Tap into tradition

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

ADITI MANGALDAS AT Kalakshetra, Thiruvanmiyur, in Chennai-M. KARUNAKARAN

ADITI MANGALDAS AT Kalakshetra, Thiruvanmiyur, in Chennai-M. KARUNAKARAN

More and more performers must take the road that creative minds like Aditi Mangaldas and Girish Karnad have taken to revitalise the performing arts.

MANY decades ago, a young British actress told me that she found it stifling when she began her professional acting career. She said she was constantly being told Peggy Ashcroft would never do that or Susannah York always played that bit like this, which made her very conscious of a weight of tradition, good or bad, she had become a part of, willy-nilly, merely by choosing to be an actor. I have no idea what became of her in the ensuing decades, but what she said has stayed a vivid memory because it embodies an attribute common to all the performing arts, at least in this country.

Tradition in music, both vocal and instrumental, and in classical dance, can stifle a young performer's creative talent by requiring him or her to sing or play or dance in a specific manner only because that is the way it has to be done. There is a difference in teaching a student music or dance, where he has to master certain skills, certain musical nuances or dance postures, and in then insisting that only what has been taught must be performed.

Tradition can be responsive to the creative talents of the taught, and a good teacher will spot that talent and seek to let it develop within the framework of the traditional forms but not constrained by them. This dynamic can only deepen the tradition itself and give it greater significance and relevance. There are a number of examples in the performing arts where artistes have brought to the traditional form their own genius and creative talent, and consequently enriched it greatly.

The danger that lurks behind this is the unthinking import of kitsch and cheap entertainment to these traditions, passing them off as modern, avant-garde or contemporary. Those who do this in the arts, including the visual arts, are people whose grasp of the essentials of the art forms and the traditions from which they have grown is mostly non-existent, or at best mediocre. A self-styled contemporary dancer of what is now shamelessly called modern Bharatanatyam either would be unable to present a regular Bharatanatyam performance or would do it in a ludicrously crude manner. These people take refuge behind contemporaneity, using it as a cover for their inadequacies.

There are others who use the traditional form, of which they are fine exponents, in a new and innovative way and in the process enrich it. To name names, one needs only to look at an artiste such as Aditi Mangaldas. She is a brilliant kathak dancer and her performances are exquisite examples of kathak at its best. She also gives performances based on kathak that are contemporary, but the aesthete in her never lets anything inferior or less than excellent go into them. The result is a memorable experience for the audience, revealing to it a world of wonder that it was not aware of.

But for every Aditi Mangaldas there are scores of others who do crude cut-and-paste jobs and pass off bad dancing as something that is daringly different. Such people seem to be in awe of an impression created by a few Western followers of Indian dance, who profess great love and even knowledge of these forms, that Indian dance is too tradition-bound, has become static and lost relevance in the modern world. The unfortunate fact is that these are people who have access to funds through various trusts and agencies devoted to the promotion of the arts, and thus can give the carpetbagger a good deal of money to produce kitsch, which is then touted in the West as Indian dance.

What is true about dance is true about music too. The key word in music is fusion. There are many who think fusion is the way forward, but ask them to sing a traditional raga or even a thumri and they flounder. The trouble is it is so easy to pick up a musical phrase here and a musical phrase there and then slap on some vague, preferably very loud, noises to it. To sustain this kind of sound, there are those monstrous media entertainment television and FM radio.

It is true that classical music still has its following, and the numbers are substantial. But classical music finds little place in the electronic media today, which is a great tragedy. Incidentally, it was All India Radio (AIR) that built up a following for classical music when it was the only radio available to listeners, apart from the static-ridden short wave transmissions, which, in any case, focussed on mainly news and propaganda. Today, even AIR has fallen to this new craze for fusion music, the new music, although it manfully still devotes a few hours to classical music to which I suspect very few people listen.

In theatre, the picture is even more dismal. It has, first, to cope with that monster called television. Nonetheless, thanks to the determined and committed work of playwrights such as Girish Karnad today, and others in earlier years, it had a small but devoted following. But even this form is being overtaken by plays that, in the name of novelty and modernism, are so weird as to be little more than rubbish. There is certainly room for modernism, but let theatre be established first, let it take root in our own traditions. Apart from a pitiful few who write meaningful plays in their own languages, the majority of those who write original and eminently worthwhile plays, where skill and craftsmanship combine with perception and fascinating storylines, write in English. Among them are Mahesh Dattani, Poile Sengupta and Anuvab Pal.

Theatre faces one enormous problem: funds. Very few sources for funding exist, not because plays do not have an audience but because there are so few venues where they can be staged. Hence, potential sponsors see little point in putting in money where there is no return, in their jargon. (There are some plays that are, of course, lavishly funded, but that is because the director has close contacts with corporate houses. But these are the exceptions the page 3 plays.) Plays are expensive to mount, if they are to be presented in the way the playwright has conceived it. That kind of money cannot usually be had, except from the Central government; and how many groups located outside Delhi can afford to make the numerous journeys to the capital to get funds released for a play?

Again, then, there is the irresistible move to do daringly different plays, hoping that they will, apart from being done cheaply, draw in the crowds and hopefully some foreign interest. Such temptations as the Edinburgh Festival beckon, and they know only too well that a straight play simply will not make the cut.

Finally, whatever be the temptations and pitfalls, one must return again and again to one's traditions and look for the wellsprings of creativity they unlock. It is possible; Aditi Mangaldas and Girish Karnad have shown that it is, in their fields. We need more and more creative performers to take the road creative minds like them have taken. That, more than anything else, will revitalise the performing arts.

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