The wound and the taint

Zahid Dar puts Khol Do in its artistic and political context

How does one interpret or use a classical dance form to tell a new story, one that is relevant to the Indian Diaspora, rather than a traditional religious tale which may also be of value, but a soft option in the sense that it may not challenge the community dogma and, worse, may fuel prejudice? This is a question asked by many new Indian dancers who are classically trained. Breaks with traditional story-telling techniques have been made by contemporary British-Asian choreographers such as Shobana Jeyasingh using Bharatnatyam and, to a lesser extent, Nahid Siddiqi using Kathak. In eliminating the orthodox costume and make up of Kathakali, but also in her choice of subject matter, Maya Krishna Rao makes a welcome addition to this modernising principle.

In his classic short story, Khol Do, Saadat Hasan Manto deals with the communalism of the partition of India in 1947. Trains travelling between Amritsar and Lahore would depart packed with people hanging onto the sides and sitting on the roofs, but would arrive at their destination with their entire passenger load slaughtered.

As we have witnessed recently in Eastern Europe, history repeats its unimaginable horrors, re-named as ethnic cleansing, as if somehow the mere act of re-naming sanitises the atrocities human beings are capable of. In the re-telling of Khol Do, Rao’s solo performance in a British context is a sublime experience.

An aspect of classical Indian arts is that an artist may present nine rasas (moods or flavours) during the exposition of an improvisation or rehearsed set piece. This range of feeling usually allows an audience to empathise with a work on different levels. Maya Krishna Rao’s opening minimal gestures are executed with the technical precision of a classically trained dancer and, enhanced by Gavin O’Shea’s sound design, evoke the atmosphere of an Indian train journey. Overall though, I felt the emotions expressed in the work were limited. Viewing Khol Do, I felt the pathos of the father separated from his daughter and the desperation of his search, but not his love. The motif running through the performance is the daughter’s expression of fear, Rao’s gestures of fright being expressed to effect in Kathakali abiniyah (visual expression) of mudras (hand gestures) and facial movements, in particular, the eyes. The nritya (pure dance) element here was minimal and I thought could be developed further to convey a feeling of space. Instead of restricting the performance to the confines of the strong red central dais, it would have been liberating to see some of the explosive Kathakali movements outside this sacred space, in perhaps the profane space of the margins around the dais. Rao’s Kathakali nritya, both in footwork and poses, transmits a high level of energy and consequently, is more convincing in delivery and reception than the earlier slower movements.

Maya Krishna Rao is courageous in dealing with the subject of ethnic violence during the formation of Indian and Pakistani national identities. The bloody wound that opened up during Partition never healed and is now being salted by fundamentalist Hindu, Muslim and Sikh factions in the Indian sub-continent and supported by the Indian Diaspora. The religious premise for this sectarianism is again raising its ugly Janus head. In order to hold on to their imaginary homeland in their respective mother countries, Asian communities in Britain are unfortunately now more sharply divided than ever. In this respect, one welcomes any artist who transgresses absolutist ideologies. The general disclaimer that Asian communities in the West make of this type of work, especially if it has been created by migrant Asian artists, is that they are not speaking with an authority which is authentic—“the Asian community is not like this”. They refer to the artists’ “non-Indianness” for hybridising European and Eastern artistic aesthetics. The artist is thought to be tainted by the vagaries of Western political, social and artistic preoccupations. British-Asian artists are described in the Asian community press as having lost their roots in adopting modes of telling their stories or using new forms to re-tell old stories.

Khol Do (The Return), Battersea Arts Centre, June 10

RealTime issue #20 Aug-Sept 1997 pg. 44

© Zahid Dar; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1997