Mrinalini Sarabhai’s autobiography ‘The Voice of the Heart,’ published by Harper Collins India in the year 2004, is now available for free download

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dance of Eternity

As I listened to many voices and share with them the grave concern about the future of humankind, I feel we all have become prisoners of our own creations, especially our technologies. I am perhaps somewhat of an outsider in this respect, as one who rejected the formality of education as taught in our westernized colleges and instead searched deeply for my own roots, my own identity. Starting in 1949, dance for me became what the writer Joseph Campbell called ‘a courageous open-eyes observation of the sickening broken figuration that abound (before us, around us and within.’) before, around and within us.

Dance I feel is a fundamental spontaneous expression of humankind from the crudest leaps around a fire to the sophisticated forms of the dynamic spirit within us. Creative work is a mystical experience. In literature, in dance, in drama, indeed in all the arts, the inspiration is the springboard for the final work. But inspiration is itself the result of many years of study, a deep knowledge of the subject and hard work.

Tradition is one `aspect' of culture. To be traditional in art is to be able to recognise a known structure which has retained a clarity that has withstood time. It is the art of perceiving a reality in patterns formed by years of experience. But it is not a static entity. The development of any art is usually based upon the backdrop of one's own birthright. Many traditionalists ignore this fact and insist upon mere repetition, not realising the technique they so firmly advocate (I speak of dance) is only about three hundred years old already moulded from ancient sources. The creative artist is often the real `knower' of tradition which perhaps could be called `source material', and gives new vitality to ancient forms. At Darpana, I tell my students that our work is rather like the catapult, one draws `way back' in order to `spring forward'.

Knowing the basic designs in dance, understanding of language, gesture and cultural background, all work together towards a meaningful search for a fresh identity, a significant bridge between past and present. To me, dance, apart from its essential beauty, has to be awareness and a relevant force in contemporary life. Can an artist truly exist without self expression? It was not to meet the current desires of the audience that I began to create new works, but an innate need to express my involvement with the world around me, the world I lived in, breathed in, the world of constant dualities, joy-sorrow, life-death, love-hate, construction-destruction, creating insights towards awareness.

Behind each movement was an inner energy, the result of years of training. It took hundreds of performances and relentless work to establish a reputation of classicism. Only then did I present my own perspectives. Sometimes in a composition there is no need for words for they have different meanings. But often words and shapes are born together within my mind. Perhaps that's why some critics have called me `intellectual'. But I am far from that. It is the significant or, the shape of a solo or a group movement that creates tension and vitality, and makes for clarity.

Choreography (a word I learnt much later) is a comprehensive wholeness of a work. In dance the body speaks with the power of the mind behind it. In our country, words and music are important in the great oral tradition, but often silence seemed to me more meaningful, a totality of universal sound. But each new dance composition springs from the result of years of practice. Practice is the "puja" of a dancer, constant daily "puja".

Dance education is more than the technique of the Natya Shastra or any other sacred text. It should envelop other perceptions if it is to become meaningful. Our puranas tell us of the valuable beauty of nature. To watch a falling leaf, the movement of water, a flight of birds, the shape of the clouds, all these are meditations that are revelatory. `Sarva shrishti parinamam', 'all creation is limitless' is a basic tenet of Indian philosophy. A dancer has to be an observer of all movement(s) as does a scientist. Vikram's remark that `it is necessary in creative work to be able to see the squirrels and the birds' is a profound statement. It means to awaken the relationship with nature, the spirit of our Vedic heritage which tells us that we are each a particle of the universe and share in its wholeness. These thoughts of a universal oneness lead us to realise the values of our traditions when India was a land of tolerance, welcoming and protecting everyone. New ideas flowed in and were absorbed in all the arts. But underlying every art are the eternal truths as told to us by Devi, Shiva, Krishna and the great seers. A passage I find meaningful is "In the heavens of Indra, where there is a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself, but involves every other object and in fact is everything else".

Through dance, after the physical and mental training, we try at Darpana to teach the dancers the spiritual nature of gestures. For instance, the simple `namaskar' brings symbolically the conscious and the super conscious together. When the dancer prays obeisance to Mother Earth, and the hands are then lifted to the centre of the forehead which is considered the third eye, there is a new dimension. Each mudra has to be understood with its deeper meaning. The simple `abaya' gesture is dynamic when linked with the divine. Nataraja's hand of blessing, is also that of the Buddha, the Christ, the Madonna the great gurus, and the mother who blesses her child.

In this century of material progress, it is imperative that universal oneness is taught from the earliest age. The child has to learn to look inwards as well as outwards, the inner and the outer sky, to be observant of the environment in its beauty and also ugliness, a conscious caring citizen of the world. Often a simple story in dance or drama can inspire people. Many were the dance pieces on subjects that disturbed me and often in the villages we used the popular Bhavai.

As for instance when we spoke of environment we used the (well-known) story of Radha and Krishna. The ending however was the message. Radha goes to meet Krishna at night on the banks of the river but instead of flowing water, finds a stagnant pool, and where the trees grew is a concrete jungle. The message was loud and clear and the villagers understood it, and often planting of trees, teaching of Sanskrit and Gujarati verses on nature followed. On one occasion a whole fascinating exposition of the tree connecting heaven and earth was expounded by a local pandit who referred to the sacred trees of India, around which villages were originally built. The young villagers enthused by the drama and the discussions often continue the project on their own, so not only trees but ideas are planted.

Deeply rooted in my own psyche are the rituals of Kerala and Tamilnadu, and often, while composing a dance piece, a hidden memory brings up a form. Rituals that I watched as a child, when the Devi manifests through the priest or Vellichapad, the `Thai thozhil' exercises which form the basic steps of the Kalari (martial arts) tradition, and was done as a folk dance called `Velakali' in the temples, the worship of snakes, the early morning ritual around the Tulasi Plant. Many more such impressions are all embedded within my consciousness. While I worshiped Krishna constantly in Guruvayur, it was to Shiva I danced in Bharatanatyam, searching for His stories in temples, and naming our home Chidambaram.

What am I but an abstract form in time, born into a land of deepest symbolism, containing within my work the past , the present and the future of a conscious force beyond time, beyond space the echoes of which may be heard and seen in later vision. Again and again in the silence I hear the words `who knows in truth? Who knows whence comes this creation. Only that God who sees.... He only knows or perhaps He knows not'!

Continuously through the years people ask me `What is dance to you'. My reply usually is `It is my breath, my passion my self'. Can anyone ever understand these words? There is no separateness in the dance and my entire being. It is the radiance of my spirit, that makes for the movements of my limbs. But what is meaningful, what is your fulfillment people ask me now. `You have achieved fame, you are called the goodness of dance. Why do you go on straining yourself?' I have no answer. How can I tell them that I am only "I" when I dance. I am only that `I AM' when I dance. I am only eternity when I dance. Silence is my response, movement my answer.