Sunday, 8 February 2015

Should Dance Educate? How?

Sri Aurobindo once wrote:
The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development. (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 439)
What made me recall these words this morning?

I recall them because of a Dance programme I attended last evening. It was an Odissi dance performance by Nayantara Nanda Kumar. The performance was actually part of a dance theater production titled "Beyond Names" which also included storytelling and poetry recitation. Produced by Secundarabad-based organization named Our Sacred Space, Beyond Names "celebrates the paths by which we seek the Essence. Whatever way we choose to acknowledge it. It is but One Energy - to which we assign the name of our choice." (programme brochure).

It was this programme description on Auroville's website that prompted me to go for it. Particularly the idea behind the title itself, Beyond Names. A movement through the various forms to the essential one formless, through the varied names to the one eternal nameless. This sounded very inviting.

The programme started off with the usual invocation to the gods, the universe and the audience, with the dancer performing Panchadevata Mangalacharan (salutations to five deities - Ganesha, Jagannatha/Vishnu, Rudra, Surya, and Shakti). This was followed by Sthai Nato, a pure nritta piece.

For the abhinaya component of the performance, a touching Hindi poem about a barbaric act of violence committed during communal riots was evocatively recited by the dancer's mother, a librarian and storyteller, while the dancer portrayed the emotions of the story through her performance. And this is the point where I found a certain part of my mind becoming a bit more active than I would have liked at a dance performance.

The dance combined with the storytelling was definitely meant to evoke a certain kind of educative experience. But for me, somehow it felt more like a mentalised education, at times briefly touching an emotional chord because of the emotional content of the story. It failed to become a deeply moving experience that could have touched a much deeper part of the heart, maybe even the soul.

After all, arts are meant to be an education for the soul. Not just mind and heart. But that depends on the readiness and preparedness of the learner too, I suppose.

Maybe I wasn't receptive enough last evening, maybe I failed to open widely and deeply enough to take 'in' the experience. Or just maybe I couldn't 'feel' a movement away from the names and forms to the Nameless and Formless, from the seen to the Unseen, from the violence to the Peace.

All the pieces that came after the abhinaya (Prayer for Peace - Moving Meditation, Transforming Anger, Jung ya Aman) ended up solidifying this mental educative experience further. There was no dance in any of these pieces, they were more theatrical pieces incorporating words, gentle movement, poetry recitation, and a video clip of an interview with a spiritual teacher.

What were all these pieces about, starting with abhinaya? Going back to the programme brochure, they were meant to address the following:
"We are witnessing a revival of fundamentalism of various hues. We are encouraged to believe that the religion we profess is the "best", unlike the "other" that is rabid/discriminatory/primitive, little realizing that it is the notion of "best" that contains the seed of violence.
"War is but the orchestrated version of the violence that we allow in thought, word and deed. War brutalizes both victor and vanquished and makes violence acceptable, leaving a trail of broken homes, broken families, broken lives...
"Beyond Names asks: Can we not evolve ways that are non-judgemental, inclusive, loving? For, in truth, there is no "other". To hate another is to hate embrace another is to embrace ourselves. Is that not the Essence that all of us be able to live in peace with ourselves?"
Sounds great. And as I read the brochure standing outside the auditorium before the programme, I was actually quite looking forward to the experience. I was looking forward to witness how the dancer and rest of the performers would take me to a deep place within where these mental questions of violence, war and fundamentalism would gradually and gently ease into a place of awareness, even if only a momentary awareness, of that Essence that is beyond all names and beyond all forms, that just IS.

But sadly, that never happened for me. The experience didn't take me to that place. Even with the last piece, which was a dance performance titled Moksha and Shanti Mantra, which ended rather quickly before I could really 'immerse' into it or 'flow' with the vibration of Peace this was meant to evoke.

The experience just kept me mentally engaged with the questions such as -- why an exclusive focus on only one "name" or one "form" of fundamentalism, why use a sensationalist-headlines type of story to illustrate the deep-rooted-ness of a ruthlessly violent part of all imperfect human nature, why not use dance and movement to express the idea of mindfulness instead of the words of a spiritual teacher, why not use a video clip of dance instead of a video clip with words, and a few more.

I came out of the auditorium not sure of how I felt about the whole experience. And that's what made me recall the words of Sri Aurobindo that I quote at the beginning of this post. Particularly the part about the educative function of the arts, particularly Indian forms of dance and drama.

Which brings me today to some more questions. (Are you surprised?)

What should be the role of dance and theater in education? What kind of educational experience should dance and theater evoke? How and in what ways should dance and theater evoke a learning experience? Should they touch only the outer layers of the viewer's mind and heart as last night's performance did for the most part? Or are there ways possible through which dance and theater can take the audience to a place beyond mind, even if it is for a split second, where a mental answer is not required because the questioning mind there is silent and finds an answer in the stillness itself? What is the place and purpose of experiment in Indian classical dance performances?

And as my husband and I kept discussing some of these questions during our drive back from the auditorium last evening and continuing that over our Sunday-special idli breakfast this morning, I was reminded of another passage from Sri Aurobindo. These are the words that help me reach to that place of silence within where the questioning mind stops.

Speaking of a true all-encompassing, life-affirming spirituality of the future and its all-inclusive connection with all activities of life and world, he writes this about the Art of a future society founded upon a true spirituality:
"The highest aim of the aesthetic being is to find the Divine through beauty; the highest Art is that which by an inspired use of significant and interpretative form unseals the doors of the spirit. But in order that it may come to do this greatest thing largely and sincerely, it must first endeavour to see and depict man and Nature and life for their own sake, in their own characteristic truth and beauty; for behind these first characters lies always the beauty of the Divine in life and man and Nature and it is through their just transformation that what was at first veiled by them has to be revealed. The dogma that Art must be religious or not be at all, is a false dogma, just as is the claim that it must be subservient to ethics or utility or scientific truth or philosophic ideas. Art may make use of these things as elements, but it has its own svadharma, essential law, and it will rise to the widest spirituality by following out its own natural lines with no other yoke than the intimate law of its own being." (CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 229-230)
Image: Nayantara Nand Kumar, Source

abstract dance, where the body makes patterns in space and there is no particular meaning attached to any gesture or movement. Even though mudras are used vastly in nritta, they are not used to convey stories.

a tradition of story-telling in Indian classical dances, Abhinaya is a word made up of: abhi- ‘towards’ + nii (naya) - ‘leading/guide’. It literally means a ‘leading towards’ (leading the audience towards a sentiment, a rasa). Dancers bring forth stories based in myth or even contemporary commentary to invoke a certain response in the audience.

Linking this with ABC Wednesday, D: D is for Dance

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