Restrained by the pandemic, Indian dancers are exploring a new creative frontier: dance films

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Irony, loneliness, grief and dread come together in a bathtub in Rathimalar Govindarajoo’s two-minute dance film. A work of stark symbolism, the film was made in May two years ago as all humanity went into a terror-stricken lockdown. Out there was a pathogen that could suck all breath out of the body with little warning.

The mudras in the film say classic Bharatanatyam but everything else says otherwise – the neon-lit claustrophobic setting, the short shift as costume and the dancer submerging in and emerging from inches of water with a gasp.

The Bathtub had led the first Indian online dance film series of the pandemic, Boxed, released in May 2020. An initiative of the arts platform and ezine Narthaki, the series sought to provide an alternative platform to dancers as the entire performative ecosystem collapsed. This was a time when dancers struggled to create work “born from a denial of space, lights, people, all the things artists literally live off”, as dancer Leela Samson said.

Over seven weekends, Boxed webcast 40 dance films set in the most mundane corners of homes, in everyday lockdown clothes: there was Bharatanatyam dancer Kumar Sarveshan’s ingenious work atop a kitchen counter, Palani Murugan’s fluid silambam (short stick) choreography to the dreary sound of water dripping into overflowing buckets, and Surjit Nongmeikapam’s prone body negotiating a staircase up and down.

The Bathtub, Rathimalar Govindarajoo.

The initiative caught the zeitgeist perfectly. An explosion of cinematic creativity has marked the Indian dance scene since the start of the pandemic, with the lens and the editing table acting as co-choreographers. Starting August 25, 67 films showcasing the South Asian dance scene will be shown online at the In/Motion Chicago’s International Dance Festival. Curated by dance scholar Arshiya Sethi, the festival that will be webcast in three segments till September 1, has an eclectic menu – films depicting classical or contemporary dance; films as short as 30 seconds and as long as 22 minutes; films set in homes, forests, fields, on rooftops and even atop a massive garbage dump in Delhi.

“Film dance is not about dance alone: it needs the mediation of technology,” said Sethi, who founded Kri Foundation, a body that links the arts to scholarship and society, and has been lecturing on dance films for over two decades. “It is a genre you can’t perform on stage but holds immense possibilities. For instance, I have yet to watch a closer and braver exploration of the rasa of vibhatsa (disgust) as Lalit Khatana’s choreography in the midst of a landfill.”

Most of these shorts were commissioned for arts festivals such as Serendipity and Ghora or World Dance Alliance events that had gone digital during the lockdown. Just last weekend, Puducherry played host to Manifest, an event that brought together three classical dancers and cinematographers from across the world.

Water Bodies, Vikram Iyengar.

This shift from offline to online has produced a new league of multimedia dance stars who dare to make do with the minimal, have the courage to let go and do without the usual trappings of showmanship. Among them is Kathak and contemporary dancer Keerthi Kumar. His work for the Boxed series, Bean Bag, shows how little dance actually needs to connect with a viewer.

“At a time when you were worried about how life is unfolding, the bean bag is natural choice for a dance prop,” said Kumar, who was also the creative designer and editor for the Boxed series. “I spent a lot of time on it, doing nothing, being active, planning. I used two phone cameras, one above and the other in front of the bean bag using sticks and ropes for jugaad. But the choreography always kept the camera in mind, it was already edited in my mind when I began.”

Kumar is now a specialist, called in to rework stage performances as video works. “I had started work on the new medium in 2008, but the lockdowns gave a massive boost to dance films,” he said.

Poetry in motion

Filming dance is an altogether different exercise from making a dance film. The first is a work of documentation but the latter treats dance as Indian cinema has for decades, putting the camera centre stage along with the dancer.

Some of the most fascinating films in the In Motion curation are about getting the viewer to feel, not just watch passively. Among these is Paramita Saha and Pintu Das’ outstanding work, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which a couple plays out a numbing day of isolation in a 3X3 room. They work, read, sleep, cook, fight, make love in swift, rigorously choreographed movements with no music except the sounds of a dead city. The world outside is inches away, framed through a window, with no option of escape.

Shot with a phone perched between two slabs of the roof – which kept falling off sometimes – and no editing, Long Day was an exploration of a surreal phase when time expanded endlessly, says Saha.

“As dancers we used to position ourselves as exotic creatures who perform at a distance from the audience, demanding distant adulation,” said Saha. “Now we have opened up spaces, sharing them with audiences. Film changes our access to our body on display, offering depth as well as selective visibility.”

The rising tide of video work also yielded some very strong political work. Vikram Iyengar’s Water Bodies, using Parul Khakhar’s elegy to the dead in the Ganga during the second wave of Covid, comes as a punch to the gut. And Bimbavati Devi’s highly acclaimed work, Footprints in Blood, connects the agrarian movement of Manipur’s women and the rape of Thangjam Manorama Devi with the mythical worlds of Meitei goddesses.

Samnaba, Sunil Nongmeikapam.

But not all dance films produced in the last two years were generated with jugaad and focused on realism. There are some that are crafted with cinematic finesse and stunning vistas. Nongmeikapam’s work, Samnaba (Merge), for instance, is a hypnotic work that treads through forests, water bodies and mysterious interiors, the stuff of dreams and nightmares.

Harmony and symmetry

Film and dance actually have a long and deep connection in India, art historians point out. It started in the days of silent cinema and then traversed decades of eclectic creativity and technology to become the dazzling visual experience it is now.

“After cinema came the Films Division, which documented Indian art for Indians, a lot like what Pathe was doing,” said Sethi. “Later, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and NCPA [National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai] stepped in. And remember, the very first inaugural set of programmes on Doordarshan in 1959 included Vyjayanthimala’s Bharatanatyam. So, what is happening now with dance films is like a circle coming to a close.”

Among the films with memorable dance documentaries, apart from the Films Division oeuvre, was Satyajit Ray’s Bala on Balasaraswathi’s genius. Arun Khopkar’s Sanchari spoke through Leela Samson of the philosophy and aesthetics of classical dances. Sankalp Meshram’s Lasya Kavya on Alarmel Valli and Sumantra Ghoshal’s Unseen Sequence on Malavika Sarukkai were some of the other films in this genre.

Footprints in Blood, Bimbavati Devi.

But the dance film makes different demands – it needs some ceding of ground by the dancer, allowance for vulnerability, room for imperfection. One of the most humane aspects of the dance shorts is how little anxiety there is around the notion of an ideal body, face or stance.

These are elements which classical dancers, with their training in prescribed grammar and aesthetic, find harder to adopt. Sethi recalls struggling in the early 2000s to put together dance film festivals. It was not until 2006 that Kathak dancer Iyengar’s pathbreaking dance film with Debashree Bhattacharya, Bahudha, happened.

“There are reasons why classical artistes are not instantly at ease with dance films: ideas of auchitya (correctness), harmony and symmetry are ingrained in our vocabulary and muscle memory,” Ratnam said. “We are trained to be soloists with all attention focused on us and our art is closely braided with set texts, music and sacred poetry and we cannot do without the floor. If you take all these elements out, we are bereft. I got a lot of disappointing work where dancers were simply doing in their drawing room what they do on stage.”

But with time a lot has changed. Sanjukta Wagh’s Holi creates a luminescent visual experience in black and white around a traditional Kathak composition. Sattariya dancer Prerona Bhuyan pays a tribute to poet Bhabendra Nath Saikia with the ragged cityscape opening up around a terrace. Likely the most dramatic of the In/Motion collection is Katyayini Kanak’s Mahakali created for the digital Ghora Festival where the spotlight was on subaltern female deities. Using earth colours and tight shots of facial abhinaya and body language to shocking effect, Kanak wove together the stories of Kali and Kaal (time/death).

Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas took the decision fairly early in the lockdown to avoid the path of streaming works live. “A lot of the early digital work then had no reference to what was happening around us,” she said. “I was working on Immersed using the Krishna theme then, but all I was immersed in was anxiety. So we [her company, Drishtikon] danced across homes, spaces and times and with clips from earlier stage performances put together as many as 30 dance shorts such as Within From Within. This work was as much a release for our creativity as a support system for each other.”

The asphyxiating terror of the pandemic has abated and the proscenium stage is alive again. Dancers are busy rehearsing, choreographing and organising their calendars. The film can never replace the buzz of an auditorium, say artistes, but it has brought them close to a new, unseen audience. “I think every piece should be planned with two lives – a stage life and a film life,” said Sethi. “Covid has taught us this.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.

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