Samakaala – A Festival of Contemporary Dances

Grace | Photo credit: Ghanesh Sahoo

Ileana Citaristi comments on a welcome addition to the national panorama of dance festivals.

Bhubaneswar, 11-13 June 2013 

For the second consecutive year Odisha Sangeet Natak Academi in collaboration with Odisha Tourism organized Samakaala, a Festival of Contemporary Dances at Bhubaneswar from the 11th to the 13th of June. This was certainly a welcome addition to the national panorama of dance festivals if one considers that from the time of the first East-West Dance Encounter held in Mumbai in 1984, one of the early festivals dedicated to the new emerging trends in the field of Indian dance, until today, the festivals exclusively dedicated to new directions in Indian dance have been relatively few and sporadic.  One of the reasons for this may be the difficulty of classifying the extent to which a presentation falls into the category of ‘contemporary’: what the parameters are for such classification, whether it is enough to add few new movements here and there or props such as spoken words or video projections to be entitled to be called ‘contemporary’ and so on and so forth are topics and discussions which come invariably to the fore whenever such festivals are held. 

In the festival under review one witnessed different degrees of ‘transgression’, additions, extensions of the so-called ‘classical’ idioms in terms of technique, form and content. How many of the works presented can be labelled as ‘contemporary’ is to be assessed. 

In terms of discarding ‘superfluous’ embellishments and presenting the ‘naked’ body as the only protagonist, almost defenseless and vulnerable in the empty space, Padmini Chettur’s Beautiful Thing 2 came very close to the target. Movements were restricted, music accompaniment minimal, costume and make up irrelevant; in the absence of all this one was compelled to watch this lonely body changing not so much by virtue of its own movements but in relation to the space it was carving for itself; a dialogue between movement and space to which the mute spectator (unfortunately not completely mute as far as the Bhubaneswar public turned out to be!), was supposed to assist with a dispassionate attitude.

The presentation which followed was Surpanakha by kathak dancer Ashavari Majumdar and Group from Kolkata. In itself the work had quite a few positive elements such as good use of graphic projections, excellent lights, interesting text punctured by witty remarks and sense of humor, soulful music accompaniment and articulated stage presence of the main protagonist. Perhaps one could classify as ‘contemporary’ the demystification of the mythological characters of Sita and Surphanaka that Ashavari presented by drawing from a number of different and almost contradictory versions of the epic. What did not quite convince was the falling–back here and there on the usual  group formations performed as interludes by the young dancers which, although well synchronized, did not have anything new to offer in terms of choreography. 

The following day started with a three–part presentation by Chennai–based artist Anita Ratnam who chose to explore the subject of ‘femininity’ by drawing from different sources. The first segment was an elaboration, through gestures mainly taken from the bharatanatyam idiom, of Sita’s refusal to go back to Ayodhya with Hanuman. The chosen gestures were slightly repetitive and not so impressive. In the second fragment the overlapping of the two songs, the Carnatic Meenaxi Memudam Dehime by Swamy Dikshitar and Bashanti Bhuvan Mohini composed in the same raga by Tagore, provided an excellent musical score to Anita’s dignified and elegant presentation of the feminine personification of spring. The third segment Avani was the most well-articulated and complex among the three; inspired by the anguished cry of Tagore towards a Mother Earth which bears the wounds caused by the war, the piece very effectively brought out the intensity of the subject, leaving behind powerful images of a suffering and enraged Mother Goddess. The costumes and the lighting by Victor Paulras were excellent.

The second part of the evening was dominated by the powerful presentations by Astad Deboo and his group of eight well–trained  male dancers who, he explained, had been rescued by him six years before from the Salam Bala Trust of Mumbai. Each one of the four items presented was different in concept and choreography. Surrender was a hymn in white to the forces of destiny and the inevitability of whatever happens to man, performed by four dancers on one side and Astad on the other, executing movements suggesting man’s aspiration to levitate in the air. The second item, Grace, perhaps the most loved by the public, brought on stage four puppets in red, twenty feet high, representing the benign aspect of Goddess Kali, seen nurturing with exquisite delicate movements the four dancers in black representing the human beings: a real feast for the eyes! The third item Walking Tall, inspired by Tagore’s poem Akla Cholo Re was slightly ‘bollywood’ in style, with less inspiring group formations, repetitive movements and not very clear correlation with the literary source. The last piece was Astad’s signature item Awakening which culminates in unending whirling spins performed at increasing speed until the body seemed to disappear into thin air.   The public, totally won over by Astad the magician, saluted him with a standing ovation.

The third day started with a thematic presentation Dravya Kaya by Navtej Johar and his co-dancer Sudeep Kumar on the relation between ‘dravya’ (objects) and ‘kaya’ (body), with specific reference to objects found in the Ramayana. The unconventionality of the theme and the uniformity of the musical score rendered all through by the lone voice of soulful singer Hilango perhaps made the task of the dancers still more difficult. The item started with well–conceived and synchronized combinations of floor movements to suggest the tension of Rama’s bow through the elasticity of the dancers body. The second segment, referring to the texture of exiled Sita’s bark dress, started with beautiful suggestive and sensual gestures and delicate body postures, but soon degenerated into a more grotesque representation of a real dress made out of paper that somehow, instead of giving the impression of lightness, looked very heavy. The third segment, referring to Laxmana’s rekha, was not easy to understand until the dancer actually drew the line with sand both in circular and straight formations. The long monologue in English at the end of the piece attempting to place Rama’s story in a modern context did not quite succeed in its intention in spite of the philosophical undertones and the implicit references to the Ayodhya episode. This was altogether a quite unusual and interesting attempt that perhaps would require just a little more thinking and re-making on the part of the choreographer.

Malaysian dancer Ramli Ibrahim presented Transfigurations, a combination of three different pieces: Kamala, Afternoon of a Faun and River Sutra, the last one being a cluster of five segments, through his group of seven dancers belonging to Sutra Dance Theatre. Ramli’s style of choreography is characterized by a fluidity of images which change one into the other without ever posing, even at the end; when the light goes off the dancers are still moving, suggesting that life (and dance) never ends. His dancers are trained in more than one style – bharatanatyam, odissi, classical ballet and contemporary – and this gives him the freedom to commute between one and the other in his creative endeavors. 

In Kamala the images of the female principle drawn from different contexts, including the Christian one, were effectively conveyed through smooth passages and effective choreographic formations. The Afternoon of a Faun, inspired by the celebrated composition by Nijinsky (presented for the first time in Paris in 1912 to a music score by Debussy and based on the poem by Mallarmé), was by far the best item presented, both in terms of choreography and execution. It was refreshing to see how Ramli succeeded in departing from the original version (which the writer saw performed by the Rambert Dance Company last year in London on the occasion of the centenary celebration), without losing the flavor of it. The execution by the male dancer Harenthiran was excellent. 

While introducing River Sutra Ramli explained that the item had been composed as a ‘celebration’ to cheer up the gloomy mood of the Malaysian public in the days immediately preceding the last political elections and to attract more young people to the theatre. If this justifies the light vein which runs through the five items and also explains the exuberance of movements and the ever–changing group formations which flow effortlessly one into the other, nevertheless one does not understand why traditional music of the classic repertoire should be used for this. Is a ‘tillana’ really more appealing to the young audience if it is interpreted as a game between two factions of dancers instead of the traditional way? And is a ‘pallavi’ going to be more palatable to youth if it is interpreted as a springtime play by half–clad dancers with few body elevations here and there than if it is presented in the traditional way? I can’t say, but maybe this a premonition of what Indian classical dance may become in a near future vis-a-vis Bollywood, YouTube and all the rest.

The only morning session of the festival consisted of a lively interaction between some of the participating dancers and Uttara Asha Coorlawala, who explained and showed in video some of her early compositions belonging to the seventies in which she merged modern American dance techniques and Indian themes and sensibilities. 

Last but not least, a word of appreciation for the excellent infrastructure provided by the organizers in terms of light, sound and stage equipment: a real bonanza which one does not easily get in most of the Government-run auditoriums around the Country.