Irony, loneliness, grief and terror come together in a bathtub in Rathimalar Govindarajoo’s two-minute dance film. A work of austere symbolism, the film was made in May two years ago as all of humanity entered a terrorized confinement. There was a pathogen that could suck all the breath out of the body with little warning.
The film’s mudras say classic Bharatanatyam, but everything else says the opposite – the claustrophobic neon-lit setting, the short costume walkthrough, and the dancer dipping in and out of inches of water with a gasp.
The bath had helmed India’s first pandemic line dance film series, Boxed, released in May 2020. An initiative of arts platform and e-magazine Narthaki, the series sought to provide an alternative platform for dancers as all the performative ecosystem was collapsing. It was a time when dancers struggled to create work “born out of a denial of space, of lights, of people, of all the things artists literally live off of,” as dancer Leela Samson put it.
For seven weekends, Boxed webcast 40 dance films set in the most mundane corners of homes, in everyday clothes: there was the ingenious work of Bharatanatyam dancer Kumar Sarveshan atop a kitchen counter, the flowing silambam (short stick) choreography of Palani Murugan to the bleak sound of water dripping into overflowing buckets, and the prone body of Surjit Nongmeikapam negotiating an up and down staircase.
The initiative captured the spirit of the times perfectly. An explosion of cinematic creativity has marked the Indian dance scene since the start of the pandemic, with the lens and the editing table serving as co-choreographers. Starting August 25, 67 films showcasing the South Asian dance scene will stream online at In/Motion Chicago’s International Dance Festival. Organized by dance specialist Arshiya Sethi, the festival, which will be webcast in three segments until September 1, offers an eclectic menu – films illustrating classical and contemporary dance; films as short as 30 seconds and as long as 22 minutes; films shot in houses, forests, fields, on rooftops and even on top of a huge dump in Delhi.
“Cinematic dance is not just about dance: it needs the mediation of technology,” said Sethi, who founded the Kri Foundation, an organization that connects the arts with scholarship and society, and gives conferences on dance films for more than two decades. “It’s a genre that you can’t play on stage, but which holds immense possibilities. For example, I have yet to watch a closer and more courageous exploration of rasa de vibhatsa (disgust) like Lalit Khatana’s choreography in the middle of a dump.
Most of these shorts were commissioned for arts festivals such as Serendipity and Ghora or World Dance Alliance events that had gone digital during lockdown. Last weekend, Pondicherry hosted Manifest, an event that brought together three classical dancers and filmmakers from around the world.
This shift from offline to online has produced a new league of multimedia dance stars who dare to settle for minimalism, have the courage to let go, and dispense with the usual pitfalls of show business. Among them are Kathak and contemporary dancer Keerthi Kumar. His work for the Boxed series, bean bagshows how little dance needs to connect with a viewer.
“In a time when you were worried about how life was going, the beanbag is a natural choice for a dance prop,” said Kumar, who was also the creative designer and editor of the Boxed series. . “I spent a lot of time there, just doing nothing, being active, planning. I used two phone cameras, one above and one in front of the beanbag using sticks and strings for jugaad. But the choreography always kept the camera in mind, it was already in my head when I started.
Kumar is now a specialist, called upon to rework stage performances into video works. “I had started working on the new medium in 2008, but the lockdowns gave dance films a huge boost,” he said.
Poetry in motion
Filming dance is a completely different exercise from making a dance film. The first is a work of documentation but the second treats dance as Indian cinema has done for decades, putting the camera center stage with the dancer.
Some of the most compelling films in the In Motion curation are about making the viewer feel, not just watching them passively. Among these are the remarkable work of Paramita Saha and Pintu Das, Long day trip into night, in which a couple plays out a numbing day of isolation in a 3X3 bedroom. They work, read, sleep, cook, fight, make love in rapid, rigorously choreographed movements with no music except the sounds of a ghost town. The outside world is inches away, framed by a window, with no possibility of escape.
Shot with a phone perched between two roof slabs – which sometimes fell – and no editing, Long day was an exploration of a surreal phase where time stretched out into infinity, says Saha.
“As dancers, we used to position ourselves as exotic creatures who perform at a distance from the audience, demanding distant adulation,” Saha said. “Now we have opened spaces, sharing them with the public. The film changes our access to our exposed body, providing depth as well as selective visibility.
The rising tide of video work has also produced very strong political work. by Vikram Iyengar Water places, using Parul Khakhar’s elegy to the dead in the Ganges during the second wave of Covid, comes like a punch in the stomach. And the highly acclaimed work of Bimbavati Devi, fingerprints in the bloodconnects the women’s agrarian movement of Manipur and the rape of Thangjam Manorama Devi to the mythical worlds of the Meitei goddesses.
But not all of the dance films produced in the past two years have been jugaad-generated and focused on realism. Some are crafted with cinematic finesse and stunning views. Nongmeikapam’s work, Samnaba (Merge), for example, is a hypnotic work that crosses forests, expanses of water and mysterious interiors, matter of dreams and nightmares.
Harmony and symmetry
Cinema and dance actually have a long and deep connection in India, art historians point out. It started in the silent movie era, then went through decades of eclectic creativity and technology to become the dazzling viewing experience it is today.
“After cinema came the Film Division, which documented Indian art for Indians, much like what Pathe was doing,” Sethi said. “Later, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the NCPA [National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai] And remember, the very first inaugural series of programs on Doordarshan in 1959 included Vyjayanthimala’s Bharatanatyam. So what’s happening now with dance films is like a circle is closing.
Among the films with memorable dance documentaries, outside of the Film Division’s work, was Satyajit Ray Bala on the genius of Balasaraswathi. by Arun Khopkar Sanchari spoke through Leela Samson about the philosophy and aesthetics of classical dances. Sankalp Meshram Lasya Kavya on Alarmel Valli and Sumantra Ghoshal’s invisible sequence about Malavika Sarukkai were some of the other films of this genre.
But dance film has different demands – it needs a bit of perspective from the dancer, a tolerance for vulnerability, room for imperfection. One of the most human aspects of dance shorts is how little anxiety there is around the notion of an ideal body, face or posture.
These are elements that classical dancers, with their training in prescribed grammar and aesthetics, find it more difficult to adopt. Sethi remembers struggling in the early 2000s to organize dance film festivals. It wasn’t until 2006 that Kathak dancer Iyengar’s breakthrough dance film starring Debashree Bhattacharya, Bahudhapast.
“There are reasons why classical artists are not immediately comfortable with dance films: the ideas of auchitya (correction), harmony and symmetry are ingrained in our vocabulary and muscle memory” , Ratnam said. “We are trained to be soloists with all the focus on us and our art is tightly woven with fixed texts, music and sacred poetry and we cannot do without the spoken word. If you remove all of these elements, we are deprived. I’ve had a lot of disappointing work where the dancers were just doing in their living room what they do on stage.
But over time, many things have changed. Sanjukta Wagh’s holi creates a black and white luminescent visual experience around a traditional Kathak composition. Sattariya dancer Prerona Bhuyan pays homage to poet Bhabendra Nath Saikia with the tattered cityscape that opens around a terrace. The most spectacular of the In/Motion collection is probably that of Katyayini Kanak. Mahakali created for the Ghora digital festival where the spotlight was on the subordinate female deities. Using earth colors and close shots of facial abhinaya and body language for shocking effect, Kanak weaves together the stories of Kali and Kaal (time/death).
Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas made the decision quite early in the lockdown to avoid the live-streaming works route. “Much of the early digital work then had no reference to what was happening around us,” she said. “I was working on Immersed I was using the Krishna theme then, but I was only immersed in anxiety. So we [her company, Drishtikon] danced through homes, spaces and eras and with excerpts from previous stage performances brought together in up to 30 dance shorts such as From inside from inside. This work has been as much a release for our creativity as it has been a support system for each other.
The suffocating terror of the pandemic has subsided and the proscenium stage is alive again. Dancers are busy rehearsing, choreographing and organizing their schedules. The film can never replace the buzz of an auditorium, the artists say, but it brought them closer to a new, unseen audience. “I think every play should be planned with two lives – a stage life and a film life,” Sethi said. “Covid has taught us that.”
Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.