Dear Dead Dancer
Excerpts from letters to Kelucharan Mahapatra
I begin this letter to you with a dance.I begin this letter to you by performing this dance.This is the last dance of your choreographic repertoire in Odissi.I interrupt the performance of this dance to begin this letter to you.
Kelubabu I enjoy dancing.
So the only time I can address those aspects of dance that I find less than enjoyable is when I am not dancing.
And so I interrupt the performance of this dance to address my critique through this letter to you. Earlier last year, German artist Maria Eichhorn closed down the gallery and office of London's Chisenhale Gallery in a work that took the title of its duration: 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours.
In 1969, the artist Robert Barry realised an art work that would be described as a work of conceptual art. Barry titled the work 'Closed Gallery'. A note was sent out as invitation to exhibitions in three galleries in Amsterdam, Turin and Los Angeles. It read: "During the exhibition the gallery will be closed."
Earlier in the twentieth century, the Tamil poet Papanasam Sivan stood, presumably, before a stone sculpture of a female deity in a South Indian temple, and sang:
Niraindaval yen mana koyilileyezhundaruliya tAye /Amma Ini Ada mudiyadu
Seated as you are in stoneStand up and show me your graceFor Mother, for you I will dance no more.
It is true that space for critique, institutional or personal, is enabled by ceasing the mode of production. Yet I do not want to cancel the performance, for that would irreversibly revoke spectatorship. I'd rather suspend spectatorship, so that the space for critical reflection can be opened up here, within the performance space.
This is not any performance space. This is a studio. It is typically a space for making theatrical performance. The space for theatrical performance is different from that other space for ritual performance, the temple.
The British Raj and an independent Indian nation-state were together responsible for discontinuing temple dances in India. And you, Kelubabu, in no small part, are responsible for transforming one such temple dance from a ritual performance to a theatrical performance, in re-situating it from temple to stage. I believe you called it Odissi.
In the early 1990s, the British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a series of documentaries on South Asian art. Surely enough, there was one on Odissi. Hosting this particular episode of the series in his English-accented English was the Pakistani actor, Zia Mohiyuddin.
Kelubabu, you and I haven't met in your lifetime. I began learning Odissi from Raka Maitra in Singapore in 2007. Raka was a student of your student Madhavi Mudgal, while in New Delhi. Madhavi Mudgal is, of course, Sharon Lowen's contemporary. As is your other shishya, Daksha Mashruwala.
In 2015 I had the opportunity to work with Dakshaji. She was a gracious and generous teacher to me, hosting me for a month in her home in Bombay. She adores you; reminiscing so fondly about you every now and then. Her living room wall carries a very large photograph of you probably taken while you were dancing. One night when I returned from a walk along Juhu beach, I found her sitting in the living room. Something about the dance that was then in the process of making was keeping her up. We talked briefly, almost perfunctorily about it. She then asked me, as if prompted by something specific: "Kiran, have you seen Kumar Sahani's film on guruji?"
I paused, to think what had led her to that association. I broke the brief silence with a lie. "No", I said. I don't know what had led me to that lie either. Her enthusiasm in sharing those filmic fragments on your life with me was almost child-like. Yet, simultaneously she talked me through parts of the film, carefully curating this late-night screening into my month-long learning and living experience with her. I secretly looked forward to that segment which appears around 20 minutes into the film.
On this second look, I realised that a big part of my affection for this segment of the film was towards your nonchalant singing while tending to the field. This second look made me wonder if an experience of art may indeed emerge as an inadvertent byproduct of consciously doing something else; if indeed an experience of art is precisely, and paradoxically, achieved through not seeking it at all.
By making this observation I do not mean to propose a romantic distance that perpetually separates artistic pursuit from artistic experience. But I do propose to reconsider what is at stake in this professional pursuit of art.
I propose to rewind a little, and to pause for a while at the moment when that benevolent benefactor approaches you, urges you into a full-time pursuit of art, and then offers you some extra money to help you ease into this transition.
Chapter 2Orders of Objectification
Sahani's cinematography strategically conceals your benefactor behind the camera’s lens, and in doing so Sahani’s cinematography self-consciously exposes the camera’s gaze as a tool of objectification. Yet Sahani persists in working against the confines of the frame of a portrait of a genius.
Kelubabu, in this frame you are frozen between the camera’s gaze and the vision of an other future. Indeed Sahani too is caught between his own vision and the gaze of an other. Sahani’s own benevolent benefactor is the Public Diplomacy Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, the commissioning body of this film, among others on art. India as an independent nation-state has strategically invested in objectifying dance as a cultural artefact. Since its birth in 1947, the nation-state has given special attention to the invention of the ‘classical’ cultural artefact. In its export value this classical cultural artefact would serve as trophy to brandish in colonial Europe’s face. Within the nation-state and its diaspora, this classical cultural artefact would serve as substrate to bind its people in shared identarian aspirations, although far from egalitarian.
A few months ago, while visiting Siva temples in the Kaveri delta, I saw this in the small village of Thirupugalur. Unable to read my mother tongue, I photographed it and sent the image to a friend and asked him what it read. KalaiKoil he transliterated. arTTemple? Temple of Art is more appropriate as an English translation he said. I preferred arTTemple for its curious conjunction at the T-s.
I was drawn into the image also for its curious conjunction: the only standing leg of a dancing Siva and the smooth curved head of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Yet the conjunction of the most internationally celebrated icon of India’s classical arts and the most internationally celebrated architect of the Indian nation-state, is housed in an abandoned arttemple where there is no dance. The shadows cast by the setting sun across the arTTemple’s dilapidated western wall only intensified the theatricality.
Let us return to that frozen frame of Sahani’s film. Kelubabu, as much as Sahani may have shown restraint objectifying you as genius, the Indian nation-state has shown no restraint in objectifying your Odissi as classical cultural artefact.
When I began learning Odissi, I found myself thrust amidst the identarian aspirations for this classical cultural artefact in the Indian diaspora in Singapore. Yet as Indians are a minority population on the island-state, outnumbered by the Malay and they by the Chinese, unlike India, the nation-state of Singapore treads very cautiously in its promotion of cultural artefacts in a sort of permanent anxiety to maintain racial harmony. While Singapore is not as culpable in objectifying dance as cultural artefact, since its birth in 1965 this younger nation-state has built itself on a self-made bedrock of economic success. This has meant instead that Singapore has objectified dance as cultural commodity.
As cultural commodity, dance in Singapore is subject to the economic imperatives of a capitalist commerce, always being skewed towards assuming a form whose marketability is impinged on superlatives: virtuosity, novelty, creativity, innovation and ultimately entertainment.
After ten years of living in Singapore, and after 4 years of dancing while also holding down a day job in the corporate world, I too found myself frozen in a frame; between dancing out identarian imperatives of the Indian nation-state and economic imperatives of the Singaporean nation-state. And like this actor who plays you in Sahani’s film, I too found a benevolent benefactor, in the nation-state of Germany.
After I left Singapore, I found myself in the German capital of Berlin in January of 2012, and I speak to you today from Berlin in December of 2017, as an associate member of the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences, at the University of Arts Berlin.
The editor and photographer Sadanand Menon begins his recent essay titled ‘From National Culture to Cultural Nationalism’ with a recollection: “Over two decades ago, I was present at an unusually crowded press conference in Delhi. Unusual because it was to launch the India tour of the celebrated international dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. The Indian media hardly ever grants more than cursory attention to artists, and here were over a hundred journalists crowding into the Azad Bhavan auditorium of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. The press conference was being conducted by Dr Georg Lechner, the then head of the Goethe-Institut. From the outset, Lechner was trying to get Pina to concede the ‘German-ness’ of her work. Pina would inhale from her cigarette, blow a couple of smoke rings and say, ‘No. No!’ A second time, too, she evaded the question. The third time when he said, ‘Come on, Pina, admit it, at bottom you are a German artist’, Pina looked him straight in the eye and said, “Georg, had I been a bird, would you have called me a German bird?”
During my visits to Indonesia to learn traditional Javanese dance, I was often confronted with what seemed to me a disturbing trend of keeping caged birds as a sort of symbol of beauty or prosperity or some such aspiration. "Why don't you free the bird?" I asked pointedly to one man. He was slightly taken aback by the confrontation. And then he half-apologetically responded: "Even if I opened the door, he doesn't want to fly."
On another day, while in the same place, I saw the bird doing this:
I was astonished. He was sitting silent and perfectly still, his wings thrown wide open. His sculptural commitment to the posture surprised me. Did he not know what to do next? Had the confinement of the cage rendered his wings vestiges? Does he have no memory of his capacity to fly?
By making these observations I do not mean to propose that the nation-state, be it Asian, European, or any other, is at hand in some larger conspiracy of objectification of art. But I do propose that the nation-state today feeds a huge proportion of the human appetite for identification. In recent history, the human mind’s capacity for identity has been deeply malnourished and impoverished by decades of slavery, colonisation, war and genocide. And in a post-colonial world, the very idea of a seemingly independent nation-state has become a somewhat myopic move to make mends.
Within such myopic borders it is little wonder that dance is being fetishized as cultural artefact and ossified as cultural commodity. I cannot help but think that in such atmospheres the very vitality of dance is undermined. Like fabric on a flag post, fluttering in a confined abandonment, dance-as-object ultimately only serves identarian or consumerist agendas.
How then to allow dance the freedom to break out of objectification?
Chapter 3:Trajectory of Inquiries
In my attempt at addressing this question, I first call for a suspension of spectatorship. Followed by a diagnosis of the objectification of dance.
In my diagnosis, today the cinematic image and its associated regime of visibility are culpable in this objectification of dance. As is the nation-state and its ongoing democratic project of building identarian factions that feed, among others, on objectified art. Embedded within these cultures of image and nation, much to my dismay, I have found the very sites of dance-making to be culpable in its own objectification. The studio where dance is made onto the body-minds of dancers is indeed ground zero.
Kelubabu, to my dismay in both India and Singapore, I have found teachers in dance schools and choreographers in dance companies alike fetishising dance as inherited artefact or marketed commodity. To my dismay I have found these teachers and choreographers turn apparatchik; that over zealous official working ever so diligently within fundamentally flawed systems, only to reinforce these systems through an uncritical, productivity overdrive.
So, in order to retain a vitality in dance making, I have had to step out of such pedagogic and production environments. In order to retain a vitality in dance making, Kelubabu, I have had to turn to a project of self-directed-learning. Since early 2014, I slowly began teaching myself Odissi dances from YouTube.
YouTube is an online digital repository for video content; perhaps one of the largest contemporary archive of moving images. YouTube, is where I first saw you. On this platform, I had started accumulating videos of dances that moved me to the point of wanting to dance them.
About a year into Odissi training, I somehow seemed convinced that aesthetic structure in the dance was rather superfluous and that to access a deeper complexity, I had to turn to music. In some strange associative sense, the tipping point for this decision was a solo performance by contemporary dance artist Xavier Le Roy, performed to Igor Stravinsky's music for Le Sacre du Prentemp. In Le Roy's The Rite of Spring, the dancer faces spectators and dances the part of the conductor of an otherwise absent orchestra.
I came home from that performance, and later that night expressed a decision to Matthew Rahaim, who I was in exchange with via email at the time.
Matthew was then a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley researching hand gestures in Hindustani Music. "Dear Kiran,", he wrote, "Congratulations on beginning your Hindustani vocal study.. Whitman wrote a poem about beginning study:" He quotes:
Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
Choosing not be occupied with costumes, jewellery and make-up, is admittedly a rejection of and resistance to a certain stylistic objectification of dance. At the outset these become merely cosmetic trappings that detract from the the more complex inquires at hand, I thought.
At one point, I even stripped naked to dance, but the residual movement of my free hanging genitals stood in the way of the more subtle and nuanced movement that was to become my focus. And so I kept the underwear on.
After stripping down, I turned the music down. It was a series of self-imposed control experiments. At this point, I was of the belief that music provided too cerebral a structure that tended to interrupt my focus on the somatic pathways in dance. And the silence did, no doubt, help me a great deal. For in the silence, I found time. And in this time I began a relationship of aesthetic inquiry with and within the dance. Through the task of reconstructing dance from image and sound, soon enough, the hyper-linked and hyper-networked world of the internet meant that I was not isolated with Odissi alone. As I spent more time viewing and returning to these videos, the algorithm of the archive would begin to make suggestions to view other videos. But by now it wasn’t the algorithm alone which had begun to make associations. Indeed when it came down to reconstructing traditional dance from digital image and sound outside the confines of canonical pedagogy and production circuits, many intuitive connections had begun to emerge between dances that seemed otherwise stifled by stylistic borders.
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Indeed, outside the confines of canonical pedagogy and production circuits, this aesthetic inquiry at once expanded from Odissi into Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam; five of Indian’s self-professed classical dances, all reconstructed from defunct temple dance traditions. Indeed by extension, this aesthetic inquiry flows beyond the political borders of the Indian nation-state into other parts of South and South East Asia which were also sites of temple dance traditions, although in varying states of discontinuation and reconstruction. These include Kandyan, Khon, Khmer and Javanese dances all drawn out from by now defunct temple dance traditions.
In this aesthetic inquiry into a common form underscoring these multiple styles of dance, I find myself running into at least two barriers.
One a political barrier, and the other an epistemic barrier. And in order to further the aesthetic inquiry these barriers would need to be broken through further critical and conceptual inquires respectively.
The critical inquiry is into the politics of reconstructions and representations of each of these styles by individual artists and individual nation-states. Admittedly the politics of reconstruction today conceals the objectification of dance within broader discourses of post-colonial nation-building, and this demands an unpacking in its own right.
Yet beyond this political barrier, lies a further epistemic barrier which can be circumscribed by asking the question: is there a significant difference in the nature of temple dancing than that of other dancing? This calls for a conceptual inquiry into the role of extinct ritual dances within defunct temples across this geography.
Together these three strands of inquiry, the aesthetic, critical and conceptual, are helping me navigate across barriers constructed by continental nation-states, across the canonical practice of classical repertoires, and to drift instead into the open waters of the Indian ocean, to sail nonchalantly upon heaves of breath, and to sing a silent song.
Chapter 4:Return to Reconstruction
Kelubabu, I admire your work in reconstructing Odissi. I value what seems to me to have been a multi-modal approach in working through sculpture, painting, writing, singing and drumming, all in order to construct dance. And I propose to unabashedly do what you did.Nevertheless, for me working through the three strands of aesthetic, critical and conceptual inquiries presents a newer problem of working with vastly incommensurable materiality that often times even efface other.
Therefore in a pragmatic effort to synthesise these aesthetic, critical and conceptual inquires, I have had to make a new space.
I have had to make a new space by imagining an archipelago somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and then going on to speculatively (re)construct dances of this archipelago.
The making of this space is for me an emancipatory gesture; the making of a space at once imaginary, yet geographically situated, part anthropological field, part archeological site, part historic, part utopic, part palimpsest, part carte blanc, part ritual, part dream.. yet totally urgent.
While I resist the gesture of naming this space just yet, I do commit to accumulating the various strands of inquiries into a container: Archipelago Archives.
Like a sea shell gently pressed to my ears, the Archipelago Archives ask if there can possibly be alternative imaginations for the efficacy of dance within our lives today? And like the sea shell gently pressed to my ears, I trust that the voice of the archives will grow in resonance with duration and attention.
Kelubabu, through the next years I intend to carefully keep depositing my inquiries on defunct temple dances into the waters of the Indian Ocean. So far, from the reclaimed coastlines of Singapore, from the Kaveri delta in peninsular India and from the island of Java, I have begun this process of archiving into the belly of water.
Chapter 5In the belly of water
I first went to Surakarta to meet a dancer and ask him to be my teacher. I said to him that I have a strong desire to learn a very slow dance. I had witnessed a Javanese ritual dance, and was moved by its inherent stillness. He sat cross legged at one corner of the large pendhapa, his spine curved and active like a head of a serpent. He was a presence of astute geometry. Yet a softness in his gaze betrayed this geometry. He heard me out. He smiled and said: I will teach you the dance of the soft male. What is a soft male, I retorted.
Arjuna is, was his response.But Arjuna was a warrior prince; the ace archer form the Mahabharata.But his polarities were paradoxical.
Once Arjuna was put in a position of assuming a disguise so drastic that his adversaries would be unable to discern him. Arjuna travels the wilderness, thirsty for advice for a suitable disguise. Death, who sees through all disguise, takes the form of a body of water and just as Arjuna descends for a drink, Death speaks to him as his own liquid reflection: Take the form of you deepest desire and you will remain concealed. Arjuna heeds the advice. In order to remain effectively invisible, the warrior prince takes on the form of a dancer. Wrihatnolo. Wrihatnolo embodies equally Arjuna's mastery of body and mind, yet within her, he remains completely invisible.
Each Wednesday in Surakarta, I would go to the Mankunegaran Palace, to witness the open morning practice sessions. Javanese court dance and gamelan music. The dancers in the palace were dancing the female that morning. The polished marble floor created a liquid surface upon which the females dance upon their own reflections.
In this palace of by now doubled females, my eyes were drawn to one in particular: perhaps the youngest of them all. His feet moved on and off the floor with a calculated grace. His knees were bent. This allowed his upper body to float, as if in relative stillness. His head was bent and his face was stoic, almost disengaged. His dance was not one of expression. He was dancing the female as if she was a memory, an involuntary reflex extended in duration through it slowness. It was as though he was trying to freeze her into a stillness, in anticipation that his yet to unfold male adulthood would show little sympathy towards preserving her memory.
Perhaps this was the soft male. An inevitably fluid figure dancing a lament. I think it was Rumi who wrote in Persian that the reed (the flute made out of a weed) is only capable of singing a lament. A list ament of separation from the river-bed, separation from the belly of water. As a curse to all men and women who have inflicted upon it this pain of partition, the reed will offer them not song, but only a cry; the lament of the reed; nawah-e-neh.
It was nearly eight years ago. I was dancing in a temple in Singapore. And after the performance, a woman came up to me. She thanked me for the performance, and said that she really enjoyed my dancing. I must have smiled sheepishly. She then dragged out a boy who was by now hiding behind her, and told me that he was her Son. She said how glad she was that he had had the chance to watch me dance, for its not very often, she added, that one gets to watch manly dancing. I recall that I did not respond to her comment. I recall also that you, Kelubabu, were a gotipua Dancer. I recall that as a boy, you would dress as female and dance.
But in the time since that dance in the temple, I have rehearsed several responses to that mother’s comment. In the time since that dance in the temple, these rehearsed responses have transformed through confusion, angst, even indignation, and into a hopefulness.
I hope to tell the boy that I have found dancing to be too fluid to be contained within inevitably shallow moulds of identity, and that I hope that he too will dance. And when he dances I hope that he too will find himself in the belly of water.
I hope, one day, to be his Mother. And that night, as I tuck him into bed, lean over, and turn off the lights, I hope to sing for him the lament of the reed:
Sun ke neh kehti hai apni dastaanDard-e-hijran se hui hai noh khwan
Kaat Kar laye nehsitan se yahanMard-o-zann meri nawah se khoonchkan
Jo bhi apni asal se hoga judaHoga vasl-e-khish uska mudda
Yeh nawah-e-neh usike dum se haiZindagi ki lay usike dum se hai
© Kiran Kumar 2019