I made the following post on social Media in April 2020, and it was interesting to look back on it in August 2021, and see how consistent it has stayed with my exploration of She’s Auspicious.
“How does something neat and well-packaged reflect a reality that is messy, disturbing, unresolved….?
In classical forms, where the aesthetic is shaped by beauty and harmony, how comfortable are we – the artist and the viewer – with feeling discomfort?
So much of our expression is based on depiction, where we try to illustrate a thought, feeling, idea, or character. There is technique, artistry, and deliberation in the execution of it, and of course emotional involvement drawing from one’s own personal emotions and experiences.
But we – the artist and viewer – have the understanding that it is a depiction, and within that lies a certain comfort.
Now I am asking myself – when the content is trying to question the very façade of beauty, comfort, control, harmony, resolution… to what extent can I let go of depiction? Can I find new entry points into emotional state, that are not lead by the comfort of depiction?
Of course, I am not the first classical dancer to ask these questions. But for ME, it is a new and different way of approaching my practice and search.”
Picking up on these thoughts, I see that a lot of my process of investigation through this past year and a half of working on She’s Auspicious has been towing this line between depictive and “real.” Previously I was saying “experiential” but I think maybe “real” is a closer word.
Of course when we perform nothing is actually real (unless something goes wrong 😉 ) Because of the nature of performing itself – we are calling upon something (choreographed in detail and rehearsed) to happen in that period of performance – it is not arising spontaneously on its own.
But how much does the “stylization” of a style like Bharata Natyam keep things from being/becoming “real.”
For a long time I have felt that what I love about dance is that it allows me to inhabit another self. A self that is not Mythili, but belongs to another world that feels larger, more powerful, less mundane. The idea of experiencing “divinity” – or if that is too specific a word then we can call it “other-wordliness” – through the dance, is so central to our art form, and for me personally it has always been a huge part of what drives my practice and explorations.
But in this process, over the last two years, of learning the nuances and complexities of our dance and social histories, I’ve started to see the problems that arise from that “divini-fying.” The taking of the dance from the bodies of the hereditary dancers, the erasing of them and the distilling of their “art,” placing it on other bodies, – the “refining” of aesthetics and of content to place the emphasis on symbolism rather than the real – suddenly makes one aware of the “othering” that has informed this idea of “other-worldliness”! The “universalizing” of things – which I myself have always engaged in, particularly as someone born and raised outside of India, and eager to make the form accessible to myself and to my global audiences, is problematic to the extent that it erases the specificity of the culture – which yes is universal but also isn’t.
I think one of the most important and shocking things that I am learning is that things can be both beautiful and ugly at once. Both sublime and violent at once. Both wonderful and deeply problematic at once. One doesn’t negate the other.
So, even though I feel the beauty and sheer joy emanating as I dance, I also realize that in smiling and working hours to train to a point where ease masks my exertion, I am playing into a social power structure that controls notions of gender, caste, and class.
That by centralizing the symbolic and esoteric, which gives me the experience of soaring, I am playing into that same social power structure that marginalizes the real.
That by adorning myself and calling it symbolic of the cosmos, I am playing into that social power structure.
That by holding myself to certain physical expectations, I am playing into that same social power structure.
(hell! Most of the expectations I hold myself to are playing into that same social power structure!)
I have contemporary dancer friends who have said to me – we never see you be Mythili on stage. Everything you do is so “heightened.” Yep – would be my response – that’s the aesthetic of the form.
Even though we have natyadharmi and lokadharmi (stylized and pedestrian), it’s all still pretty stylized. We never lay on the ground, we never touch our bodies, we’re even taught not to look directly at our fellow dancers when we play characters – we look into the distance beyond them, we never break character or reveal our human selves. (Even in announcements we do the “God voice” – with its predictable intonations, tenor, and un-conversational stylization.)
But I have my doubts that things have always been this way…..
When did these aesthetics come into place?
When the dancer moved to the proscenium stage?
In some ways I think its beautiful; I don’t need to or want to be human Mythili when I’m dancing, I get to be that most of the time. But in some ways its hugely problematic.
You don’t want to hear me panting, see me sweating and really exerting, or looking unsophisticated.
I can get tears in my eyes, but they should never actually fall. I have to find that perfect balance of appearing real, but always being in control such that the performance experience comes first.
Because the ego must be kept in check. The purpose of art is to displace the ego. But is it really so systematic? Do THESE aesthetics ONLY provide the space and context for the experience of ego-displacement.
What about if you push yourself to get so real, that you have no technique to perform the control of the ease, and the “beauty”, and the tears, etc?
Where you bare yourself beyond the safety of your technical and emotive skills.
Isn’t that also displacing the ego?