Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jane Goodall

Today I had the fortune of listening to Jane Goodall. I wanted to be in her physical presence as I suspect that she had a radiance about her. And I was indeed right. In a room packed with developmental economists and other NGO professions she spoke passionately about her mother. How her mother believed in her from the time she was 1.5 years old and took earthworms to bed with her. Instead of getting upset her mother nurtured her love for animals.

Jane she was born between the two world wars she was very poor - her family could not even afford a bicycle. But her mother bought her Tarzan and other great books about the natural world. At 11 years old Jane had a dream that she will be working with animals she said and writing about them. And when she shared this dream everyone except her mom laughed at her. Her mom told her to work hard and focus on her dreams. Finally she saved enough money to buy a ticket on a boat to Africa and set sail on a new adventure. She knew she wanted to be a naturalist in Africa. And this to her was the starting point. Getting there. Of course once she was there there were other obstacles. In particular no one would take responsibility for a young single woman to roam the forests unaccompanied. So her mother came along with her. And when Jane was starting to lose heart - feeling that she was not learning anything spectacular about chimps her mother refuted it. Her mom told her that Jane was learning alot about how they feed, what they feed on and other daily habits. And encouraged Jane to record all of it. And her breakthough finally came when she saw a chimp using a stick as a tool. Her mother also created incredibly trust and goodwill among the local Kenyan people by setting up a "clinic" in the village where they were. She used epson salts, bandages, aspirin and other simple medicine to treat the ailments of the villagers. In turn the villagers came to revere her as a white witch doctor and allowed Jane much access and shared their wisdom with her.

When she finally presented her findings to professors in Cambridge they said that she was wrong. Animals have no emotions and it was wrong of her to name her animals. They must be numbered. She said instinctively she knew her professors were wrong. From a very young age her dog had taught her that animals have many emotions and this in turn became the basis of her work. I was deeply inspired by her story and her radiant story telling. She spoke to us from her heart. No script. No slides. With vivid animal hoots and chimp like gestures she shared her intimate knowledge of her chimps with love, honesty and compassion.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bill Cunningham

Today I went to see a beautiful documentary-movie of a street fashion photographer Bill Cunninham. I was mesmerized and profoundly affected. First Bill's sense of wonder and awe had such an innocent childish quality about it. Secondly he had manners - he sought to protect his subjects that he was photographing. He was not interested in celebrities. He was interested in the ordinary person making bold and creative use of fashion. People who felt compelled to express themselves. In defending fashion he said fashion is like an armor that helps one get through the day. Without fashion life would be so dreary. And unimaginative. What a refreshing take on fashion which often has been confused with vanity and excess. As opposed to a possible avenue for beauty, inspiration and self-knowledge. I also loved the fact that he did the work he did out of love. He worked in the early days in the "establishment" - meaning a newspaper. And at night he did all his creative work up till 4am in the morning. He clearly had amazing energy or maybe it was the work that gave him the energy. But at 82 being able to look back at his life and smile the way he does. And talk with so much passion about his work is a real source of joy. His fluency in French and how he says he comes to Paris every 6 months like a student to educate his eyes. That was an amazing insight. When accepting an award from the French he almost broke down when he says He who seeks beauty shall find it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Friday, March 18, 2011

Respecting First Emotional Response

Today I heard a wonderful interview at BBC by Francoise Barbe-Gail who says that we must respect our first emotional response to a work. She explains that we are often very shy and frightened when we look at a painting. We always have a first impression. It is important to trust this first impression. If it disgusts you, you might want to go further and explore why. She says when you do this it enables you to get in touch with the painter's instincts and it gives clues to his life. Going beyond this first impression is also important (without negating the first impression). How do you trust your own impression while also trusting the instincts of the painter? She goes onto say that in many ways seeing a painting is like meeting a new person.

To train you eye you cannot begin with academic art history. If you do so it clouds your feelings and impression. I think what se is really saying is that you need to see art from the heart. Not from the head. To formulate your own view and determine your own values. It is important to be aware of what the images are actively conveying to us.

Her views have inspired me to buy her book How to Look at a Painting.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Malavika Takes Abhinaya to New Heights

For old school critics of Malavika who dismiss Malakiva's Abhinaya, they are missing the point entirely. I just finished watching Malavika's performance at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was floored. There were tears in my eyes. A standing ovation was all I could muster at the end of an intensely moving show. Last night it occurred to me that Malavika's concept of abhinaya was a contemporary one. Unlike the old school gurus her abhinaya was not merely confined to her face. It is in every mudra, every adavus, every note and most importantly in the total environment that she creates for her audience. The paintings that she used for her set design. The single note of the temple bell that punctuated and signaled the end of a piece. This is how Malavika subtly infuses her modern spirit into the rigorous classical space of Bharatanatyam. It easy to do fusion - to tinker on the edges of a classical art form. But to dissect each adavu and koraivai and modify it. And then to add another layer of sound and light to amplify her movements was a stroke of brillance. Malavika is firmly in that league of great masters who have transcended technique. Let me give you a few concrete examples. Malavika used a rectangle, a square and a circle to create distinct dark and light spaces on the stage floor. She often stood on the edge of these shapes as opposed to the center. Her ability to play with light and shadow infused her movements with a meditative aura. This transformed the mystery and beauty of the sculptural qualities she brought to the art form. She curated herself within the light/dark spaces with impecabble rhythm. Similarly, she used classical temple instruments like the temple bell and the conch to add a layer of authenticity to her piece. These pieces although often used in a temple are seldom part of the classical Bharatanatyam orchastra. Her pieces on Durga and Shiva were indeed very classical choices. Yet these characters felt raw, fresh and alive when she danced them to life at the Kennedy Center. Finally the way she punctuated her adavus was striking. Bharatanatyam dancers are often subject to rigid rules as to how to execute certain movements. Malavika followed all the rules but surprised the audience with the delivery of it. The trembling of her fingers to represent fire transformed a simple mudra into a fiery ball of fire. To decode Malavika one has to watch her really closely. On the surface she may appear very classical and almost traditional. But she is far from it. From her frequent use of back to the audience - which is traditional dance schools is frowned upon as being vulgar - to her exquisite marriage of lights, music and voice to bring the stories to live, Malavika has redefined Bharata Natyam and made it a universal language. For those seeking to copy Malaviak I say watch her dance. Malavika seldom gives interviews and I have found her interviews very disappointing. I realized that her primary vocabulary is movement. Not words. Words cannot convey the essence of what she is trying to do. Watching her might give a sense. Malavika is authentic because she owns her style and is honest about what works for her. She does not take shortcuts and I have never seen her resort to cheap tricks. Every show I have seen of hers have been original - she has a strong concept and works around it faithfully. She is disciplined too. She does not bring too many elements into her show. She is committed to evolving as an artist and that truly sets her apart from many of her peers who seem more interested in the performance dimension as opposed to the creative dimension.

David Brooks - The Social Animal

In a cab ride to a lunchtime event I heard a snapshot of a great interview. The interviewee said something that deeply resonated.

"There is a gigantic bias in our (american) culture towards hard measurable things. We need that. But I am also for music, art and playtime. The real key to our wisdom is how to educate our emotions... We educate our emotions by art, literature by movie character and by surrounding ourselves with certain kinds of people and not other kinds of people. That is how our emotions get smarter. Why do kids stay in high-school? Mainly due to ABC - atheletics, band and cheerleeding. This gives them meaning and keeps them in school. The art and atheletics keeps kids emotionally connected to school

Whoever this guy was - he was summing up my life !!! It was all my dancing and creative stuff that kept me happy, fulfilled and engaged throughout my school years. I remember in Law School that in one year my grades suffered as I had cut down all my creative activities and focused only on law. The final year I went back to dancing and creating and I thrived and got the top prize for a very complex legal subject. It taught me a very important lesson - that my brain is wired in a certain way and that it functions better with a certain mix of activities.

He also gave me an insight into the psyche of American men brought up in suburbia. He said that they don't feel that they are equipped to express emotions or how to deal with it. He pointed out that there is indeed a cultural norm in America that one should be self sufficient and should not express emotions. As a result American men develop a phobia towards emotions and tend to withdraw when they are confronted with certain emotions.

Finally he spoke about how different cultures see things differently. For example, Americans he said looked at the Mona Lisa and looked mainly at her eyes and her mouth. Other cultures look at things all around the Mona Lisa. I definitely fell into the latter category - ie context mattered alot more for me in the total appreciation of the work. He cited another fascinating experiment -how when you place a tank of gold fish in front of Americans and Chinese you get very different reactions. The Americans immediately focussed on the biggest fish and the details that it presented. The Chinese looked at everything around the fish including the fish.

Finally I found it really funny that he said that Washington DC, where he lives, is the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth. When I jumped out of the cab I looked up the author and his new book - The Social Animal - The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Daksha Seth

Last night I got a free ticket to watch Daksha Seth's company at the Kennedy Center. I was reluctant to go. I had watched their troupe before and it was not my cup of tea. Their work always struck me as a vulgar mix of acrobatics and indian martial arts carefully packed in a design conscious manner to appeal to the western palette. For those unfamiliar with the indian dance world, Indian contemporary dance is a very recent phenomenon. Indian dancers are struggling to find a meaningful voice and identity within the larger contemporary dance world. And that is a worthy struggle and one which should be pursued with vision, courage and passion. But Indians artists should not delude themselves as to where they are in this process. Or more importantly attempt to hoodwink their audience.

Daksha always manages to use intelligent light design, set design and a zen-like aesthetics to package her dance offerings. But the movement vocabulary remained static and predictable. When you strip it down to the core - what is the defining aspects of Seth's work? Aerial acrobatics mixed in with karma sutra-like movements? Is shock factor the main thrust of Seth's work? Is her work largely a rebellious response to Indian modesty and love for ornamentation and color? Does something become indian contemporary dance merely because it is from India or performed by Indians? Or are there certain emotional, physical and spiritual markers that set indian contemporary dance apart from other contemporary dance forms? What is that singular thread that holds indian arts forms together and that merit inclusion in the Maximum Indian festival at the Kennedy Center? Or is there no such thread? Seth would probably argue that these are precisely the questions that her performance seeks to provoke. Yes, a clever answer but an evasive one.

The point is that the show did not have a conceptual underpinning. This was painfully apparent at various points and in particular when Seth twirled around in a gaudy golden outfit in the middle of the piece. If it was designed as a purely abstract piece it would have been fine. But the attempt to link the entire performance to the motif of the snake struck me as an after thought. An afterthought that diluted the virtuostic display of aerial dance and martial arts. A weak concept does not elevate the show into a higher intellectual realm. It only adds more noise. These shortcuts are dangerous not just for Seth and her company of dancers. But also in developing a meaningful response to the larger question of how indian contemporary artists are responding to India's evolving identity, politics and arts.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chinua Achebe

Recently in an interview Chinua Achebe said that it was intolerable for any man to stand up and claim that his Ibo dialect is better than another Ibo dialect. Or Achebe added to claim that his dialect is the only one. This statement transported me to a dance conference in India ten years ago when all the major dance gurus in Chennai were caught up in a debate as to which bhani or school of Bharatanatyam was superior. As Achebe says this is the wrong question to debate about. Different schools of bharatanatyam have evolved over time corresponding to the different gurus and their stylistic choices. Ultimately they are all a celebration of a beautiful classical dance form from Tamil Nadu. These various styles attest to the enduring beauty and grace of that artform. The diversity within the form enriches it and allows for customization to fit the dancer's temperament and preferences. As Achebe says this is a celebration of the people and their identity. Applying this to Bharata Natyam this is a celebration of what is happening today - there are multiple schools of dance and the dancer and the dance gurus need to celebrate this. So even though the bharatanatyam world maybe searching for new ways to grow and preserve the rigor of the classical form, dancers within the space would do well to take Achebe's advice and celebrate the present vibrant state of the art. To dance with great joy, freedom and ownership is one of the most beautiful gifts one can share with the world.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Grace and Beauty in Nepal

A few days ago I returned from Nepal. Kathmandu far exceeded my expectations. Sometimes going to a new city with no expectations is a good thing. It leaves you open to embrace new perspectives, untainted by guidebooks written by foreigners. The greatest joy was the people, their history and their way of live. Yes, the city was chaotic. The roads were filled with pot holes. There were frequent power failures and blackouts. But these are easy distractions. One needs to be able to look beyond this to the essence of the place and its people.

The Nepalese were eager to ensure that as visitors I had a good time. They often enquired whether I was enjoying my stay and if I could come back to visit again. This is the essence of true hospitality. The genuine concern for a visitor's well being and happiness. The deep desire for the Nepalese to ensure that we visitors leave their country with great memories was touching.

Today international travel has become casual, impersonal and transactional. With the proliferation of internet travel sites, budget airlines and a large business travel segment, alot of the romance in travel seems to be lost. The hotel staff in many countries don't seem to have time to linger and chat with you or enquire about your well being. If they did, it would be in a highly scripted fashion and as part of their job description towards "client satisfaction." As a business traveller I often tend to be equally abrupt as I am anxious to get things "done." However, the Nepalese transported me to a time where civility and graciousness matters. They were impeccable hosts - they treated me like a revered guest in their home. And I reciprocated by slowing down and smiling from my heart.

My time in Nepal reminded me that hospitality is such an integral part of Asian culture - where Guest is God. Tips are received with gratitude not with an attitude (as in the US). At my friend's golf club we had wanted to go for a walk and I was in heels. One of the staff took off her sandals and told me to wear them on the walk. It was a spontaneous and a simple gesture of taking care of one's guest. It struck me as a reflection and extension of the Nepali's people's culture, spiritual values and inherent warmth.

Of course there were a few local Nepalese who were ashamed of their "backward" country, culture and people. They were anxious to get onto the Western bandwangon and become "modern." One of them told me how about certain barbaric temple rituals that were performed during the upcoming Navarathri. For a country teaming with NGOs and pockets of fly by night expats who prescribe all sorts of western medicine to tackle all sorts of local problems in Nepal - being caught between cultures can be a tough and very confusing thing. One could easily lose their cultural and spiritual anchor in the midst of incessant talk about economic "progress." But for me it has also reminded me to dig deeper to defend the symbolism inherent in many ancient rituals. And to look beneath the surface for truths that inform people's choices and way of life.

The Nepalese struck me as strong and proud people who had deep respect for their majestic Himalaya, their great Gurkka regiment and their beautiful stupas and temples filled with ornate handcarvings. A few of the Nepali elite I met were sophisticated, clear headed and visionary. They saw not only the potential in their country but also its problems. They were not impressed with the Westerners or their simple "upgrade" ideology. A few Sherpas who has scaled Mount Everest and were incredibly well travelled also shared some keen insights with us. They talked about the essential difference between the Western climbers and the Sherpas. And how as Sherpas he only enjoyed climbers who climbed with a heart and with a love for the mountain. As opposed to personal glory which they said often seem to inspire Western climbing expeditions.

A colleaague of mine pointed out the people here although poor had a quiet sense of dignity. They were not anxious to impress or to exploit the tourists. They wanted to share their history, culture and identity. And they did so with simple joy and a sense of ownership. It reminded me of my time in rural South India where even the taxi drivers were incredibly poetic and deeply knowledgeable about every tree, river and roadside store and its history and mythology. So this trip once again reminded me that the world is a rich and complex place. And if I traveled with the right spirit and remained alert to the nuances of a place and its people, I will be richly rewarded.