable rendering of a thumri, which she sang for me just a month after he passed away. It is poignant with the spirit of loss, something we all feel for what we love.

Raag Khamaj ‘Raat Piya Bina Neend Na Aayi Re’
Without my beloved, I cannot sleep.
I suffer the daylight hours, wandering aimlessly
Since he left, my mind’s peace lies shattered
My whole being is so fearful.

3. Dancers exist on a tightrope—literally and metaphorically. Before a soloist gets on stage to perform, she or he has to plunge into numerous practicalities – all very delicate, but vital to performance - from arrangements of lighting, musicians and costumes to terms of payment, publicity and performance. If the soloist is able to get through this maze, (in India we do not have the proverbial soul-mate that artists are known to have, although a few mothers have fit that bill - I did not have any such luck) so, if she gets through this maze with some success and without losing sight of what she must do at the end of it, then she is expected to transcend all such paraphernalia and her ego for the performance at hand.

All of us know that the responsibility for sustaining art at the highest level does not lie with the dancer alone. There are institutions; there is an audience, the larger society. In fact these are worlds of which she is a part. She is free to innovate within her style, but with it comes uncertainty. Audiences who come to be entertained may well go away disappointed. They demand imagination, inventiveness, beauty, skill, grace. As a dancer reaches her peak, there comes the growing dominance of her persona, on and off the stage. Many a fascinating tale is to be told on what the ego does to art. In some cases it helps to win a war, in others ruination.

Do we really know the truth about ourselves? The vision we have of ourselves, the vision friends have of us, the way a lover views us, the gaze of the guru, the hope and fascination in a student’s eye, the distant gaze of a critic – which of these visions is nearest to the truth? Perhaps they are all partially true, but only partially.

It is necessary for a soloist to reassess her commitment to the dance at every stage - forcing her to rise above herself, to engage with a larger world of experiences or simply stagnate in a pool of basic learning that does not take you beyond the present, for our dances are an expression of layers of human thought through history, religious thought, literature, musical structures, architecture, ritual, craft, design, color etc. It is also impressed by the individual’s relationship with individuals and societies around him and of his relationship with the unknown, his communication with those elements in nature that are beyond rational assessment, that require contemplation, looking within in silence. Very rarely have star performers tolerated equals, either in the form of a lover or a husband, a manager or another dancer and least of all in a student. All these factors come into play when she is at her most vulnerable. In the lives of many dancers these crises have come when her career is on the wane, when elderly parents she never had the time to visit, are beginning to ail or to pass on, when her marriage is on the rocks, when managers have failed her or married one of her students (as in the case of Isadora Duncan) and when a younger generation is beginning to take centre stage. She is usually quite alone when she has to pick up the strands of her life. It is a time when she is surrounded by those who need her, or at least her prestige, but upon whom she cannot depend and in whom she cannot confide.

Louis Horst, an American composer at Denishawn, once said of Martha Graham, 'Every young dancer needs a wall to grow against, like a vine. I am the wall.' He was her mentor, her lover, the one she shared her dreams and doubts with. A dancer taps her own emotional life for her solo work. This 'methodology' if you like, is impossible to pass on to another dancer. As Graham said, 'Only if there is just one way to make life vivid for yourself should you embark on such a career.’ It is both tragic and fortunate that a dancer's instrument is her body, fragile, strong, bound by birth and death. When she perishes, her art perishes too"

'A dancer has only memory to rest in, that fragile impermanent shell of time and our recollection of how she danced are her only memorial...' But it is a living tradition and every dancer after her is part of a royal lineage of roles, personas that have gone before her. Above all, their interpretation is an expression of their own nature and their own unique (or not so unique) vision of life.

I believe that it is a phase of both being alone and being lonely that leads one to a philosophy that fuses the private and the public lives of a dancer. One must be without anyone to discover oneself, to understand who one is. It is then that true discrimination and a balance is attained, between what is being portrayed on stage and one's personal life. It is then that the dichotomy between the bhokta and the drashta may be put behind one. In the division between physical beauty and emotional confusion, between centredness on stage and the erratic nature of one's life and career, between the image people have of you and your own image of yourself—the dancer is like any one of us in this dilemma. However it is amplified in her situation, by the very nature of her art. Her life is not hers to have. It is public. The dance itself is physical, exposed. Her persona is known, whether it is a true one or fabricated, either by herself or others. So that she is often caught, in the wakeful sleep after a performance, between two personas. Is the dancer me? Was that nayika me? Am I the person I was? Was I complete then? Is me—the dancer, the whole person, complete? Do we really know the truth about ourselves? There is the vision friends have of us, the one we have of ourselves, that of a lover, a parent, a student, a critic. The vision of our enemies. All these are different. You get up with a cup of coffee and the paper and read of your beauty and composure. You open the next paper and you are devoid of talent, worn out, presumptuous! Which one is you?

'Great dancers are not shadows, however softly they may illuminate the stage,' writes Austin. 'They are vital, often idiosyncratic human beings whose marked individuality is the source of their gifts. It is, most of all, their extraordinary personal magnetism which lights up the stage like an explosion of stars. This is not merely "star appeal" but something more. It is an expression of the artist's inner nature made visible through the roles she portrays, the embodiment of her deepest and most secret dreams. It is this fusion of an artist's inner and outer world at the most intense level of expression that produces great dancers; the ones who set a standard for their own generation.'

The dancer ultimately transforms the dance into an allegory of her own being, seen in terms of some poetic imagery. Often their own lives are a sad muddle, containing excesses that may seem wasteful, or deprivation that may seem unnecessary, had it not been that she uses each experience, good or bad, to enrich her dance. For you really discover the dance and yourself—privately—within the secrecy of your heart.

The Challenge of Identity
It is true that each of us, who learn the arts, do so with the dream of becoming dancers and musicians. However, it is not long before you are made aware of the larger parameters of the learning process. The beauty of having such processes wash over you as a child is that it happens gently. The rigour of the process is not felt. For a child, learning the arts, is the happiest and most natural environment to grow and flower in. Read More

The Challenge of Identity

It is true that each of us, who learn the arts, do so with the dream of becoming dancers and musicians. However, it is not long before you are made aware of the larger parameters of the learning process. The beauty of having such processes wash over you as a child is that it happens gently. The rigour of the process is not felt. For a child, learning the arts, is the happiest and most natural environment to grow and flower in. One’s appearance or physical comforts – these have no real worth for a child. Especially if attention is not drawn to them. A child is usually embarrassed only because of the self-consciousness of parents and society. Fortunately for everyone concerned, parents did not have to see the naked feet of their children run around in the sand in Kalakshetra. And as grubby as you may have looked, you were never too young to wash your own clothes either!

Simplicity of form and structure; the reduction of life’s needs to the most essential; a premium on cleanliness of the body and mind; the value of silence and of prayer; the value of rigorous practice in the pursuit of perfection; reverence for life in every form; respect for the child and for the elderly – these were everyday lessons and were not learnt easily. For the one thing about being a child is the inability to rationalise, to understand the true worth of these values. As soon as an awareness of the ‘outside’ world becomes apparent, all these lessons seem like an imposition. We ‘believed’ in all religions even before we knew what ‘religion’ meant! Every prayer was said by all. In the Besant School that we attended in the mornings, studies seemed part of games, singing, spinning and weaving, painting and some discipline in the form of Scouts and Guides. Individuality and freedom of expression were granted to the child above all else. And no punishment was allowed, in any form.

However, when it came to dance and music classes in the afternoons, things were a shade different. Here, a tradition was being handed over to the child. An art was being taught. A reverence for Indian concepts of bhakti and shraddha had to be transferred. A knowledge of the philosophy of this land, its religions, its myth, its architectural norms, its poetic traditions, its musical forms, its scriptures – all these were seen as valid and necessary inputs to the learning of the dance. Discipline was therefore fundamental to the learning process. Respect and decorum were strictly maintained. Silence was valued. We were all ‘better behaved’ in the Arts Academy, than we were in School, although both these were on the same campus – one, on each side of the hostels. An early consciousness seemed to evolve, about the value of what we were being taught. A philosophy was the backbone of the institute. You could feel it in the air.

The spirit of ‘nationalism’ and a desire to return to the roots of our culture was also evident. She believed in the renaissance of Indian art and of Indian educational systems. She said that unless India learnt to reverence her own arts, neither would she be worthy of Swaraj, nor would she be able to take her rightful place among the nations of the world.

In the teaching or learning of an art form, a spirit of ‘reverence’ is essential. Not an empty ‘ritual’ of reverence, but a genuine spirit of inspiration, wonder, fascination, even awe– call it what you may, must be transferred to the child. Both for the art form and for those who represent it. With the careful development of an ‘eye’ for detail, in the child slowly grows a healthy respect for the complexity of the ‘form’. Breaking down complex patterns of movement into several simple units learnt individually gives the child a sense of achievement in the ‘small’. If it is possible, it is also necessary to make each of those units singularly expressive and totally meaningful. When culled out successfully from the complex and ornate weave of the ‘real’ thing, it is a moment of truth for the teacher as well. To be able to see beauty in the ‘small’, in the insignificant, teaches you much about life. About small, about insignificant, about discarded, discriminated against. Shiva, in His garb wears all that is shunned by ‘society’ as being dirty, repulsive and ugly. The perfect chemist, He transforms all these into symbols of the highest beauty. It is important when learning the ‘big’ things, to pay attention to and to appreciate the value of the ‘little things’. The teacher in so many of our educational establishments presumes power. This is so in the arts as well. In fact, all a child really needs are the materials; the opportunity and ‘a loving hand’ to guide him. Great teachers know this. He learns himself.

One such thing is the value of ‘ceremony’ in our lives. In spite of the vast traditions of ceremony in our country - so much a part of India’s religious practises, military traditions and societal celebrations, the urban, educated Indian has either discarded it or is self conscious about it, because they have forgotten its purpose. ‘Ceremony’ when performed with grace is the blending of ‘form’ and ‘spirit’. One must be guided by this grace of spirit in action. The beauty of such ceremony is that it invokes great power. All of us who have been witness to the ‘Beating of the Retreat’ – an old military tradition knows how beautifully history is encapsulated in that ceremony. No amount of classroom teaching or reading about it can quite give you the spirit of that moment at sundown, when man and nature resolve to put down arms and rest.

What then, is a cultured world? Our definitions of ‘war’, of ‘greed’ and of ‘cruelty’ have been masterfully altered in our time. The difference is, that now we have brought war and greed and cruelty into our homes and pretend they do not exist, only because an outsider is not the perpetrator. In our own home, it is merely doing what must be done. No one dare call this ‘war’. No one can call this ‘greed’. And how pray, is it ‘cruelty’? The generation before us lamented their world. Partition brought them so much grief. We have many, many deep wounds of our own time that cut to the very bone. Will they ever be different for our children and for theirs? It is rightly said – as we sow, so shall we reap. Each of us realises the truth of those words in our lifetime. The world over, we have made mistakes in correctly evaluating the larger community of people, states and nation’s and in truly appreciating their inherent differences. We are paying for this. Smaller communities, with different cultures are left out of the broad roads to progress. They are smothered by monolith, self-righteous ‘Gods’, who censure belief in the many other Gods, in the mannerisms and cultures they cannot understand. Alas, we live in a small world that demands conformity. God forbid, should your stride be faster or different, or that you do not choose ‘the’ path, or that you choose not to move at all!

What about India, a land that has so much to give the world from its past and a people that have so much to give to the future? Is our culture strong enough for us to choose not a different path, but the right one? Most of us have no doubt that our culture is strong. In striving to be part of a world culture, to be recognised as an aware citizen of the ‘accepted’ world, have we forsaken what is ours? Do we even know what treasures our culture has to offer? Does a modern, progressive education mean a distancing from ones own roots? It truly seems that while the world realises the strength and passion of their own identities, India slowly forgets.

“Each race contributes something essential to the world’s civilisation in the course of its own self-expression and self-realisation. The character built up in solving its own problems, in the experience of its own misfortunes, is itself a gift which each offers the world. The essential contribution of India then, is simply her Indian-ness; her great humiliation would be to substitute or to have substituted for this own character or svabhava a cosmopolitan veneer, for then indeed she must come before the world empty-handed,” said the great Indologist - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in ‘The Dance of Shiva’. Do we believe for a minute that India was always radical? Our architects and sculptors, writers and poets, musicians and dancers – they paid homage to Art, to Nature, to love, to Aspiration. Every independent thinker and philosopher walked this land and sowed the seed of his philosophy here. There was no shame in seeking a different path or in living by another set of values. Every man chose his ‘God’ and changed it at will, as long that faith sustained him. This was so not only with religions, but with vocations and social contracts as well. We are not born to bondage of ‘man-made institutions’. Faith is not entitlement or privilege. It is duty and service. The only bondage is to birth and death. This one thing is true. The rest is what one makes of it. Interpreting one’s faith is the prerogative of every individual - private and directed inward, to an inner being. What it now is, in India - is loud, vociferous, dogmatic and public.

Is it that we do not dare to dream? What is it that makes us such small people – wrapped up in the ego, in individuality, in the self really, unable to spread our energies outwards, so that we may reach other people, heal their spirit, give some joy and comfort? Perhaps we simply do not have it to give. We are bereft ourselves! Lost in the acquisition of worldly ‘wealth’ of one kind or another, unable to spare some part of our time for the healing and rejuvenation of our own souls. How can we serve others?

The acquisition of, not knowledge, but skill has become the hallmark of today’s teaching and learning experience. The best teacher is one who can translate skill to the student, effectively and fast. There is no time to stop and reflect. ‘Acquiring’ is the password and this is all that one can manage, in the blur of our busy lives. The greed for art in one’s life exists, but neither the time nor the patience to savour it when it is there. Yet we must have it. Can we actually possess Beauty - natural or creative? Is it possible to ‘have it’ or own it? If art or beauty washes over one slowly and serves to make us more aware, more understanding, more gracious - then it has served its purpose. But neither the art, nor the artist, and certainly not the viewer have any intention that the experience of it be an expression of a receiving of grace. The intention is to ‘show’ art and to ‘see’ art, rarely to ‘experience’ it. I quote Rukmini Devi when she said, “Any expression of grace is finally absorbed in the individual longing for Beauty. When that experience has taken place, the individual is no longer the ‘creator’, but has become his poetry; the musician has become music itself and the creator of a masterpiece has become the masterpiece itself.” – Huizen, Holland – Dec.’54. In our society, when the artist and the viewer are immersed in a game of one-upmanship, how far are the teacher and her pupil from it? Money is the only thing that counts. If you can buy a good education, you can buy art too. And you think you can buy the artist, as well. And perhaps this is true.

The arts are eternally creative. There is an enduring form, an enduring truth. While it is old, it is also perpetually new. While it is ancient, it is also modern. There is nothing ephemeral about India’s traditions. Understanding this is important, in order that we be comfortable with our arts, with our culture. If art can stir the depths of one’s heart and produce harmony of vision and thought within, it is enough. It does not matter which age it belongs to. Our art has always been impersonal, however particular to the nuances of human nature the feeling expressed is. It does not warrant praise, or criticism. Artists in India composed kriti upon kriti in praise of God. There was no sense of the individual ego. The composer did not put a name to his compositions, only a dedication to his God. It is through these dedications that we know who the composer might be. He wrote of things that moved him, that pained him. Yet it was not personal. It could be any of us who feel that feeling, who thinks that thought.

True art anywhere, has no place for superficiality. Many amongst us are products of a rigid and unimaginative system of education. The cry for culture and for better moral values cannot come from crowded classrooms. They must come from an appreciation of nature, from recognition of the beauty of form and spirit, from sensitivity to the elements that make up our being. The artist can be the voice of the higher life and a symbol of culture.

The Dancer Within, the Dancer Without
An illuminating Rig Veda mantra speaks of two birds living in the same tree. One is the bhokta, who partakes, who tastes. The bhokta enjoys the fruits of the tree. The other bird is the drashta, who watches, contemplates. In dance as in life, those who partake of life are like the bhokta. The bhokta may be seen in paintings and in literature, caught in the web of life, in its joys and sorrows, a victim of life's varying gait. Each of us readily recognizes ourselves in the bhokta, whether it is portrayed as the nayika in dance, or in a painting or in a literary work. Read More

The Dancer Within, the Dancer Without

An illuminating Rig Veda mantra speaks of two birds living in the same tree. One is the bhokta, who partakes, who tastes. The bhokta enjoys the fruits of the tree. The other bird is the drashta, who watches, contemplates. In dance as in life, those who partake of life are like the bhokta. The bhokta may be seen in paintings and in literature, caught in the web of life, in its joys and sorrows, a victim of life's varying gait. Each of us readily recognizes ourselves in the bhokta, whether it is portrayed as the nayika in dance, or in a painting or in a literary work. Yet in each of us, lies the seed of reflection, of observation and contemplation. We are caught up in the vagaries of life but at the same time, one part of us seems to stand aside, watching as our lives mingle with the ocean of existence. This duality has been personified in the story of the two birds. The drashta symbolizes the pilgrim soul in each of us.

The dancer is often seen as the bhokta, enmeshed in life, longing for completeness, yearning for something beyond the parameters of her self. During a performance the dancer and perhaps the audience as well, is compelled to ask 'What is it? Who is the dancer? What is the dance? Are they the same? Can they be separated?' While a dance recital is taking place, the audience may be enraptured by the world into which they are drawn. The physical beauty of the dancer, her technical virtuosity, the glitter of her costume and the grace of her gestures often carry the audience into another sphere of awareness.

Many elements contribute to creating the spectacle that is dance. There is the sheer physical aspect of a performance. To a young person just beginning to learn the art, the physical awareness of movement is where they begin their training. All dance is physical, of course. It is also emotional, for what is life and art without feelings and the expression of those feelings. It is also intellectual, in that it is an assessment of life's play through literature, song, architecture, design, colour, individuality and human relationships. It is, above all, an examination of the, individual's relationship with divinity. The individual's communication with those elements in nature that are beyond one's rational assessment, that require contemplation, looking within, in silence. Dance is, I think, fundamentally philosophical and can be spiritual as well.

Portrayals of a dancer's personality in films and in biographies and fiction highlight the dancer's volatility. She is shown as being temperamental, unpredictable. Is it because of the physicality of her art, and her knowledge of its potential strength? Dance also teaches sensitivity, grace, containment, and a philosophical strength. Why are these qualities so seldom portrayed?

For a dancer who has a true calling, a sanskaar, or inherent perception beyond the physicality of her training, another level of awareness evolves. Even as she is bound by her technique, by the appearance of her physical self and the ritual and romance of the traditions she is following, the dance is also stripped away, it is transcended, until only the essential element of spirituality remains. And it is this quality that the dancer finally shares with her audience. To arrive at this point, a dancer has to hone her skills until they are sharp and clear. There can be no room for imperfection. Small inhibitions, small hesitations or flaws will hold the dancer to the physical, constrain her from shedding the form and weigh her down.

For the vast majority of dancers it is not possible to show this 'free spirit' à la Isadora Duncan, who ran barefoot on to the stage, with free-flowing veils trailing her in the wind. (How they loved her spirit before and after the Russian Revolution, for she seemed to epitomize the will of the people to soar into the sky). But she was exceptional. She was neither proficient, nor consistent enough to spawn imitations.

Proficiency and consistency are the hallmarks of great art. The dancer imitates the gods, represents the wind, the flowers, the trees, a storm. This literal representation was bound to die in the West as it no longer fulfilled its function of communication. It merely represented. Ornamentation and impressionistic dancing cannot be sustained. In India, we are taught not merely to represent a god but to portray the spirit of his or her being. This is what is taught through-the nayika bhav. The poets and the devadasis who kept the classical dance traditions alive understood this subtle distinction. A dissonance appears when a dancer fails to identify and define the line between representing the spirit of an object or individual and the object or, individual itself. Does the dancer seek to link the audience to a god or to be the god himself? It is when the dancer becomes the wind or the mountain on stage and off, that terror reigns!

The responsibility for sustaining the art at its highest level does not lie with the dancer alone. There is an audience, there is society. There is a world of which she is a part. She is free to innovate within her style of dance, but with it comes uncertainty. Audiences who come to be entertained may go away disappointed. As Richard Austin wrote, 'A dancer cannot do the unforgivable—make an audience think.' They want her to be whole, they demand imagination, inventiveness, beauty, skill, grace. She wants all that too. And must have them. But these qualities by their very nature are shrouded in all the paraphernalia of dance. Dancers exist on a tightrope—literally and metaphorically. Before she can actually get on to the stage and present her performance, a dancer has to plunge herself into prosaic practicalities, she has to ensure that her musicians are adequately rehearsed, that their payments are taken care of, that her costumes are ready. The stage has to be prepared, countless details of publicity executed, especially in the case of a group performance. And then, having checked on the condition of the stage, the needs of her musicians, the terms of payment and arrangements of the organizers, she has to go on to the stage and transform herself into the ethereal being whose spirit she is trying to portray. She has to be creative. Lose herself in the dance. Break barriers perhaps. Be witty... and profane. And it is a demanding audience that she must satisfy.

As a dancer reaches her peak, there comes the growing dominance of her persona, on and off the stage. Very rarely have star performers tolerated equals, either in the form of a lover or a husband, a manager or another dancer and least of all in a student. All these factors come into play when she is at her most vulnerable. In the lives of many dancers these crises have come when her career is on the wane, when elderly parents she never had the time to visit, are beginning to ail or to pass on, when her marriage is on the rocks, when managers have failed her or married one of her students (as in the case of Isadora Duncan) and when a younger generation is beginning to take centre stage. She is usually quite alone when she has to pick up the strands of her life. It is a time when she is surrounded by those who need her, or at least her prestige, but upon whom she cannot depend and in whom she cannot confide.

Louis Horst, an American composer at Denishawn, once said of Martha Graham, 'Every young dancer needs a wall to grow against, like a vine. I am the wall.' He was her mentor, her lover, the one she shared her dreams and doubts with. A dancer taps her own emotional life for her solo work. This 'methodology' if you like, is impossible to pass on to another dancer. As Graham said, 'Only if there is just one way to make life vivid for yourself should you embark on such a career.’ It is both tragic and fortunate that a dancer's instrument is her body, fragile, strong, bound by birth and death. When she perishes, her art perishes too"

'A dancer has only memory to rest in, that fragile impermanent shell of time and our recollection of how she danced are her only memorial...' But it is a living tradition and every dancer after her is part of a royal lineage of roles, personas that have gone before her. Above all, their interpretation is an expression of their own nature and their own unique (or not so unique) vision of life.

I believe that it is a phase of both being alone and being lonely that leads one to a philosophy that fuses the private and the public lives of a dancer. One must be without anyone to discover oneself, to understand who one is. It is then that true discrimination and a balance is attained, between what is being portrayed on stage and one's personal life. It is then that the dichotomy between the bhokta and the drashta may be put behind one. In the division between physical beauty and emotional confusion, between centredness on stage and the erratic nature of one's life and career, between the image people have of you and your own image of yourself—the dancer is like any one of us in this dilemma. However it is amplified in her situation, by the very nature of her art. Her life is not hers to have. It is public. The dance itself is physical, exposed. Her persona is known, whether it is a true one or fabricated, either by herself or others. So that she is often caught, in the wakeful sleep after a performance, between two personas. Is the dancer me? Was that nayika me? Am I the person I was? Was I complete then? Is me—the dancer, the whole person, complete? Do we really know the truth about ourselves? There is the vision friends have of us, the one we have of ourselves, that of a lover, a parent, a student, a critic. The vision of our enemies. All these are different. You get up with a cup of coffee and the paper and read of your beauty and composure. You open the next paper and you are devoid of talent, worn out, presumptuous! Which one is you?

'Great dancers are not shadows, however softly they may illuminate the stage,' writes Austin. 'They are vital, often idiosyncratic human beings whose marked individuality is the source of their gifts. It is, most of all, their extraordinary personal magnetism which lights up the stage like an explosion of stars. This is not merely "star appeal" but something more. It is an expression of the artist's inner nature made visible through the roles she portrays, the embodiment of her deepest and most secret dreams. It is this fusion of an artist's inner and outer world at the most intense level of expression that produces great dancers; the ones who set a standard for their own generation.'

The dancer ultimately transforms the dance into an allegory of her own being, seen in terms of some poetic imagery. Often their own lives are a sad muddle, containing excesses that may seem wasteful, or deprivation that may seem unnecessary, had it not been that she uses each experience, good or bad, to enrich her dance. For you really discover the dance and yourself—privately—within the secrecy of your heart.