like a woman
devtas and diyas
Women are flocking to dance schools not only to unwind but also to get out of the straitjacket of role-playing. A report by Vipul Rikhi
WHAT is it that is driving women of all ages and descriptions to flock to the jazz dance schools that have become popular in the Capital? Over the past few years in Delhi, an increasing number of middle and upper middle class women have been joining up to learn modern dance. The most well-known dance schools in the city include the Shiamak Davar Institute for the Performing Arts (SDIPA) in New Friends Colony, and Ashley Lobo's The Danceworx Academy in Greater Kailash.
Women outnumber men both in the learning and the teaching departments of these institutes. Danceworx has about 25 company instructors, of which 80 per cent are women; it has an average of 1,500 students per month, of which about 65 per cent are women. Danskool, an upcoming institute in Malviya Nagar, has similar figures to offer: An 80-20 ratio, though things are changing. Social stereotypes come into play here. "Men don't dance is the general perception. It is seen as a womanly thing to do," says Shaira Bhan, Danceworx's acting artistic director.
Women aren't complaining. Here is one mode of freedom, self-expression and release. Mehar Duggal (name changed), 28, and Shaweta Anand, 23, are students at the SDIPA. How do they fit dance into their everyday life? Mehar did not tell her boyfriend she was joining dance classes; Shaweta thought it wiser not to inform her father. Socially, there is the usual pressure to get married; they have times by which they should be back home; they even have times when their male friends can call them. But both went ahead and joined up anyway.
What did dance offer them? "It made me more comfortable with my body," says Shaweta. "Given my upbringing, I was initially conscious of even lifting up my legs during floor exercises with a boy right behind me or next to me. But I realised we are all here to learn dance seriously and gradually I let myself go." Mehar is more exuberant. "We were real freakos in class, like frustrated women dancing!" she laughs. "If we did what we did here outside, people would think we were maniacs!"
A constant refrain from most women who are learning or teaching dance is that it makes them more confident. What precisely does this mean? Auritra Ghosh, an instructor with Danceworx, says, "It means that I have learnt to accept myself and love my body. Earlier I used to be conscious of my body structure and height. Once you experience your body, it helps." Shaira says she has better posture and walks straighter. The most interesting definition comes from Shaweta: "It means that I can be more of myself in a public space."
Sonal Mody, who has been teaching jazz dance for five years, explains how dance helps build self-esteem. "It helps release tensions, as you express so many emotions through movement. Negative energy gets released - you have an outlet. Your steps begin talking for you." Sonal has taught women with all sorts of self-images and self-conceptions. But one thing is common. "Students sometimes begin by worrying about what they are doing. Everyone comes with their own insecurities. But as you grow and cross more and more hurdles, there is a sense of pride in looking back and seeing what you have achieved. Self-esteem is bound to go up."
It is important to let everyone be themselves in class; comparisons are actively discouraged and there is no negative feedback. Jokes and banter are exchanged and students are encouraged to loosen up. After all, it is not just about esteem; it is also a whole lot of fun.
An interesting facet of this trend is the different age groups from which the women come. Sangeeta Agrawal, 42, a mother of two kids and a businesswoman, has been learning dance for almost a year now. Madhulika Prakash is 35, also a mother of two, formerly a foreign exchange trader but now a homemaker, she has joined classes since August 2004.
Why did they opt for dance? One reason is that their children are now a bit older, giving them more free time. But there are other reasons as well. Sangeeta says it makes her feel better both mentally and physically. "You feel more in control of your life when you do things you enjoy, make time for yourself instead of focusing on family all the time," she says.
Madhulika has similar things to say: "This is something I do just for myself. At other times, I'm a daughter, daughter-in-law, wife or whatever. You're supposed to behave in a certain way. There is anonymity here, and there are no expectations of you, no pressure. I can be as non-serious as I like and that freedom is very important to me. Also, in other hobbies like writing or painting, you can always be interrupted. Here, there is no interruption. It's time-out!"
Women are also taking up dance full-time, as a profession. Many joined for fun and ended up making dance their vocation. They had to face the usual objections from parents and society: the perceived lack of financial stability, the odd or long hours of work, and no clear "future". But these women are glad about having stuck to their guns; they now have the relatively rare fortune of doing something they are passionate about for a living. It is financially viable, social acceptability has increased; and one can always move up to being a choreographer as the body gets older.
An astonishing story is that of Antra Lodha, all of 13 years old, who teaches dance at Danskool to people twice her age. Her parents are supportive and she wants to make dance a full-time career once she finishes her studies. "I have so much energy," she says, "this is a good way to release it. Otherwise my mother has trouble with me." She has already been teaching for a year now, and will probably do so for a long time to come.
It is not only the women who need expression and release. And this explains the growing tribe of men, with their different coordinates of restrictions, signing up for dance. But that's another story. — WFS
devtas and diyas
THE brightest festival in the Indian calendar is Divali when every city, town and village is turned into a fairyland with millions of lights, candles and oil lamps illuminating houses and public buildings. But the celebration is elemental and over the years it has evolved out of man’s worship of the elements, more specifically, worship of fire by our Vedic ancestors.
The Aryans worshipped a number of deities whom they called devas or the shining ones. The grandeur of Nature awakened in them awe. Born out of two sticks of wood or flint, consuming everything, leaping upward to give light and heat, fire deeply intrigued man. He described it as a flame of force that is butter-backed, blaze haired, sharp-jawed, with a tawny beard and a burning head that faces all directions. At the centre of many rituals was Agni or the divine fire. Worship of fire is a prime aspect of Hindu ritualistic tradition. The flame on the yagna vedi (sacrificial altar) was the focus of faith during the Vedic times and it witnessed great philosophic discussions that produced the Upanishads and the Samhitas.’Agni, first-born among the gods, ranks next only to Indra. The dispeller of darkness of every kind and destroyer of all impurities. He is the priest who carries offerings and prayers up to heaven and brings the blessings down on the earthlings.
One of the most popular myths of Divali, the triumph of Lord Krishna over the demon ‘Narakasura, the Lord of Ignorance and Darkness is rich in such symbolic undertones. Narakasura ruled over Pragjyotishpura, the city of lights. However, with power came evil and he unleashed a reign of terror on sages. Lord Krishna delivered the pious from this monster and so helped Satyabhama, literally the light of Truth to vanquish the dark oppressor. But on the way they have to fight his armies led by five commanders (symbolising the five senses), rip through 6000 sharp fences (symbolising the sanskaras or habits), negotiate a rocky mountainous region (a symbol for inertia) and wade through Lohitaganga (sticky waters of life). Thus every year Divali is celebrated by lighting a thousand lamps to commemorate this triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.
However, fire worship is not limited to Hindu religion alone. The same opposition of good and evil is expressed in the scriptures of the Zorastrians. According to their tradition Fire is the visible sign of Ormazd (the chief deity of Zoarastrian faith, the creator of the world, the source of light and the embodiment of good). There is supposed to be hierarchical link between the god of the sky, Sun-fire and the king. Therefore, the most sacred fire called the Varhran is treated as a king. The sacred fire is a product of collection, purifying and consecrating 16 kinds of profane fires that have been used for various purposes. From this fire every other fire is lighted.
The custom of the peasants in Europe kindling bonfires on certain days of the year to dance around it or jump over it, has been there from time immemorial .It recalls the bonfires in India during Holi. Materials for bonfires are collected from each household as in India and special rituals regulate the whole practice. This custom can be traced back to the pre-Christian era. The principal fire-festivals of the Celts, a branch of ancient Indo-Europeans, are ‘beltane’ on the eve of may day and ‘Samhain’ on the eve of November.
Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry is best regarded for ingenuity in theatre. Plentiful in style and profound in expression, she has managed to define feminism in her own unique language which is seldom scathing and nearly always convincing. Intensity continues to imbue her idiom with a genuineness which is every theatre practitioner’s yearning.
Given her rich contribution to the field of theatre in India, specifically in Punjab, it is small wonder that she has been chosen for this year’s Sangeet Natak Akademi award. And though her fans had been awaiting the announcement for long, the thespian herself is quite humble about the best feather in her cap. "It is a great feeling at the end of the day. The Sangeet Natak Akademi is the highest art academy in the country and its recognition means much to me," says Neelam Man Singh whose forward march in theatre has seized for no one and nothing in the world.
Ready with another production, Neelam has reached the crucial crossroad from where she must choose to direct her artistic pursuits either towards the familiar route where readymade scripts wait to be lifted or towards unexplored realms where new challenges wait to be accepted. Given her penchant for the unseen in art, she has chosen the latter which may well make all the difference. Her theatre group The Company’s new offering Sibo in Supermarket only confirms that Neelam Man Singh has not made the wrong choice.
About her new, rather philosophical play which has masterly strokes by eminent Punjabi writer Surjit Patar, Neelam says, "I was tired of the conventional approach towards theatre. The predictable treatment of readymade scripts was no longer exciting me. The creative artiste in me longed for something more "out-of-the blue". That was how Sibo in Supermarket happened. Inspired by the short story Supermarket Soliloquy, my new play straddles the past and present worlds of the protagonist who battles the trauma of displacement."
A truly collaborative production, Sibo in Supermarket evolved over a period of time through improvisations. "The play is the result of a process. I threw the ideas to actors and wanted to see how they evolved out of an informal dialogue. There were countless ideas, but the challenge lay in using them to establish a perfect communication. I had to be very persuasive with Surjit Patar whose association lent a true feel to the whole process. Recently we worked together on a BBC project titled A Packet of Seeds, which finds reflections in my new play," says Neelam who, for once, has not depended as heavily on music as she normally does.
The shift in her stance has everything to do with the demise of the legendary B.V. Karanth who enriched all her productions with "earthy strains". "Now that he is no more, I cannot get myself to indulge heavily in music," says the director. In its final form, the play has what can be called "functional" music which leads the script forward rather than carving a zone of its own. As for production, the play has been superbly structured with a familiar cast which offers Neelam Man Singh the comfort level she demands as the director.
Not only is the work in a class apart from her earlier plays Kitchen Katha and Unposted Love Letter, it is also a confirmation of her artistic finesse which recognizes neither parameters nor idioms. It flows freely from one stage to another lending itself to purpose with its universally relevant theme – displacement.