Why India's dance forms are the best celebration of its beauty and diversity

This Independence Day saw the 13th edition of ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’, the dance festival organised by the great Odissi dancer Ranjana Gauhar.

 |  6-minute read |   26-08-2018
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August 15, India’s Independence Day, is also an important day for India’s dance forms. Of all the artists, dancers seem to display the most patriotic fervor, organising seminars and thematic festivals on the occasion.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Independence, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, under secretary Usha Malik, presented a week-long festival featuring all the golden greats of Indian dance who had danced for 50 years or more, such as Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Rao, Sitara Devi, Vyjathanthimala, MK Saroja and Damayanti Joshi. In Chennai the same year, ‘Desh’ was scripted and presented by musicologist Sujata Vijayaraghavan on the occasion.

The two-day event was held at the India Habitat Centre.The two-day event was held at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. (Photo: Facebook/Ranjana Gauhar)

And since 1997, Natyarangam in Chennai has been organising ‘Vande Mataram’, where the focus is on the freedom struggle and different freedom-related songs are taken up by dancers. 

Vande Mataram — a call that excited people and incited them against the British. Featured in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel Anandamath in the 1880s, Vande Matarm was composed into a song by Rabindranath Tagore and continues to inspire even modern composers such as AR Rahman.  

Elsewhere, Muhammad Iqbal penned the poetic Saare Jahan Se Achcha, Hindustan Hamara. The song became very popular, full of pride and beauty — so much so that when Air Force pilot Rakesh Sharma when sent to space in 1984, he recited the line  when prime minister Indira Gandhi asked him ‘How does India look from afar’. 

In Delhi, the phrase ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’ has been used by senior Odissi dancer Ranjana Gauhar as the name for the Independence Day event she has been organising for the past 13 years, in collaboration with India Habitat Centre.

The best thing about IHC is its punctuality! At 7 pm sharp, an automatically programmed computer kicks in with stage and hall announcements.

This year, the gloom of a giant artist-poet — former PM Atal Bihari Vajpeyi — passing away on the day of the festival (it was held on August 16 and 17) was palpable. People came with crestfallen faces, and so Ranjana Gauhar made sure the event started off with paying homage to the leader.

The festival honoured a few worthies in the field, such as ace editor-writer-mentor Alka Raghuvanshi, critic-scholar-dancer Nandini Ramani, senior Mohiniattam artiste Bharati Shivaji and musician-composer performer Prafulla Mangaraja. 

Ranjana Gauhar has not only has danced for many decades, but also shared her art by teaching the next generation, who put up a resplendent opening item dedicated to the spirit of India. Even in the non-Odissi music sections, all of her Odissi dancers covered well, with finely etched cameos. The lighting was superb.  Kudos to Ranjana for such intelligent usage. Her choreographic skills are also her métier now. 

This festival is a smargosbord of dance forms. So, one saw aesthetic Mohiniattam by the one and only princess of the form, Gopika Varma, who was just coming from a flood-afflicted Kerala. Her dance is always wholesome and elegant. The Sudama act was beautiful.

Then, the senior Bharatanatyam guru of Bombay, Deepak Mazmudar, with robust disciple Roopak Mehta, showcased their abhinaya and technical dexterity. Deepak is very understated with sancharis, while Roopak has features that suit royal or divine characters.

Concluding that evening was senior dancer Shobha Koser in Kathak at her bindas best, bringing to her performance the flavour of the Punjab gharana— yes, there was a Punjab gharana as represented by Ustad Aashiq Hussain Khan and Pandit Pyare Lal, it is now defunct — as she is based in Chandigarh, though a product of the Jaipur gharana and the great guru Kundanlal ji, whose son Fateh accompanied her on the tabla. The cheery on cake was seeing, hearing and enjoying the music of senior talent Pt. Jwala Prasad.  

The next day, Bangalore-based upcoming Odissi talent, Madhulita Mohapatra, performed. Her performance had the smell of the soil of Odisha, as she hails from Sambhalpur and did folk dances too before taking to Odissi under guru Gangadhar Pradhan, and then his ace disciple Aruna Mohanty. Madhulita is a consistent dancer who grows with each recital. She, with ace student Paridhi Joshi, did a beautiful piece on love without making it cheap. Paridhi is developing into a finely trained dancer under Madhulita. Young India is sharp and focussed. Madhulita's solo too got full justice from her. 

From Mysore came guru Nagaraj with student Lakshminarayan Jena, rich in costumes and elaborate headgears, showcasing an operatic work in Sanskrit that tells the tale of Shiva testing a vain and haughty Arjuna — Pashupatavijayam. A tad too ballet-like for such a festival, even if both invested much energy and effort, the work showed beauty and simplicity of small town India in art.   

The festival saw performances of various Indian dance forms, such as Odissi, Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Mohiniattam. The festival saw performances of various Indian dance forms, such as Odissi, Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam.

Sutapa Talukdar has grown over the years as an artiste of note, although the common affliction of speed, found now in most Kelubabu (Kelucharan Mohapatra) students, was for all to see. Her students danced at a speed they could not maintain gracefully. What’s the need for that? In fact, the lalitya ang seniors like Sutapa and Ranjana bring to the fore is the quintessence of the Odishi form, its slow unfolding like petals of a flower. Odissi is meant to be lyrical. Poetic. Soft. Sensuous. Soulful.  

At a seminar in Bhubaneswar five years ago, I had coined the word “Bharatnatyamisation of Odissi”, which veteran Odissi diva Sonal Mansingh seconded and made note of in her speech. 

Even at last year’s India Today Odisha Conclave in our session on arts, I had, in presence of the cultured and erudite CM Naveen Patnaik, stated certain concerns as a long-time observor of the art field, and he stopped and complimented me on serving the cause of Odisha arts. Veteran Dr Priyamvada Mohanty Hejmadi too was on the panel with me, and supported such concerns. Many new works in Odissi now suffer from this excess speed trait. 

Modern dance in Delhi continues to be at cross-roads. Still using Indian traditional materials including costumes and content (Sanskriti shlokas!), it gives the impression of being neither fish nor fowl.

Excellent poses and paltas were etched by Bhavini Mishra, a student of Santosh Nair, who hails from a Kathakali background and trained under reputed Narendra Sharma, an ace product of pioneer Uday Shankar. Bhavini Mishra and team were the only non- classical performances in the two-day festival.  It was heartening to see many polished male talents on stage. 

At end of each evening, Ranjana Gauhar invited noted worthies, such as senior wordsmith Nandini Ramani from Chennai, senior Kathakars Nalini, Kamlini of Delhi and Pratibha Prahlad of Bangalore, to come on stage and felicitate those who performed.

All in all, the festival and variety of artistes proved conclusively that indeed, Saare Jahan Se Achcha, Hindustan Hamara. Especially its arts and artists. 

India and its varied art forms are its best calling card. Vande Mataram!

Also read: Bollywood box office: Why Kaagaz ke Phool and Silsila flopped but went on to become cult movies

Writer

Ashish Mohan Khokar Ashish Mohan Khokar

The writer is a reputed culture critic, dance historian and publishes AttenDance.

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