Boundary, separation, division – these concepts have been part of human civilisation since centuries. Art tries to explore and unfold the workings of emotions and has the potential to address something deep within, to address the non-rational which seems to be guiding our thoughts and actions. Art has always acted as a medium for transcending boundaries as it can communicate without the barriers of words, theories and cultures and thus, go beyond.
The etymology of the word boundary itself has a very interesting anecdote of the changing nature of its meaning. The word boundary comes from ‘bound + ary’; in the Old French of the 1300s, the word ‘bonde’ as a noun meant ‘that which indicates the limit of anything’ and further, in the late 1500s, it changed to verb – ‘bondir’ meaning to ‘leap forward or spring from’. The same word which could indicate the limit of a particular aspect now became a mark from which one leapt forward. Just as the meaning of a word changes, an art form also keeps changing, and leaps from a particular form into something which is contemporary to the times.
In order to stay alive, art must always negotiate and converse with the boundaries.
If a piece of art is to communicate, it has to cross over the boundary between the artist and the audience: boundaries between the said and the unsaid, abstract and concrete, natural and man-made, boundaries of cultures, languages, perceptions, and histories. Every time art transits and crosses over, it takes on a new skin and sheds the previous one in order to adapt and thrive. Sometimes, the piece of art does not change but the perception of it changes, based on cultural sensibilities and aesthetics. This change in perception adds a new layer of understanding and new meaning to the piece of art, making it relevant and enabling it to connect with the present.
Even a classical dance form such as the Bharatanatyam, which has a traditional lineage and a framework to its vocabulary, must negotiate and cross boundaries of time, languages and socio-cultural contexts, not only in its presentation, but also in its content, form and vocabulary. The Bharatanatyam which we see today is a result of the work of artists during the Independence era, when India was in the process of searching for and creating its own nationalist symbols of pride and culture. Before this time period, the form was called Dasi attam or Sadir attam and was performed by Devadasis as a part of temple ritual supported by royal patronage.
The vocabulary of the Sadir, which got its name in the 1700s during the Maratha rule, was very different from that of the Bharatanatyam which we see today. In order to remove the labels forced by the Colonial rule which reduced Sadir to merely a form of sensual ‘vulgar’ dance performed by prostitutes, the new age dancers stripped Sadir from all the sensual movements and compositions and transformed it into Bharatanatyam, a proscenium stage art that was claimed to be respectful. In the process, the Devadasis who were the traditional custodians of the art form were sidelined and tactfully ignored.
The examples of influences of different rulers and languages such as Telugu, Marathi and Kannada on an art form which evolved in the Tamil region illustrate the dynamics of changing boundaries of language and cultures. To add to that, there are even references to compositions in Persian and English which were performed in the Sadir style to please the rulers of the times. The socio-political dynamics of the day shaped and sculpted the art form.
Within the same geographical boundaries, Bharatanatyam is changing itself. Today, dancers are once again exploring traditional literature and songs which the Devadasis had danced to but were shelved for being labeled as inappropriate. Some of the leading performers have begun experimenting and bringing back graceful, sensuous movements into the traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam. There is increasing awareness about paying due respect to the lineage of the Devadasis which, earlier, was purposefully swept under the carpet.
With newer influences from folk arts and Western art forms, and influx of contemporary and postmodern perspectives into the traditional style, the dance form is constantly restructuring and redefining itself. There are similar stories of change in many other art forms across the country. A folk-art form of Maharashtra named Tamasha is such an example. The Tamasha we see today is very different from its traditional form, as it has had to constantly adapt to the changing tastes and demands of its local patrons. From dancing to the traditional beats and lyrics of a Phadachi or Baithakichi Lavani to Bollywood items numbers, Lavani, an integral part of Tamasha, has evolved considerably.
Sometimes, while adapting, the dance form loses its essence, or carries with itself the essence of its identity while modifying itself in other aspects or gets transformed into something completely new. If this process ceases to exist, so does the art form – it ceases to stay relevant and is either shelved in a museum, put on a pedestal or is completely forgotten. Art form is like an organism, an amoeba which keeps evolving, growing, decaying, rebuilding….
This photo of a famous installation by Henrique Oliveira aptly portrays the image of how ever-changing an art form can be. It is something that is constantly in the form of formless; sometimes fitting into some space, sometimes overflowing; negotiating and constantly changing shapes, textures, size and volume; encroaching into other territories and merging within its own; constantly in the process of transcending boundaries, in order to connect.
This blurring of boundaries is the very essence of every creation!
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.