Soft Power
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Why You Cannot Leverage Indian Soft Power Without Producing Indic Art


The 1960s and 1970s were times of profound journeys for Indian art. The 1920s and 1930s were even better, perhaps. The constant struggle to find arts in the right spaces and space for the arts got the best out of artistes and collaborations. That wondrous era of remarkable 1960s — conversations in culture and revival of the arts had also seen Milena Salvini, who was awarded the Padma Shri for kathakali last month, get drawn to the Indian dance forms and become a part of a great period of cultural mutation in aesthetics.

Contributing to her journey was well-known Bharatanatyam exponent and guru M K Saroja. What made world artistes, such as Salvini, leap to India — back and forth? What inspired them to establish not only a vast audience across generations, but also centres for the learning of Indian arts?

Salvini went back to France. Centre Mandapa was established in Paris, to see students pick up and learn dance forms. In north India, Rishikesh received the Beatles. A lot happened here, some say. What conspired musically during the band’s inward quest at the banks of Ganga can be felt in the music they churned after their return. Today, artistes from around the world unlock their inner reserves on visiting Rishikesh, keeping one ear for the music of Ganga, and one to self.

The 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Peter Brooks would begin to build his work on Mahabharata. Leading guitarist John McLaughlin along with violin legend Vidwan L Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Vidwan Ramnad Raghavan, Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram, revolutionalised the very idea of collaboration and jugalbandi. And in the heart of India, Teejan Bai would pick up the ektara to unfold the eternal narration of Mahabharata through the Pandavani art and narration, compelling the world to hear the epic, its emotion, events and evolution. Today, Pandvani artiste Ritu Verma co-carries the legacy shaped by Teejan Bai, Padma Vibhushan Teejan Bai, as 2019 should know her.

The Remarkable Reverse

Today, Guru Justin McCarthy, immersed in his journey as a performer and guru teaching and propagating Bharatanatyam, clocks time in powerful choreographic works and the playing of nattuvangam. His work, “Where the streets are fragrant with sandal paste”, presented last year, was shaped keeping the history of Bharatanatyam in focus. The work is a must watch — for its use of space, music, the handling of art history, and aesthetics.

American saxophone artiste George Brooks, Heiko Dijker, an Amsterdam-based tabla maestro, Japanese santoor artiste Takahiro Arai, Shye Ben Tsur, a sufi singer from Israel, and Prem Joshua are among musicians, who have become reasons for many Indians to know and learn their own music and traditions. They nurture the aesthetic, the beautiful, the sacred in the Indic, more sincerely than many Indian artistes. How were they able to? Is it because Indian arts nurture the bearers of knowledge, embracing race, ethnicity, skin, colour, religion like Krishna’s flute embraces Braj and bhatkas? I would say “yes” as firm as a kathak foot tap.

“The resource was here.” When Jonathan Hollander broadened his brief interaction at the Conference of Soft Power with these words, it felt as if he had gently placed an excavated piece of ancient art — brushed-captioned-ancient and ignored — from a far away museum shelf, right at the museum entrance. There is no other way the journey of Indian art in its reservoirs, forms, abundance and variety on the world stage, could have found a brief conclusion. Indian traditional and classical arts, aesthetics, and artistes dedicating their lives to the arts, have been the intangible resource fueling and fining Indian soft power.

At the conference, Hollander, director of New York-based Battery Dance Company and a renowned choreographer and maestro of modern dance, stressed the correlation between people and development of dance as a universal language, whenever he referred to India. It was reassuring. His generosity to know more, to engage more, and to acknowledge Indian artistic generosity — all crucial indicators of the fact that Indian art and aesthetics work as silent catalysts in building a global language.

Battery Dance Company has engaged with and created a number of India movement traditions, and in Hollander’s own words came the expected refrain — on Chhau firming its place in the universal dance vocabulary. “Chhau is becoming a lexicon of movement,” he said.

Chhau is following kalaripayattu. And when India has done enough to see thang ta, the Manipuri martial art, there, it shall, too.

Turning the spotlight on the present, which also reflects his present in dance, Hollander simply brought the past to the foreground. This was necessary. You need someone to clock and value the beautiful, the aesthetic. It is reassuring. For Hollander, recently, the inspiration to generate and create new work, was Raag Durga. A composition in Durga sung by Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra became the strength and seed, propelling him towards a new production. The production — ‘The Durga Project’ toured India last year.

The Resource And Reach

In the contemporary visual art scene, artiste Waswo X Waswo and Nature Morte Gallery’s Peter Nagy are two brilliant, creatively restless and furiously active propellers. In Waswo’s love for Indian miniature is rich appreciation for and use of scenes of daily Indian life, people, motifs and colours. He draws the most poignant thoughts on nature, man, emotions, gender, love and inherent complications. The universality in his expression speaks of Indianness holding his brush and palette. To swim against the flow, some artistes threw themselves out of the power ring that surrounded Delhi-based artistes and art circles.

Daksha Sheth and husband Devissaro — a musician from Australia who was learning dhrupad in Delhi, at the peak of their youth, moved out of the city. From what I gather from Daksha’s own account given previously, the credit for the bold decision goes to Devissaro. The result was brilliant and magical. The young couple found home in Brindavan. They explored poetry and texts, unravelling several aspects of classical, semi classical and devotional music. Most importantly, they got the opportunity to offer nritya seva. For decades, the couple has conceived, choreographed, composed and performed several remarkable productions featuring elements of kathak, kalaripayattu to say global stories.

The resource is here. The resource — texts, ragas, art forms, footwork, rhythm, devotion, practice, travel, learning of the arts, stories, simple emotions, storytelling, narration, collaboration, colours, canvasses, their running memory and continuous transfer and exchange. It is here, in India, as art and in art. It speaks with the world, through Hollander and other members of his group, and through several other artistes, who give Indian soft power meaning, and aesthetics.

When Hollander includes material that’s Indic in spirit and Indian in body, it splays across from the shadows of time, the evolution of a tradition Ana Pavlova had visioned and Uday Shankar had moved every journey, emotion, every muscle, in rasa, for, in the 1920s and later. It builds a narrative and conversation with Hollander’s part of the world about India, and where he performs, when he includes Indian artistes to say a sentence or a story. Art gives Indian soft power the flowing gentleness of the Ganga, the expanse of the vedas, puranas, the Natyashastra. Art gives Indian soft power the breath, tears and sweat of people’s simple emotions.

Art gives Indian soft power the diversity of regions and castes, language of narration, dimensions of its inherently liberal gender discourse, the texture of colours, the grain of weaves and textiles that carry the rhythm of poetry. Art gives Indian soft power the fragrance of musical instruments, metals, flowers, incense, camphor, oil, hues, script and narration. Art gives Indian soft power the geometry of strokes, the music of composition, the touch of generations, lineages, and individual journeys. Since 1992, Hollander has been watching “what can happen when Indian dancers meet the American public”. The process continues.

The Propellers And Their Power

Indian classical and traditional movement, narration and visual forms do not just stimulate Indian soft power. They procreate its soul and matter.

Noted scholar, critic and dance historian Mohan Khokar himself had witnessed some of the most important shifts and milestones in the conversation between India and the world through dance and aesthetics. Among many such treasures from the past stored in the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection is the one about Ted Shawn, the American pioneer of modern dance getting a ‘circle of fire’ structured and made in Mahabalipuram in the 1920s, to use it in his dance, and getting it shipped. He would use it in performance and stand within it to depict Nataraja.

Uday Shankar was immersed in traversing his own music and dance vocabulary in Europe and had ‘Paris days’. As known, Rukmini Devi got lessons in western ballet first. She danced and performed Bharatanatyam later. The force behind her lessons was Anna Pavlova. As for Hollander, he got introduced to Indian dance before he got introduced to Western dance. For him, the propeller — Manipuri classical dance — its language propagated by the Jhaveri sisters, in western India, where it found diverse takers. Ileana Citaristi, noted Odishi exponent, tried to soak kathakali initially. This year, she completes 40 years of learning, performing, propagating Odishi and Mayurbhanj Chhau.

Bringing past to the foreground to enrich the present is possible for people who see the past in pride, and pride in the past.

Have you imagined what the response Uday Shankar would receive when he dances before the American and European audience, depicting Nataraja, and Shiva in his many moods, among other roles in movement and choreography? Hollander recounts his first introduction to Indian dance fondly, his first glimpse of Manipuri dance, warmly. Hollander has widened the ground for ‘reverse soft power’, by bringing Indian dancers to perform for the American public. The process is widespread.

Indian classical arts, the eight dance and two music forms, are the living depiction of the divine. They, collectively, are the second sacred element (the first being gyana — knowledge emanating from the vedas and sacred scriptures including the Natyashastra) in the world’s first glimpse of an introduction to India. “You have eight classical dance forms,” said Hollander. “The resource is growing, it needs more avenues and channels to get out professionally.”

Colours Of A Vast Canvas

Light an oil lamp. Carry it while you move towards the pillars and facades of India’s mythic past, the temples, the rock cut overtures, the magnificent monoliths, sculptures and temple art — both visual and movement traditions. Move along the banks of Ganga and Cauvery with the oil lamp. Place the oil lamp beside the vedas and the Natyashastra as the Ganga and Cauvery flow into your ear. Move the lamp along the length and breadth of sculptures denoting and depicting divine and human figures in the temples of south India. Move with it, to the bedrocks of harikatha, harinaamsankeertan and nritya seva in the west and east, northeast.

Throw open the door to Raja Ravi Varma’s restless laboratory of colours emanating from his interpretation of texts. Just a bit more. Wool yourself up, and step, with the oil lamp, towards Kashmir and Kangra, walking through Rajasthan. Here, let the light spread and speak with the miniature painting works. You are in the past, you think. In centuries gone, you think. But, whatever much you were able to see in the uplifting flame of the oil lamp is what the world still wants to see of India. It is, very much, also, the basis and the core of what Indian artistes, their global audience and foreign artistes have absorbed, learned, consumed and appreciated in their introduction to India.

Where the dusk and dawn of past and present meet, will you find F N Souza, A Ramachandran, Manjunath Kamath and G R Iranna weaving different worlds in colours and lines. The tangle, fabric, stitch, texture, knot, and dye in thread and cloth make the works of artistes Paula Sengupta and Nidhi Khurana, who map civilisations, countries, cities and memories put together in embroidery. Oaxaca in Mexico for Nidhi, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh for Paula. Inspiration runs across continents.

Malavika Sarukkai flings open the doors to the weaver’s workshop, taking the audience into every sound, every micro beat and moment of the process of weaving and the textures woven, the boots and motifs. Rasa, can be studied in theory, not lived, if not for the Indian arts and consistent experimentation through performance, practice and viewing. Where else does the inanimate get life through the arts as it does in an Indic artiste’s mind?

Delving In The Divine

Indian traditional arts consider the pursuing of art as an offering to the divine. From the temple traditions to now, practice and performance go towards shaping a humble pursuit of aesthetic and spiritual realms and reveries. The artiste’s pursuit is not her alone. There is a community dedicated to the learning, witnessing and absorbing of the art that travels to the sacred and divine through the artiste and her pursuit in art. Hence, Indian art traditions and artistes have been consciously shaping the audience. So, the audience chooses and gets to choose who that artiste taking them towards spiritual realms through art, would be.

In the north, the Ganga, and in south, the Cauvery cradled many music and dance traditions that would see the flourishing of narrative and abstract aspects of dance and narration. The dance, narration and music vocabulary and grammar spread along with a reservoir of hand and face gestures, footwork, pace and rhythm. In the east and west, flourished the many expressions of the Vaishnavite tradition.

The Vaishnavite connected east and west. And East and West. In the south, at temples, the presiding deity witnessed the movement in dance, and music accompanying it, as an offering from the artiste — a devotee. The ritualistic flame from the oil lamp, spreading its energy, illuminating the sacred space, making visible the presence and attendance of the presiding deity, would expand itself through the performance, uplifting human consciousness. Precisely. Uplifting human consciousness.

Denigration of rituals, aesthetics, form and concepts Indic in origin, nature and character, is currently an epidemic in India. Pride, expression of pride, and celebration are its targets. Performing arts insulate that zone where target is hair breadth short of becoming victim. Recently, Kumbh was judged by a section of Delhi media as an indicator of rising unemployment in its host state Uttar Pradesh. The cantankerous and mindless injecting of the bitter perceptions into India’s cultural narrative will win anti-culture-anti-Indic media a propaganda or two.

The larger picture: India’s cultural consolidation of the Indic civilisation has gathered current and force during the last five years. Such perceptions will dash straight into those currents, to eventually devour and destroy them and the impact genuine Indic arts are creating. Kumbh is the riverbed, where the Hindu civilisational elements meet. They converge, dip and disperse in water, rituals and skin.

Ironically, it is also at Kumbh, that people from tier two and tier three cities, towns and villages, are getting a chance to witness the classical arts. The platform has been created by Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth. Performing against the backdrop of sangam, the confluence, are some of the living Indian legends, such as Vidwan T V Sankaranarayanan, Vidushi N Rajam, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Vidwan L Subramaniam, Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram, Pandita Prabha Atre, Begum Parveen Sultana, Vidushi Sonal Mansigh, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Pandita Uma Sharma and Pandit Birju Maharaj. In 2003, at Assi Ghat in Benaras, I experienced the confluence of Ganga and Carnatic music — in a concert where Sankaranarayanan sang to devotees gathered for a Ganga Dusshera dip. Where else in the world, would rivers have spiritual call, such as the one that brings Sankaranarayanan to the sacred banks again and again?

If political propaganda could, at all, move as Indic soft power, India and the world would not want to dig deeper into Natyashatra, Indic history, temple architecture, documentation and excavations. How does Harinam sankeertan — Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare, still throb on world streets, centuries after Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had visioned that it would travel, from Krishna’s land, and spread?

The Stunning Creation Mysteries

Indic arts are bearers of both calm and the blazing core of knowledge. The day Ustad Vilayat Khan passed away, I reached out to world-renowned tabla maestro Pandit Kishan Maharaj, to hear from him some memories of the departed maestro. In his remembrance of Khan saab, Maharaj ji covered a universe in a single sentence. “Vilayat was the sun and Ravi is the moon of music.” He referred to the different energies and elements Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar contributed to music. Men of different musical temperaments, they stunned the world with their quest into sitar.

In the process, floodgates opened to the cosmos laid between the frets of sitar, to ragas, composing and compositions. Some steps away, on the same horizon, were sarod maestro Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and the versatile genius Vidushi Annapurana Devi. They were the son and daughter of Ma Saraswati’s ardent bhakt, devout Muslim, and the preserver of Maihar Gharana’s soul and sound, the great guru Baba Allauddin Khan — together they were meant to bring a revolution into world music. Silence has concrete aesthetic appeal in Indic arts and expressions.

In the Indic query of the higher spiritual goals, the painful process of mastering the art does a few things to the great artiste. The work on grammar gets intensified. There are less investigations. There is more of exploring, more questions, more asking. The last series of S H Raza’s work, including the one he left incomplete; Mandolin U Srinivas’s sessions of practice, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s entire journey through devotional music within his body of work in khayal gayaki, show these aspects. Less answering and debating. Self doubt is seen as a virtuous nourisher.

It grabs so much space in the artiste’s mind, that sometimes it seeps into performance, on the dais before the audience. It is the whetstone that shines the art. There is less or no proving of validity of process and result. There is experiencing. Anubhuti. Gaansaraswati Kishori Amonkar, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, K G Subramanyan and A Ramachandran open this particular aspect of experience arts for the audience. There is respect for permission. Sveekriti. This you see when Pandit Mukul Shivputra, a man of his own moods, steps down from the dais, before even tuning his tanpuras to sing, just so he could touch the feet of Vidushi Kishori Amonkar. He takes her permission to sing. To present what he knows.

The Indic query into arts has mysteries many. Raza saab moved an entire universe within the bindu. And with the philosophical musings through the use of bindi, Bharti Kher, rattled sales figures at prestigious auctions.

The Abundance Of Interlink

Once the arts-to-public-and-public-to-arts interaction falls in the sphere of movement tradition, the audience does look for a common ground. The common ground is musical scales — which, so far, have been as unexplored as explored they stand. The common ground are costume, colour, stories, aspects that make the first visual contact with the viewer of a movement art, and rhythm. On the next plane, lie movements, the details in movements.

Uday Shankar churned the sea of movements in modern dance. His bodily response into the Dance of Shiva, and several other works, awakened the anatomy of movement. Chandralekha’s works, her linking of the inner and outer world through dance and movement, her philosophical findings in self, soul, body and gender, have a natural alignment with query and discourse on aspects most desperately relevant anywhere around the globe today. Her complex inking of this interlink was a process only she could begin and complete. Brilliant. Rare.

Indian arts provide the massive and mammoth feat of interlinking. It speaks of how this great civilisation nourished and nursed scientific temper, gorgeously, with the love for the arts. The art of interlinking music with physics, science with music, the mathematics of birth, rhythm and cosmos, science and naad, sound and science, poetics and hard numbers when seen through the prism of aesthetics, is far more universal, travels faster, stays longer in memory, than any dry talk delivered into collar microphones. Chandralekha gave the brilliant work Leelavati, based on the Bhaskaracharya’s work. She speaks in a video recording available on YouTube. “Leelavati is the celebrated text on Indian mathematics by Bhaskaracharya,” she adds, “addressed to his daughter Leelavati, it constitutes the creative peak of Indian mathematics”.

According to her, the text is a series “of most beautiful and poetic questions” from the mathematician to Leelavati “when she was a little girl”. “Ayye, baale Leelavati”, Chandralekha says in a warm tone. She further explains, “the questions are elegant problems in arithmetic, algebra, calculus and geometry seen in relation to the fantasy and imagination in the life and mind of a little girl”. She further adds, “learning is transformed into a creative and joyous activity through the Indian genius of interlink. Interlink between poetics and hard numbers. No wonder, then, that the little girl Leelavati later became India’s most well-known woman mathematician.” This work’s availability on the YouTube is a matter of chance. Its best preservation, however, would be when it reaches classrooms in India and worldwide.

Would countries enchanted by Bollywood works such as Dangal not be curious to see how poetics, dance, music and mathematics can be discovered in classicism? The interlink space, without doubt, is still open for India to dominate, if not monopolise.

Rhythm, as it exists in Indian rhythm structures and beat cycles, whether in the classical forms of dance and music, is the most powerful and infinite global conversationist. Pick any era of Indian tradition being performed or celebrated abroad, decade, year, day, concert and gig the world over, every time an Indian artiste or an artiste practising Indian traditional art performs solo or collaborates with, and it will show that rhythm alone has the potential to be the initiator, the medium of breaking verbal ice, or that of even music and performance between artistes, cultures, nation and people.

Indian rhythm allows musicality to mutate, cultures to bleed into each other, math to melt, to still time and to multiply the concept of zero, shoonya, beginning and end, that exists in Indian rhythm structures. Rhythm, when thought broadly, can be used to explore the idea of civilisations, history, eras, the cosmos, astronomy, science, as it has been to look into birth, death and life. Who would not want to give bold thinkers such as Aditi Mangaldas and Malavika Sarukkai the credit for daring to explore rhythm? Rhythm, as the sole common ground in Indian music dance crafts visual arts and fabric, is unbound energy, which can single-handedly confront the bloodless straitjacketed presentation of past as a ‘Hindutva tactic’ in a post modernist world.

Givers Of Lasting Impressions

The 1900s came as a breeze that revealed the hidden narratives and dance treasures. Anna Pavlova and Victor Dandre travelled to India, wanting to carry with them the lasting impressions of India’s dances. Today, that search has scuttled to a crucial juncture. There is hunger for good productions, sharper storytelling, content fireworks. Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra’s journey in India and around the world for the presentation of ‘Bhairav se Bhairavi tak’, a concert series that covers a number of ragas that lie between Bhairav and Bhairavi, is an immense success, and ongoing.

What is beautiful and arises from the core shaped by the great gurus, will travel light, long, steady, to become immortal. With no written notation aiding them at concerts, Indian musicians and dancers have revolutionised the pace of collaboration. Art passed on through oral tradition of learning has allowed them to write their own music for other legends. Pandit Ravi Shankar scribbled notation for his co-collaborators. Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt used simple basics to alter the variety of ragas and compositions — to get the best out of collaboration with a Chinese musician, when he realised that her scale canvas was limited.

Oral tradition helped vedas and the Natyashastra flow into traditional, visual and performing arts. Vedas and the Natyashastra, the bedrock of Indic culture, and, for centuries, of Indic soft power gave the arts the impetus to be understood as the bearers of text. Like the Ganga carries and spreads fertile silt, the arts have been flowing, bringing with them the sacred sediment waiting to be collected, read, felt, decoded and understood. Vocalist Mahesh Kale’s could become the eternal voice bathing the mandapas and stone sculptures of Hampi, and to give long lasting musicals on Kishkinda.

Indian arts draw the rasa from these sacred texts, and the rasa keeps them flowing miles. From them erupts the knowledge and path to pursue collaborations, the initiation — to trace routes and common grounds in practice. From practice, emerges the ground of dynamics between the hereditary and non-hereditary traditions. Noted American artiste Douglas M Knight Jr, writes in Balasaraswati: Her Art And Life, “The difference in Bala’s dance were differences not in content, which is conventionally thought to be the definer of traditional versus nontraditional dance, but rather in the artistic process. It is how dancing is done that is more suitable basis of distinction between hereditary and institutional dance than what the content is or who performs the dance.”

Beauty And Its Beholders

Indic artistes, mostly, have been silent achievers. Indian artistes carry the texture of life rooted or spent in India — body and soul in their work. Take for instance, the works of S H Raza painted in Paris, including the last series of works he painted before his death. In their use of colour, and surface, you’d notice the verve and inwardness — unusual, spontaneous, which few have achieved. On the other hand, are idiosyncratic and stubborn workings of some creative pushers for experimentation, elements and material. Quickly naming some in this category: Manjunath Kamath, who is pouring his immense talent, patience and photographic memory for details and depth to turn to sacred texts.

In the process, he turned Indian miniature into the most gigantic narrator. He expanded the canvas. The range of frames and work sizes — square-shaped dimensions some inches — entire walls and their length and breadth. This was essential in order to accommodate philosophical dimensions of his work that borrow the soul from Hindu mythology, among other sources and material. For Kamath, the number of works making one single work or title could even run into 1,008. Kathak maestro Guru Shovana Narayan has been at the forefront of studying the depth in flamenco in kathak-flamenco jugalbandi — deconstructing and nurturing a rich past through collaboration.

Riots of 1984, one of the ugliest events in Indian political and social history turned A Ramachandran to beauty. He saw a Sikh man being killed on the streets. And that was it. It was enough. “Why should I not engage with beauty and aesthetics all my life as an Indian artiste? Changing the society is not my job as a painter. I leave it for others who think they can change the world,” he said, looking back at those times, when I met him last year. Ramachandran has been consistently pursuing the temples, lotus ponds and life in lotus ponds, in Rajasthan villages. They are his subject. His muse is the Bhil life. His muse is the lotus leaf. His iconic self portraits are now coming full circle — funny, profound and intricate. Theatrical — as if he was emerging from a shastra or treatise on performing arts as muse subject artiste, all in one.

Manish Nai, Manav Gupta and Rathin Burman are consistently proving the universality of the material they use. Manish Nai, a Mumbai-based artiste from Gujarat pulled material out of adversity, literally, by using textile from bulks that were moved to his house after his father brought them home, in the event of a bad phase. He is hailed for his telling of Mumbai, the megalopolis. Rathin Burman uses metal, cement and concrete to create structural disharmony that bricks well into the heart. Manav Gupta uses terracotta — to speak for the environment, for the earth, to make rain, beehives, and sand-clocks out of humble clay objects. The world might still want to give us lessons on recycling (aesthetically).

Voids — The ‘Go’ Zone

Indic artistes and Indic artistic thought is aesthetically drawn to the idea and concept of physical distance — omnipresent at various stages between the art and the artiste, narrator and subject, art and audience. The last, physical distance between the artiste and his audience, which mans creative dreamscapes and sometimes even intellectual voids.

Physical distance is represented in works of Indic literature and art with utmost devotion. So grand is its presence in the elaboration of experience, of meeting and separation, that there are rasas and ragasassigned and available to represent.

What is beautiful, is usually, physically away. It is distant. It is physically distant — flung beyond the village forest, or beyond the banks of the river, or beyond, even the world. Everything between here and there of distance is worth the aesthetic consciousness that physical distance brings. It, because distant, is beautiful, definitely beautiful. What separates is mostly unlikeable, even ugly, stubbornly demonic. The separated are enormously beautiful, even divine, swung by or sewn into complicated relationships. Physical distance embraces the understanding and concept of the personal and impersonal within each and every human emotion experienced over physical distance.

The physical distance between Radha and Krishna. The distant Radha. That ratha of Krishna, carrying away with it the centre of raas and Radha’s life. All you’ll see, perhaps, is his pitambar trailing in the wind — in depictions on paper or in body movements, and you’d get a hint of the ratha’s velocity and the stillness of time. Distance. Of Ram from Sita. Of Ram from Lanka. Of Ramayana from, say, the shores of Indonesia.

Learning — The Eternal Tradition

Telling works and forms of art from others practised or shown in the other parts of the world, is not discriminating art, or works Indian or non-Indian. Indian classical art forms, works and material, are not practised, thought, designed and taught, in principle, to engage with traumatic encounters of the contemporary world. Their message is irreducible. Their form — a complex entity that celebrates the spiritual, the self, the conscious body and the conscious mind, the ordinary, extraordinary, human and divine.

Where India stands today, in recognition for the arts, crafts and weaves, is a result of the efforts of artistes and thinkers from older generations. Most of them were paving a path towards immortality through the traditional music, movement and verbal heritage. These learned men and women have helped assimilate a cross discipline mutation that was always found lingering in their repertoire and following. Their muse was art and the source of art — Ma Saraswati. Among the many greats, who set and strengthened the foundation for worldview through the arts were also Baba Allauddin Khan, Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar, Ustad Bismillah Khan — three dominant representatives of the eternal tripod of ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’.

In the Indian context, engaging in imitation is often seen as a sufficient and essential beginning to find the alphabet of artistic communication. The source of material for imitation in practice, it is seen, is either a guru, or self, or nature (her role in all manifestations, and all manifestations of nature), and many times, the three. Imitations set the tone for communication in the learning and practice of art — dance, music, visual art.

From the guru to the shishya, imitation is in the form of a lesson, exercise or instruction — mostly through the oral tradition of learning and teaching, learning, and unlearning. In rich Indic art heritage, the mirror-image imparting of compositions in Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, their grammar and intricacies, classical dance forms, folk and tribal visual art, theatre and movement traditions, the study of aesthetics and texts, have kept visual and movement traditions alive and thriving.

When the artiste steps a little aside, from his own guru, to show forth what he knows, is when imitation acquires a whole new meaning. A sense of discovery clasps the artiste’s progression through the material and performance in this exceptionally demanding weaning process. A whole new class of improvisations begins to surround the artiste’s response to the art and medium.

Each improvisation, or expression or stroke conceals within itself an era given to thinking and doing, doing and thinking of what is and makes the ‘aesthetics’. Each performance or work, years of a bitter sweet personal struggle with convention, an independent creative urge, and that hesitant but willing attitude towards experimentation.

In practice, Indic artistes begin to disengage with imitation at a chosen phase of their training under the guru. Then, the art turns over to express the boldest strain of thought. The learning spreads. To other canvases.

I met queen of kathak — Vidushi Sitara Devi when she was celebrating her 90th birthday in the capital. Here is a glimpse of how the legend believes in learning. “I knew I could never become T Balasaraswati or Yamini Krishnamurthy. But I wanted to learn Bharatanatyam to be able to become a complete artiste. I practised Russian ballet for over a year, and performed it for the film Hulchul made in the early 1940s to prove that I could take something up like that. There were times when Pandit Ravi Shankar thought I was ‘following’ him at concerts. He would ask, ‘Are you following me?’ I would observe him, I was not jealous of him or following him. I would try to learn from him. Things I did not know and he did. Things about dance and rules of performance he had set for junior artistes,” she said.

In his interaction with me in 2003, Pandit Kishan Maharaj narrated how, when great tabla virtuoso Ahmed Jan Thirakwa would (even) tune his tabla, in Benaras, people would leave homes and rush to hear him and jostle for space to get the best view and ear. Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra once shared how, during their days at ancestral home in Kabir Chaura, Benaras, they would pay attention to songs sung by the boatmen of Ganga. Ustad Bismillah Khan narrated how, during a visit to an Islamic country, he felt quite restive during his stay. There he was asked how being a devout Muslim he was a practising musician. He narrated how he sang the aazan in Raag Bhairavi.

Indic artistes see the divine in art. The art responds as expected. The art wraps their being. Their creative power pushes an entire lineage and repertoire to higher acclaim and stature. They experience the divine in the combined absorption of music and dance. They get a handle on the narrative and the abstract and that becomes one language — a natural coexistence. To some, it comes with the use of silence in their work, and to some it comes with fireworks. “When young, Kishan Maharaj almost broke my head with a baayaan of a tabla. Later we gave the best jugalbandis of our times,” Sitara Devi had told me.

One underrated aspect of India’s conversation with the world through the arts is generosity. Generosity in the sharing of knowledge. Indian artistes are generous in practice, generous when it comes to practice. Had it not been so, the veenas, mridangam, sitar, sarod, the classical dance forms, santoor, tabla, shahnai, khayal, dhrupad, ragam tanam pallavi in the Carnatic tradition, Pandavani, and other narration arts would have not crossed the states and regions of origin and the Indian shores.

Look Within, Generate Indic, Look East

Indian generosity opened the sacred courtyards to rasikas, learners and Fullbright scholars, such as Hollander, Douglas M Knight, Sharon Lowen and others. Today, thanks to the efforts of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, foreign students have the window to Indian and foreign classical arts, theatre stagings, and folk performances.

In the land where devadasis found base, space, devotion, and patron, people, today are beginning to walk an extra mile to document, reclaim and rediscover heritage in stone, temples, inscriptions and murals. To some, texts provide the pull, for others, the arts. Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Rukmini Vijayakumar, among many other artistes return to the ancient temples — to perform against the backdrop of performance in stone.

In the global context, India should look East and South East, in intention and depth. India must look towards Japan and South Korea. The Indian civilisation and the arts deserve not one but a hundred Ramili Ibrahim, a hundred Takahiro pursuing Indian music traditions, B Trisna, well-known dance guru from Indonesia who brought Ayu Bulan, the group celebrating Ramayana to India.

What India creates and generates for itself, before reaching out to the world, is extremely crucial today. Aesthetics and real art need space to breathe. The world is responding — with warmth, feisty works and collaborations. The great cultural milestones and leaps of 1920s and 1930s, the 1960s and 1970s need to meet new India, which is as rooted in the glorious past as it is futuristic and contemporary.

Source Swarajyamag


Sumati Mehrishi

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