True art has no boundaries

Maanasa Visweswaran shares her experience of attending a Baithak @ Classes Concert

We often hear this phrase, “We live in the era of access”. But in my one year experience of living in India as a student and attending Indian classical concerts, I’ve noticed that the audiences mostly belonged to specific social classes or age groups. I wondered, if the classical arts are meant for the purpose of transcending any social construct, why does it still remain within its exclusive sphere of mostly well-to-do patrons? I have often heard, “Oh the masses only like commercial music and have no patience for classical.” But is this criticism fair? Isn’t one’s sense of aesthetics influenced by what we have heard or seen while growing up? If we keep classical arts within elites spaces and ticketed venues, then we continue to restrict its appreciation to only those who belong to families who have always been connoisseurs. 

That’s when the visit to the Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj school (Kasarwadi), gave me an insight into the capacity of classical arts to move the hearts of children. With starry-eyed enthusiasm, they watched carefully as Srabani explained the history of Odissi and format of the repertoire. 

But the real fun started when she explained the importance of Taals. She presented Megh Pallavi, which was set to Jhampa Taal, “Dhati Nam, Dhage Dhati Nam/Tati Nam, Dhage Dhati Nam”. The children were excited to clap to the Bols of the Taal, as she danced. Taals are not restricted to classical music forms. Every composed song has a definitive time structure. So even if the melody is alien, the response to rhythm is innate and natural. Even if the dance were an absolutely new experience, keeping the Taal would engage the audience and enable them to feel more connected to the performer. (This is why people enthusiastically keep Talam in Carnatic concerts, to participate in the performance in a way.) Megh pallavi was the perfect selection for the monsoon season. Although Pallavis are technically Nrtta, or pure dance items, this melody gives the dancer scope to express the joy of rains and denote the rippling of waters. The children had become slightly restless by this time, but keeping Taal helped to sustain that connection. Some of the kids were trying to hold the Mayura Mudra, which was the most commonly used Mudra of the pallavi. 

Full house with students, parents and teachers with eyes glued to the performer

Srabani then explained the Abhinaya item in the repertoire. This was an unfamiliar name, so she asked the children, “Do you all know acting?” The children answered enthusiastically that they knew what it was. Srabani described that one can narrate a story through expressions and movement. She was going to dance to Dashavatar, the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. So she demonstrated that when she places one hand on top of the other with the thumbs sticking out and making a circular motion, she would be denoting a fish. Similarly, when she clasps the palms together and sticks out thumbs, index and little fingers, she would be denoting Kurma avatar, or the tortoise. This was another element of fun for the children as they copied the mudras, showed it to their friends and tried to help one another. When she enacted the piece, the girls sitting around me were trying to guess the animal she was describing. Some of the kids were aware of the stories, perhaps due to their cultural upbringing. Some however were quite unfamiliar with them. Not everyone came from Hindu homes or were told these stories by their families. So what universally connected the children, cutting the boundaries of religion and culture, was the reference to animals. 

After the performance, Shrabani explained that the chronology of the Dashavatar could have a scientific correlation with evolution. She posed a question, “What is the first animal that evolved?” A boy answered, “Dinosaur!” Then she asked, “No even before that.” Someone then said, “Fish!” Another boy stood up and with childlike honesty admitted that he didn’t understand what she was trying to convey after Narasimha (Half-man, half-lion avatar). Srabani then explained the story of Vamana, and how King Bali became arrogant of his generosity and how Vishnu shattered his ego. She briefly explained the stories of the other avatars. 

Srabani answering student questions

The children asked questions like “How do you balance using one leg?”, “How long did you practice for this performance?”, “Doesn’t you leg hurt after a while?” and “Who is your guru and how long have you trained for?”. Some were curious about her identity and asked where she came from or what language she spoke.  One girl earnestly complimented Srabani saying that her “dance was very nice”. It was heartening to see the response that children had to the art. I realized that the older I became, the more I respond to the overall feel that art gives me and not really nitpick on nuances. But the children were interested in identifying the nitty gritties of what they saw and clarifying details that they couldn’t understand with the performer herself. This was highly refreshing. 

I realized that art would be enriched if people from diverse backgrounds became involved in it. In fact, children have bubbling imagination, which can translate into creativity if they are given access and tools. Very recently I asked my Guru Yogini di, how do we experiment with art and also know how much of experimentation is permissible. She then responded that there is no such thing as “permissible” within this expansive world of art. It’s the intent behind art that is most important.  

About the AuthorMaanasa Visweswaran is currently pursuing her undergraduate from SOAS in South Asian Studies and Sanskrit. She was trained in Bharatnatyam from a young age in Singapore and came to Smt. Yogini Gandhi in 2017 to learn Odissi.


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