In a constant struggle to define things, the words contemporary and traditional seem to come up very often in dance. Some see the traditional as adhering to old systems, and the contemporary as breaking these set rules, but is there really such a strict distinction between the two? What do these two domains of artistic practice actually mean to practitioners, what does it mean to make one kind of work and not the other? Ligament asked practitioners of various forms of this art for their opinions—what are the tensions, the parallels, distinctions, and how does one define the other?
Image credit : A still from Aditi Mangaldas ' Timeless. Photo by Harkiran Singh Bhasin
Researcher and Odissi performer
“Traditional is the dance technique that my body has embodied, it is traditional from the fact that its language is derived from age old traditions of dance and performance, of a body culture which still finds its presence in not just the art (temple sculptures, paintings, literature) of a specific region or in its beliefs and value system, but in the lifestyle of the people. It is only when it holds true for us in our very urban lifestyle, where we are striving through multiple global identities on a daily basis and are no more bound by a specific regional identity, that it becomes contemporary.”
“Also one needs to talk about the two; contemporary and traditional, in context of meaning as well as form. One always finds oneself in conflicting positions. If I were to represent, say, a very urban idea of living in a city, keeping to the same form of Odissi (which I practice), to use the “tribhangis” and “chauka” and the technique of the dance form, not just to “compose” a “dance item” but to explore the grammar of the form and find my own contemporary relevance to it, then would I call that as an Odissi dance or not? Do I need to categorize that into abhinaya or nritta? Or do I call it “contemporary”? But since I am keeping to the pure technique why isn’t it Odissi any more? Why does one have to draw such rigid boundaries?”
“Yes I love this traditional dance form and I like performing it in its traditional repertoire, but along with that I also want to imbibe the technique in a way that I can engage with its grammar, play with the vocabulary and expand it such that it holds true to the many selves that I create and live every day.”
Mehneer Sudan Choreographer and dancer
“That’s a very large question. To me, it’s literal, traditional is something that has been around for a while, and contemporary are the forms of now and of the present. It’s very literal”.
“There is a form called Contemporary, with techniques that came after the Post-Modern form. There was the Classical, then the Modern, Post-Modern and then the Contemporary. But, I don’t make any distinctions.
I don’t really make any distinctions between Traditional and Contemporary. I’m finding myself moving away from classifications and categories. I focus on what I create, not classification. Dance critics, dance writers, they look at what I create and classify it, but I don’t really make any distinction”.
“No, I just create, there will be many elements to it. If you’re seeing it, you might recognise a part of it as being Jazz, or something else. It’s not just one form.”
“The analogy to describe what I create is a magician’s box- I don’t know what comes out. Every piece has an intent, but the rest, just happens. There are moments when I plan all the minute details, do research, homework, but there are moments when I let go, and things happen. There is a balance to this kind of thing. Like with the 8/Women in Love, the Ashtanayika piece, there was one overriding element, the intent for each nayika. The intent I perceived for the nayika getting dressed to meet her lover was that she was excited and eagerly waiting. She was so excited that she didn’t know what to do. Then, I was running around, trying to put on a sari. Things like that. It’s not just planning”.
Choreographer, performer and teacher
Watch her work at http://shilpikabordoloi.com/gallery.html
“It is a very personal choice as a practitioner; it’s almost a way of life for me. To practice the traditional is adhering to a system and method. Of course, the contemporary is also a specific technique, and the method keeps evolving, but it’s also a larger movement—a process where you’re trying to find a way of expressing experiences.”
“For an audience, the traditional would be fine-tuning an already existing nuance. A person watching would be touched differently by both the arts, and the form will be defined in the way the audience is touched. Perception is about the dance being good or bad, or it being a journey, or not a journey.”
“Our search for definitions is a global search, and it’s across all mediums. We’re always trying to find a balance between the two, and that’s what I try to do in my work. I let my body resonate to specific situations. There is an open state, and movement emerges, bridging the gap.”
Choreographer and kathak performer
Watch her choreographic process at https://pad.ma/BYG/player
“When I think of tradition and contemporaneity, I am often reminded of T S Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Of course, Eliot speaks in reference to English literature, but I think it is very relevant to our definitions of the traditional and contemporary today.
In my own practice, I feel this sense of being a Kathak dancer, an Indian classical dancer, in my bones, my body and my breath. I feel connected to Jaipur, Lucknow and Benaras, even though I’ve never visited them. I recently did a project with my Kathak students. We looked at how our body resonated with the history of Kathak and its changes. In a non-linear kind of way, we traced the history and came up with pointers that defined each age—words like ‘katha’, ‘najakat’, ‘chakkar’, ‘tatkar’, ‘myth’, ‘renaissance’, and ‘now’. It was both incredibly humbling and empowering to realise how many different energies had created what we know as Kathak, as it gains life in the dancing body and creates meaning or meaninglessness in its own context.
The realisation of the body being a carrier of this traditional knowledge brings a sense of great joy and responsibility. I draw energy from gurus dead and alive when I hold a simple mudra, and I’m happy I didn’t invent it. I just inhabited it, I am happy not to own it, it is not mine alone.
“I feel that tradition has the power to unleash itself in many directions. My tradition is Rukmini Devi and Chandralekha, Martha Graham and Shakespeare, T S Eliot and Kabir, Joy Harjo and Rama Vaidyanathan, Pandit Durgalal and Aditi Mangaldas, Parvathy Baul and Katy Duck, and so many energies today, some of them perhaps dead in body but very alive in spirit. I draw from all these, however marginally, in my work.”
“To create traditional work, means work that one would largely recognise as "Kathak". To make contemporary work, means work that one would largely recognise as "contemporary". I don’t do either which means I do both, just because they intersect so beautifully.”
“When your being reverberates as you dance, or watch a performance, the body or form comes alive for you in that moment. That’s what matters, not whether it classifies itself as this or the other.”
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