Friday, 9 March 2012

Dance: Turning point ~ contemporary dance in Bangalore

(Copyright: Goethe-Institut eV, Online-Redaktion, May 2009. Published in its 'Art and the City' e-journal. )

The year 2001 must count as a turning point in the cultural life of Bangalore or Bengaluru. Before that, the former pensioner’s paradise and Garden City, morphing into an IT hub, was torn between its City and Cantonment cultures. It offered little to match the classical dance traditions of the Mysore court, or the literary and musical legacies of Dharwad.

As the most westernised, cosmopolitan, and multilingual of Indian metros, Bangalore – where Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, English, Malayalam and Telugu are spoken on the streets – threw its doors open to radical cultural change from the mid-’90s. Its population had climbed dramatically from 1.5 million to 7 million over just three decades, introducing large disposable incomes from the IT and BPO sectors, novel cultural visions from globe-trotters, and cutting-edge technologies into its mainstream. 

Today, Bangalore counts as the premier city of Indian contemporary dance. Among myriad reasons why, one stands out – the relocation of theAttkkalari Centre for Movement Arts (ACMA) to the city from Alwaye in Kerala in 2001.

Upto that point, Bangalore was home to Bharatanatyam stalwarts like U.S. Krishna Rao, U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi, and Usha Datar, besides Maya Rao’s Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. 

The impetus towards new idioms probably surfaced when dance therapist/choreographer/ dancer Tripura Kashyap set up the Apoorva Dance Theatre in Bangalore in 1994. Trained in Bharatanatyam in Kalakshetra (Chennai) and dance therapy at Wisconsin (US), she did a stint with Chandralekha's Chennai-based dynamic dance troupe. Tripura – challenged by the lack of trained local contemporary dancers – included lithe non-dancers, such as C. Vasudev (an artist) and Balaji (an engineer). Apoorva is best known for two remarkable pieces, ‘Aranyakiran’ and ‘Chayangika’, the latter based on shadow play. On one memorable occasion, Vasudev and a month-old puppy danced in perfect tandem, at an Apoorva evening at the Alliance Francaise!

In 1998, Tripura joined local visual artists in' Territory, a site-specific installation that challenged manmade boundaries, at the Shankara Arts Centre on Kanakapura Road. Emerging from a deep pit, Tripura (to quote her) made “dance an extension of the landscape, peeling off its decorative layers. Like a child discovering movement, I explored the contours and possibilities of stones, sand, cloth, leaves, even a 14-foot-tall haystack and a lone tree with snaking branches.”   

On a parallel track, Madhu Nataraj – trained in Kathak by her mother Maya Rao, then in contemporary dance at the Jose Limon Centre at New York – set up Natya STEM (Space. Time. Energy. Movement.) Dance Kampni in Bangalore in 1995. In her words, its signature style melds “Indian dance movement motifs, original music, experiments with rhythm, and interactive design.” Interfacing the traditional with the contemporary, she incorporates elements from martial arts like Kerala’s Kalaripayattu, Manipur’s  Thang-Ta, and Japanese Ninjitsu with folk dance and even mime, defying the spartan face palette of contemporary dance. Her work has travelled to New Zealand, Canada and even Kazakhstan.

Bharat Sharma, who trained with his father Narendra Sharma’s contemporary dance troupe Bhoomika in Delhi, arrived in Bangalore in 1994 for an administrative stint at the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). Bhoomika, still extant, was founded by Narendra Sharma, who trained at Almora with the father figure of Indian contemporary dance, Uday Shankar. As a youth, Bharat had taken the Delhi dance world by storm as the Wolf Boy in a Bhoomika production.  Dance workshops in the US and collaborations in Europe formed the frieze of his footsteps. Over time, he evolved into a choreographer, teacher, lighting designer, and composer.

In 2000,  Mayuri Upadhya – who studied contemporary dance with London’s Shobhana Jeyasingh Dance Company, and later with Bharat – set up the Nritarutya Dance Collective as its principal choreographer.

Brilliant dramatis personae were, thus, waiting in the wings when Attakkalari arrived in Bangalore. At its helm was dancer-choreographer  Jayachandran Palazhy, who believed in big dreams and inter-arts experiments. His personal movement vocabulary stemmed from Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, and Kalaripayattu, Capoeira, ballet, even African dance. Today, pan-Indian audiences flock to Attakkalari’s own repertory multi-media creations such as 'Purushartha' (2006), which garnered standing ovations at the Munich Festival of Contemporary Dance and the Venice Biennale. 

What triggered this dramatic, future-directed change? Jayachandran initiated two mega-events in 2002 that set Bangalore up at centre-stage: the free-thinking international Facets experimental dance workshop and the Attakkalari Biennale, India’s only contemporary dance festival. Besides, Tripura led Attakkalari’s educational outreach programme through schools to nurture future promise, aided by ACMA’s 2007-launched unique Diploma course in movement arts and mixed media.

Jayachandran’s breakaway trajectory was evident in ' TransAvatar' with the Imlata Dance Company he formed while at the London Contemporary Dance School. Diaspora-spawned, coloured by the 2002 Facets workshop, it charmed Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai in 2003, after a 25-venue tour of the UK, Germany and Switzerland. Its tawny, androgynous bodies on individual trajectories behind translucent screens had universal appeal, yet questioned multiple identities. Homing in, Jayachandran observed, "The performance reflects a deeper involvement with digital technology and research on telematic performance. Today, cyberspace is often western-dominated. I wanted our expression, our images, to inhabit that space."

Meanwhile, Tripura set off on a less tech-inflected route in 2003. Joining hands with visual artists C.F. John and T.M. Aziz at Visthar at Doddagubbi Post, on the outskirts of Bangalore, an abandoned rural well became the laboratory of their art, ‘Walls of Memories.’ Through her exploratory movements, linked to John’s art forms and Aziz’s photographs, a powerful construct surfaced – that the well was now devoid of its very soul, the water. To encourage feedback, the urban audience was taken to the semi-rural venue by chartered buses. 

Since dance without an audience approximates to a journey without a destination, in 2001 Bharat initiated a Bangalore-based highway performance circuit through the Indian south, called Chaali. In its first year, the 37-event circuit over 5,000 km took two contemporary soloists and two troupes along coastal Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, then through inland Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Over 8,000 people attended their performances at formal theatres, open air spaces, black boxes, makeshift stages, an art gallery, even a tourist complex. He proved indisputably that a sustainable alternate, non-urban audience infrastructure was viable. 

A year later, Facets in Bangalore infused true grit and latitude of ideation into an art form in search of redefinitions. At each biennial choreographic laboratory, 30 to 50 international dancers, choreographers, musicians, digital and multi-media artists from countries including Norway, Japan, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Hungary, elasticized and revitalised notions of dance. Both Tripura and Bharat attended Facets, as participants or facilitators. While the 2002 laboratory explored the nexus between dance and digital arts, in 2004, designated facilitators explored select ideas, free of performance pressure.  

Performance proved the crucial test, though. Attakkalari’s ‘Chronotopia,’ premiered at the Biennale in February 2009, broke new ground. Though loosely based on the Tamil classic Silappadikaram, it explored the depth of Jayachandran’s physical vocabulary, through layered landscapes of time and memory, through multimedia inputs and infrared lights, allowing Indian classicism contemporary nuances, both expressively and philosophically.   

The result? Jayachandran’s proved to be among the most outstanding choreographic pieces at the Biennale, holding its own alongside ‘Murder in the Elevator,’ the frenetically agile, totally with-it, narrative drama by South Korea’s Dance Theatre CcadO. Equally, it challenged the scenically vital, electrifying ‘Extended Teenage Era,’ by Samir Akika, formerly of Germany’s Pina Bausch company. 

The Attakkalari Biennale celebrates cultural consummation, offering the stage to Madhu, Mayuri and other global talent, though Tripura and Bharat have recently shifted to Bhoomika in Delhi. For instance, ‘Chronotopia’ yoked together Frenchman Mathias Duplessy’s score with interactive scenography by American Chris Salter, video design by German Chris Ziegler, lighting design by Dane Thomas Dotzler, with costumes by Jason Cherian and Anshua Arora Sen from Bangalore. Using today’s communication tools, the team collaborated online through chats and video clips, finally meeting in real time to fine tune the overview.

The Biennale, looking outwards yet reaching deep within, explores edgy potential within an international movement arts framework. It proffers Bangalore as a city of creative synergy, of belief in futuristic dance, unleashing other energies. In January 2009, Abhilash Ningappa, once with the Attakkalari repertory, set up the Bangalore Dance Collective – comprising dancers, actors, singers, mime artists – after two years at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance. He taps artistically into the demographic dividend because 40 per cent of the Indian population is currently between 18 to 35, their energy impacting Bangalore’s culture.  

Between creative interstices, Bangalore’s dance scene has explored these issues: Can truly contemporary forms evolve from the land of Bharatanatyam,  Odissi, Kathakali and Manipuri? At what point can high-tech and traditional techniques cross over to co-exist without distortion? Have contemporary dancers evolved a common language they can share?   

Such vital questions have realised but tentative answers. As technology zooms into the unknown and funding for the arts proves difficult, who would dare to second-guess the unfolding scene? Yet, Bangalore has undoubtedly articulated contemporary dance directions, especially since 2001, when Attakkalari offered practitioners a homegrown Indian base. This city of possibilities now nurtures dancers ready to leap into the future, unfettered by tradition. 

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