‘Agathi’ by Singapore’s Apsaras Arts Dance Company is an attempt to introduce difficult contemporary themes into an age-old idiom.

Can classical dance be used to tell a hard-hitting political story? Can an art like Bharatanatyam – in which suggestion is all – talk of war, water scarcity and rape?

This is a debate that has sharply divided the classical dance community for decades. There are those who say the rich, codified classical idiom should not be dragged into dreary, day-to-day matters. Others counter that no art form can afford to linger in the curlicued realm of lovelorn nayikas when the world falling apart.

Last month, at the Margazhi season of dance and music in Chennai, Bharatanatyam time-travelled into the 20th century and the millennium to tell the story of refugees. Agathi, staged by Singapore’s Apsaras Arts Dance Company, talked of the trauma of displacement suffered by those who have to leave home because of war, ethnic cleansing and natural disasters.

After its premiere at the Singapore’s Esplanade theatre earlier last year to full houses, Agathi is now set to travel to Europe where the issues of refugees, migration and assimilation are at the very heart of almost every political debate. Its theme is a lived experience for Aravinth Kumarasamy, Apasaras’ artistic director, whose family fled Colombo in 1983 in the wake of widespread anti-Tamil riots, which are often recalled as Black July.

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But Agathi, he maintains, is not just the story of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. “These could be Rohingyas, they could be Syrians crossing hills and ocean, any of the nationalities and communities that had no choice but to leave their homes to seek refuge wherever they could,” he said. “The one common thread in their plight is that their lives will never be the same again. I offer no happy ending, no sprightly thillana that marks the end of an evening of dance.”

Apsaras’ Bharatanatyam dancers, many of them trained in Chennai, use a mix of tools to weave the story – dance, a sutradhar (narrator) in everyday clothes, some visual props and video text outlining the acts. Based mostly on United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ A Book Of Poems, Expressions From Our Youth, it also uses classic Tamil songs by Subramania Bharati and film lyricist Kannadasan.

The choreography starts with a montage of happy households and ecstatic lovers in their homeland. Then crisis hits, shattering the idyll, ripping families apart and tossing them into dangerous seas, prisons and into the hands of tyrants. There are references to Aylan Kurdi, the Kurdish toddler whose lifeless body lying face down on a beach in Turkey came to represent the refugee crisis. And there are references to the dilemma of Syrian physicians who are denied permission to practice as refugees in most countries in the West.

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“The biggest humiliation is that becoming a refugee takes all dignity out of human existence,” said Kumarasamy. “When I was shooting my publicity stills, someone suggested that my dancers wear torn clothes. And I said why? They represent hardworking professionals and workers, not beggars.”

Politics and current events are not easy themes to pull off with classical dance. How do you draw the line between the tragic and the mawkish? How do you show painful events that are simply not translatable into Bharatanatyam’s decorative vocabulary? If you need a narrator and a text screen to explain, how much should you explain and how much to leave to interpretation as classical dances do using mudras and abhinaya?

These are issues all classical dancers who dip into contemporary content have to deal with. In 2013, Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas choreographed Within, a claustrophobic work that evoked the horrors of the Delhi gangrape the previous year. Mallika Sarabhai has talked of bride burning and female infanticide in her work and dancers like Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli have dipped into classical texts such as Sangam poetry on war and environment.

But there is no denying it – combining the arcane and the contemporary can be a tough walk, sometimes a bit of a stretch. Agathi had to weave in and out of the literal and the poetic, simplistic and complex quite a few times.

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Anita Ratnam, contemporary dancer with strong roots in Bharatanatyam, says classical dance is simply not meant for contemporary themes.

“It evokes a certain era and another world, talks of love, separation, nature and other precious things,” she said. “If you talk about a hard-hitting work on ethnic cleansing where you don’t flinch at showing the worst, you need to collaborate with theatre and multimedia, bring in installations perhaps. How much desolation and rape can you show using Bharatanatyam, where the power of suggestion is the key and a lot is left to the audience’s imagination?”

But Kumaraswamy is emphatic that that the only way to keep classical dances relevant is to contemporise its themes – “We are fighting for the attention of the next generation and we are losing it. How do we stay relevant then? This is a generation affected by issues surrounding it like migration. I don’t want to mimic western dance forms, so why not use Bhartanatyam? And change has been in a constant in classical arts. Bharatanatyam today is not what it was 100 years ago, which was nothing like what it was in Thanjavur’s courts.” #KhabarLive

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