Nagarika by Jayachandran Palazhy

Ng Yi-Sheng

July 2, 2015

Can you believe this exhibition is only going to be on for four days? 

1 July to 4 July. I don’t really understand the logistics of this. Probably because it’s being held in the upstairs space, where there’s loads of discussions, and they figure it’d be interference.

Anyhow, it’s not a very tricky setup. It’s just four monitors showing the two DVDs created by Jayachandran Palazhy from the Attakakalalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore.

Our program describes it as “augmented reality”, but it’s really more of a video encyclopedia of two forms of Indian classical movement: bharatanatyam and kalaripayattu. “An integrated information system on Indian physical traditions,” as he puts it.

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Guide for the perplexed:

BHARATANATYAM (say BAR-ata-NAHT-yum) is an ancient form of classical dance originally from the temples of Tamil Nadu (represent!), now practiced throughout India and the diaspora. If you’ve watched Indian dance at public events in Singapore, there’s a high chance it’s this kind you’ve seen.

KALARIPAYATTU (say CULL-erry-PAH-yut-too) is an ancient Indian martial art from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It involves both armed and unarmed combat, and it’s been theorised to be the origin of all Asian martial arts, from karate to kung fu.

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Keng Sen: It may be the first time this is happening in the whole of Asia. William Forsythe did this with his improvisational techniques: he gave dancers a DVD and said learn it by the weekend and when you come into the studio I want you to be able to do it.

So the whole thing stands in stark contrast to the “guru” method of training under a master from the age of five till adulthood. It’s kind of like those jujitsu programs they injected into Neo’s brain in The Matrix.

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… But it’s a little more complicated than that, in practice. Palazhy had to work together with masters in Bangalore, specifically choosing only one style from each practice: the kalakshetra style of bharatanatyam and the northern style of kalaripayattu. And there were loads of trust issues to get over – he had to convene a seminar for the kalaripayattu folks before figuring out who’d work with him.

What they’ve got isn’t just instant replay of each of the dancers’ movements (front, side, top). They’ve also got explanations of the concepts (energy-breath; gaze-focus; isolation, contrast, surprise, imagery) and the symbolic meanings behind various aspects of the physical system. Stuff is explained far more directly and cogently than in most lessons – and in English (or subtitled Malayalam, in a few cases).

Palazhy: I was looking at this primarily because a lot of young dancers now are mimicking this without knowing what is involved. And I think it takes long long years to get the finer aspect of it, but this gives some kind of insight. Even the young practitioners who took part in the project, they were gobsmacked to realise this knowledge was there. All of us coming together made it possible.

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The kalaripayyatu DVD’s actually on sale – pick it up at 72-13, or from www.Nagarika.attakkalari.org.

And honestly, it’s a fascinating art form: he was telling us about how it’s usually practiced in kalaris, i.e. rectangular pits dug into the earth which symbolize the universe, how there are usually Hindu gods in a corner (but not always; there are Muslim kalaris and Christian kalaris too); how girls participate but somehow seldom go on to practise as adults, instead devoting themselves to the ayurvedic massage and therapy side of the art form.

But what bugs me is that Palazhy doesn’t seem to acknowledge how creepy this whole project is. I mean, there’s an unheimlich aspect to taking an ancient art form and turning it into a Dance Dance Revolution program. And then there’s the possibility that non-Indian artists (hell, even Indian artists who aren’t from the same traditions) will review these DVDs and think, “Wow, now I know bharatanatyam,” and claim they’re qualified, the same way westerners have appropriated yoga and ayurvedic remedies.

Mind you, I’m not saying these works shouldn’t exist. Hell, that very creepiness adds to their interestingness as art.

Catch ‘em while you can!

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  • 2015