Mumbai: I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian, able to make an equally good case for one side of an issue after passionately espousing the other. I love to remind people, in words and performance, that a unique forte of classical Indian classical is the ability to evoke rasa through abhinaya to evoke spiritual consciousness. This transcendental aspiration is simply that, an aspiration at which artistes may aim. When successful, what can occur is a shared group experience of beauty and awareness, taking us out of our self-centered conventional reality to a momentary darshan of a metaphysical reality. I like to point out that this special forte of communicating involved dramatic expression is mostly in the province of solo performance in the traditionally soloist genres of classical dance. At the same time, I love group choreographies.
The artistic possibilities of a group add other ingredients to the available options to delight an audience through dance. The movement potential of the human body multiplied by a group enables a kaleidoscope of visual poetry. In Odissi, the generic term for most of our non-text based dances is Pallavi. This poetic image of sprouting and blossoming describes the concept of theme and variations in the movement, raga and tala as it is established and developed. Group choreography adds another dimension to enrich the theme and variations in space.
The encyclopedic Natya Sastra of Indian performing arts aesthetics speaks of pindi-bandha, in fact 33 of them, with reference to group formations. Varieties include gulma (collective dance), Srinkhala (chain formation holding hands), Latabandha (arms around each other like a creeper) and bhedyaka, which is solo. The first image that comes to mind in the pindi-bandha category where a group or cluster (pindi) symbolically represents a figure or design would be the Raslila with Krishna dancing among the Gopis, tangibly or intangibly manifest as dancing with each one.
Classical dances are constantly evolving as they are living traditions. I recall an experience in the early 1970s accompanying an open truckload of dancers to perform group compositions in a mofussil location in Odisha. As a relatively new disciple of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, I had seen the rehearsals on my arrival in Cuttack for the summer and marveled at beauty of the symmetry and balance of the group configurations. Most prominent in my memory is seeing Kelubabu mix powdered pigment by hand and apply this makeup to 20 girls along with kajal, sun and moon tika. After this he personally painted each girl’s feet with alta. No wonder the performance started two hours late, though no one seemed to mind. It was a great introduction for me to the backstage logistics of group performances! From those days of “modern” lighting meaning having a gel wheel to change the performers from green to yellow to red to blue lighting for groups as well as soloists dramatically or subtly highlights the sculptural shapes and even movement dynamics.
Group choreographies sparkle with energy: from the student annual presentations where each disciple can shine as much as their polishing merits to the sophisticated explorations of gurus who focus on this aspect professionally. While every institution of dance skillfully rearranges solo compositions aesthetically, professional dance companies go an important step further with exciting efforts to further unpeel the onion of group choreographic possibilities. In Odissi, two exceptional professional dance companies come to mind, Srijan and the Sutra Dance Theatre.
Srijan’s director and choreographer is Guru Ratikant Mohapatra. He has delighted those who have witnessed the outcome of his training in mardala and dance by his legendary father expressed particularly well in gifted choreography. He has been able to move well beyond rearranging solo compositions to creating new works with striking results. His awareness and use of stage lighting as a partner to group compositions enhances this. His work is constantly evolving, though Yugmadwanda Pallavi is especially memorable, set in Bagesri Raga by Pt. Raghunath Panigrahi in Chaturasra Ektali Tala. Guru Smt. Kumkum Mohanty is also creating some innovative and unique pallavis, but these are seldom seen as she is retired from her creation, the Odissi Research Centre, and has neither professional dancers nor the platforms to showcase them.
The Sutra Dance Theatre is the creation of Ramli Ibrahim a cultural icon of Malaysia. With unimpeachable credentials in Odissi and Bharatanatyam, Ramli also brings to his work an equally solid background is choreographic principals of using space, time, energy and motion from his early training in western ballet and modern concert dance. With all of this knowledge, coupled with respect for tradition, he has deconstructed and reset the elements of Odissi (haven’t seen his Bharatanatyam for a while). There is a fresh beauty as he changes the use of levels of danced space, willing to embrace the floor with more than the feet and rise in the air with dancers above dancers. A couple of years ago Ramli and his most senior protégé, Guna, took five pallavis in various ragas by five different gurus and imaginatively rearranged them as group compositions. With Sutra’s superbly trained dancers we are seeing the boundaries of Odissi extended.
If you have read this far, you might be amused by an anecdote that was part of my transition from being part of a dance company in the USA to an initially lonely soloist as I shifted from modern dancer to Indian classical dance. Being a modern dancer meant being known by the group in which one dances, such as The Martha Graham Company or Paul Taylor’s rather than one’s own name except to the real connoisseurs of the art. We collaborate, share discoveries and achievements and, without diminishing one’s training and ability to hold the stage alone, one knows how to make the group choreography look good without sticking out as an individual.
In my first year in India I was privileged to learn Manipuri with Guru Singhajit Singh at Triveni. Classes were individual with virtually no interactions with the professionals of the Triveni Ballet as I sat in on their daily rehearsals. (After a summer visit to Manipur, I was formally introduced to the senior member of the Triveni Ballet, M.K. Dani Singh by M.K. Binodini’s son enroute to New York and he was a great friend and guide in sourcing costumes and how to wear them.) I felt so isolated from a community of dancers that, when I heard that the Dan Wagoner and Dances Company was arriving for a U.S.I.S. India tour, I went out to the airport in the middle of the night to receive them as though they were my own family members. I knew no one, but it was worth a 2 am trip to Palam to connect with “my tribe”. Of course, gradually I discovered the advantages of being a soloist. It is easier to schedule rehearsals and no issues of undependable others when something needs to get done. Still, it is wonderful to share energy on and off the stage, just as it is wonderful to meet the challenge of connecting, holding, and hopefully, escorting the audience to another level. Viva la difference! We need and want both soloists and group choreographies.