To move is to know

Why force a Jasmine to spread the fragrance of Rose?

A 9 year old looks at a picture in her Mathematics book, thinks for a while, and with a sparkle in her eyes excitedly tells her teacher that her father can create a model of the same picture. Encouraging this little one’s enthusiasm, the teacher asks her if her father would be willing to create the model for the school. The parents of these little kids gathered at the school on a weekend and began creating this model – some of them helped clear a piece of land in the school’s backyard, some brought the materials like old car tyres, ropes, paint, wood, and anything else that was needed to build this model. A Syrian family cooked a delicious meal and at the end of the weekend, there it was – an obstacle-course from a Mathematics textbook initiated by the enthusiasm of a child and built because of the encouragement, willingness, and shared responsibility of the school teachers, parents, and community alike.

But what was so special about this obstacle course, and this school at Viksjöfors – a little locality close to the centre of Sweden? The school strives towards different modes of knowledge-creation with a focus on movement. This obstacle course is just one example of play-as-knowledge where students hop through car tyres laid on the ground in different patterns, slide on frost covered ramps and swing on twines to understand concepts of effort, friction, speed, time, and distance. 

On my first visit to the school in the August of 2017, Helena Ehrstrand, a teacher at Vikjöfors skola explained with an example their pedagogic system: if the topic of the day is water cycle, the students come into a traditional classroom, the teacher introduces the topic, and explains a few details. The students are then given an option to either continue learning in the classroom, or to learn by moving. Those who choose to move are taken to the dance studio in the adjacent Viksjöforsbaletten – the dance school. A dance teacher then teaches them to dance the movement of water from the ocean as water vapour into the sky, the process of condensation, and eventually precipitation. The students have now learnt to dance the water cycle! The innovation doesn’t stop here; the students are given an option to be evaluated through traditional paper-pen tests, or by dancing their evaluation. This methodology is applied to the entire school curricula, thereby actively engaging different intelligences.

Viksjöforsbaletten was part of an European Union funded education project (2011-2014) called ARTinED that aimed at creating a pedagogic system of integrating the arts in school curriculum, and not merely arts as a separate subject, targeting primary school children. At the time, six schools within EU (Italy, UK, Sweden, Romania, Spain and Turkey) formed the project to integrate creative writing and poetry, music and drama, dance and choreography, and visual arts as methodologies for learning. The project initially aimed at creating lesson plans for environmental education which is available freely for other schools to follow. Viksjöfors skola is a pilot school based on the AETinED methodology. The ARTinED project continued as e-ARTinED funded again by the EU and concludes in August 2018 with a two-day conference to be attended by movement-experts, musicians, educators, and government officials not just from Sweden but from all over Europe.


Giving a class on social and cultural inclusion and religion through Bharatanatyam-inspired movement.Giving a class on social and cultural inclusion and religion through Bharatanatyam-inspired movement.

Giving a class on social and cultural inclusion and religion through Bharatanatyam-inspired movement.

Curse of the curator


Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Once a learner, always a learner. I’ve always loved studying and knowing more about a variety of themes, be it history, arts, culture, sciences, literature, languages, and politics. My quest for knowledge stems out of the need for and the ability to hold meaningful and enriching conversations. I also believe that knowledge empowers and experiences enrich life. 

 

It is no surprise then that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my Swedish language classes at SFI. The Swedish government, in an effort to facilitate better integration of immigrants into the Swedish community, provides free language classes for all newcomers, which I appreciate to no end. The thrill of being able to identify adjectives on sign boards in the T-Bana, or verbs in an advertisement on the Pendeltåg after a four-hour morning class is something that can only be felt and not written about. 

 

Language and culture cannot be separated, and the policy makers understand this well. As a student of SFI, not only do we learn in technology enabled classrooms, but also visit a number of museums during summer. Yesterday we visited the Nordiska museum, >>Sweden’s largest museum of cultural history. The focus of the museum is people living and working in Sweden and the Nordic region, back in the days and present<< This is one of the most well-curated museums that I have visited. 

 

As is normal with most things Swedish, the museum engages with a lot of technology to create a memorable experience. The permanent and temporary exhibitions have a vast collection of artefacts and concise information about each. But what made my experience profound was the addressing of the problematics of curation and the role of museums itself. As an ethnographer and anthropologist, I have often noticed the underlying exoticism and ‘otherness’ behind a lot of research and fieldwork, and the tone and voice of such works. Curators of the Nordiska museum have paid attention to educating the visitor about the culture of Sweden, but also encourage them to think about the violence of anthropology, ethics, ownership, and the effects of urbanisation and modernisation, thereby addressing these issues and not sweeping the dust under a richly embroidered 17th century carpet. This is the only museum of the many that I’ve visited that does not merely glorify the institution of a museum, but also acknowledges the flip side, adhering to the Swedish principle of >>lagom<< or balance that underlies the working of the Swedish society. 

 

Yesterday’s experience also resonates with what I’ve experienced in these six months in Sweden, that knowledge and information are not a privilege and should be accessible. Here’s to more learning!

Food for art, food for the heart


Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, had four sons borne to him by his three wives – Rama from Kaushalya, Bharata from Kaikeyi, and Lakshmana and Shatrughna from Sumitra. Being the eldest, Rama was the obvious heir to the throne. But Manthara, Kaikeyi’s maidservant, poisoned her ears, arousing jealousy. Kaikeyi now wanted her son Bharata to be crowned king, so she demanded of Dasharatha two boons that he had promised her earlier – first, that Bharata be crowned, and second, that Rama be exiled for fourteen years, and Dasharatha had no choice but to yield. Instead of being happy, Bharata was saddened by this news, since he respected and loved his elder brother Rama dearly, and hated to see him go. While Rama was away, someone had to look into the affairs of the kingdom, and so it came to be that Bharata was the pseudo-king, ruling according to the principles of Rama, and took inspiration from a pair of Rama’s padukas (footwear)* that he had placed on the throne. This is a story that most children brought up in India are used to hearing, but can there be a layer beneath this story?

Kaikeyi remains one of the most despised characters of the Ramayana till date for her wretched actions. It has been, and is always easy to judge people for what they are and what they do on the outside, for it is this outward appearance and action that is our first source of contact with the other. Few of us go beyond this paraphernalia to see what a person or situation is at its core, which is where the role of a poet, an artist, or a teacher comes in to play. It was in the month of March in 2012 that I, along with my dance teacher Smt. Asha Sunilkumar (Asha teacher) and our most loved and respected music composer and singer, Shri. P. S. Krishna (Murthy sir) were conceptualising and researching for my solo dance-theatre called Navarasa to Ramarasa – an exploration of humanity in divinity. The idea was to choreograph various retellings and folk tales of the Ramayana that brought out the human aspect of God in His incarnation as Rama. It was at this time that Murthy sir narrated to us an interpretation by an anonymous Oriya poet, and we knew at that very minute that we had to incorporate this story into the production. 

 


Manthara foresees the futureManthara foresees the future

Manthara foresees the future

According to this poet, Manthara was Kaikeyi’s maidservant, but also a soothsayer. One evening, she had a vision – she foresaw doom over the kingdom of Ayodhya that would last fourteen years. This could not be possible, something had to be done about it, and the only person who had the power to soften the blow of this doom was Kaikeyi. Hurriedly she goes to Kaikeyi’s chambers and tells her of the impending misfortunes – that whoever would be crowned the king, was sure to lose his life. Kaikeyi was aghast – Rama was to be crowed the following day, and no, she could not let any harm come in the way of her beloved Rama! Desparate, she discusses with Manthara to find a solution, and finally gathers the courage – the courage to be labelled as a villain not just during her lifetime, but for centuries after her death. She demands of Dasharatha two boons – that Bharata be crowned the king, and Rama be sent on exile for fourteen years; she knew fully well that Bharata would refuse to take the throne, thereby ensuring no harm was done to him as well. Her love for Rama, who was as much a son to her as Bharata, gave her the courage to face all the abuses that were, and still continue to be hurled her way.

Apart from being poetically rich and appealing to the heart, such stories and their retellings have always inspired me and helped me reflect as an artist for which I am forever grateful!

 

*In Hindu tradition, one often touches the feet of people that are respectable and/or elderly. It is believed that even dust from such a person’s feet can be a source of inspiration and blessing.

Time and space machine

I think dance is a time-and-space machine. It lets me live in more worlds than one, more bodies than one, at the same time. Through my experiences with Bharatanatyam, I feel it is a representation and an embodiment of history, culture, and a way of life by interpreting lyrics. Dr. Kwashie Kuwor, a dance anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Ghana says, “Dances in the world differ as a result of cultural traditions”. Last weekend I conducted a workshop at Aix-en-Provence for a few French women who have been learning Bharatanatyam for at least five years and my weekend was filled with examples of reconciling these differences. 

I decided I would teach them a dance from the Tamil dance-drama, Kutrala Kuravanji. In this particular dance, a kuravanji, who is a gypsy, a story-teller, and a fortune-teller, talks great of the land she comes from, which is none other than the grand Mount Kailash. Rich herbs, honey, spices, ivory, sandalwood, and kumkum, are just a few of the wonderful things she brings with her. She convinces the naayikaa (heroine) that she is no ordinary fortune-teller and in fact, is highly praised by the kings. 

I realised that in Bharatanatyam, a lot of the dance vocabulary is a derivative and stylisation of everyday actions and body language of the south Indians, and particularly Tamil Nadu, the birth-place of this dance genre. As an example, to ask the question ‘why’, one would use a hand gesture similar to a thumbs-up sign, and tilt the head upwards, or bend it from side to side, and crinkling the eyebrows. My students found it a bit awkward to use such a body language but later did reflect and agree that they had seen quite a few people during their visits to Chennai use such gestures in daily life!

 

Kizhangu kiḷḷi tén eḍuttu vaḷam pāḍi naḍappom…The kuravanji talks about the activities that her clan engages in, which are – harvesting root vegetables, extracting honey, and singing about the prosperity of the land. To begin with, I explained the meaning of each word to the girls, and then began demonstrating the movements for it. They found the digging movement (which was obviously a stylised version of the actual digging action) a little weird, and after trying it a few times, one of them said, “Oh, I think in France we dig this way and not like that”!

Another description in the song has the kuravanji saying, “kimpuriyin komboḍittu vembu tinai iḍippom”, which meant that the kuravanjis also pound millets not using an ordinary stone or woodden mallet, but a mallet made of ivory! For Tamil lyrics, my resource person has always beenmy aunt, Smt. Usha Sundaresan, a Tamil scholar. As she was explaining to me the meaning of each word, she mentioned that kimpuri meant a nose ring, and in this case, worn by an elephant! We began wondering, how strange for an elephant to wear a nose ring! After some research we figured out that in order to prevent cracks from deepening in the tusk of an elephant, a metal ring would be fixed around it. Not only was this method used at the time when the Kutrala Kuravanji was written (18th century), but also more recently at the Birmingham zoo in Alabama, where instead of metal, a ring made of lighter material was used to save the tusk of Bulwagi, a 35-year-old elephant!

What beauty in the lyrics, to call this protective ring as a nose ring! And what a way to learn about elephants – through an 18th century song based in India that had to be danced to by the French in the 21st century! This is why I say that dance is a time-and-space machine!


With my French  kuravanjis : Fabienne, Nadi, and Julie.&nbsp;(Picture credits: Eric Ferment, Aix-en-Provence)With my French  kuravanjis : Fabienne, Nadi, and Julie.&nbsp;(Picture credits: Eric Ferment, Aix-en-Provence)

With my French kuravanjis: Fabienne, Nadi, and Julie. (Picture credits: Eric Ferment, Aix-en-Provence)


With my wonderful hosts Eric and Fabienne. (Picture credits: Julie, Aix-en-Provence)With my wonderful hosts Eric and Fabienne. (Picture credits: Julie, Aix-en-Provence)

With my wonderful hosts Eric and Fabienne. (Picture credits: Julie, Aix-en-Provence)

Sahrdaya


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Lights. A man and a woman in tight embrace, rolling and sliding on each other. It seems familiar, but I need clarification. I whisper to a friend, “Is this what I think it is?”

“I think so!”

Swift, precise, flowing movements follow. Boxes pushed around, clothes flung high up, men and women stripping completely, and then dressing up again.

We were watching Tavaszi áldozat – a contemporary perspective of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by Szegedi Kortárs Balett (Szeged Contemporary Dance Company) in the grand red-and-gold auditorium of the National Theatre of Szeged, Hungary.

For someone being trained in Bharatanatyam where there is a definite story being enacted, it was difficult to understand what all these movements really meant. I did not read the story of the Rite of Spring before watching the performance but vaguely understood from my friends that it is about a ritual to call the Spring where a virgin is sacrificed at the end, and that it was an allegory for the World Wars. Throughout the performance I was trying to connect movements to the story, trying to make sense of it in my head. And then there were scenes that had sexual connotations and nudity. I was lost. I needed to know the ‘purpose’ of contemporary dances, and whether the audience was supposed to feel as lost as I did. I felt uneasy that I did not understand what was being performed. It led to one of the most interesting discussions I ever had.

The contemporary dancer has a motivation for each movement. Every movement has a deep meaning for the dancer. These sets of movements have some story behind them. But it is not the intention of the dancer that the audience understands these the way he / she did. The audience goes to these performances with an open heart, or full of thoughts. They interpret these movements based on their mental and emotional disposition at that moment.

Having performed various Indian mythological stories for two decades, my audience has always been someone who is familiar with the stories or language of the lyric, if not for the highly codified hand gestures. But an unfamiliar viewer, without an explanation of the story and the gestures, would take home as much as I did after watching the Rite of Spring.

“Is this what contemporary dance does to the audience? Does each person in the audience take home a different story?” I ask a friend. “But we feel the same when you do things with your eyes and hands!”, she replies.

Just as a dancer needs years of training and immersion, so too the audience. One has to have trained eyes, but more importantly, a heart; heart, hrdaya. Sahrdayaa. The word says it all. A sahrdaya is sensitive, and someone who can experience the suggestions put forth by the kalaakaara (artist), evoking rasa (aesthetic pleasure). You either pull the audience with you to reach this state, or the audience reaches out to this state of being.

I always tried to find differences between contemporary and traditional dances. Are these different? Are these the same? Does it matter? In the end, ephemerality gives birth to permanence both for the sahrdayaa and the kalaakaara.