By Madhusree Chatterjee
The interpretation of mythology in Indian classical dance has been open to assimilation and redefining of core philosophies to portray the travails and realities of contemporary times- in landscapes that are spatially, sociologically and temporally fluid.
A classical ballet production, “Meera” by noted choreographer, dancer, script writer and producer Sobha Deepak Singh, the director of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra in New Delhi, has expanded the purview of the interpretation of Meera Bai’s devotion to Lord Krishna to discourse about contemporary issues like gender empowerment, cultural enlightenment of women, freedom to live life on own terms and standing up to conventions and male domination in feudal frameworks of a patriarchal society.
On Saturday (May 10, 2014), Sobha Deepak Singh recreated the joy de vivre - the underlying emotion in the devotion of Meera Bai- a princess from Rajasthan who was forced to marry despite her personal reservations against a material union on earth because she had given herself to the service of Lord Krishna, to whom she was wedded in spirit. The dance drama which began with Mira Bai’s early devotion to Lord Krishna and her wedding ended with her liberation and the beginning of minstrels’ Krishna cult.
Sobha Deepak Singh gave Meera a hybrid designer look with commissioned ensembles that combined contemporary bridal wear with traditional resplendence. The costumes stood out as much as the musical score which were set to foot-tapping modern music – a la Bollywood. The body movements was a cross-oeuvre language that assembled from the traditional Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Chhau, Gujarati gaarba and Mathura raas leela nritya.
It was enhanced by nritya and natya abhinaya – two key theatrical precepts of Indian dance dramas that engages the participants in dialogue.
“I wanted to portray the Meera in you and me. When she could break away from the purdah , why can’t a woman today break out from the concrete world. The singing and dancing Meera Bai depicts freedom from male domination. In fact, my choreography has two Meera Bai- one that marries a prince and bows to a man and the other, her soul which saves her,” Sobha Deepak Singh told this writer in an interview on the eve of her dance ballet festival in the national capital on May 10 (2014).
The 71-year-old producer and choreographer, who is an accomplished Kathak dancer and director, has been contributing to Indian performance culture by training new dancers and producing a innovative corpus dance ballet that link Indian traditions to the post-globalised modernism. Her school has produced legions of accomplished dancers- who made made careers in performing arts.
The ballet festival which began with the production Meera Bai, comprised a package of four mythological dance theatres which included the lores of Sri Durga, Karna and Kumara Sambhava. The dance theatre festival is an annual event on Sobha Deepak Singh’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra’s roster. The dramas rarely change in content – assimilating from religious and mythological lores; but what sets them apart from degenerating into banal repetition is the way the choreographer packages history with modern embellishments and new sensitivities.
“Meera’s life is an allegory for most woman centuries later. Her name lives on. She poses a challenge to the feudal order which is still relevant today,” Sobha Deepak Singh said. In her dance ballet “Karna”, which is divided into 10 acts spanning a period in the epic “Mahabharata” when Kunti, the mother of the Pandava princes, gives birth to Surya Dev’s illegitimate child, Sobha Deepak Singh digresses from the conventional idiom of classical dance to use Mayurbhaj Chhau, an ethnic genre from Orissa, to tell an essentially Hindu tale of a royal battle between brothers, where suta-putra (foster son of a chariot maker and driver) Karna appears as the dark horse destined to live and die as an outsider, despite his greatness.
“The character of Karna as the creator of the epic Vyasa describes in Mahabharata is a deep study between man and his destiny, nature and nurture, deemed and the redeemed. The epic does not present to any characters other than Karna circumstances so hostile – it is as if providence has been deliberately unkind to the noble hero,” Shobha Deepak Singh said.
She glorifies the spirit of Karna’s sacrifice by describing it as “a demand that he accepted with euphoric elation because he saw in it his own fulfillment”. “The ballet is dedicated to all the Karna in us – natural and unanatural – who have been denied their rightful place in the social milieu seen in its correct perspective,” the choreographer said, explaining the significance of the ballet.
“People are judged by the money they have, but Karna is beautiful because he does not have anything,” she said.
The narrative of the outsider extends to yet another of her productions, “Kumara Sambhava”, the story of the son born to Shiva and Parvati who rids the world of evil. Kaumar Sambhava or Karthikeya is an outsider, who spends his time in warring dark forces unlike Ganesha, his sibling, who finds his place within the folds of the pantheon as the remover of obstacles and redeemer. He is the most popular face in the clan of divine children born to Shiva and Parvati.
Sobha Deepak Singh paints her Kumara Sambhava as a Shiva reincarnate, who is destined to destroy the demon of the mountains, Taraka. The ballet, inspired by Kalidasa’s epic poem, Kumara Sambhava, is the celebration of the “love story of Shiva and Parvati set against the backdrop of natural splendor of the Himalayas and the birth of Karthikeya”. It is a romance for all times which explores two cardinal rasas in Indian dance – the shringara rasa and veer rasa -within the format of the natyarasas.
“The Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra had presented Kumara Sambhava 50 years ago. It has been an ardent wish of my mother (late) Sumitra Charat Ram to redo the ballet to make it relevant to the concerns of the present day,” Sobha Deepak Singh said. Her new interpretation of Kumara Sambhava speaks of the possibilities in human life beginning with birth, romance, perpetuation of the life cycles and passing away.
Indian modern dance captures this essence of timelessness, the choreographer said. Like the epics to the present, the growth of the body language in Indian dance combines a diverse range of movements from “our tremendous” reservoir of genres and styles.
“Critic and cultural theorist Ananda Coomaraswamy says the most important thing India can give to the rest of the world its Indianness,” she pointed out. This Indianness is cosmopolitan whose boundaries can be broken to tailor to contemporary requirements.
“Some people are successfully breaking this boundary in Indian dance. Kathak dancer Akram Khan for example is amazing. I had the opportunity to watch his rendering of Rati-Madan and Dhritarashtra-Gandhari. In the latter, the couple used a rod connecting to their brows to convey the idea of inner vision and commune of the mind. Dhritarashtra was blind and his wife Gandhari was blindfolded- as a result, the communication between the two had to rise above the physical in a blind world. The word that describes it the best is ‘gnosis’,” Sobha Deepak Singh said.
The choreographer is firm that contemporary western dance genres cannot define modern language in Indian dance. “There is more confusion in fusion. As dancer Suzanne Linke observed once when she came to India for a workshop that she wanted to take from the Indianness and choreograph within the Indian framework- and not impose western traditions,” Sobha Deepak Singh said.
Linke pointed out that “Indian contemporary dancers should carry their classical vocabulary to new levels to become modern- Indian contemporary dance cannot not grow by itself away from its classical folds”.
“Chandralekha was the best choreographer I have ever met- there was nothing western in her idiom. She used yoga, kalaripayatu, ballet, bharatnatyam and kathak to a innovative mix,” the choreographer said. “I don’t believe in modern Indian dance. I treat them as examples of tradition that have been modified”.
Sobha Deepak Singh has been trying to document this history of Indian classical and modern dance for the last 50 years with photography and texts. Her years as a photographer of theatre and dance since the 1970s have led to a new pictorial anthology of Indian dance – “Dancescapes” (Roli Books) which captures at random nearly 100 dancers on stage in a loose chronicle of the movements in Indian dance across classicism to the modern.
“In the 1970s, the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra had only one photographer, who photographed dance dramas with a manually operated camera. It was time-taking. By the time, he tried to photograph Rama breaking the sacred bow in “Ramayana”, a theatrical rendition of the epic, Rama had already broken the bow. What came to the press were very static. That was when I decided to photograph the dance theatres with a Nikon camera. Over the years, I developed a third eye and gradually became the photographer of the dance school,” she said.
In the last 50 years, Sobha Deepak Singh has built a formidable bank of 400,000 photographs.
“I never thought I would be a photographer. In 1992, I joined Ebrahim Alkazi’s Living Theatre. Before each show (in plays like Virasat, Royal Hunt of the Sun, Three Sisters, Three Greek Tragedies, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman), he wanted me to put together a series of photographs of each show- not only of the performances but also of the make-up. I would spend reels in the process. Alkazi said I would be the professional photographer of Living Theatre. We staged eight plays together – and I photographed every one of them,” Sobha Deepak Singh reminisced.
Alkazi opened a door to Shobha Deepak Singh when he organized a solo display of 80 of her Living Theatre stills at the Sridharani Gallery in the mid-Nineties. “If it had not been for Ebrahim Alkazi, I would not have been so passionate about photography,” the choreograph said.
Sobha Deepak Singh’s photographs are colourful abstractions of human figures on stage frozen in the energy of vigorous movement. She uses a “slow shutter speed” to capture the motion in all its shades – and breaks down the basic colour codes in the process to illusions of rainbow distortions. This technique takes her photographs to the realm of art.
The choreographer has taken a break from documentation to research her new production, “Kamayani”.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)