Song of Surrender

Monday, 3 October 2016

Conversations about dance

By R. Radhakrishnan

Conversations about Dance was a delightful as well as thought provoking panel that was part of a two-day workshop on the current state of Bharata Natyam, organized and sponsored by the EKTA Center headed by the renowned dancer/teacher Ramya Harishankar and the well known Bharata Natyam theorist Professor Priya Srinivasan. In this brief commentary, I will be limiting myself to some of the issues that came up in that panel, and in particular, the questions raised by V Ramnarayan in his well thought out presentation on the quality of popular journalism on the Arts, Music, and Dance. 

Conversations presume two givens: that there is a subject matter to be talked about, and then, depending on the nature of the subject matter, that there will be a set of appropriate interlocutors and participants in the conversation. So, in this instance, what does it mean, “to have a conversation about Bharata Natyam?” Who should fix the terms of representation, and adjudicate normatively as to what kind of statements count as valuable discourse “about” Bharata Natyam? How formal or informal, how disciplinary or non-disciplinary, how specialized or general should the conversation be? Should anybody, or as the locution used to be, “all and sundry,” “every Tom, Hema, and Abdul” constitute the panel? Or, given the specificity of the topic, should there be some qualitative “gate keeping” in the selection of the conversational voices? Ramnarayan, in his capacity both as a connoisseur of Dance and Music and editor of the prestigious Sruti, talked at length about the difficulty of finding relevant and meaningful contributors to his magazine. Again, who should write? Who has earned the right to write? Who has the appropriate credentials? Given the general and popular character of Literature, Music, and Dance, should any one contribute? The Scylla here is some version of what I would term “professional or meritocratic Fascism” that mandates that only specialists should hold forth on topics that constitute their consecrated domain. The Charybdis of course is not to gate keep at all and let any one in on any panel on the basis of their fundamental common humanity and commonsense intelligence, sensitivity, and sensibility. As a professor in and of the Humanities here, I cannot but be reminded of Edward Said’s call, “Admit All,” and Antonio Gramsci’s declaration that all human beings are intellectuals, and that some become professional intellectuals by virtue of special training and erudition. His point is that the professional intellectual is accountable to the society at large.

Mallika Rao, one of the panelists, an online journalist, brought up the phenomenon of participation of one and all via Internet/YouTube/Facebook and the significance of things going viral. What does the going viral of an event, an image, a performance, really, mean, signify? Is it just populism? Is it populism with content? Is it value added populism? Or does it constitute an un-self-reflexive, uncritical fetishizing of the popular? Do we exclaim, “Wow! Something went viral” or “Viral? So what?” or “We will wait and see.” I remember that during the Q and A session after the panel, Professor Priya Srinivasan who was also moderating the panel, brought up the issue of ‘refereeing,” a term that is endemic to the world of professional publication where refereed publications count more than casual essays and commentaries. What then is a good way to combine the aristocracy, or elitism of value, (for after all the very word “value” is prescriptive and normative, thereby implying judgment and critique, in other words, “value” cannot just be arbitrary and merely descriptive) with participatory democracy? I also remember that Professor Srinivasan brought up examples of folks on Facebook opining, and making egregiously erroneous and misleading comments on Bharata Natyam: comments that need to be confronted and corrected, not in the name of the people and populist democracy, but in the name of Bharata Natyam. A teacher has the obligation to be didactic, and the imperative to teach. You cannot let people at large get away with “whatever” in the name of inclusive democracy, just as you should not allow specialists get away with obfuscation and intimidation by jargon.

This business of finding a judicious balance between professional arrogance and dumbed down populism is particularly delicate in the field of the Humanities: a field that is expected to be easy, simple, transparent, and instantly accessible to all. Jargon, argot, professional discourse is admissible in the so called hard scientific disciplines, whereas a jargon spouting Humanities academic is happily demonized as a pompous prig. The challenge here is to defend the use of specialized vocabulary in the Arts and the Humanities without allowing such a stance to harden into professional orthodoxy and insiderism. It is interesting to note that in response to this crisis, we in the Humanities have coined the term “generalist.” The irony of this coinage is obvious: one cannot be generally intelligent and insightful any more, unless the field of the general is itself reconstituted, within quotation marks, as “generalism.” Is this development good or bad, progressive or the retrogressive, inclusive or discriminatory? The very word “discrimination,” it must be noted, is double coded: it implies both virulent bias and critical taste. Lacking in discrimination in the latter sense of the word cannot be a virtue. It is interesting to note that Dr. Priya Srinivasan, while sharing her experiences as teacher/scholar/dancer, commented on a workshop she had once conducted for specialists and teachers alone, and on that basis, had to turn down general participation. My point is that there is nothing inherently undemocratic about such insider workshops so long as there is a porous and permeable space between experts and non-experts. Not only is there an urgent need for the amateur and the professional to be in dialogue; but there is also the further objective of creating the professional in the amateur and finding the buried amateur in the professional. After all, the basic motivating factor is “love” of the subject matter as the word “amateur” denotes, and different ways of loving the same art form should find a way to coexist and communicate, without rank or hierarchy. 

The panel strongly highlighted the need for a space, or perhaps for spaces, in the form of a continuum with place enough for different voices to speak both discretely and in counterpoint to other voices and registers. There was also the concern that these conversations about Bharata Natyam should be transformative, and not stagnant. Ramnarayan, for example, addressed in brief the problem of identifying the right correspondents and writers for his journal, a specialist journal meant for readers at large. Should this writing take the form of popularizing Carnatic Music and Bharata Natyam without dumbing down their complexity? Or, should the journal aim for greater scholarly rigor and in the process forfeit a larger friendship? Or, should the aim be a via media between the two extreme options? The easy and banal way out is to evoke the formula: Let us give the readers what they want. But this is a sterile and circular rationale. How do we calibrate what the readers want except with reference to the menu that is served to them? The challenge here is that of transformation without presumption. What needs to happen is mutual education with bilateral consent. In saying this I am taking for granted that different constituencies that share common ground, each from her perspective, are interested in enriching the common ground through questions, challenges, and debates: in other words, a mobile common ground rather than a common ground as status quo. In all this, I have barely touched upon the phenomenon of changes taking place within Bharata Natyam: departures as well as breaks from Tradition, responses to World Dance as well as other dance forms, redefinitions of both form and content, questions of relevance both aesthetic and historical, classical dance forms then and now, modes of dissemination that may well run against the grain of so called “authenticity.” 

My hope is that there will be many more such panels and dialogues across different thresholds of knowledge and expertise. It is inevitable that as conversations proliferate from different angles and in different arenas with different audiences, the theme or the subject of the conversation will itself begin to dance in response to multiple expectations and evaluations. The beneficial result can only be a well-articulated public sphere for the Arts and the Humanities that are in dire need of recognition. I will conclude by insisting that recognition is a matter of what philosophers and theorists call non-identical repetition. This is but another way of saying that there is recognition and re-cognition, with a hyphen. I am calling for the latter where there is room for increased and even contradictory awareness, and what is most crucial for the Arts, room for creative alienation and mis-recognition by way of recognition. “I know you but I don’t really know you; I understand you, but I really don’t get you.” is a great way to keep any marga going in search of the search, namelessly, and in the name of the all.

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