Madhubanti Chanda, final year MVA Art History, MSU Baroda is an accomplished Bharatanatyam exponent with so many performances to her credit. A graduate in BA Hon. in History from the Lady Shree Ram College, New Delhi, when it comes to the curatorial project, Madhubanti cannot think anything but dance, that means a performing body in space, not really meant to be opened for the audience to take the position that they want to but to manipulate their position vis a vis her performing body, a reversal of the proscenium theatre or temple courtyard stages where Bharatanatyam is often performed. The project she has in hand is titled ‘Nazariya’- A Way of Looking perhaps. Once again she would like to contradict the ways of seeing. In the concept that she presents before the class room/board room, Madhubanti explains how she wants to make use of the space as a neutral entity made available to the body in performance but to arrest the audience movement in certain ways so that the performing body could be completely in control of the audience not by its ability to move the finer feelings among the audience but by its authority over their gazes. Here is the core of her project. According to Madhubanti, she wants to re-present the age old Devadasi system, though which is obsolete now, has its stigma attached even to the modern performing bodies of the Bharatanatyam dancers, if not overtly, covertly. In her concept note she delineates how the Devadasi system, giving away of girls as God’s servants, who would later become accomplished singers and dancers not only servicing the Gods but also the people who wield godly power in the world.
Devdasi Parmpara or system had its pros and cons. There used to be tremendous exploitation of women in this field at the same time the exponents in the field had high reputation as fine artistes. They often became consorts of the rich and feudal patrons, paving way to the collapse of the safe family system and also it had given a false aura of being the incubator of high end prostitution. Whatever be the reason the Devdasis, reputed dancers and singers were looked down upon by the society as a sort of decorated ‘sex workers’ and from the polite societies it became a shrill demand for the abolishing of the Devdasi system. Immediately after the Independence of the country, some of the conservative legislators moved against the Devdasi system and in one stroke of legislation, exactly the British had rendered several tribes into criminal tribes, made Devdasi system a criminal offence. The sudden fall from grace affected the dancers and singers and it took many years of efforts from the modern exponents of Bharatnatyam like Balasaraswati and later by Rukmini Arundale to regain the lost glory for this dance form. The body of the performer/dancer was considered a polluted body and in her curated performance Madhubanti wants to focus on the idea of ‘pollution’ and how the stigma is held proudly by the contemporary dancers like late Chandralekha in whose stage appearance each performance becomes a cleansing act not only of the imagined body of the dancers but also the ‘polluted’ minds of the public/audience.
The concept is clear though the choreography is yet to take shape. Madhubanti does not want to ‘cleanse’ her body for the sake of the audience’s catharsis, on the contrary what she wants to do is to act out the cleansing process before the audience, the process neither as a self cleansing one nor as a cleansing of the audience. It is something in between where the performer’s body gains complete power and the agency of her body is snatched away from the gazing public, and the audience is rendered completely powerless even with their power to gaze is snatched away from them. Madhubanti identifies three spaces for her performance where the curatorial part is more about curating her acts as well as curating the spaces and audience response. She takes up the responsibilities of an artist and curator at once. Madhubanti has to manage space, live singers and any other partners in action if need be. In the initial presentation Madhubanti has three spaces in her mind, the famous pond right in the middle of the faculty, the old building and the sort of stage that the old building provides. Madhubanti wants to start the act at the banks of the ponds where she would start her cleansing act by pouring water (dirty water!) over her choreographed body in movement. From there she would like to move towards the old building and come out to the stage through a room which is currently used as studios by a couple of student artists. But Madhubanti is adamant on one thing: When she finishes her cleansing act, she does not want the audience to see her frontal body but the gaze should be falling from the right end of the lawn where she anticipates the public would gather. She wants the collective gaze fall on her the right side of her face.
Here is a problem, with no instructions given to the audience (as she does not intend to give any instructions) and the audience with a free will (as I said in the last article about the audience with individual ‘I’s) may not move the way the performer wants. Then there is the second problem. The girls (art students) who are working in the hexagonal room adjacent to the stage are not ready to give ‘their studio’ to Madhubanti for a few hours. I see it as a sheer case of non-cooperation, lack of sympathy and arrogance. But that is the challenge of the curator-performer. Madhubanti immediately re-works her strategy. Priyanka Kundu is already preparing her ‘Object—Icon’ project in the main central hexagonal hall of the old building. Priyanka being a great friend of Madhubanti agrees to ‘enter into a temporary collaboration’ with Madhubanti in realizing the ‘Nazariya’ project. Somehow, Madhubanti would incorporate the magical ambience created by Priyanka in her curatorial project. Her search for alternatives continues for a few more days and we see a small whirlwind of a Madhubanti moving in the campus making negotiations with different people in different levels. She keeps coming back to the board room to individual and group consultations.
Then happen the magical turn of events. As I have mentioned before, this is the Garba time. The faculty Garba is very famous in Baroda. Former students who are now nearly seventy years old, driven by nostalgia flock back to the faculty like migratory birds during these days and a huge interest has been developed around this Garba of veterans and contemporaries in the city. After the Indian festivals have been radically politicised during the last few years and the reporting of unfortunate incidents, the faculty Garba now takes place in a fortified space and the attending of it needs special passes, registrations and so on. So the workers now erect temporary fortifications using bamboos and clothes. Suddenly it becomes a blessing in disguise for Madhubanti. She could now manipulate her audience easily as they cannot surround the building from all sides. She just needs to make an illusion that the performance is going to be in the foyer of the old building. She gets into action and with three spaces available to her as different from the original plan, Madhubanti’s curatorial surprise is intact and she initially thinks of three repeated performances and finally decides to have only one focused performance on 21st morning. As the ‘cleansing’ act at the pond is now rendered obsolete, I suggest her to add the same component in another pre-recorded performance and Madhubanti being a contemporary choreographer and dancer understands the possibility of immediately.
Now, Madhubanti has the following components in her curatorial project, Nazariya: a live performance by her and a live music as background score not really as accompaniment music as in the traditional sadir. A video element in one of the side halls where we see in a hollow vacant hall, Madhubanti is seen in a choreographed act of cleansing in extremely tight contemporary dance clothes. A possible wide range of public/audience. Priyanka Kundu’s curated space. The corridors. The portico. It’s time to start the performance. As the live music is at the portico (right at the entrance of the building that directly leads to Priyanka’s space) the audience gathers there and many of them including the chief guests take their seats in the available spaces. A new element comes into play. Another painting student comes in the costume of a traditional pujari and does some pujas and gives holy water from brass pots to the audience. The live music is on. With these two components working well a traditional temple atmosphere is automatically created. Everyone is anticipating the appearance of the performer/curator/dancer from somewhere but nobody knows from where. Suddenly, when all attention is on the music and the pujari performer, Madhubanti appears in her red Bharatnatyam costumes at the main walkway of the faculty as if she manifested there from nowhere. I could see her initial idea working perfectly. With no knowledge of her next move, the audience remains where it is and turns their gaze at her side. Lo! The collective gaze falls exactly on her right side! She moves further in slow, rhythmic and lascivious fashion with her eyes drilled into the horizon. Each time her gaze shifts it grills into a person or into a space.
Now the members of the audience are in trouble. They do not know whether to move along with her or remain seated to let her finish her whatever and come to the foyer space where the ‘real’ action would take place, as they think. Madhubanti now enters the building through the steps on the side and she holds a male member of the audience and looks into his eyes; he shudders visibly. Madhubanti imposes (in a way implicates) the collective accusations against a performing body (the Devdasi body) generated by the society on to the hapless young man; I find the shuddering of his body as the shuddering of the society when it comes in direct confrontation with a powerful performing body of the Devdasi. From there Madhubanti enters the room where the video element in played. She just lingers there for a few seconds with a host of enthusiastic youngsters following her silently, with their mobile phone cameras on. Then she crosses another threshold into Priyanka’s magical space. The transcending of the spaces is very important here (both as a choreographic need and a deliberate curatorial decision); Madhubanti starts her performance in a non-space (a walk way), then she climbs the steps (as if to a stage), then she comes in ‘touch’ with the male gazer (the patron) and she crosses over to a new vacant hall where a self cleansing is virtually performed in the video and her crossing of the space becomes a sort of washing herself in the mythical Ganges. Then the other threshold to be crossed to the divine space (Dev/God’s space-Priyanka’s space) and from there she emerges to the portico. The music goes on without dominating or distracting the attention from the performance. Madhubanti wafts through the corridors (the liminal space between life and performace) and finally comes down to the earth, the portico. She bows before the pujari/priest and he blesses her (which would bring her scathing criticism during the de-briefing). She continues her dance; not really a Bharatnatyam dance but carefully crafted as well as spontaneous movements which would evoke different emotional responses among the audience and at the same time possibility of the body in performance).
Madhubanti enthrals the audience with her every enigmatic presence and she walks off into infinity or obscurity, depending on the mind of the viewer but I would say she walks into glory as it would prove that this curatorial effort has given her a lot of confidence that she would perform another ‘curated’ performance in the same space within days, this time curated by another fellow student and cub curator, Chandni Guha Roy. Madhubanti’s idea as a curator-performer is well conveyed in this project. She could push her idea of the allegedly polluted body of the performer/dancer and also the idea of cleansing without distributing pamphlets or curatorial notes. The biggest criticism however that she gets after the project presentation is regarding her re-assertion of the male dominance by accepting the blessings of the priest. But according to her, it is an act of ‘quotation’ not an act of real ‘writing’. This particular part of the act is a scripture that is meant to generate a point at its religious or social connotations. It is a quotation taken out of the dominant discourse of the Devdasi system. It is not really a celebration of the male gaze or male patron of the system. Besides, the point according to Madhubanti is the framing the very act of criminalizing the Devdasi system. It amounts to criminalizing anything fine, tender and aesthetical. Reducing the dancing body into a sexual body is the problem of the erstwhile discourse. But in the changed scenario, decriminalization of the performing female body or the female body in any performance should be done, demands Madhubanti.
Curatorial lessons learnt: One, when a curator doubles herself as a performer, the responsibility increases than a curator curating the works of other artists. Two, especially when a curator-performer wants to incorporate a series of spaces with disparate meanings and connotations, larger negotiations with the space as well as performance are needed. Three, unexpected unavailability of spaces could redefine the performance/project for advantageous ends and results, so trust in your ability to move the space than the space’s innate meanings. Four, if the performance is really powerful and curiosity could be generated around it, the audience would respond to the curatorial work the way curator wants. Catching the public with different ‘I’s for temporary negotiations is the success of such projects.