Balancing On the Rope of Cultural Practice
(Published earlier in the Critical Path Magazine 2016)
By Sumathi Krishnan
[Creative Director, Sydhwaney;
Dance & Community Programmer Parramasala 2013 -2016]
[Sumathi Krishnan is a practicing musician and singer, artist and collaborator with a background in South and North Indian Classical Music, She has been performing, reporting, reviewing and analysing many dance and music events for the last 7-8 years through a self-funded website www.sydhwaney.com].
In the realms of multicultural artistic practices in today’s world – What is classical/ traditional? What is novel/ modern? Is it even relevant in this decade and age to ask these questions of ourselves? Are such questions defunct and immature? Moreover are these distinctions important?
Multicultural, Intercultural and or Inter disciplinary or inter genre are but words for a true artist, composer or creator. Today artists have many mediums, genre(s), styles and raw inspirational material to base their work upon.
The views expressed in this article are based on my study and observations of many programs both professional and community based of lesser known artists but artists who have and are dedicating their lives to performing art within Indian genres in Australia.
These works make a sincere contribution to the larger cultural ethos and practice in Australia and therefore are worthy of nurture and recognition.
History of Development of Cultural Practice
Briefly, turning the pages of history, let us look at what multicultural practices meant or evolved into.
History is laid with instances were intercultural exchanges whenever they occurred (albeit over many centuries) created entirely new works which today are considered to be well established traditional practices. For example the dance form of Kathak and or the ancient practices of Khayal singing or the origins of Flamenco, or the evolution of classical dances of Indonesia like Legong dance and music of Gammelan and so on
By tradition here I refer to a school / discipline or a body of work which developed over centuries and became aesthetically time tested. For example the body of works in the ‘Natyashastra’ in India is considered the bible of dance for Indian classical dance practitioners today, a dictionary and prose all in one.
It is impossible to pinpoint when a body of work becomes a complete acceptable cultural traditional practice as it is difficult to both define and or measure this development. However any body of work at its very inception is a seed of an idea which develops into new work and eventually becomes a ‘traditional practice’.
New Work and Its Challenges
Here I define ‘New Work’ as a cultural practice that moves away from its traditional roots as its birth is usually influenced by ‘new factors’ resulting in the creation of a new experience.
I purposely abstain from using the word ‘Australian’ Cultural Practice or a ‘Multicultural’ Practice, or hybrid, fusion, and similar words.
I believe, once a traditional form of art migrates, it finds its own level of existence within a foreign environment. Once migrated, new works have historically never received the recognition of being accepted or defined as ‘traditional’ works in their countries of origin.
Some well accepted outstanding examples of such works seen in the past century is that of artists like Pandit Ravi Shankar whose transmigratory music resulted in the production of new works as seen in his collaborations with George Harrison or more recently, that of Akram Khan who from his strong Kathak origins has developed works that are anything but innovative. His present works are a far cry from his original works in Kathak.
New work has its many challenges. Today artists have various resources available to them. However constrictions caused by ironically the same elements that existed centuries ago time, space, travel, language and means of access challenge an artist’s journey and process of discovery.
In my opinion, today we are technologically advanced enough to be able to break these barriers. But the little droplets of knowledge passed on from generation to generation is now an ocean of information that bombards our senses from all directions causing both unfocussed, confused works and audiences.
The good, bad, right, wrong, mediocre, excellent now is a matter of perception and limited to the psyche and knowledge of the one being watched and one watching. Some may argue this has always been so.
For artistic souls these are inspirational times but a difficult one. A world of general disorder, agitation, a need to express too quickly, a need to judge too quickly, an impatient disharmony exists.
For many artists working to schedules imposed by funded bodies that are too tight causes them to present works that are not fully complete and or fully developed or are so economically unviable that they are only presented once and never see another ray of light.
Recent Development of Indian Inter- Cultural Practices In Australia
Looking at works that have been completed in the area of cultural practice in the context of Indian arts in the recent decade, we cannot go past the transmigratory work of Louise Lightfoot. An architect and dancer whose chance stop in India around 1937 saw the transmigration of Kathakali, a classical Indian dance style, to Australia and other parts of the world.
Tara Rajkumar, Kathakali and Mohiniattam Dancer and Director of Performing Arts at the Monash Asia Institute says:
“Louise Lightfoot was a woman far ahead of her time, in addition to taking Kathakali out of India for the first time, she contributed in a major way to popularising Indian dance within India at a critical period in the renaissance of the classical dance styles.”
Tara Rajkumar OAM and the founding Director of the Akademi in the UK, brought her passion for Mohiniattam and Kathakali to Australia 25 years ago. Specific mention of her works relevant here are ‘Prakrathi’ where she choreographed the poetry of the famous Australian poet Judith Wright and the contemporary production ‘Malache – Despatches from Another World which explored the power and strength of women. Malache received accolades in the Dance Australia Magazine (A Fine Contrast by Patricia Laughlin, Dance Australia July 1996).
Similarly ‘What She Said’ another production where Tara Rajkumar explores the poetry of Ramanujam focussing on women empowerment. Thus interpreting this ancient text through dance and making it relevant to a new age issue, empowerment of women.
Today students of Tara Rajkumar, young Australian dancers Govind Pillai and Raina Petersen are making inroads into experimenting and discovery with technique and aesthetics of their respective classical Indian dance styles (Bharathanatyam and Mohiniyattam), while drawing inspiration from Kalaripayattu (the martial art of Kerala), yoga and the body-bending manoeuvers of acro-balance as seen in their performance ‘On the Verge’ at Parramasala 2014 .
The works of Anandavalli, Guru and Director of Lingalayam Dance Company in Australia is also to be recognised for works presented in Australia over the last 30 years. More recently her new work of Chi Udaka, a collaborative work between the Lingalayam Dance Company and Japanese Taik Oz drummers, Cellist Dr John Napier and Singer Aruna Parthiban premiered at the Sydney Festival 2014. The production brought to life the earthy beats of the drummers contrasting it with the ethereal nymph like footsteps and expressions of the Bharathanatyam dancers.
The other works that I shall briefly mention, although not dance specific are important collaborative works which have created their own space and audience.
Pandit Ashok Roy, Guru and Sarod Maestro from India migrated to Australia in the eighties collaborated with many Australian artists.
In the 1980’s his works such as ‘Slivanje’ presented at the Womadelaide Festival 1992  was an outstanding piece of ‘new work’.
[Subtitle: Movie by Oonagh Sherrard ABC Freelance Producer on Pandit Ashok Roy Commissioned by Parramasala 2014, Parramatta Riverside Theatre]
Sangam was a band brought together by Pandit Ashok Roy that performed and produced many records with John Napier Cello, Satsuki Odamura Koto, Tony Lewis on Indonesian percussion in Australia. Further collaborative works include ‘To Sir with Love’ with Flamenco Guitarist.
The compelling contemporary powerful performance works between Bobby Singh Tablist and dancers Annalouise Paul, Miranda Wheeler in ‘Game On’ and ‘Isabel’ took flights into the arena of dance for a traditional tabla player.
Bobby Singh’s journey in itself is a testimony to creative movement which includes performances with other musicians such as Sandy Evans, Saxophonist, Damian Wright Flamenco Guitar, Adrian McNeil, Sarodiya in ‘Rasa Duende’; in Reunion with Steve Elphick, Bass Sensation and Toby Hall and so on.
Intermingling Disciplines, Spaces and Purpose
Cultural practice is fast moving into interdisciplinary areas. Whilst it may be framed within a pre-dominant discipline, it now takes elements from other mediums and other disciplines requiring artists not only to be able and proficient in one discipline – be that of dance or music but also be knowledgeable light technicians or movie makers or song writers and more in one.
The lines between various genres are increasingly becoming obscure or united depending on performance perception.
In a recent symposium ‘Travelling Art – Translations in the Making’ produced by Sydhwaney Productions held at ICE on 2 August 2015, young Bharathanatyam visiting dancer from the UK Shrikant Subramanium very effectively presented a solo act.
He connected with his audience through the Shakespearean dramatic art of ‘spoken word’ delivery to his repertoire in classical Indian dance. He exquisitely conveyed the stories told to him by his grandmother in collaboration with a young Australian born South Indian singer Sanjay Ramaswamy.
Internationally renowned young dancer Aakash Odedra, mentored by the world renowned Akram Khan, in Parramasala 2013, captivated audiences with his electric footwork and effective use of lighting to create an ethereal experience in his production entitled ‘Rising’.
The presentation in three segments took the audience from traditional classical kathak performance to a modern contemporary works which used light drenched screens to create an impressive illusion.
The scintillating partnership between Kathak Guru Pandit Chitresh Das and American Tap Dancer Jason Samuels Smith is another unique collaboration.
Smith’s tap shoes and footsteps and Das’s bell jewelled feet and hands that steadily played on the tabla as he danced with his eyes and eye brows reduced the lines between Kathak and Tap dance to once again create an amazing new experience.
There are many other collaborations that have recently demonstrated their potential. These are still considered niche and presented only at specific forums.
Further we are seeing a movement in presentations of cultural works to common outdoor sites and spaces where they were not previously traditionally expressed.
Whilst site specific work is not an entirely new concept, as Indian styles of Bharathanatyam originated in the South Indian Temples, so did the Balinese traditional dance forms historically.
In Australia, this is still a newly developed or developing concept as seen in ‘The Calling’ which featured at Sydney Festival in 2014. Audiences were taken on the different paths of faiths and at each place of worship in Parramatta. At each venue they witnessed a cultural practice relevant to that place of worship.
Aboriginal traditional dances speak stories of their environment and were customarily presented outdoors around fires. It is interesting to note that these traditional presentations are moving away from their rustic environments into schools, prestigious theatres and so on as witnessed for example in the productions of the Bangarra Dance Company, making the journey in reverse.
Further site specific works, curated by Paul Ousch, the Anywhere Festival now provides opportunities to artists to present their works at any time anywhere. Established previously in Brisbane and Melbourne, Anywhere was brought to Sydney for the first time in May 2015. The Festival’s purpose was to facilitate and encourage artists to present works anywhere within a metropolis.
My own works ‘Dreaming Damsel’ endeavoured to expand ways arts is received. Site specific work ‘Dreaming Damsel’ was presented at the Anywhere Festival in May 2015. It was a collaborative presentation of Indian Classical music, dance, poetry and art by Aruna Gandhi, John Napier, myself and others.
Again the intention was to take traditional practices and make it site specific. We used space within the landscaped gardens and the historical architecture of Hambledon Cottage heritage home to draw connections between the histories of two countries in an era through arts.
Performing Arts has over the years also served a social purpose, aside from being entertaining. Today this purpose is even more relevant.
The symposium ‘Travelling Art – Translations in the Making’ mentioned earlier touched upon discussions on how performing artists could help in addressing modern medical, social and socio-economic issues such as, racial discrimination, healing, domestic violence, climate change and more.
In this regard, it was enlightening to listen to the works of Bharathanatyam Dancer Aruna Gandhi with Blacktown Hospital in Sydney.
Cultural practice needs organised forums that specifically cater to the development of the artists and their works.
New ideas need opportunities to be tested and experimented with smaller groups from diverse backgrounds, ethnic, artistic and cultural sensitivity on a small scale. Formalised and informed feedback would assist in the re-development of new works and form the blocks in balancing cultural practices in Australia.
Some of this was achieved in the Critical Path program Speak Local curated by its Director Margie Medlin and Annalouise Paul. It was evident from this event and post discussions that today there is a burning need amidst artists to be able to present their works to new audiences.
Speak Local provided a much needed forum where artists expressed their emerging ideas and works through the now fast intermingling worlds of dramaturgy, theatre and choreographed works of their own cultural practices successfully.
From the audience perspective, it became clear that they connected when effective communication not only engaged but educated, not only was breathtaking in technique and skill but also challenged outlook and approach to the vagaries and perception of our present world.
In the evolution of cultural practice, history has shown that the rare gems that have reached astounding heights have usually chartered their own course, found their own methods and formed their own audiences, established and influenced other artists and their works over many decades.
Today Australia is juxtaposed in a position where there is tremendous talent skill and knowledge. It will be only a matter of time before ‘Australian Cultural Practices’ shall become a tradition. This tradition shall be a time tested body of works which shall be influenced by some or all cultures living in its soil today. The movement in this direction has already begun, it needs only to be acknowledged, recognized and nurtured.