Of course, I am no longer as interested in the fine arts as I used to be. Time moves on and we also move on. Time was when I was a student at Santiniketan and though I went there to study other academic subjects, Santiniketan immediately drew me into the many seasonal festivals for each of which Tagore had composed songs and dramas and dances and thus with the Sangeeth Bhavan right in the centre of Tagore’s arts course, we, even the general stream of students were immune from the influences. My own class mates, some of them were also studying in the Sangeeth Bhavan and some in fact went on to make their names in music and dances. Some are now all India names, Rita Ganguly is one such. There are many others, as vocal musicians and instrumental players.
Sitar was a rage in my time. We used to go to Kolkatta in those days, I had many friends with whom I used to attend the duets of Ravi Sankar and Vila at Khan, their rivalry was the subject that interested us and that is how I came to know all the great names. Ravi Sankar himself came to play for us once and what he spoke inspired all of us. He played on the very scanty, open air verandah and he said; “I had played in all the prestigious halls of the musical capitals of the world. But I consider this simple verandah the most prestigious and most inspiring, this is the spot where Gurudev had honoured by his very presence and so I am inspired this evening, by this playing…”Such was the environment from where I learn music and dances and the songs.
Now, I am still in touch. I subscribe to some music magazines and though I no longer I look into the Marg publications soon after my long-time mentor and friend Mulk Raj Anand left it lost all its character for me.
I still keep buying old books, on music and dance, the one before me right now is the old, “The Music of India” by H.A.Popley, the 1921 edition! What is surprising, it still makes for very interesting reading to me ,at any rate! So too books by Kapila Vatsayana and others. I used to run across many old timers, Sunil Kothair is still seems to be quite agile and I keep in touch with what he says. So too with what the Chennai-based Carnatic music magazine, if I can say with some indulgence the mushy musical writing that is peculiar to the middle class Madras conservative culture. Of course, I have moved on. The daily early-morning tread mill exercise has come in handy. I keep listening to my old favourite, Balamurali Krishna. Now having listened all these years, I have moved on to listen to some new talents. I discovered the very mellifluous voice of Vasanthamadvai, a new discovery for me.
She is so sweet and so soothing that I don’t get easily tired of listening to her often. Her elaboration of Entharo Mahabavalu and Nagumogu keeps my half an hour exercise a new pleasure! So too the new discoveries, the Gayathri Girish and Gayathri Venkataraghavan. Yes, now I have learnt to be less conservative in my tastes, I try new experiments, both the new voices and also new fusion music. Of course, I still come back to old voices; the older names now seem to attract me. No more I am just the fan of MS or Rukmani Devi Arundal. The sentimental, sanitised versions of music and dance now a bit tire me.
The last time in Chennai I tried to spot some new talents in dance. Alas! That was not to be. The only exception seemed to me was Malavikka Sarukkai. Yes, she seemed to be the top artiste. As for others, they were all good but not exceptional.
I have now my own views on what went wrong. There is no focus. There are too many attempts to do a hurried job. The old traditional experts are grouped under one Indu Verma but they seem to lack patronage. The so-called patronage now seems to make a very narrow circle, around Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha. This is very discouraging and very self-defeating, in my opinion.
Music is now growing in its reach and in its expanding perspectives. There is a need for cosmopolitanism, Balamurali Krishna and L.Subramaniam, seem to thrive more in Bangalore than in Chennai. Chennai is very allergic to new voices and new experiments.
Music and dance seems to be facing some identity crisis of sorts.
In my opinion, unless the Baratha Natyam is based on the very structure fashioned by the Tanjore Quartette, some basic padams of Ponnayya Pillai much form the centre piece if it is to be called traditional Bharata Natyam, with their adavus etc.
Then you can embellish with any new additions and subtractions.
Just as I was glancing through the pages of the latest Sruthi magazine, I saw a piece on the Jaipur Kathak festival. That triggered a series of old memories. I used to attend the Kathak festivals in Mumbai and Delhi in those days and that is how I came to see the performances of such artistes like Nilima Azmi, now she is grown up and more famous. I saw her first in the evening near my place of stay at the Jahangeer Hall in Colaba. The next day when I visited K.A.Abbas, the famous writer and my long time friend, there I saw the young and petite Azmi! That is how I came to know her and of course soon I lost touch with her and yet my interest in the dance form continued. On another occasion, I met the legendary Kathan dancer, Kumudhini Lakhia. I think it was an exhibition of the Bombay Natural History Society where I befriended the other great, Salim Ali!
Now I read with interest about what the great dancer, Lakhia is doing in Ahmedabad. Her school of Kathak, Kadamb, is based there.
What interested me now about what she is doing is her modernisation of Kathak, as a dance form when you don’t have any more the old Durbar nor have you the dance in the temple.
What do you do?
This question I also ask in Chennai or magazine editors like my current friend and acquaintance, S.Janaki, executive editor of Sruthi! Whenever I get excited or angry over some article or other I ring her up and yell at her, almost! I hope she understands me and put up with my way of telling my own views and sharing my feelings.
I often ask her why so much this narrowing circles of mutal praise and admiration to the exclusion of the really talented and yet these outsiders!
Of course the poor editor cant have all the answers!
Now, what Lakhia says?
Se says, very reasonably, Kathak dance must also change with the times and with the changing needs of the times. Right. Then, how do you go about it?
Here is the redoubtable Kumudini Lakhia. The guru says: “I don’t want my students to sit at my feet worship me. I want Kathak to get a great image and personality. There are limits beyond which Birju Maharaj cannot go as custodian of a great legacy. While I can. The queenly carriage and wonderfully straight back and regal movements of beautifully trained students, with perfect geometry of movement lines, and breathtaking aesthetic group formations and use of space, have become the leitmotif of the Kumudini touch.” Fine!
Doing away with the fussy veils and over-ornamented look with jewels and flowers being shed all over the stage while dancing, kumudini throwns the entire onus on the perfectly trained body in tastefully clad, well-fitting and elegantly simple costumes to create visual aesthetics. There is an array of names which fit this bill and Kumudini has created a new tradition and a new talent pool in Kathak dance. Of course I have my own favourites, including the matchless Sovana Narayan and of course, the very green Sonal Mansingh, besides the other names.
Kumudini sums up: Kathak needs serious thinking. Birju Maharaj is a God. But why should the God be touring every gulley to teach and conduct workshops? He should have a grand place where he stays and others go to him. Gurus must make the students to think and create. This is a world of ideas. No mechanical dancing disassociated from the mind will do. Kathak has the body. Give it the mind it needs”
Fantastic observations, I think.
The purpose of quoting these lines is to emphasise that more than Kathak, the great dance of Bharata Natyam needs no less these very same sane observations. Today, Bharata Natyam is in a crisis. A crisis of identity. A crisis of mental fatigue. A lack of imagination and a thinking mind.
Dwelling on the past always and in the most tired vocabulary is the greatest disaster that has happened to Bharata Natyam. Please all concerned, think!