Dismembering holy cows

Kirtana Kumar, a participant at the Writing on Dance Lab, examines the 28 performances at the Attakkalari India Biennial 2015 to locate excitement and emergence with respect to the South Asian context.

I watch contemporary dance as I watch any other performance, avidly and open to experience. I am willing to be taken on a trip, should the creators of the piece desire to take me there. And I like to think, I give each creator a fair chance, a good shot at me. The risks they take, the language they pillory, the new ones they invent, the purity they valorise, the new spaces they explore, whatever. I’ll fly with it, if you want to take me there.

But for the first time, amongst the International performances at the centre stage of the Attakkalari Biennial 2015, I have had the sensation that there is something going on that is disquieting, an undercurrent that feels impenetrable and self-contained. That artists don’t desire to communicate or perhaps their unforthcoming stage self is a comment on a world gone cyber where real-time communication is deferential to the virtual. If this is an informed or even gut choice, the conversation ends here. But if it has to do with the art-maker’s understanding of contemporaneity, we must delve deeper.

A second thread that is intriguing is the use of technology to signify modernity while all other indicators remain traditional if not feudal. Strong words, but bear with me, it’s worth the wander.

And finally, there was a sense that the past beckons more than the present whether it is WWII Germany or the Bauhaus aesthetic. Of course this is an artistic choice, but it is interesting as, in contrast, the work of young artists during FACETS Choreography Residency and Platform 15:Emerging South Asia were largely to do with the present.

Soo Yun performing at FACETS

So first, the problematic of the word “contemporary”. At the outset, one person’s contemporary (for instance, a dancer from Tumkur’s use of video) could well be another person’s medieval (a video artist from Belgium) thus putting to rest the idea of any rational, evenhanded or objective means of comparison. There isn’t. Contemporary is deeply contextual. In many places on the subcontinent, as pointed out by both UR Ananthamurthy and Mahasweta Devi, the medieval co-exists quite cheerfully with the contemporary. And then there is state to state and country to country difference based on local mores, political will, militarisation, impact of the media, heteronormativity and so on. Top that with the day-to-day survival realities involving access to power, water, studio space, equipment and we’re talking about a world rich with possibility but where cookie cutter solutions will not work. So that really fucks with any ideas of homogeneity in the execution or even in the incubation and mentoring of works by young artists.

If anything, it is more realistic to polarise the traditional against what comes after and in doing this we must perforce disagree with the supposition, made in the Writing on Dance Lab, that all “contemporary” eventually seeks “mainstream” affirmation. We must insist that if the contemporary is to ably critique and counter the traditional it must do so with a war cry and resolve its own place in the universe, most definitely – peripheral and enraged. The moment it seeks approval it has lost its locus standi.

“Contemporary” assumes a knowledge and internalisation of the great upheavals of the last century. And the one unifying thread of the post WWII world, has been the call for freedom and autonomy. For the self, for women, for minorities and others who have been traditionally oppressed. This quest can be then further extrapolated to nations seeking sovereignty. Vox populi, vox dei, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Seamos libres y lo demás no importa nadahave been defining slogans of our times. It only falls to reason that a contemporary dance festival must facilitate this sentiment and the means to it, which include disruption, civil disobedience, strong articulations, political questioning, toppling of the status quo. The very structure of the festival must dismember the holy cows of ceremony, hierarchies based on social standing or political expediency and create free platforms where turbulence and anarchy have as much space as serenity and beauty.

Thus if an artist chooses to use, for instance, new media in her or his work, it requires all other working conditions to be contemporary as well. If there are unchallenged ideas of content, a fancy theme that the ensemble seems uninformed about, lack of individual autonomy in the ensemble, repetition of form, or else, shallow, incomplete form – however sexy the costume or dazzling the lights / video / sound, a work will still have the trappings of traditional frameworks.

Performances at the FACETS Choreography Residency and Platform 15:Emerging South Asia programmes had small glimpses of something exciting emerging. Speaking for the subcontinent, I feel this is where the action is. Dancers like Surjit Nongmeikapam, Pradeep Gunarathna, Mirra Arun and Venuri Perera are treading brave, new ground. When I watch them, I see bodies imbued with their intention. Both content and physicality is urgent and rapacious. When I hear them, I hear possibility. “See what I am giving you, I ripped it out of me. You need it, it will change your world” they seem to say. No posturing, just a raw, breathing offering. They ought to be dancing centre stage, challenged to grow and venture forth. We need to keep our ears to the ground and listen to what they are saying or else we will have lost the zeitgeist.

That’s it, really, I’m spent. I’ve had a superb time. I’m indebted to every dancer who made me an offering. And to every dancer who didn’t, I’ll take it personally and keep wondering why. Here’s to the next time around. Keep the faith...

Kirtana Kumar
Richa Bhavanam


Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.

- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts

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