Slaves to the Rhythm: Kuchipudi Kulture

shivalingappa cover

Copyright 2010, 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Among the many losses the Paris dance scene suffered with the departure and then death of Gerard Violette was the long-time Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt director’s commitment to a multitude of Indian (and Pakistani) forms of music and dance. (A commitment to world dance that has since been replaced at the theatre Violette lead or co-lead for 40 years by the self-hating aesthetic of the Centre National de la Danse which Violette’s successor relies on for his dance programming, and which leaves little room for authentic, non-ironic world forms, notably from the Indian sub-continent and Spain.) Sol Hurok had nothing on Gerard Violette. Typical of that programming was this concert by the virtuosa Shantala Shivalingappa (and friends), first reviewed on the DI on October 28, 2004. To read about another Indian choreographer, the late Ranjabati Sircar, more in the traditional – contemporary veine — click here. Today’s re-publication is sponsored by Freespace Dance.

PARIS — I don’t know about your Tuesday night, but mine started with the Belgian man from Gent singing from the piano inside his open van on the Place des Abbesses in the heart of Montmartre and ended with a coked-up man from who know’s where chasing me down a dark street above the Moulin Rouge to the upper reaches of the rue des Martyrs (tracing the route Van Gogh once took to hawk his “Potato Peelers” to the Goupil Gallery on the Grands Boulevards), where I began to feel like one. In between there was Shantala Shivalingappa at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, an Indian dancer in the Kuchipudi mode intent on giving thanks for the simple blessings still ours for the asking even as the world hovers on the precipice.

I’d been avoiding concerts in the traditional Indian mode, not because they aren’t my cup of tea (especially if it’s chai tea!) but because I don’t feel my training as a critic matches these artists’ training in the various forms that come from that country. I am but a pauper babbling feeble prayers at their temple. I made an exception in the case of Shivalingappa because she had knocked my socks off in Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (“Breath”). In addition to the precision and articulation in her fingers, which we know from other Indian forms, Shivalingappa added — in her Tanztheater Wuppertal appearance — flight.

This also turns out to be the case in the Paris premiere of “Shiva Ganga,” an evening of choreography in the Kuchipudi school or style, accompanied by live music. (Most of the choreography is by Shivalingappa, except for the opening sun worship, by Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, and a dance inspired by the god Ganesha by Kishore Mosalikanti.) Landing on plié — ouch! — or ending the evening simply spinning lyrically, back and head hunched, in a small circle — she is feather light.

But what stands out in “Shiva Ganga” is the mutual respect and relationship between music and dance. Much as in a flamenco concert, the most intriguing dynamic going on here is not necessarily the one confined to the dancer-choreographer’s body, but the one circulating between her and the ensemble of five musicians, including two soloist singers, a flautist, a percussionist and someone (like his instrument, unidentified in the program as far as I could see) on a string-like instrument that produced the underlying drone.

By far the heart of the evening, rhythmically, musically, and choreographically arrives with the extended play “Talamelam.” If you’ve listened to UK- based Indian fusion artist and pop star Sheila Chandra — specifically, “Speaking in Tongues I” and “Speaking in Tongues II” from “Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices” on Real World — or seen Sean Curran’s 1999 “Symbolic Logic,” set to remixes of the Chandra recordings, you’re familiar with the type of rhythm excursion this dance diva and her collaborators take us on. In fact, as Chandra points out in her liner notes, the sound and syllables of the musical composition relate not just to the mrdingam and tabla instruments, but “draw upon the patterns of rhythm used in South Indian dance.”

In her program notes for the evening’s musical and choreographic riff on this theme, Shivalingappa explains, “If melody is the body of Indian music, rhythm is its heart. In India, one says: ‘Melody is the mother, and rhythm is the father’ of the music. It’s the same for dance. The rhythmic system, tala, is an independent discipline, with a complex and subtle technique, finely developed. In effect, the innate mathematical sense of the Indian spirit endows it with a great rigor.”

All forms of classical Indian dance have pursued the tala rhythm, each developing its own personal language, Shivalingappa elaborates. For the form she’s schooled in — Kuchipudi — these investigations take the form of rhythmic variations in the voice and on the percussion instruments, a game or conversation in the rhythmic language, and a conversation which finishes with a dialogue between the dancer and the mrdingam player. Or, as she puts it, “The beating of the feet respond to the virtuosity of the fingers.” This conversation gives the dancer the opportunity to demonstrate the different positions of the Kuchipudi form.

“Talamelam,” the segment in “Shiva Ganga” which features this conversation, begins with a musical section created and directed by Savitry Nair and navigated by the rhythmic creations of B.P. Haribabu. Like the vowels between the consonants that book-ended his emissions, this pure music section was elongated — not just a musical introduction to a dance but a work of virtuosity in its own right. When Shivalingappa enters, the responses in her feet — as elsewhere in the program — demonstrate that for this form, all muscles and landing surfaces of the feet are called into service. Sometimes she balances on the balls, sometimes on the toes; sometimes her feet are simply flat. At other junctures, she arches both feet while maintaining the balls and toes on the ground, then bending at the waist and looking up mischievously at the musicians. In fact, it’s this personal regard — toward her collaborators in this section, and in winking asides to the audience throughout the program — that make dance like this such a tonic in a European environment too-often dominated by disinterested post-modern dance in which the performers seem to try to make like they don’t know the audience is there.

Before I saw this dance, I was impressed by the musicality of Curran’s effort to the similar Chandra chants, but there’s a difference between dancing on the surface of the music and engaging its soul and burrowing into its sonic meaning, and Shivalingappa and the musicians taught me that.

The only miss, for me, came later, when Shivalingappa squeezed her feet into and balanced on a wobbly disk-shaped basket at center stage; the awkward way in which she shuffled it forward was the one note lacking grace in the entire evening, a ‘prop’ dance we could have done without.

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The DI, Year One: The Choreographer Suicides — Ranjabati Sircar and the toll of probing the dark spaces within

“Have I missed the mark, or, like a true archer, do I strike my quarry? Or am I prophet of lies, a babbler from door to door?”

— Cassandra, from “Agamemnon,” by Aeshylus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on July 8, 2000 and which also considers the work of Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Roger Sinha, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a subscriber for just $29.95/year. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check.

NEW YORK — Every choreographer I have known is, to some degree or another, manic depressive. Clairvoyant in his or her highs, doomed in the lows. Sean Curran seems, on the surface at least, more manic than depressive. Roger Sinha, both in the choreographic text of his “Burning Skin” and in his performance of it, is more obviously darkly manic. But I am thinking of this, to tell you the truth, not so much because of the performances of these two choreographers and their companies last night at Central Park SummerStage, but because of the news I heard, belatedly, just before the concert — and which struck me like a blow to the solar plexus, taking the life out of me — of the death by suicide, at age 36, of Ranjabati Sircar.

I met Ranja in 1995, when I had just started working at Dance Magazine and was something of a neophyte to dance in general, let alone dance from the sub-continent, let alone the distinctions between the various genres of that dance, let alone choreographer-teacher-dancers, like Ranja, who melded classical forms to contemporary ideas, not always to a warm popular reception among audiences or choreographers of an older generation. On top of this burden, Ranja had familial expectations, her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar being a well-known choreographer and teacher in Madras.

“Is it all right to smoke?” asked the tightly wound, striking young woman who entered my compact office that Fall day. “No,” said I, and for the next hour, while Ranja was forthcoming in discussing her work and Indian dance and hybrid classical-modern dance, she fidgeted and remained tightly wound. Still, we hit it off, and, after some hesitation at its appropriateness, I called her a day later an asked her to a Maria Benitez concert that night. “I would love to go!” Ranja said.

It was a moving concert: Benitez’s conception of the de Falla/Sierra 1915 flamenco ballet classic “El Amor Brujo,” about an older woman driven mad by love and her own demons, followed by a tablao-style second half. We were transported, in fact, to a tablao, notwithstanding that the performance was actually happening in Chelsea at the Joyce Theater. Ranja was positively glowing afterwards; I could feel that she wanted to dance Flamenco right then and there, and indeed she explained to me some of the linkages between that form and certain classical Indian dance forms.

To prolong our virtual visit to Andalucia, we decided to repair to “El Cid,” for tapas and sangria. Something about the Flamenco left us both less tightly wound, we spoke not just as choreographer and journalist but as man and woman. The sangria loosened things further and by the time I walked Ranja to the 14th Street subway stop, we had that automatic, slightly giddy, elbow-knocking intimacy that, in the right circumstances, even strangers can sometimes find when the planets are aligned.

We met up again a couple of days later for San Francisco Ballet at City Center — it was either Val Caniparoli’s African-ballet hybrid, “Lambarena,” or David Bintley’s AIDS fantasia, “The Dance House” — and I can still see Ranja, emerging from the crowd: intent look, oval face, olive complexion, intent eyes finding me right away across the crowded sidewalk.

This time we repaired to Baryshnikov’s Russian Samovar for horseradish-flavored vodka. More significantly, from a culinary perspective, Ranja shared her curry recipe with me. She could never eat at Indian restaurants in the U.S., she said, because the food was too bland, so she carried with her a curry kit packed with the various spices that go into the national dish. Having previously only used a generic Spice Islands “curry powder,” I asked her what the ingredients were: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mustard seed OR onion seed, cloves, and fenugreek. (The fenugreek is tricky; put it in last or it dominates the whole.) I still make Curry a la Ranja Sircar to this day.

Afterwards, sensing the imminent end of this visit and Ranja’s return to India, I invited her over for tea. We spoke about everything — life, relationships — and oh, I am trying so hard right now to remember the specifics. About visualization, I think, and astrology. If I close my eyes I can see her face in front of me…. I think we spoke of gurus… and of something magic and inchoate… and she told me about Cassandra. There’s a word in Urdu — which I know is the Pakistani and not the Indian language, but still I think it applies here — “Janoon,” which, I’m told, means obsession. Ranja’s Janoon was Cassandra, about whom she’d written and choreographed a piece, because of what Cassandra says about the position of women in society.

Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, this daughter of the King of Troy was then deprived by Apollo of the power to make people believe her prophecies, after she refused to sleep with him. Thus, when she accurately warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, no one believed her warning that an armed force was hidden in the horse, and Troy was sacked, and Cassandra raped. When Troy was captured, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize; both were ultimately murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This too Cassandra predicted: “… for me waits destruction by the two-edged sword.” [Cassandra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1149] In many realms, Cassandra was and is looked at as “mad,” driven so by her visions.

Ranja invited me to see her “Cassandra” that week at the studio of Mary Anthony, so dear to one of my dance mentors, the late Joseph H. Mazo. From what I can recall, it was a dance of vulnerability and pain, but seemed at its beginnings, Ranja not yet able to externalize a story that obviously resonated so deeply with her.

Ranja and I lost touch until 1998, when I asked her to write a preview about the pioneering Indian choreographer Chandrelekha. Ranja made clear that there was a fission between her and the older choreographer, but that she recognized her importance on the Indian scene. When the article came in, I perpetrated what I now see as an irrevocable minor cruelty; there was no interview with the story, so I declined to use it, or to pay Ranja. This upset her, and we lost touch again. Today I grieve not only Ranja, but that I will never be able to make this right, to compensate for a minor cruelty with a later kindness. And I wonder if this was just one of a series of “small” cruelties that added up, in Ranja’s mind, to only one solution and antidote.

It’s hard to fathom suicide, and I almost don’t want to go to the dark and hopeless place Ranja found herself in on October 23, 1999, when, as police believe, she hanged herself from the ceiling fan in the flat of a family friend in Borivili. According to a report in India Today, just two days before her death, Ranja e-mailed a friend: “I am battling the dark spaces within myself.”

The same report in India Today makes all sorts of conjectures about what drove Ranja as an artist, and what in society and in her own family life — particularly her complicated relationship with her mother — might have driven her to kill herself.

Here, I can only offer the observation of someone who once observed Ranja close-up, in what seems now like a lifetime, indeed a different life ago: Alternately driven and insecure, confident and unsteady. Beautiful and yet perhaps burdened by that beauty. Heir to a pedagogic legacy, and yet burdened by that as well.

In what now seem our all-too-brief but nonetheless intense conversations of five years ago, it seems Ranja and I only started to ask the important questions…. Okay, now it comes back, one thing we talked about, both of us, was how we were trying to live healthier lifestyles; she in particular to give up smoking…. It seems Ranja hit a black impenetrable wall in her own searching and maybe… maybe, for as I write this I am still too stunned, numbed really, from the news of her suicide to barely begin processing what it means… but it seems that even if Ranja was not able to find the insight that would save her from her own hands, she offers one insight, I think, to choreographers — not just artists, but choreographers specifically.

Roger Sinha’s piece, “Burned Skin,” had to do with insecurity about identity — no, with self-hate of one’s racial identity, based on an apocryphal tale of an Indian boy who jumps into a vat of boiling water because he’s heard it will turn his skin white. Alternating with scenes of Pascale Leonard’s serenely brewing chai, the dance that ensues is nonetheless manic, as Sinha tries on all sorts of racial archetypes, from a swaggering, chick-chasing Dean Martin in shirt and tie to a kilted Scotsman. It’s a comic romp, but performed with a mania that suggests the character is not so much whimsically playing with other identities, trying on other masks, as running from his own.

Sean Curran presents a similar contradiction. His Chaplinesque stage persona never really completely hides — and perhaps this is why it resonates! — some sort of tragic, invisible burden. He’s ultimately a sad clown. In “Folk Dance for the Future,” when he gives up and then hangs his head after suggesting he might follow Amy Brous’s pivot-less somersault, it’s funny, but it’s painful too. Curran’s kinetic skill and particularly his gift for inventing new dance geometries is apparent in “Abstract Concrete,” premiered last night, and it’s an enjoyable diversion, expertly danced by a group of performers who are clearly getting inside Curran’s choreographic vision… but it has nowhere near the emotional resonance of his recent “Six Laments.” This dance — and particularly Curran’s own performance, as he gets up, stumbles, and gets up again, repeatedly, always looking over his shoulder, it’s surmised at a departed friend, as if he is being reminded every time he stumbles that the friend is no longer there — is anything but a facile tragedy with cheap plays to the emotion; it’s obviously based on real experience.

I’m thinking also of Mark Dendy. As hysterically funny as “Dream Analysis” was — this 1998 hit conjures Nijinsky, Martha Graham, and Judy Garland among others — it is ultimately a psycho-familial journey that also drove Dendy nearly to hysteria. During the creation, he told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times, he was haunted in his nightmares by an aunt who he also conjured in this dance, the idea being that she couldn’t believe he was going to bare her story in his dance.

Since “Dream Analysis,” interestingly, Dendy has followed an easier route, a pure dancey direction. In one sense I want to scold him for this — Why is he relying on his natural musicality for easy successes, when he can go so much deeper? — but after the death of Ranja, I can see the danger inherent in mining those deep waters.

Here’s what all this is leading up to, at least as close to coherence as I am able to express it this morning. Recently I have been discussing with another choreographer-dancer-teacher from the sub-continent how dance is not looked at seriously by society in general as a career. You’ve probably all heard this after you tell someone you’re a dancer: “Okay, but what’s your real job?”

The suicide of Ranja Sircar — and to a less obvious extent, the work of the artists I saw last night — gives me this epiphany: Dancing, and particularly choreographing, is not only not “not a real job.” It is an expedition no less fraught with peril than the most snake-ridden excavations of Indian Jones. Not all of these prophetic men and women, thank G*d, find their visions so ultimately and unremittingly black and hopeless that they are moved to take their own lives. But I have no doubt that the small deaths are real, and the stakes high.

Notes (from original article): Ranja’s mother passed away this spring. Thanks to Anita Ratnam for her insight.