February 10, 2014

An interview with Manjusri Chaki Sircar

As Manjusri Chaki Sircar responded to a series of questions framed  by Sruti critic and correspondent LEELA VENKATARAMAN.

Has your work as a cultural anthropologist given your dance a special dimension? If so, how?

My travel and long stays abroad with my husband amidst different cultures made me more aware of my own roots. While giving lecture-demonstrations on classical dance, I had to interpret dance in the context of the culture of my host society. Gradually I became interested in the comparative study of culture, especially of rituals, religion, and performing arts. This is how I came to be an anthropologist. My experience in the field, among women's dance associations of the I jaw tribe of the Niger Delta (Nigeria), and subsequently in Manipur and rural Bengal especially, gave me interesting material for choreography and for the analysis of human behaviour in dance.

Later, my work became greatly influenced by a series of rituals that I witnessed or studied in ethnographies. I also became conscious of women's collective role and power in a male-oriented society. I give some examples:

* The ritual scene of Tomari Matir Kanya, showing the rites of passage with Prakriti walking through a human tunnel of Bhairavis to come out as a woman with full sexuality, is a reflection of the Yatmul (New Guinea) puberty ritual.

* The scene of child-birth and the collective support of the community of women in Aranya Amrita and in Charoiveti is based on my knowledge gained in rural India and in many industrial societies.

* The lamentation of the female birds in my latest work, The Vanishing Mallards, is from the primitive ritualistic lamentation and portrayal of human agony that I observed in rural India and Africa.

What made you decide on a career of dance rather than teaching or doing something in the academic line?

At one period of my life (1973-1979), I had a real conflict of priority. However, as I realized gradually how much anthropology I could use in my dance, my desire for an academic career ceased. None the less, I have maintained my free-lance writing, where my academic background comes in handy.

What do you think of the themes in traditional dance? Are they irrelevant? If so how?

I have a deep respect for stylised classical movements. Classical dance recalls our glorious past and provides an escape from the hard reality of today. [But] I do not consider classical dance per se a product of a modern As Creative mind, nor do I find it socially relevant as presented on stage.

Do you feel that a dancer has to make a social statement each time in her dance? How do you fed about art for art's sake and artas a response to the world we live in?

A social statement in dance, as in other performing arts, need not come as a slogan. But a living art is a reflection of its time. The body language of dance, like any other language, must also change with the times. Modern sculpture, modern painting or literature does not live in the past. Why should dance? When I recall performances of Balasaraswati, Shanta Rao and Rukmini Devi and of Kalanidhi Narayanan presented recently, I recognise the deep bhakti element which transcends mere physicality and elevates the human experience to a higher level.

However, the entire concept of nayika bhava of classical dance is now a glamorous saleable commodity in the market of art. The clear message is that a woman is an object of pleasure. Her submission to the Lord is nothing but the expression of a submissive female in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, a powerful female could not be an ordinary woman, but has to be a mother goddess. I believe that a dancer today has the moral obligation to get out of this environment.

What is your attitude to the Indian myths? Do you think that the man in the myth rather than the myth in man can be highlighted to contemporary relevance in dance treatment?

Indian myths are products of a male-dominated brahmanical patriarchy. Once I have become conscious of the underlying ethos of most of our classical themes, it has become increasingly difficult for me to accept these in their traditional forms. We must reinterpret or redefine our myths. Tagore's Chitrangada is a fine example of reinterpretation of an old legend. A myth is  more harmful in a society where it comes under the camouflage of religion.

What has been your approach to the adaptation of movements from different classical traditions and from martial art traditions in creating what you call Navanritya?

In the classical dance of India with different body lines, the centering of the spine is always the same. I find also that all the movements are within a circle, with a particular flexibility of the torso and the spine. The movement makes a figure of eight (o»). The centre of energy of this swaying movement from right to left and left to right is within the stomach, but there is no separate movement of the shoulders. The swaying lines differ from one style to another, ranging from shorter and subtler swaying to wider and powerful lines. When I integrate movements I try to innovate something new out of the old.

The cradle of humanity in Charaiveti AVINASH PASRICHA .However, this is only the beginning of the process. While we use the basic principles of sthanaka-s or tribhanga-s, I am not interested in reproducing an old movement. Sometimes we may use a yoga asana or a particular karana from a sculpture to create an entirely new movement. If necessary, we may use mudra-s or movements from classical dance (but taken out of context) in the way modern poetry is enriched and enhanced by the judicious use of Sanskrit words if these could be blended well. Sometimes the movements are original, at other times they might have been taken from folk entertainment or they could even be movements from everyday life. But all these are created or used, grounded as they are in a discipline derived from classical dance or martial arts. For example, in a parade of captives, shrieking in pain as they are given lashes, I have used 'alidha' of Kalaripayattu for the walk of the captives, while the hanging head and the mobility of the upper portion of the body could not materialise without a proper training in the centering of the spine. In our vocabulary of 11 different water movements that we use, only four are derived from classical dance, others are entirely original. But these would not have been possible without a basic knowledge of the yoga asana-s and of a disciplined body.

You have codified the movements evolved by you, haven't you?

Yes, when I started transmitting my style to the young dancers at Dancers' Guild,it became important to codify the movements. My daughter Ranjabati, then in her teens (and a high school graduate), helped me a great deal to identify eight groups of movements, namely: Bhoomisparsha; Madhyabhangi; Sthanakaveda; Tribhangaveda; Ullamphana; Chalanagati; Bhangisamashthi and Urdhagati. I prefer to give Sanskrit nomenclature to the movements as a frame of reference.

We do not have a separate categorisation for Satvikabhinaya, for in each of the movements we emphasise anubhava (feeling) and we create both kathora (severe) and komala (soft) movements by changing the flow of body energy and the mood. No movement is made without the appropriate motivation. However, we have made no effort to create a gharana. Navanritya is the contemporary way of looking at dance. The youthful energy of my daughter and other dancers have helped to explore a range of vigorous movements of ullamphana and urdhagati, etc. Each group of Navanritya is open to addition of new movements.

How do you relate the dance to music? Do you work closely with the musician or do you explain the core of what you need, allow him or her to provide the score and then start composing movements to suit the music?

I make ensembles of music, sloka-s, and poetry from different sources for use in my work. We have two music directors and I work closely with them. They watch the rehearsals and create the music. I would very much like to work more closely with percussionists and musicians, but this has not been possible for lack of funding.

Do you agree with Chandralekha's ideas of demystifying dance? In what waydoes your approach differ from hers, apart from the language of movement- Bharatanatyam-based in her case and inspired by several sources in your case?

Demystification of dance is not anything novel to me. My early exposure to Tagore's spiritual humanism and his revolutionary images of women, particularly in the last 15 years of his life, gave me enough material to express dance as a modern tool. Tagore's inspiration helped me to create works on human struggles to save forests from depredation, horrors of war, redefinition of male-female relationships, rebellion of the outcasts of society and assertion by them of their human rights, and other such themes. As regards the relationship between the sexes, in dance I would like to see it portrayed as a harmonious one.

I am impressed by the sophistication of Chandralekha's productions. But I feel rather uncomfortable at the way women are used in these. On the one hand, she talks about demystification: yet, on the other, in her work, women's body signals a message of objectification in a manner of re-mystification. This is very obvious in Yantra. Female sexuality overtly dominating over the  male— depicted almost in explicit detail-- does not offer any harmonious sex-role model that we aspire in modern times. Why is it necessary to rely on tantra yantra if we want really to overcome mystification of the human body? I also feel that it is harmful to use the model of Sakti to counteract male oppression in patriarchy. It is perhaps not possible to create modern art with an ancient tool. Our classical dance, despite its highly developed technique, expresses by and large the age-old ethos. One has to modernise the tool, the medium of expression, to be able to create dance for the modern age. Sculpture, painting and literature- all have entered the modern age. Chandralekha's images of women are contrary to what we should expect from her preachings. What she is doing is to replace the objectification of nayika bhava by another objectification in the shape of overt eroticism at a stark physical level.

Would you agree that, although you are least parochial, there is a Bengal'identity that is strong in your work? How did Tagore influence you? And how did you respond to Uday Shankar's work?

First, at present I share very little of Bengali dance culture. I have worked for a long time to develop a dance vocabulary which can cross the language barrier. When I create dance to Tagore's words, I do not transliterate, but try to convey something beyond verbal language. The poetry triggers a great inspiration for the movements. Second, Tagore has been the main source of inspiration. However, I was not a student of Santiniketan. My understanding of Tagore came through my reading of his works. I always found Tagore to be an universal man. Unfortunately, Santiniketan performances remained rather parochial.

I have found tremendous moral support for my work from the audience and critics. This support has helped me to sustain my creative energy against vehement criticism by some so-called Tagoreans for my rethinking of choreography or redefining Tagore. Third, I was never in contact with Uday Shankar's style. As a college student I was deeply impressed by his performances (mid-fifties to sixties). I was also exposed to dance culture of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). I grew up as a dancer with the background of the above three traditions of creative dancing. However, I was never involved with any of their dancing. Besides, my training in classical styles helped me to develop a dance language of my own. My years abroad too gave enough freedom from the restrictions of both classical and Santiniketan styles. I could not find any definite methodology of training in any of the above styles. At present, Shankar's style appears rather loose without the charismatic presence of Uday Shankar. One finds an occasional flare of the Shankar style, but the style has become too diffused to be recognised.

What has been the reception to your work in different countries and in India?

The reception in different countries has been overwhelming. In South American countries, the variation in reaction was interesting. In Mexico, people were moved by the intense and passionate bond between mother and daughter. The culture of Maria worship offers a deep emotional response to the maternal figure. In Cuba, Toman Math Kanya was appreciated as the rebellious expression of the oppressed. In the Philippines, the audience voiced surprise after watching something so modern as Aranya Amrita and still so Indian. In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and China, there were comments of appreciation for presenting creations of the modern age. Many people told me that they had been watching classical dances for many years and now feel very happy that India is producing dancers [representing a contemporary idiom]. Similar responses were found in the U.S. and the U.K. I was always inspired by the responses in Delhi, Bombay, Konark, Ujjain and Lucknow.

How do you go about the creative process? Do you work in isolation? Or with your group, with ideas evolving from different people?

I prefer to work with the group. However, I am used to making sketches of my choreography beforehand, which may evolve into various patterns during rehearsals. I discuss the main elements of the theme with the dancers, with constant analysis of movements. Most of the time I prefer to use the repertoire of dance vocabulary already existing in our stock. At present, Ranjabati offers critical comments which I find very useful. Sometimes we choreograph a piece jointly, for example, Aranya Amrita, Tasher Desh, Charoiveti. Working together is helpful to break the monotony of the style.

However, I continue reworking the old pieces...

Interviewed By

Top