Kamini’s Epic Dance

A bharatanatyam dancer (Picture from Wikipedia, with thanks)

(This review appeared in the East African July 12-19)

Without wanting to get myself entangled in the whys and wherefores surrounding the definition of art, I think it is safe to say that beauty in art is universal. It appeals to the senses and emotions across cultures, religions and social class.

At least, this is what I felt when I watched Krishna Ballet Dance performed by Kamini School of Dancing at the Oshwal Centre Auditorium.

Initially, I was intrigued by the mention of ‘Krishna’ and ‘ballet’ in the same title. I had in mind an East-meets-West fusion of classical Indian dance and ballet.

However, when I watched the charity show on Friday April 23 2010, I realised that the dance may have borne this title because many characteristic postures and steps in the bharatanatyam dance, called karanas, are not dissimilar to what you would see in Western ballet.

The performance reflected a remarkable effort on the part of Kamini Thakkar, who managed to co-ordinated about one hundred and eighty dancers whose ages ranged from five to twenty-two years.

As the music and colourful dancing carried me away, I found myself reflecting on the three levels of understanding art, outlined by art historian Erwin Panofsky.

Level one, is the basic perception: This was a very well choreographed dance with excellent use of colour and light, innovative props and beautiful costume.

This is the level at which someone may look at a famous sculpture by Michelangelo that is found in St Peter’s basilica in Vatican City: a statue of a man, lying across a lady’s lap. One may appreciate the high skill of the sculptor and may even feel some empathy toward the sculpture.

However, if this person is from a Western culture, or is a Christian or more specifically a Roman Catholic, he will recognise that this sculpture is actually a pietà– a representation of the Virgin Mary, cradling the body of Christ, after the crucifixion. This is the level two of understanding art, which draws on the viewer’s cultural background.

The members of the audience from a Hindu background appreciated the Kamini’s dance on this level. They recognised that this was an epic dance based on the childhood of the Hindu deity, Krishna, who is often represented as a young boy playing a flute. In addition, they recognised the hastas, which are expressive hand gestures that the dancers use, to communicate ideas.

Level three of understanding art involves looking at the work of art in its historical and cultural environment. This is where the art historian (and the critic) comes in, with questions like, why did the artist choose to represent this or that in this manner?

Since the 10th Century A.D., Krishna has been a popular subject in Indian performing arts and the bharatanatyam is one of the oldest classical dance forms in India. This means that, over and above the hours spent in rehearsal under the direction of Kamini Thakkar, these dancers have the advantage of centuries spent in perfecting the art form.

While scholars continue to grapple with past African art, there is room in the present to re-tell great African tales on level one, immortalise heroes like Luanda Magere and national icons like Dedan Kimathi on level two and define new parameters of African performing arts, on level three.

The Ozidi Saga is a choreographed epic by Nigerian poet and playwright J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, which was first performed in 1966. It recounts the adventures of the Ijaw hero, Ozidi as he seeks to avenge his father’s death.

I have not had the chance to watch The Ozidi Saga but I think it would give aspiring directors and choreographers an opportunity to reflect on, and standardise, traditional African dances and other aspects of performance like masks and mime.

Epic stories, whether they’re told through dance, poetry or prose, tend to soothe a collective social nostalgia, which is echoed in Shakespeare’s lament: “O! call back yesterday, bid time return.”

© Anne Manyara 2010

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