Echoes of the body: See, feel, listen
Choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy (52) cannot afford to relax even after the performance of his latest contemporary dance piece at the National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav. The founder of Bengaluru-based Attakalari— a centre for movement arts—talks to Janani Ganesan about the processes involved in the making of MeiDhwani, which has staged 11 successful renditions within four months of its debut.
Photo: Sudeep Bhattacharya
What is the concept behind MeiDhwani?
The name MeiDhwani literally means ‘echoes of the body.’ We have been a society in transition since the World War II, but the recent years have been turbulent with dramatic changes—Libya, Iraq, turbulence in Africa and the economic meltdown. There has been a chaotic, rapid development without any planning, especially in India. In such a scenario, human relationships change and our memories are affected. What kind of residue does this leave in our body as well as in the landscape? This relationship between the inner and outer landscape is one concept that was explored in the dance. How human beings evolve from the landscape and dissolve was another idea embedded in the performance. The notions of space were borrowed from Tantric philosophy, Vastu Shaastra, Kalaripayattu and Yoga. In Kalari, for instance, the Kalari pit is considered a microcosm and the body is seen as another microcosm. Keeping in mind the fact that we did not have a big production budget, we began looking for metaphors to express the concepts—for instance, the metallic pot as a representation of female energy, which is the container of all life. After we selected the props, we improvised upon some Bharatanatyam and Kalari movements to create a movement vocabulary. Then we zeroed in on some musicians. Once the music pieces started coming in, we used it to think of movements as well. The musicians would also sometimes come in to watch the rehearsals and create music accordingly. So all the creative processes came together in eight months to create MeiDhwani.
Why were the elements of Bharatanatyam or Kalari not very apparent in the piece?
The reason you don’t see a direct Kalari or Bharatanatyam movement is because we intended it to be that way. We have taken a lot of influences from the two dance forms’ concepts and principles. For instance, we processed the movements into the circularity of Kalaripayattu. But a lot of what was on stage was abstracted and obvious details were left out. A scene, for example, might have showed a day in the life of somebody when they were 18 or the moment when one experienced death. They were random memories from one’s life. Each of the dancers did his/her own research and collected memories from other people. Sometimes, one incident is picked up and focused on, while others just move past. Each visual did not stay longer than it had to, for if it did, it would have become prose. Dance is visual poetry. When there is a leap on stage, the spectator feels something. That sensorial experience triggers something, you get a feel of the dancer, you empathise with the dancer. There is no story in a musical chord. A smell can invoke a plethora of memories. So can a movement. The narrative need not be a literal narrative, it could be a sensorial narrative.
You had tried various forms of exit when on stage. Why is that?
Imagine the stage to be just one of the frames that is within the audience’s visual focus. However, the story of a dancer who leaves the stage does not end when s/he leaves it. We wanted the spectators to continue that narration in their head. The different kinds of exits facilitate that imagination.
How did the audience receive this abstraction?
In Germany we received a standing ovation, sometimes 15 or 16 curtain calls. One of the premier dance magazines there, Dance For You, had carried a lead story on the performance. However, to travel to various destinations with the piece would require money. In the West, in order to facilitate such travel, the government provides subsidies. Such arts cannot survive purely on ticket revenues because the audience is very limited. Experimental art needs some kind of governmental support.
The difficulty for these arts to survive probably arises out of the fact that it generally attracts an exclusive audience. Won’t an interaction with the artist, before or after the show, help?
Without a history of viewing, it wouldn’t be possible for anybody to relate to or understand what is going on stage. But for this, fine arts should be integrated as a part of elementary school education. The basics, of say Kalaripayittu, should be taught alongside the basics of maths and science. Also, where is the public space for people to congregate and discuss the arts? When you go in for a performance, you watch and walk out. There is no space where people can gather and discuss what they had just witnessed. And hence we do not have the language to talk about all this. That is why articles in the media often merely talk about the make-up or the costume. There is no contextualisation. There is no understanding of the grammar or the art and hence one is not able to engage with it. If the audience is not discerning enough, there will never be any difficult questions. And contemporary art evolves from this experience of questioning. Also, if you don’t have a contemporary art of expression, you don’t have anything to help you make sense of your daily experiences and process them. Without this, we have become a society without a soul, a country of philistines. You cannot continue to use the same language to express the emotions and experiences of present times. The old traditions have been created out of memories of a different time. For a serious artist it is important to know his history and lineage. But he also needs to find new authenticities and that is where contemporary art forms become important.
Can workshops illustrate the weight of an art form?
Certainly. Most of the people attending the workshop were aged between 16 and 22. If you are in touch with the possibilities you can explore at this stage in life, it would be useful in pursuing it later. And for a lot of them who had watched the performance, it was an opportunity to look at the inner workings of the movements. All of them may not carry forward their desire into actions, but this is when they get an opportunity to test the possibilities.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
Editing by Debashree Majumdar